You’re visiting the country at last. Your long-awaited chance to practise “in the field” has arrived. You start to speak….stumbling utterances and then….. You are answered in English. It’s happened to me often enough and it’s left me feeling a failure, humiliated or just disappointed. What’s this all about and how can get people to stop speaking English?
I’m coming at this from the perspective a native speaker of English, but even second language speakers may be able to relate. Let’s first look at why “the natives” rebuff your advances. Then some tips on how to counter them. To close: what about the language of encounters with native speakers of your target language when you’re in your home country?
Part 1: Why it happens
Yes, when you’re answered in English, it’s easy to take it personally. Yet you could be hearing the language for reasons that have nothing to do with you. Let’s take a step back for a moment and get objective.
English is the only option between strangers
I’ve just come back from Vienna. In a supermarket there, I heard other visitors asking in their accented, second language English where the milk shelf was.
It sounded like the assistant could barely speak any English. Communication succeeded, though. He was able to point the customers in the right direction.
In turn, when people speak to you in English, don’t forget that it may not be a comment about you. It may just be because English is so often the default lingua franca among non-native speakers who both have different mother tongues, such as those Vienna tourists and the German-speaking shop assistant.
Once you get beyond the tourist locations or international business contexts, you may find that knowledge of English is not widespread at all. Especially in a “big” country such as Spain, France or Italy, people may just expect – without comment – that you’ll to speak their language rather, erm, as we do with foreigners in the UK or the US. Germany if often an exception here, where basic English is much more widespread.
English expected in an international service context
At a hotel or airport check-in desk or other such situation, the official may feel that they should use their English.
They’ve probably worked hard at their English over the years and chosen a job which will enable them to use the language. Unlike you, they weren’t doing a second language as a hobby, a “nice to have” add-on, but because they knew that without English, it’d be much harder for them to get on.
Maybe they feel the need to show that they can speak English.
Perhaps they got the job partly because they claimed proficiency in English but aren’t actually so good at it. They want to get better through practice.
Plus, in countries such as Scandinavia, the Netherlands or German, it’s taken for granted that an educated person speaks serviceable English. If you address someone in the local language, they might think that you think that they’re stupid.
Whether in an informal or more formal one-off exchange, it may be frustrating for you to get an answer in English.
Let’s face it, though, for all these reasons, speaking to you in English is a reasonable gambit in so many situations.
People are not used to dealing with people speaking their language
There are big countries, such as Japan, and small ones, such as Lithuania, where the locals aren’t expecting you to be able to speak their language. When you do, they may respond in English because they are not used to hearing their language spoken (perhaps not very well) by a non-native.
That may be more than just a panicked response to the unexpected.
In English-speaking countries, we’re very used to foreigners speaking our language. We know to “make allowances”. We can focus on the overall message, despite the mistakes. If parts of what’s said is incomprehensible, we guess what people are trying to say. We may not realise it, but these are skills we’ve developed. These skills may not be so honed in other countries.
There’s an added dimension if the language is a lesser-used one that’s been marginalised by English or another “big” language. Here, it may not be just that the locals aren’t used to hearing outsiders use it. They could feel uneasy using the language with any stranger in the public domain or in some context such as discussing a sale where the norm is not to use their language (in which case they themselves may lack the appropriate vocabulary or register).
People are just trying to help
You feel railroaded into English but your conversation partner may not really be thinking from your perspective (or listening to your actually not half bad attempt to use their lingo). They’re just trying to help.
Most people abroad are grateful and happy to be able to use English whether in a casual supermarket-style encounter or when performing a more formal operation, such as registering at a hotel.
And remember you benefit from the international role of English in all the countries where you aren’t learning the language (i.e. most of the countries you’re likely to visit). All in all, then, you shouldn’t necessarily be discouraged that the answer comes back in English, however broken. But remember…
Do you sound like you really need help?
So many of the people we encounter out in the field have English as their first foreign language. They’ve been learning it for years. When you’re starting to learn their language, the odds are therefore firmly “on” that they’ll be quite a bit better at English than you are in the early stages of learning their language. For them, it may just seem easier to use English.
There may be no getting round a hard truth. There a lot of people out there with serviceable second langauge English. They have with all these reasons to use the world’s top tongue. If your don’t quite cut the mustard yet in your target language, your fate may be sealed.
Part 2: What to do?
What, then, can you do to make sure that when you get hit in the face by that barrage of Anglo you weren’t, really, “asking for it”?
The answer depends on the context….and on your level in the target language.
Brief encounters at elementary level
If you’re in a brief conversation, such as a simple shopping transaction, and still at an elementary level, how about you tell them how you’d like it?
Thank them for speaking in English but explain (in the target lingo) that you’re trying to learn their language and so would really appreciate the chance to use it. This has the advantage of playing on the desire most people have to help others.…especially when you’re also showing their culture a bit of respect.
