How to stop people talking to you in English

stop-speaking-englishIt really sucks.

You’re learning a new language, and it finally comes time to try it out with some native speakers!

So, you pluck up the courage, walk over to them, try your best to say something nice.

They look at you…

They think for a second…

and they reply in English!

You want to keep talking in your new language, but you also don’t want to offend them. So you smile and switch back to English, trying to hide your disappointment.

How can you stop this happening?

I tracked down 12 of the world’s most experienced travellers and language learners, and put this very question to them.

Enjoy…


earl-barron-circleSimply tell them you want to practice their language. When they respond in English, ask them to respond in their own language.

Usually, if you do this once and they understand you are trying to learn, they will continue to respond in their local language and quite often, try their best to help you learn what they are saying.

Earl Baron – wanderingearl.com


alex rawlings circleStopping people from speaking English back to you can be tricky without causing offence.

Sometimes I can be quite blunt and just ask them whether they speak their native language. Other times I can apologise and say that I don’t speak English and ask whether they speak some other obscure language that I’m pretending is my mother tongue instead.

But if the person seems like they are genuinely trying to help, I might just ask them to speak to me in their language as I’m trying to learn and would appreciate the practice. Ultimately though, the best way to stop this from happening is to learn more, get more confident, and sound like you can handle whatever they throw at you. This can take a few attempts.

Have fun with it, see it as a game, and try and get as far as you can into each conversation without slipping into English, then try and beat that record.

Alex Rawlings – rawlangs.com


kristin addis circleGo to a place where they don’t know English.

That’s how my Mandarin improved so much. I spent time in rural China where I had no choice but to speak it.

Kristin Addis – Be My Travel Muse


conor clyne circleHere are three strategies I used to overcome this problem in the Netherlands.

  1. Find a cafe, bar, restaurant, shop etc where the people are willing to speak to you Dutch and appreciate that you are trying to learn their language. This is what I did personally. I went three or four times a week to the same cafe and spent an hour there chatting to the customers and workers alike in Dutch for an hour each time. This really helped to accelerate my Dutch.
  2. Politely explain to the Dutch that you are in the Netherlands to learn their language and would prefer that they reply to you in Dutch. However, this takes a lot of energy and determination to do consistently.
  3. Claim that you don’t understand English and in fact, your mother tongue is a lesser spoken one that the Dutch speaker is unlikely to know, e.g. Estonian or Hungarian, and explain that if they wish to communicate, they’d better stick to Dutch.

Conor Clyne – Language Tsar


audrey-scott-circle-newI usually explain to the native speaker that I am really trying to learn to speak his language and so he would really help me out by talking with me in his own language instead of mine.

This often works as I believe that if people know they can do something to help you, they’ll do it.

Audrey Scott – Uncornered Market


benny-lewis-circleThere are many reasons people may speak to you in English, so I try to find out their motivation and satisfy that, in such a way that doesn’t involve switching away from the language that I’d like to practice.

So for instance, if they want to use me for English practice, I have the “give a man a fish and you feed him today, but teach him how to fish and you feed him for life” mentality and realize I can help them so much more by giving them tips on how to find English speakers (local expat communities if I’m in their country, or online language exchanges), how to learn English (since I was an English teacher for several years, and know lots of tricks for learning languages in general of course), or whatever can help, but do all my explaining in their language.

Realistically, this is being way more helpful to them than 10 minutes practice with someone who’d really rather not have been involved.

Generally though, just being straight with people and saying that I’d really prefer not to speak English will get through to them most of the time. People are nice and patient, you just have to make your needs absolutely clear to them and they’ll help you out!

Benny Lewis – Fluent in 3 Months


chris richardson circleWhen practicing another language abroad I tend to always butcher it leaving the local speaking English back to me. What I’ve tried to do in order to better myself and get out of English is ask the local the correct way to say something, this can often get a few locals involved and everyone has a good laugh at my misfortune.

