Battle of wits: Nice and nasty ways to win when they want English practice

Nearly everywhere in the world, and with nearly every culture in the world, when you try to speak their language with them they are so pleased. They will encourage you and compliment you, and be happy to hear more.

Your fears are unfounded and you should just make as many mistakes as you can – they really don’t mind!

If you feel you are boring them with your basic level, don’t worry about that. Just ask lots of questions, and use conversational connector fillers and the chats will start to flow. By conversing regularly you will get years worth of advancement in a very short amount of time.

First: The reluctant ones are easy to convince

If you are answered immediately in English when you speak their language to them, don’t fret! They just need a wee bit of convincing and they’ll instantly ditch the English.

I have written in great detail before about How to convince natives to speak to you in their language.

Some people just need a little nudge, and if you read that post you can see how I suggest you should simply just ask, give your language learning story some context so they are on your side, start and continue in that language, and maybe even compromise and do an even exchange.

Honestly, in 99% of cases with most cultures you’ll convince them immediately and a post like this really isn’t necessary. But the reason I’m coming back to this point is for that very rare case where they still insist on speaking English to you, and in some cultures this is much more common than others. You’ve given your case, and spoken to them in their language and they still reply in English.

A few more gentle nudges

Before I charge into battle, I try to be nice and helpful to their English-speaking cause:

I tell them everything I know about where they can find free resources, and people, to practice their language, such as hosting a Couchsurfer. I give lots of my best general language hacking tips to learn a language quickly (as you can imagine after half a million words of blogging, and writing a book about it, I have a lot), but I do it in their language.

This way I am indeed helping them, while helping myself at the same time.

The way I see it, if they really need to practice and this conflicts with my own goals, I can take the approach of “give a man a fish and he eats for a day, teach him to fish and he eats for a lifetime” and if you advise the person well, that will help them way more than a few minutes of English conversation with someone who doesn’t want it.

One last thing to keep in mind is that that person may not actually be stubborn, but it’s just a cultural expectation. If you are dealing with a northern European there are obvious things many people forget (such as improving your R pronunciation) when trying to speak English to them.

And in some other places, like in my case Paris, I have found that looking at it from their perspective can change things incredibly and they will be happy to hear you speak their language if you make some tough cultural adjustments.

Are you passionate enough to do what it takes?

If they still insist on English, then I like to show that person how serious I am about speaking their language. Only by sticking to your guns can you win this “battle”.

And yes; I view it as a battle. They are hitting me with English, when I’ve made it clear I don’t want it and that it’s absolutely useless to me when I have a tight target in a short time in their language.

Frankly, it’s wasting my time.

This kind of thing happens to me rarely in my travels, since usually simply asking nicely does the trick pretty much every single time.

But when it comes down to a battle of wits of them consistently hitting me back with English, I am prepared and victorious every time. Some of what I suggest here is definitely not going to give the impression that you are a very nice person, but you have to ask yourself what’s more important? If you are passionate about speaking that language, then what are you willing to do?

You may be meeting this person on a regular basis, so even if they think you are a bit weird at least they will not be forcing English on you and disrupting your momentum.

If I’ve asked nicely and they keep at it, then I slap some sense into them and wake them up to the real world. Yes, these may seem much more aggressive, especially when you have just met someone, but you have to put your foot down from the start if you want to maintain that important decision to avoid English.

This is one of the main reasons I will learn a language so quickly – because I’m not afraid of getting my hands dirty. No more Mr. nice guy.

It’s time to bring out the big guns

  • I say that I’ll gladly speak all the English they want, but my rate for private English lessons starts at €50/hour and I require payment in advance. I ask them if they’d like an estimate in the local currency

Yes, I will say this with a straight face even when in an obviously casual social situation. I was an English teacher for many years, and it’s work that I charge money for. English lessons are a huge multi-million dollar industry worldwide and in too many cases they may actually just be using you for free English practice.

English is something to add to your resume, and I’ve seen many many cases of expats who are very “popular” simply because they are being used and not realising it.

If they give me the obvious retort that I should pay them, I sober them up:

  • I remind them that I am the one who has travelled across the planet, moved my life, left my friends and family and my comfortable routines for this strange culture, and I need to speak the language if I’m to integrate into the country and have any chance of making a life and friends for myself. What have they done? They’ve stepped outside their door and demanded the first English speaker they see for free lessons. It’s selfish AND lazy.
  • Next I tell them that there are plenty of interesting tourists or lazy expats who would love to speak English with them! They can practice with them, but not with me. I’ll gladly tell them how and where to find them.
  • If we are in an English speaking country that they are a foreigner in, I remind them that it’s idiotic to say that they need me of all people to practice with. They can practice English with millions of others around them, but I’m one of the few who wants to learn their language.

One trick many will try is to talk you out of it by simply continuing their side of the conversation in English. If you’ve agreed to do this as part of a language exchange, then that’s great – otherwise it’s terribly annoying. So I keep at it, and then I call attention to it to catch them off guard.