In countries whose language are not “popular” ones to learn, people may be delighted, if a little perplexed, to discover that you’re showing an interest. When I lived in Finland, people seemed surprised but flattered that I was trying to learn Finnish. Jack Fordon found the same encouragement from Russians when I recently spoke to him about his adventures learning that language (plus Czech and Serbo-Croat).
If your level is low, there are some situations during which you’ll just have to swallow your pride and suck up that English. At a busy airport check-in desk or some other situation where people are having to work under pressure, it may not be feel appropriate to ask for the chance to practise.
That said, there are speaking skills you can develop to increase your chances of keeping it native.
You could rehearse the scenario. If you’re going to hire a car in the language, make sure you’ve already prepared the key phases that you think you’ll need.
When you’re starting a language, don’t neglect what I call “toolbox” phrases: key expressions in the language that can help you keep going: “Please speak more slowly”, “Could you repeat that, please?” “How do you say x in Ruritanain”.
Conversation “fillers” can really help to maintain the confidence of your conversation partner while they sound off in your target language (“yes, yes”….. “right”….. “got it”….. “of course”….).
Needless to say, the better your pronunciation and the more in tune with the langauge’s intonation and rhythm, the better your chances of avoiding English.
Don’t forget that it’s not just about speaking.
Listening skills are often overlooked when we talk non-written language.
It doesn’t matter how good you are at speaking if you really can’t understand the answers.
Sometimes, it may make sense to “fake it till you make it”. Pretend you understand and guess meaning intelligently.
You can then use repetition or a question for a subtle check that you’ve understood: “So, you’re saying I have to return the car I two years’ time with a full tank with fresh coconut juice?”….. “Was that two days or two years?”, “Did you say coconut juice or diesel?”.
If you need them to repeat something, learn how to say you didn’t hear in an idiomatic way. The idiomatic equivalent in the langauge of something like “I didn’t quite catch that” is better than the plain truth: “I don’t understand”).
If you still can’t catch a word or phrase, tackle this head on in an idiomatic way. In English, I might say “Eh? That’s a new one on me”.
Don’t forget that it’s just even about language, either.
Body langauge such a posture, distance from the other person and gestures differ between cultures. The more you can get this right, the better.
Even looking the part can play a role in making you credible. If you’re dressed like an obvious foreign tourist, it may influence the responses you get (though in some contexts, that might get you more respect and better service – as when I found myself in hotel shops intended just for foreigners during the last year of the Soviet Union).
Brief encounters at the higher attainment levels
In my advanced-level languages, I rarely find people switching to English with me when I’ve started the exchange. A lot of this is still about our objective level.
I do still find in some situations in Germany (such as airport check-ins) that people start speaking with me in English).
If you are somewhere between elementary and advanced, you already command the langauge at a level sufficient to cope in the situation. Just like a beginner, you should explain politely (in the target language, bien sûr). If this doesn’t work, you’re already equipped to power ahead regardless.
That’s even if they keep answering in English. Ready, steady…..bulldoze!
Three weeks ago, I arrived in Berlin to check into an Airbnb. I’d booked it on the German version of the site and communicated in advance with the owner in German. Then, once I arrived, the owner’s friend (who was managing the property) started sending me WhatsApp messages and instructions in….erm….English.
It was a bit discouraging but I told myself that these were probably generic cut and paste messages that were sent to every guest. I simply replied in German. Sure enough, the “live” replies then came back in German.
Not that things always run so smoothly.
When I lived in Moscow, I lost count of the number of times in shops, when the assistant would tot up the total on the till screen or thrust the calculator in my face for me to see the amount due. This would be after we’d had quite complex conversations In my head I was like “Ok, I’ve just discussed replacement battery options for my DSLR and you think I can’t do the numbers?”.
If the person is really persistent, I felt like trying sarcasm: “Don’t you speak Russian?” (surprised voice) or, maybe, “I’m blind, I can’t see that calculator you’ve just pointed at me” (patient, explanatory voice).
But no, try to cool down, Gareth. Sarcasm often goes wrong between cultures. It’s not about you. It’s just a habit That bored shop assistant’s thoughts are probably far away.
One final trick. If English is not your native language, you could just pretend not to know English. Maybe a native speaker with better acting skills than me could pull that off too.
If all else fails with these frustrating casual encounters, then, as a last resort, try violence* 😉
[*J O K E ]
If you’re in foreign parts for a longer period, an early, proactive approach to shaping your linguistic landscape will pay you interest.
For routine encounters such as going shopping, strike up conversations in the local lingo with staff you expect to see regularly. This may work better if you choose to patronise a local corner shop or fruit and veg stall rather than a more impersonal supermarket.
Beyond life’s essential encounters, choose your surroundings, so far as you can.