It won’t exactly stop them speaking English but its a start. If you ever go back to the same place multiple times you’ll find they can test you out by at least letting you try a second time around.

Chris Richardson – 48 Hour Adventure


 

olle hacking chinese circleThere are many ways of achieving this, but here are three I have been using successfully:

  1. Persist – This usually works well as soon as you can make yourself understood, albeit with difficulty.
  2. Be honest – Tell the person you’re speaking to that you want to practice speaking the language. Usually works well, too.
  3. Pretend you don’t know English – This works best if you speak a third language. Very few people keep speaking English with me when I reply in Swedish.

Olle LingeHacking Chinese


Luca-Lampariello-circleI think that the solution is actually easier than people think: start with the target language and simply stick to the target language no matter what. For example, you enter a shop and ask for something in the target language.

The person at the counter answers in English. You just reply back in the target language. They might reply in English but if you are consistent enough, the other person will most often just switch back to the target language.

If you are in a group of people in a social setting, its even easier, just ask. You can simply state that you are trying to improve your target language and that it is helpful if they stick to that language. Native speakers are usually more than happy to oblige and enjoy helping a new learner.

Luca Lampariello – You can master any language with Luca here


ellen jovin circleWhen people default to English, they are presumably trying to be polite, or maybe they feel sorry for me as a (presumably) helpless American, so the question is, how do I redirect their energies so that they link their generous impulses with forcing me to speak their language instead?

I simply take the blunt approach. (I’m American, after all!)

I explain to them that it is very important to me to learn something of their language, and that if it is not too big an imposition for them to deal with my remedial skills (I feel this piece is important, as it is not their job to teach me!), they will be doing me a huge favor if they allow me to speak to them in their language.

If that doesn’t work, there is always pouting or bribery.

Ellen Jovin – Words & Worlds of New York


I have trierichard simcott circled a few tricks over the years to avoid using English with people.

  1. Say I am from another country and don’t know English. Pros – It can work if the other person doesn’t know the language of the country you say you are from or ask too many questions about it that you cannot answer. Cons – You can end up falling into a trap when they say, “Oh, I lived there for X years. Mind if I practice with you?”
  2. Say, “I appreciate you speaking English to help me. Thanks! I am here to learn your language and want to improve. If you could speak to me in X, then it would be a huge help to me. I love the way your language sounds and want to get fluent”. If they refuse that and a kind smile, then they are not worth speaking to in any language!
  3. Look confused when they speak English, like you don’t understand what they are talking about. Don’t say anything, just look confused. If they try again in English, say “excuse me” or “what did you say?” in the target language and they often switch back then.

Richard Simcott – Speaking Fluently (finally back in action on the blog!)


jan-van-der-aa-circleI think it depends who you talk you to. If you are talking to a stranger you could pretend as if you don’t speak English. I think that is the easiest way.

In China, I used to pretend that I was from Russia. They don’t expect Russians to speak English very well and would therefore speak Chinese with me.

If you want to practice your new language with a friend who keeps replying in English, I explain that I came all the way from Holland with the goal to learn his/her language in a few months and that I would find it very cool if he or she would only speak his native language to me.

If the person agrees but switches back to English you can just ask: ‘’O que voce fala?, 你说什么?’’ and they will switch back to their own language. If someone really doesn’t want to help you practicing their language it might be time to consider spending time with someone else who does.

Jan van der Aa – www.janvanderaa.com


And finally, here’s my perspective…

So there you have it!

I hope you found some inspiration to tackle this problem for yourself.

What’s for sure, this is something that affects everyone, so you’re not alone!

Ultimately, the only real solution is to get your level in your target language to a point where it’s better than the other person’s English!

At that point, it makes no sense for either of you to speak in English.

