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In French we have an expression which is:

Parler (une langue, l'anglais par exemple) comme une vache espagnole

which literally translates to:

Speaking (a language, like English) like a Spanish cow

Is this expression correct in English? Is there a similar expression which refers to non-native speakers who don't speak the language well, or who have a very pronounced accent?

  • 2
    I know the expression, but there is no English equivalent. It would be advisable to use the English translation of the French only if you thought other people would understand what it meant. – Barrie England Feb 15 '13 at 10:56
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This article suggests that originally the expression was: "parler français comme un Basque espagnol".

Is this expression correct in English?

It can't be correct or not since it's a proverb. Proverbs may not be very grammatical.

Is there a similar expression which refers to non-native speakers who don't speak the language well, or who have a very pronounced accent?

I'm not aware about direct proverb counterpart in English, so I would suggest translating it by its meaning:

"To speak broken English" — incorrect or awkwardly structured English, usually spoken or written by non-native speakers (Urban Dictionary)


TL;DR: The problem with translating proverbs is need to convey the context. Historically, people are only aware about neighboring nations, and, of course, there are jokes about each other. An average English (or American) reader or listener may not be simply aware what's wrong with Spanish cows (or Spanish Basques). It has changed in a recent centuries, but still not sufficient to understand tiny details of a humorous context.

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The 14th-century English poet Geoffrey Chaucer, who had been a diplomat (and possibly spy) in France, Spain and Italy, and was clearly proud of his linguistic accomplishments, characterizes the Prioress in his Canterbury Tales thus:

And Frenssh she spak ful faire and fetisly
After the scole of Stratford-atte-Bowe,
For Frenssh of Parys was to hire unknowe.

‘She spoke French quite prettily and elegantly, in the manner of the school of Stratford-at-Bow, for the French of Paris was unknown to her’.

‘After the school of Stratford-atte-Bowe’ is a phrase much quoted among literary folk.

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