I ask them why they are speaking English with me? It’s distracting and I don’t like it. They’ll never win this English to-and-fro with me. I tell them straight that they really don’t want to go up against me on this. They have no idea what they are getting themselves into.

Of course you realize, this means war!

When things are getting really ahead with them not budging, then I start to distract them with irrelevant information that will make them feel terribly guilty.

I tell them how historically, the beautiful Irish language was being suppressed by the British to the extent that it was illegal to speak it, and punishments for not speaking English were severe. This was a time the Irish were forced to use a language they didn’t want to, and that language was English.

Now I won’t do this in a “I hate the English” kind of way (half of my family is English, and I love hanging out with the English, so I’m the last Irishman you’ll ever see that untrue stereotype from), but I will be highly suggestive in how I present some historical information to compare the person I’m talking to, to an evil empire squashing my dreams.

What? I told you, this is war!

Next I really pour on the guilt – I tell them how I had to go to speech therapy when I was growing up, and how I simply don’t like English because I genuinely associate it with a language that I’ve struggled to communicate in over decades. Their language on the other hand, as much as I’m struggling in it, is more enjoyable because I don’t have those memories.

If you aren’t Irish or didn’t go to speech therapy, then you can of course use your imagination to give other reasons why you would tell them that speaking English makes you grimace.

And yes, I’ll actually grimace even at the very mention of the word “English”, and turn my nose up at it as if something stenches terribly. This is very powerful in emphasising the point.

I’ll also list some random things like how inefficient English is, how ugly it is etc., which is not particularly relevant because there is no such thing as a “better” language, but when pressed I can make you feel depressed to speak English by arguing my case  against it!

Again this isn’t necessarily fully true, as I obviously enjoy reading and writing in English and speak loads in English when I’m somewhere like America, but at the crucial moment I will turn my back on the language.

And then of course I’ll remind them that despite my poor grammar skills and weak vocabulary in their language, they are understanding me fine. It’s a little slower to speak to me in their language than it is in English, but it’s also slower to deal with my stubbornness to refuse to speak English, and honestly that is wasting way more time than me hesitating as I search for a word here or there.

No matter what their retort is, I have my own counter-attack, no matter how silly or illogical it might be. The point isn’t about arguing at a level of logic that would convince a university debate team; it’s about convincing that one person.

After the battle, everyone becomes friends

I am definitely among the hardest native English speakers in the world to actually convince to speak English, when I am eager to learn another language. And this is a huge part of the reason I will learn quicker.

In the process, I’ll maybe have somewhat messed up my chance to make a pleasant first impression on someone, but you know what? I’ll meet them later and they’ll get the picture and speak to me in their language. Any friends that are with them will do the same, and my decision to not speak English is maintained so that I will learn their language quickly.

It’s essential that people don’t associate you in their mind as an English-speaker. Making the switch later is much much harder, even if your level in the language has improved.

As aggressive as all of this seems, you will earn respect from the other person for standing your ground, and after their initial frustration that they can’t get English practice out of you, the subject will be changed and they’ll see how interesting you are in other ways.

Even when I’ve said really mean things like “I’d rather have my eyeballs boiled in acid than speak English with you” (which is easier than you think to get across in another language: you really just need the words “eye”, “boil” & “acid” – any poor grammatical construction will still make it obvious), I’ve become good friends with that person, and if one of their friends try to speak English to me later, they will actually be the ones dissuading them ;)

As I said, meeting someone almost as stubborn as me is quite rare, but when I do, I show them I mean business. Any time you spend speaking English with a native of your target language is time wasted that you could be practising and progressing. Make the tough choice early on and stand up for yourself!

Any thoughts on these aggressive ways to not speak English? Let me know in the comments below!



I'll send you the first lesson right away.
Click here to see the comments!
  • monte

    Benny, this is inspiring. I have lived in another country for almost a year now with only a very basic understanding of the language (ordering food, pleasantries, etc.) and the biggest (self)limiting factor for me has been everyone’s desire to practice their English with me. 90% percent of the time when I try to speak their language, they will either respond in English OR repeat back to me what I said in English and continue speaking in English. Frustrating. I lose this battle every time. I’m definitely going to be more persistent from now on. Thanks for the post.

    • Benny Lewis

      As I said elsewhere, I learned no Spanish while living in Spain for six months and one of the main reasons was that I was just being “polite and nice” and letting all Spaniards use me for free English practice.

      Stand your ground, and use some of these tips, and you’ll make huge progress. As long as you are willing to admit that it’s YOU doing the limiting and not an external factor or genes or other nonsense, you’ve taken the first most important step. Now keep going and stop being so nice!! ;)

    • Sam

      I’ve lived in Sweden for the past two years and despite becomming reasonably proficient at Swedish, obviously the vast majority of Swedes are better at English than I am at Swedish. Added to this, Swedes tend to switch to English when they hear a foreign (in this case Irish) accent. I have used the “I’m not English, and Irish was suppresed in Ireland” approach that Benny suggests, however I’ve recently started one myself that works quite well. When I speak in Swedish (with a foreign accent) and get replied to in English, I usually reply back (in English) “I’m so sorry. I just assumed you were Swedish.” When they reply that they are Swedish then just switch back into Swedish/what ever language you’re trying to improve asking them if they are Swedish then why did they use English? Often the reply is “but you’re English” to which I reply “I’m not, but even if I was if I wanted to speak English then I would have started in English eller hur?”