It may be all too easy to fall in with other foreigners early during your stay.
If you’re an exchange student, for example, you may get put in a hall of residence with other foreign students. Harry Ness and I discussed the dangers when he spoke to me about his undergraduate langauge major “year abroad” in Germany.
If you are an employer with an international company, you may find yourself living in a foreigners’ compound.
If you’re stayging longer and you have a choice with accommodation, exercise it.
When I was a postgrad in Heidelberg, over there for an indefinite period, I made sure to get into a shared apartment with three Germans asap.
As for social life: if your grasp of the language is still not so good, you may be drawn to ex-pat bars. But that’s the danger. Once your circles are formed, change becomes more difficult.
At least some of your regular haunts should be locals’ places: cafés, bars, the local dog racing circuit or whatever’s your thing. You can even create some of this during a two-week vacation.
Friends and colleagues in your target country
If you’re a student, at least your studies will probably be in the target language.
If you’re working in an international environment with English as the main language, you’ll have to make an extra effort.
When I was based in the Moscow office of an international law firm, all my legal work was in English (Russian wasn’t required and mine wouldn’t have been good enough). Still, I established a pattern of using Russian with the secretaries and with Russian colleagues in a “social context” very early on (and my Russian was already good enough to do this).
It didn’t always work. The main problems tended to be with young male colleagues (often junior to me in the hierarchy). I think some of them suffered from overconfidence. Maybe there was sometimes something of a power play in imposing their better English on me. Then again, it was important for them to show confidence in English in that prestigious, international work environment.
I was working long hours and my free time was limited. Many of my ex-pat colleagues were great people and there was a wide scene of colourful expats in town. I certainly wanted some of that. Still, I often prioritised my existing Russian friends and worked to build up a Russian social network unconnected with the office. After all, I had come to Russia to live as far as possible through the medium of Russian.
When you’re getting to know the locals, avoid people who just want to practise their English. Language exchanges may not be the place to be.
If your new acquaintances insist on speaking to you in English, refuse to play along. If they see early on that you’re not going to be a source of free language lessons, they’ll either move on (or settle for savouring the many other qualities with which you are doubtless endowed).
One way to avoid the English wannabes is to get involved in socialising around a hobby, cultural interest, religion, politics or sport. A common interest or shared passion is a great basis for good companionship. It gives a focus and the activities will all be in the local language.
Back at home: do as you would be done by
When I was in living Germany, I used to joke that speaking English with me cost DM20 an hour. That was my rate for English tuition at the time.
I was d*mned if I was going to speak English.
After all, It had taken me considerable effort and (from one perspective) inconvenience to rearrange my life to get set up in Germany.
If people wanted to speak English, they should do the same: up sticks to an English-speaking country.
With foreigners I know in London I apply the same respect and empathy towards their decision to move to my country. Even though I’m often dying to use the language, I don’t assume I have a right to regale them with my mistake-strewn German or Russian.
Just because you have a Spanish colleague or a French flatmate does not mean that you can practise Spanish or French with them.
Be sensitive to the person and the situation. If you’re not sure, you can always ask. If their level is good or they’re here long-term, they may feel they have more than enough other opportunities to practise English and be happy to help you. They may even enjoy the chance to use their own language.
Sometimes I can be overly shy with such requests. I had a French-speaking housemate here at Howtogetfluent Towers and it was only in the last few weeks before she moved out that we spoke some French together.
If the person’s English is not very good, they may be only to happy to switch languages. That’s how I ended up mainly using Russian with a Russian photographer friend of mine here in London. When he arrived in town, he could hardly speak a work of English.
Again, there may be milieux in your locality where your target langauge is the norm. If you’re admitted to such spaces (where people have come together because of the language and culture) it’s more than appropriate to use your target language. I get good practice by patronising Portuguese cafés. I speak Welsh at the London Welsh centre and Basque at London Basque Society events. When I went to Russian Orthodox church for the Easter food blessing, people naturally spoke to me in Russian.
Be prepared to compromise
So far, so zero sum.
Yes, it’s important to set the ground rules at the beginning because the language you set out in is often the one that sticks. Yes you should be assertive and stubborn when you’re level makes this reasonable.
Yet when it comes to longer-term relationships, there’s also a place for a fair compromise: half the time in English, half the time in your target language.
Sometimes there may be space for linguistic evolution. When a first got to know that Russian photographer friend of mine he was only to happy to speak Russian. The subject has never actually been discussed. Now he’s been here (and I’ve know him) for about six years, his English is getting much better. I’m more than happy to speak some English when he wants to….. Friendships are about more than language.
What’s your experience?
How is it for you out in the field? Have you experienced the same discouraging English responses as me? Have you found other strategies to keep it foreign? Have you just pretended you can’t speak English? Let me know in the comments below.