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  • I have found this varies wildly depending on the language. Turkish I am still at the beginner stages and Turks absolutely love speaking their own language. Sometimes I am the one who switches to English and they always switch back to Turkish. I love it. Chinese, on the other hand, was the opposite. Everyone wanted to practice their English and it wasn’t til I got to an advanced level that people stopped doing that. Even asking nicely to stick to Chinese would not work. In the end, the best route is to find people who will speak their language with you and stick around them (go to the same cafe again and again, as someone suggested). Here was my advice on how to handle it “How to Foil and English Pirate” https://chitchatchinese.wordpress.com/2008/12/11/how-to-foil-an-english-pirate/

    • It’s varied for me a lot depending on the country. Generally, it was more of a problem in Asia because a) my language level was lower than their English at first, b) it’s much rarer for foreigners to speak their language, so they often don’t believe it when you do speak!

      • Exactly my experience too. But then you get a big surprise like Indonesia, where people were so happy to speak their language with me. I can’t seem to predict it. But I have gotten better about both being mellow and letting someone get some English practice in, and forcing the point of “now let’s speak your language”

  • Edney Raulino

    I am a person who always answer in english when I see I can do it.
    I see a opportunity to practice my english and help a person. But of course, if the person ask me to talk in my mother tongue, I will be pleased helping and teaching it. I think everybody who learned at least a second language will understand.

    • I understand, for sure. All of us, when we’re learning another language, have to maximise the opportunities we have to practise. For me, the tough thing is that fine line between practising the language you want and not bothering the other person.

  • sam

    I had no problem with this in Sicily, since few people speak a lot of English. One guy really pushed English but I could tell he just wanted to practice, so we spoke English.

    • That’s what I do, Sam. If someone is insistent, I just let them speak English!

  • ¡Hola Olly!

    It’s a really interesting post and a difficult situation: Who get’s to practice a foreign language? I may have travelled far away to be able to practice a language, but the person living in a rural area may have waited months for an opportunity to practice the foreign language they are struggling to learn.

    Maybe the one who “shoots first” should have the right to choose…

    It happens a lot to me in Japan, that people want to speak in English with me, even if I’m not a native speaker. If somebody speaks to me in English first, I speak English too. Sometimes, if I have spoken in Japanese first, I have continued speaking in Japanese even if I got a reply in English, but most often I change to English for a while and, at some point, if the conversation gets interesting enough, the other person will naturally start using Japanese; so we are both happy!

    If it’s at a Spanish language related event, as a Spanish teacher, I speak in Spanish, no matter how bad I’d like to practice Japanese.

    It’s not worth getting upset because people don’t practice their language with us. As you say in the video, it’s better to create regular opportunities to practice with language partners or teachers.

    P.D. He podido escuchar un poco de acento canario en el vídeo;-) ¡Me gusta mucho!

    • Me alegro que todavia se me note el acento canario! Pensaba que lo estaba perdiendo poco a poco… 🙂

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  • Funniest thing about this post is that: it is written in ENGLISH! 🙂

  • Really good job on this article Olly!

  • Red/

    The third trick suggested in this video deserves also some consideration 😉

  • Igor Smolovski

    Once I was stopped by a guy asking for directions in broken Russian and I replied in English because I wanted to help. He pretended not to understand me and said he was from Hungary. So I switched to Hungarian and complimented him on his nice West Yorkshire accent. The guy was so embarressed. Never try the I-don’t-speak-English trick, you never know who you might bump into.

  • It depends a lot on the language and how often they’ve dealt with non-native speakers. If it is a language that few foreigners speak, often the natives don’t know what to do. I’ve had this experience with Moroccan Arabic, Swiss German, and Somali. They aren’t used to speaking slowly or using simpler vocabulary. So if you don’t understand, they simply repeat themselves and get frustrated quickly. It’s rare to find someone who is willing to help you along.

    German or French or Spanish, though, people react very differently, because loads of people try to speak the language. They have a sense of how to speak to foreigners.

  • Herma Permatasari

    wow im opposite of them , lol . because i want to improve my english .

  • Ren

    I think speaking in English is actually better. I talk with native english speakers online in Preply at http://preply.com/en/skype/english-native-speakers and it helps me to improve my English a lot.