      I feel this getting answered back in English is extremely frustrating. It’s difficult enough to try a new language so when you’re refused to be spoken to in that language just because you’re not at the level of a native feels quite embarassing, or even rude. Depending how spiteful/lazy I feel, if the person really won’t refuse to speak in Swedish, I then usually switch back to my ‘natural’ Dublin accent using a load of slang rather than the more neutral one when speaking to non-Anglos.

      Not picking on Swedes but I feel that it’s more common with Northern Europeans who tend to have good English and little experience of foreign accents in their mother tongue. For instance English, Spanish, and German speakers are reasonably used to hearing foreign accents and so when they meet a foreign speaker they’re okay with slowing down, cutting out slang and pronouncing a little bit more clearly. I know I do this with non-Anglos and found out when working in Berlin for a summer that most locals would adapt their German once they realised rather than automatically switch to English.

      Interested to know if anyone else feels the same? Great article btw, defo agree that it’s the quickest way to break out of a plateau. Maybe for actually learning words imersion isn’t required, but for getting used to native speech and building confidence it’s defo the best!

  • Michele

    Wow! Nicely put!
    Díky za článek.  Bydlím ve České republice už 14 let a mnohokrát jsem musela být velice pevná i příležitostně drzá, abych kominkovala, že když neučím hodinu angličtiny, tak se nedomluvím anglicky s čechy.  Cítím lakomě ale bez toho, já bych se nikdy nenaučila vůbec češtinu. Tak, díky za náboj!
    Thanks for your article.  I have lived in  CZ for 14 years now and many times I’ve had to be firm even occassionally rude in order to communicate that I will not speak English with a Czech when I am not teaching English.  I feel like a miser, but without that (approach) I would have never learned any Czech. So thanks for the ammunition.
    I am not quite sure if all natives (in my case Czechs) are so happy to let your practice on them though.  I think it is hard on them and many people don’t have the patience for it.  But learning the local language is really worth it – you can really puff out your chest when your English speaking friends come for a visit – and show off to them that you can communicate in a language that they can’t!

    • Benny Lewis

      It’s an investment. The only way you can have deep conversations that they would thoroughly enough is if you go THROUGH the frustrating stage.
      Showing off isn’t quite a reason I’d use to strengthen why to do this, but glad to see that you’ve been standing your ground all these years! Keep it up!

  • David Neylon

    I had an interesting conversation in a Bauhaus in Heidelberg one day.  I asked a question in German and was answered in English.  I continued to speak in German and the salesperson continued in English.  I found it highly amusing.

    • Mark

      I wouldn’t have bought anything from that sales person either – unless I absolutely had to, for example the only supplier or the only availability within a reasonable timescale, or a highly  significant price advantage.    Certainly one should vote with one’s wallet (I think), when one can!

  • Jeremy Branham

    I never realized this was such a battle in some countries!  It is aggressive and it seems like you may make some enemies or hurt some feelings along the way but you do have a mission.  However, rather than wage a battle with someone that is that stubborn, why not find someone else to talk to?  I know in some cases you may need to talk to this particular person but if it is just about making friends, why not move on to someone else rather than both of you debate, argue, and remain stubborn?

    • Benny Lewis

      You make it sound way too easy. You can’t simply stop talking to that person, and move to someone else, among other reasons because:

      1) This could be a coworker or a friend of a friend or someone who frequents the same club etc. that you will see a lot. If you give in and give them a free English teacher, they will leech off you forever. Even if they are genuinely being friendly, you give them the impression of you as an English speaker. As you can see in other comments, starting on the right foot means that things will continue that way for you for the rest of your time.

      2) Consistency and momentum are crucial here. If you get off track, even for five minutes, it shows others that they can speak English to you also. Even if I’ll never see someone again I’ll insist on not switching to English – it shows those around me that I’m serious, and I don’t “fall off the wagon”.

      I can stand up for myself and to be very frank I consider this a way more essential trait than “language talent”. I will learn a language way quicker than Mr. nice guy who always gives in to English requests, even if he has a super memory and knows the grammar inside out, because he will rarely get any practice.

      Yes, very rarely some people will dismiss me as an asshole. So be it – I’m an asshole who WILL learn their language quickly. I prefer this than being known as an Irish mother Teresa… who is perpetually monolingual in his travels.

      • Jeremy Branham

        Yeah, I understand your point as to why you are doing it so that makes sense.  My question was really about why you needed to debate or argue with certain people.  As I alluded to above, there are certain people you are going to have to talk to.  I was just wondering whether if all of those conversations were necessary or you could just move on to someone else. 

