In a world dominated by the English language, it's easy to assume that English speakers have it all. No matter where you are, English is a common language (lingua franca) that allows you to travel and function, practically everywhere.
However, if you are studying a foreign language, being a native English speaker can also be a mixed blessing. When I was in Paris learning French, I learned this the hard way. I will never forget trying to buy a milk shake at McDonald's. I don't remember exactly what I said in French, but I must have pronounced it very badly because the guy at the counter frowned as if in pain and replied in English. Very bad English I might add... so bad, that I could have done my own share of frowning! His frown was the best thing that ever happened to me to make me improve my French skills.
I understood right then and there that I had to work on my pronunciation, and it all turned out for the best. I found some French friends from out of town, who took the time to correct me and give me some suggestions.
Am I speaking that badly?
However, things could have gone quite differently. What if that day I had been feeling insecure? Would I have found it in me to continue to improve? Or would I have given up? I have been wondering about this because quite a few of my Italian students complain about not being able to get anybody to speak to them in Italian and about always getting answered directly in English.
Their thoughts are “I must be speaking really badly if people would rather speak to me in English.” Is that really the case? In this article, I am going to tell you why that’s not true and what you can do when a situation like this presents itself.
This is important because, practical reasons aside, I feel there are quite a few misconceptions involved. After all, language learning should be about mutual understanding.
Beware of touristy areas for language learning
What happened to me in Paris happened because I was in a very busy, touristy area with many people coming and going. If you want to learn a language, you really should be aware that these areas might not be a good place to practice your skills. Why? People are in a hurry and they are used to dealing with many tourists. As soon as they sense any insecurity on your part, they will rush to rescue you in English just to get the conversation over with.
This has little to do with the actual level of your target language. You could be at an advanced level but, if you are insecure when you address people, this will be picked up on. If you are in a touristy area, people there will have been trained in customer service. If they feel you are uncertain, they are basically being kind by trying to help you out.
So, by all means, visit tourist attractions. Just don't expect to get any language practice done!
Avoid practicing in busy places
If you do, at least try to pick the right time and place to practice your language. For instance, avoid high traffic areas where crowds are an issue. However, when you are in a more relaxed situation, by all means, gently insist on speaking in your target language.
If you are at a restaurant, for example, and the waiter replies to you in English, gently continue to answer in their language. This tip can be very effective. However, if the conversation keeps being switched back to English, you could say something in your target language like “I want to learn your language, could you please let me practice?”
Is it you?
The thought that popped into the mind of one of my students was this: “What if it's me and I am speaking so badly that people prefer to speak to me in English?” Are you butchering a language?
Let's just assume, for the sake of argument, that you are. Remember that it's a language we are talking about and not a living creature, so let your feelings of guilt go!
A language is a tool for communication, not private property
I can't tell you anything that will make you feel more confident in your efforts except that you should try to gauge the situation for what it actually is, and not read too much into it. Is the other person's English better than your knowledge of the target language? Is there a need for immediate clarity?
If the answer to these two questions is no, then insist and keep on speaking in your target language.
Why are you learning your target language? Tell people all about it!
The best way to get people to speak to you is to get them interested. You could get people's attention by telling them what inspired you to begin learning their language and why you want to practice. That is something that is bound to flatter anybody and make them stop and listen a minute.
For instance, you could say that you are learning the language in order to get in touch with your roots and family. Or to be able to read your favourite author’s book in it’s original language. This way, you are connecting with native speakers on a much more personal level. It's always really nice to learn the reasons why somebody is making such an effort to learn my language.
If the tables were turned, wouldn't you feel pleased if somebody told you something like that? Wouldn't you want to help someone out with something like that?
What is your accent like?
At the end of the day, if people seem to be having a hard time understanding you, maybe it's just your intonation. If you are using typically English intonation in another language, it will take people a little time to become accustomed to your rhythm and pace. Just allow people a chance to adjust to it a little. It usually takes about five minutes or so. If you would like to address that issue more specifically, you can work on it by recording yourself and getting feedback from your language learning network.
Most of the time, people are reacting to your hesitation and not to your linguistic abilities
I used to know a guy who really knew very few languages except his own. However, when he travelled, he acted as if he were the most accomplished polyglot in all the world, and most people seemed to understand him. They were reacting to his confidence. I don't have that sort of confidence and probably neither do you, and that’s fine. However, stories like this should help you feel less guilty about inflicting your linguistic abilities on the world and more serene in your approaches.
How do I become more confident?
What one of my students did during her stay in Italy was to book a few tutoring sessions after lunch to boost her confidence, and then she would go out into the streets feeling and speaking much better. Another thing that can be done to inject some much needed linguistic confidence into your life is to contact your language exchange partner or learning buddies and get a reality check. When you feel more confident, you speak better. And improvement, usually leads to further improvement. Thanks to the Internet, these confidence boosting sessions are entirely possible, so go for it!
Are they laughing at you?
What can be hard to handle, especially when you are at a lower intermediate level, is when people laugh at what you say. This happens all the time. As a tutor, I see this happen a lot. My students come up with creative words and I am always amazed at their sheer inventiveness. For instance, one student of mine couldn't remember the right word for ice in Italian (ghiaccio), so he said “H20 minus 0.” So, when I laughed, I wasn't laughing at the person. Who could? I was laughing in amazement at the his creativeness. Big difference!!
Who could laugh at you? You are doing something awesome, you deserve to be applauded and appreciated.
We are harder on ourselves than on other people
Just think about it for a second. If you spoke with somebody who was learning your language, would you laugh at their attempts? Would you find it a laughing matter? Of course you wouldn't, so what makes you think people would do this to you? This is very easy to forget. We tend to be so hard on ourselves. Plus, when we speak a foreign language, we tend to feel vulnerable.
Dealing with people who want to speak with you to learn English
This may be the hardest situation to sort out. There are people out there who feel that because you are an English speaker, you are a walking opportunity for free English lessons. It's understandable. In many countries, knowing English can be a ticket to a better life.
Unfortunately, sometimes people will befriend you just to speak English with you. It's nice to think that people are interested in you because of the awesome person that you are, but put that to a test by asking them to speak in their language as well. This way, you will see if this friendship is for real. I had a French friend who went to great pains to make me feel like my French was inadequate just so we could speak English all the time.
Things you can do with a little help from your friends
That is why a strong language support network is a real lifesaver. Never depend on only one person for feedback, instead get more opinions. Get a second opinion from Facebook language groups and double check with fellow learners online. With language forums, italki, language exchange groups and soundcloud groups all available to you, there really are many options online to get in touch with people who share your interests, and who will give you feedback and support you.
The long and the short of it is that you must not assume that you are the problem. There could be other issues involved. In order to be able to take proper action, you do need to correctly assess the situation. You speak a language that is sought after and spoken all over the world. That is why many other English speakers before you have not taken the time to learn other languages, and that makes most people expect that you don’t speak any other languages besides English.
However, after that initial misconception is overcome, do the best you can to make a personal connection. Don't just assume it's about you. Don't think too much about it and take action.What's the worst that could happen?
Have you ever found yourself unable to get native speakers to talk to you? How did you handle the situation? If you have any ideas to add to my list, I would love to hear about them in the comments section.