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I am a non-native speaker of English so I am trying to get used to every phrase I come across while hearing and reading. As a result, I have watched many American movies and so I have heard the phrase "speak English" plenty of times. Nevertheless, I still don't get the meaning of it. For example, here are several quotes from the movie "The Avengers":

"Bruce Banner: Well, if he could do that, he could achieve heavy ion fusion at any reactor on the planet.

Tony Stark: Finally, someone who speaks English."

and

"Steve Rogers/Captain America: Hey, speak English.

Tony Stark: You see the red lever? When I tell you to, pull it. That will give me enough time to get out."

Aren't they speaking English? Or is there another hidden meaning behind it that I don't catch?

Thanks in advance.

  • Compare "It's all Greek to me". – A E Aug 25 '15 at 11:49
  • Come on, like they never ever say "speak X" in your mother tongue X. – ЯegDwight Aug 25 '15 at 11:58
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    @ ЯegDwight I apologize if I have inadvertently offended you in some way but in my mother tongue hardly do I hear anyone saying like that. Usually, in a conversation, if I don't follow the interlocutor, I will simply say that I don't get it or ask them to make it clearer. The same goes for people talking to me as well. Besides, this is English so there are a wide variety of phrases that my language do not have. – Abecedarian Aug 25 '15 at 13:20
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The "Speak English" normally refers to the listeners inability to understand the (English) words said by the speaker - in your example due to lack of technical knowledge.

In the movie, Captain America woke up after 60 years so there are many things he does not yet understand. He could ask Stark or Banner to "speak English" when they would be using technical jargon not understandable by "normal people"


In the case of Stark, it is used in the opposite manner. The sentence

heavy ion fusion at any reactor

shows a level of technical knowledge that pleases Stark, who is highly technical. His reply shows he is happy to meet a clever group member and he is being sarcastic towards the rest of the group who he feels are his intellectual inferiors - in particular Banner's Alter Ego who barely speaks English.

  • Thank both of you, mplungjan and chasly. Your answers are really useful and crystal-clear. – Abecedarian Aug 25 '15 at 8:58
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    @mplungjan A minor point - 'speak english' isn't really specific to the use of technical language, but any situation where the speaker isn't making sense to the listener. A (poor) example might be someone who is in a panic and so are jumbling their words, not finishing sentences, etc. – DTR Aug 25 '15 at 11:53
  • True, updated.. – mplungjan Aug 25 '15 at 11:55
  • PS: youtube.com/watch?v=YpiAhxaE_oI – mplungjan Aug 25 '15 at 11:57
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In the examples you give I imagine it refers to speaking in very technical language. The joke is that the language sounds so technical that the average listener cannot understand a word of it.

Effectively it means, "You might as well be speaking a foreign language because I can't understand a word you are saying."

Edit - As mplungjan points out, the phrase can be used ironically and in reverse to mean, "At last you are speaking in correct technical language and so I can understand you."

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