        From your explanation above, it seems that you make it a point to have this aggressive type of conversation with people you are going to need to communicate with during your time there correct?  Otherwise why waste the time arguing.

        Honestly, I’ve never been in your position and you give me something to think about in terms of learning a language. I like the challenge even though the approach may seem uncomfortable at times.

        • Benny Lewis

          Incorrect. Why would I make it a point to have an aggressive conversation? I think you find the very idea of this kind of directness so offensive that you’ve missed the point entirely.

          Nearly all the time, asking nicely, not having a strong English accent and simply starting IN that language will solve the problem. Simple as that.

          This post is for extreme cases to convince tough nuts. If they can simply be ignored immediately, then I will, but it’s harder to simply avoid the situation than you seem to think it is. In the real world you have to deal with hard people, so YOU have to be hard.

          It’s true that most people wouldn’t have to deal with this. In many parts of South America, south Europe and Asia you will never have someone reply back in English. But then again there are parts of northern and eastern Europe that I’ve found to be reluctant, and others confirm that especially Poles, Israelis, other countries and city dwellers of other countries can make it quite hard for you.

          When you are used to enthusiasm at any language learning attempts, it can seem strange that other places wouldn’t be as eager, and that’s why this post is necessary advice for some people.

          • Jeremy Branham

            Incorrect on your part.  I do get your point.  I understand the need to have this conversation with certain people so they will talk to you in the foreign language.  My question has not been why you do this but “which people you choose to take this approach?”  That is what I am trying to figure out.  Maybe I don’t fully understand the circumstances in which you have this conversation. 

            I would just think there are times that you are talking to a stranger when it’s just better to say “thanks” and move on.  So I am trying to go beyond this approach and trying to understand when is the right time to use this approach and when is it best just to move on to someone else.  If I go somewhere and am I trying to learn the language and strike up a conversation, when do I know this person is worth having an aggressive type of conversation?

            Yes, this is eye opening to me and not something I have ever had to do.  I am trying to wrap my head around this concept.  Let’s face it – this is somewhat contrary to how we are taught to deal with people in a foreign country.  Don’t you agree?  So why not grant me a little grace in trying to work through this and understand a little better.  Many others in the comments have been in your situation and can relate.  I can’t and it goes against some of the etiquette most of us use when traveling.

          • Benny Lewis

            I really think you are missing the point and I’m not sure what more I can say! You can’t walk away from EVERYONE – you have to deal with some people, so this is how I deal with them. Most of the time I don’t, and just asking nicely is all I need.

            Frankly I find American culture to dance around issues way too much, for the sake of etiquette and never be direct enough. Saying “no thanks” or using euphemisms is simply being dishonest and American politeness drives me crazy many times because people are never direct with me, for fear of offending. Ironically to the person trying to save face, I find that more offensive, that they can’t be straight with me.

            I find it rude to have to deal with English when I’ve explicitly said I don’t want to, so my “etiquette” here is justifiably being more direct with someone stubborn and calling them on it. Some random stranger doesn’t deserve me being rude to them, but if they ignore my requests then they will get my retorts.

            I’m not “choosing” anyone – the rare cases – they are the ones making the choice of challenging me when I was clear about what language I want to speak.

      • Thatcher Donovan

        Oh, by the way: Mother Teresa spoke 5 languages, Albanian(her mother tongue), Croatian/Serbian, English, Bengali, and Hindi :) But I agree with you in your argument.

  • Mandi

    You are 100% right, it’s totally essential that from Day One, others do not associate you with the English language.  Living in Germany, I constantly hear complaints from other non-natives that it’s impossible to learn the language because everyone speaks such great English.  But, if you stick to your guns, it’s just not the case.  Over the last 3 years, I have met VERY few Germans that insist on speaking English with me.  The vast majority are fairly impressed that I’ve managed to learn their “difficult” language, and are more than happy to continue in German.  

    My trick has always been to speak German from the get-go, and that simply becomes our language of interaction from there-on-out.  I know if they start associating me with English, my chances are much slimmer that later on they’ll want to switch with me.  For those that are persistant, I definitely lay on the guilt about how I am a “stranger in a strange land” and it’s essential that I be able to speak the language fluently.  I usually also throw in the fact that unlike most Germans who’ve learned English since grade school, I only had the opportunity to learn German as an adult and need all the help I can get.  That usually works. :)

    All in all, once I’ve established myself as a German speaker with new acquaintances, it’s pretty easy to maintain.

    • Benny Lewis

      Well said Mandi! I can relate to your story very much – especially from my Germany experience, and hearing others tell me it was “impossible” to speak German to the Germans, whereas I never ever was spoken to in English by a German after an introduction.

      Glad to see others lay on the guilt too :) I’ll have to remember the “I’m new at this” trick!

  • Benny Lewis

    I’m sorry but you have a tough choice to make – do you want to speak the language fluently or not? If so, you MUST go through a frustrating stage of it being difficult to get your point across and to understand them. This cannot be skipped, but by consistent practice you can get through it QUICKLY.

