Which is better English?

I cannot speak French


I do not speak French

Oxford Dictionaries tell me that can means: be able to through acquired knowledge or skill and also supply this example, “I can speak Italian.”

Therefore both sentences refer to the ability to speak a language, and either one is an appropriate response to the question, “What languages do you speak?”

Which form is more idiomatic? Is there really a difference in meaning?


There is a difference in meaning between these two sentences.

I cannot speak French

In this case I am not able to speak French. 'Cannot' is based upon an ability (or lack thereof).

I do not speak French

In this instance I might be able to speak French but might not to speak it for a number of reasons. 'Do not' has a broader reference that is not only ability.

In common use it often refers to the inability to speak a language, however it has a wider meaning as in the following examples.

I do not speak French, because I never meet French-speaking people.

I do not speak French, because I prefer to speak English.

It is possible to say 'I do not speak French because I cannot', however the converse will not be possible.

  • 3
    I disagree. In my experience 'I do not speak French' is normally used to mean the same as 'I cannot speak French', even though the literal meaning is different.
    – Kate Bunting
    Jun 26 '18 at 11:09
  • Thanks, @KateBunting I do agree that in common usage 'I do not speak French' is used when someone means 'I cannot speak French', however it is important to understand the literal and grammatical meaning. 'Cannot' refers just to ability, whereas 'do not' refers to ability or will or desire or opportunity. I will edit my answer to clarify.
    – Manhatton
    Jun 26 '18 at 11:30

I cannot speak French

talks about ability.

I do not speak French

means that the person does not speak the language

Both essentially mean the same thing. If you don't know a language, you usually don't speak it.

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