    But yes, actually you reminded me of another great retort! :) When they speak English to me I like to say (in their language) “Why are you speaking English to me? I’m not English!” and I misdirect them a bit by saying that the OFFICIAL language of Ireland is Irish (Gaeilge), which is true. So I offer them to speak to me in either a) Their language or b) Gaeilge :P

    • Lee-David Murphy

      Great retort Benny, I have been (untill most recently) a real pushover here in Germany (and there are few more tenacious than the Germans, which I’m sure you know from spending much time here in the capital! What I tend to do is tell them (like yourself) I don’t speak English and that I’m from a country, where little is known, for example: the Faroe Islands and that my mother tongue is faroese and then they usually leave me alone! Another tactic I’ve used is to speak English incredibly fast and use very technical words where I know there is no common ground between German and English, either that or lots of idiomat sayings mixed with a thick accent with the mindset “you want to make me feel useless and insignificant, so canI!”. It is very sad to use this approach and I’d much prefer not to, however I see no other alternative :(
      Thanks for this write-up Benny, as I know have much more ammunition, should I need it :)

      Many thanks

    • Ally

      I actually used that excuse many times in shops in France where the person serving me continued to reply in English. I would say that I grew up speaking Irish and don’t like speaking English and it usually worked.

      It is possible though that someone might start speaking as Gaeilge as Janus pointed out. I was chatting to a French person at a bus stop in Sete this summer and using that excuse, I said that I speak more Irish than English. Then a homeless guy behind me said: “Labhraíonn tú Gaeilge? and a very interesting conversation ensued :)

  • Benny Lewis

    Well said! This is what worked for me that first time in Spain. I’d stop someone as soon as I heard English “ap ap ap!! Sorry, but I am vowed to not speak English this month. No exceptions!”

  • Alanjazz

    J’ai une tactique bien simple – je refuse de parler anglais complètement. N’importe quoi que ce soit. Ce n’est pas forcement poli, peut-être. Je connaissais une jeune belge qui ne parlait que rarement le français avec moi – elle commençait à parler anglais avec moi à chaque fois que l’on se voyait. Mais au fur et à mesure que mon français améliorait, je pouvais de plus en plus répondre qu’en français. Ma logique – elle étudie dans un pays anglophone, les Etats-Unis. Donc, elle n’a aucun besoin de soutien linguistique de ma part – tout le monde d’autre peut le faire!

    Il y a aussi un argument j’ai utilisé avec un ami méxicain qui me parle souvent en anglais – j’ai plus besoin d’aide en espagnol qu’il en a en anglais. Donc, c’est plus important qu’il m’aide en espagnol que je l’aide en anglais. Voilà. Mais Benny, vous avez raison quand même avec ces articles de faire parler les étrangers en leurs langues maternelles, parfois les gens ne bougent pas, c’est gênant chez nous!

  • Benny Lewis

    It’s not the exact same thing. As I said, I’m the one moving my life to the country and they are lazily strolling down the street.

    Besides, natives eager to speak English practically grow on trees thanks to expat bubbles, so using me instead of someone else who wouldn’t mind is silly, and claiming they have no other opportunities to speak English is laughable unless we are in a village.

    Your “it’s impractical” is just a slippery slope of laziness. There are different groups who speak different languages. The ones you were with spoke English but many other Erasmus students insist on speaking the local language. I find this separation everywhere and the former group is almost always people just there to party and not so interested in cultural advancement.

    Your last paragraph is just promoting passive use of a language – all that will do is improve your passive abilities to read and listen. As you say, you will NOT speak better by doing these things. I don’t know why you bring it up as I’m not talking about learning vocabulary, and I find these to be much more of a superficial “cultural understanding” than seeing it first hand with people.

  • Benny Lewis

    Then I’ll do it :) Is fearr Gaeilge briste ná Bearla cliste.

  • Patrice Bellan

    If a foreigner tries to speak French and I’m not sure we understand each other, I won’t switch to English, I’ll try to continue in French but maybe use simple words and speak more clearly/slowly.

    I’m practicing this every day at work and actually force people to speak French when they try to speak English :)

  • Anonymous

    I agree it is poor etiquette on the part of the local to continue to speak in English when it has been made very clear you’d like to speak the local language and have come far to do it. I don’t mind the person trying once, even twice, but when it gets past that it becomes rude. I’m not quite as brave as you in arguing my point, but I do quickly give the person the cold shoulder or move on. One technique I use, when in a group (and as you point out you can’t always ‘move on’, this person may be part of a scene you are in) is if one person is forcibly trying to switch communication to English when he/she asks a question or makes a comment to me in English, I turn to another person in the group willing to speak their language and answer them instead. It becomes clear the only way I’m going to interact with that person is in his/her local language. I wrote my own list of techniques on “How to Foil an English Pirate” ( for people learning Chinese.

  • Alex Ristich

    I see your points here, but I don’t agree with the whole premise of “using” people to enhance my own language abilities. I suppose it’s because I learn languages for the very sake of communicating with people, so whether that’s in my own language or theirs, whichever works better is fine with me.

    I suppose, however, that the main difference is that I’m not in an absolute rush to learn the language whereas you have a deadline to reach.

    However, whichever way you spin it, you spending the money and time to pack up and move to another country doesn’t really mean all that much in my opinion. You may have spent money to do so, but I don’t see how that would have anything to do with me as a local. It’s the assumption that your time is more valuable than my own, and me walking around my own city is inherently lazy, which are two opinions that I have trouble swallowing.

    But I guess perhaps this post just isn’t meant for a person like me.

    • Benny Lewis

      The problem with saying that you use languages for communicating with people is that you NEED to go through the learning process of improving your language skills. By dealing with some awkward exchanges every now and then your chances of speaking at an adult level for deep conversations improve dramatically and you can communicate with WAY MORE people overall.

      By learning slower, in my opinion you do not prioritise “I learn languages for the very sake of communicating with people” enough. Speaking English with whoever requests it is short-sighted.

      Also you’ve completely misread my point about travelling as an argument. Who was talking about money? I’m talking about how serious the person is and how much of an investment they are willing to make. I take it seriously enough to go across the planet and they don’t. It doesn’t matter how much you spend, there are other things you would have sacrificed. If they aren’t taking it seriously enough, then I shouldn’t take THEM seriously.

      You’ve totally misunderstood the point of what I was trying to say when you think I’m claiming that my time is more valuable.

      • Alex Ristich

        I think many people make a lot of sacrifices to learn a language while in their own city. To say that because someone doesn’t travel means they’re not serious is to disregard any commitments they may have with work, family, etc. It also assumes that in order to seriously learn a language you have to travel to a country where that language is spoken, which I think isn’t in line with your beliefs anyways.

        By the way, I didn’t at all suggest that you should speak English with everyone who requests it, but at the same time I don’t think the other side of the coin, “Don’t speak English with anyone even if they request it” has its own negatives.

        Can you clarify on the last point, by the way? I’m not entirely sure how I misunderstood your point. I came to this conclusion based on your point about you telling them to pay you to talk in English, but you demanding that they speak to you in their own language for free, then guilt-tripping them if they don’t do so.

        I guess it’s the hostility of the whole idea of “war” that rubs me the wrong way, as I have trouble seeing people as tools for my own development. I’m not convinced you see people this way either, but that is the feeling I got from this post and the underlying reason behind me writing response.

        In any case, judging by the comments this post has clearly encouraged a lot of people to get out and talk to people in the languages they are learning, and in that regard I applaud you. :)

  • David Sweetnam

    Great article Benny.

    I’m in Prague and since the summer (when my motivation to speak Czech got a lot better) I’ve been in ‘battle mode’.

    I’ve tried a few ways to keep it in Czech. I sometimes reply “nejsem anglican” (I’m not an Englishman, which is true, and something another reader says too, which is interesting). And the other day I spoke extra assertively to this woman at my gym and then FINALLY she got the hint and replied in Czech.

    I now wonder how many people just wanted English practice before I really got into it. The other day a girl spoke to me at dance class in English, was puzzled when I replied in Czech and after a minute she went away!

    It’s nice to read what others have said here, as I can see many of us understand how tough it can be.

    I also like this idea of not being known as ‘the English speaker.’ This is why in my dance classes I speak Czech and don’t say much about what I do.

    Will Tweet this – thanks


  • Katie

    I started reading thinking I wasn’t going to like this post much, but I had to agree with most points. At the end of the day, it just doesn’t make much sense to NOT be speaking the local language in another country, especially if you speak that language. I’m not going to accuse someone of being lazy just because they don’t have the luxury (of time, money, lack of visa issues, etc.) to jet across the world to go live in a English-speaking country, but there are other local options.

    Another blogger who I read wrote about her exasperation on this issue a while back, and in addition to your arguments, she had another point I found interesting:

    “Aside from the fact that I don’t have the patience to listen to
    people who want to practice their English on me, there are a few other
    reasons I don’t like it when they try. One, is that many Chileans suffer from extreme embarrassment over
    trying to speak a foreign language so too many times I’ve heard them say
    things in English in a weird, over-enthusiastic, joking tone. “Oh YES!
    Hello, HELLO!” I know they’re clowning around as a way to protect
    themselves from embarrassment, but when I’m trying to have a normal conversation with a normal person, I want them to be their normal selves.”

  • Benny Lewis

    Thanks a lot for your comment! One reason I’ve written this is because of the many “exceptions” people keep winging about. I was told that Northern Europeans/Dutch/Hungarians were hard to convince, but that was from poor approaches by people, but I’ve heard a lot whine about the Israelis.

    I have no doubts that it’s due to changing what you’ve discussed, and I’ll make sure to point to your comment to back up what I suspect when someone tells me that “nothing” works with Israelis. People ARE being lazy and they need to bloody realise it! Good thing there are exceptions ;)

  • Anonymous

    Alternatively, pretend to be from Armenia or Samiland (depending on your appearance) and kid on that your English is worse than your command of their language.

    When they speak to you in English, embarrass them by saying “Huh?” and screwing up your face in incomprehension.In Vietnam, where the locals are almost obsessive about not allowing you to speak Vietnamese to them, this is the only defence. (Plus, it gives you the opportunity to construct a long and fluent sentence in their language about how bad your English is).

    Usually, problem solved. Some reinforcement (“Huh??”) may be required from time to time.

  • Benny Lewis

    Actually, I suggested that in a different comment here ;)

  • Mark

    Fantastic web site and you deal VERY WELL exactly a point which has bugged me a number of times over the past four of five years. I’m about to change dentist because of a very difficult receptionist who always leeches free English when she can.  I’m not working when I’m at the dentist, so I want to speak the local language.   Oh how I identify with some of the views you have voiced!

  • Benny Lewis

    I forgot to say that’s a trick I have used once or twice, speaking the dialect of Irish of my home town to people who would only think to hear BBC English. They lose track quickly :P Luckily my other tricks are all I need, so it’s rarely necessary :)

  • Benny Lewis

    Of course I have! That’s why I wrote the post – this isn’t me being imaginative; I’ve actually said and done these things.
    I have not however used them ALL with a single person… I’d rather move on than argue that much with someone.

  • Benny Lewis

    Then you are not being as helpful as you think you are. The person you are talking to may be pissed off that you are not allowing him to improve his Swedish to enhance his experience in the country.

    Anyway, it depends on the culture. The techniques I discussed with the Dutch would be what I would personally apply to the Swedish to convince them to help me, and these are not aggressive at all.

  • Benny Lewis

    Tough or not, it’s all down to what YOU do. Even your clothing or posture can give you away quicker than you think.

    I guarantee you I’d have no problem keeping conversations in Spanish in Costa Rica. I’ve met Costa Ricans **in English speaking countries** and still talked Spanish to them fine, when if anything they’d be more likely to speak English to me there.

    I’ve heard the “woe is me, I need to learn English” excuse before and have many ways to neutralise it. Please read these two posts:

    • Sacha A. Stoecklin

      Oh, I don’t ever give them free English and I do set down the line. My
      point is that in many countries, especially the more patriarchal ones,
      they view ANY woman as an easier target and a single foreign woman as
      more of a target. And the men, especially the younger ones, will
      invariably try to strike up a conversation with you in English. The
      women too. Based SOLELY on your physical appearance. Sure, hiking boots,
      hiking pants and a backpack scream backpacker. But if all of your
      clothes are bought in the country and you are dressed exactly like the
      women there, then you are being targeted just because you don’t look

      I can respect your tactics and use many of them myself. And I also want
      to point out that this experience also is different based on gender.
      That’s just a fact and not one that I appreciate. Many of the places
      expect women to be more submissive. I’ll give you an example. First, I
      don’t have much of an accent and many people have confused me with a
      local speaker or at least someone from another Latin American country
      when they have HEARD me speak. Second, after having a few very in-depth
      conversations about a variety of interesting topics, many of the men
      will thereafter start talking to you as if you were a stupid child and
      use lots of hand gestures for basic Spanish words that they know that
      you know. And they will keep trying to force the conversation over to
      English by talking toyou that way. Ask any local woman if the men don’t
      also talk to them as if those women were stupid idiots. It’s true. And
      it’s a part of the machismo in these countries.

  • David Sweetnam

    Hi Benny this is something I want to write about as well on my blog. I live in Prague, one of the great English Practice Capitals of the world.

    Most people simply refuse to speak to me in Czech.

    It got so bad that in the end I hired a few students to speak to me this summer. I’m getting about 20-30 hours of conversation each week, and soon I hope I will be able to speak in Czech at parties and other events.

    The first step is to stop speaking English, and yet that’s something many expats ignore, some still being only A1 or A2 level after 10 years in the country.

    Slowly the tide is shifting ;)

    Great post


  • Yamado

    lame…really lame man. it should be an exchange of language. not refusing to speak english and being a downright turd so you can learn their language…silly man.

  • Kelda

    I lived in Austria for a year, and would often have class mates talk to me in English. I told them that they could schedule a time with me one day after class and we could sit down and speak as much English as they liked for an hour (for free). Two people of hundreds took me up on the offer.

    Have had a whole conversation with a bakery lady, with me speaking pretty decent german (of four months) and her speaking english the whole time. She refused to speak German to me, so I refused to speak English! Worked for me..

  • antwob

    I know this is an old post, but here are a few things that have worked for me in Poland:

    1) My girlfriend is a native in the language, and she will nearly always have a go at people who answer me in English, whether it be her friends or random people we are talking to. She claims “Oh no, he’s not allowed to speak English, don’t let him!!”. It works a treat, and people never question it (until she disappears and they try their luck again). Also, saying things like I’m on a mission to not use any English etc sometimes works.

    2) Simply ask. This works 90% of the time. Sometimes I’ll get a reply that they also want to learn English and have little opportunity to practice. Normally, the conversation ends there (unless it’s a social occasion where I can’t just ignore people, and the battle starts). As pointed out in the post, I’ve actually noticed some people stop talking to me when I refuse to be a free English lesson.

    3) Pretend I don’t understand them. This is cruel and I don’t like doing it. But this seems to work when all else fails. I’ll put on a strong regional UK accent to them and also claim I don’t understand what they are saying. I’ve had the reverse done on me several times, where people deliberately use lots of slang and idioms to try and throw me off track.

    4) Avoid large cities and the student/tourist areas if you can. This has been for me the most successful. I live in an area where hardly anyone actually knows more than a few words in English, and after getting past the “Will you teach me” speeches, I get all the practice I could ever wish for.

    Also, I’ve lots of luck at parties although I’ll get the occasional I know a few words in English types. Generally the more alcohol around, the worse the situation gets. The best thing to do in this situation is to not encourage people and change the subject.

    • Luz Blanca Ramos Martinez

      Great points. That’s exactly how I go at it. At this point, I don’t even respond to English. I just assume that they can’t be talking to me. I even gotten to the point where I just tune the whole thing out and, unless they are talking to me in the local language, what they are saying literally doesn’t register with me. I think that being met with dead silence and no response at all is a good indicator that the conversation won’t be going anywhere … if it’s in English. What do you think?

  • Zara Chiron

    I really enjoy your articles.

    In France, I taught children English as part-time work during my Masters program. And I would have a similar attitude, “I get paid to speak English – I don’t see you paying me do I?” Usually I would smile and say with just a hint of (this is not negotiable), “Je suis en France pour parler Francais.”

    And now in Spain I say, “Lo siento, yo se que hablo mal pero prefiero hablar en español.” I find that in the south of Spain they are much more accommodating and helpful!

  • GooeyGomer

    Doooood….you pulled out the “I charge $XX to teach English” whammy. I don’t think I have the cojones to go that hard core, though I understand where you’re coming from. Really, when you think about it, with so many websites offering language exchange buddies and the like, most of them for free, there really isn’t any reason why someone shouldn’t be able to “practice” their English.

  • Kujira

    This looks like an old post….. but I’ll just add a few of my thoughts.

    I’m living in Japan, and in my case, if you force the natives to speak Japanese with you, I think it forces them to treat you more as one of their friends/ equals.

    I’m studying at uni, so I’m here for a long time, and get loads of Japanese practice every day. What is more important for me, is getting people to treat me more as one of their Japanese mates and less as “that foreigner (if known, from country XX)”. It’s the end of the first semester now, and the people who I see in class have started to treat me more that way, which is good. I think I need to be more outgoing myself, but one thing holding me back is lack of confidence in my spoken Japanese skills.

    I’m male, so I wouldn’t mind so much if a girl my age tried to speak English to me…but my basic policy from now will be to just pretend not to understand their English, or just reply back in Japanese or in really casual English (nothing exaggerated though, only like how I would speak to my mates in my country). There are lots of different situations though. If they happen to say a few words in English to show off to their pals or something, I’ll just ignore them completely. I guess that goes without saying, though.

    Having said that, you can be too paranoid… I think a lot of them just can’t figure out how to interact with someone noticeably different from themselves (as if they needed to anyway…), so basically I think you need to take the lead, as the cool and confident “gaijin” or “foreigner”, no matter what you may believe your own language skills to be like.

  • Nicole Gauvreau

    I love this, I love this so much. I have a suggestion similar to your Irish one, but you need a vaguely French name for it to work (in my case it’s fact, but it could work for others).
    There are these lovely people known as the Québecois; these people happen to live in Canada, but speak French. Outside of their own province (or New Brunswick) people get very annoyed with the Québecois for speaking French since most of the country is English speaking. When these people move to English speaking places they may keep their French at home, but be forced to speak English elsewhere, or maybe they stalwartly speak only French, but their children end up at an anglophone school and are teased for being francophone. These children eventually become so discouraged that they cease speaking French, they still know French, but refuse to speak it. They may even refuse to speak to their children in French. Those children then never learn French, and by the time those people who refuse to speak French have grandchildren you’ve got two generations of people who don’t/won’t speak French.
    Then the third generation comes along, and they may really want to learn French, but no one in their family will speak to them in French, and they get really sad. They may do bizarre things, like decide to go to a university in Québec, just so they can learn French.
    So, now that I’m done my tangent, I’m pretty much saying people with a French name can try to guilt people into speaking non-English language X by bringing up the fact that their family was pressured out of speaking French by anglophones and they lost a brilliant opportunity to be bi-lingual form childhood.

  • John Irving

    It would seem that you already must have a good grasp of the language to argue these points. I have this problem everywhere except in France where, at least in Paris, I seem to have “la tête de quelqu’un qui ne parle pas français”. They get over it very quickly when I rudely point out to them that I do speak “notre langue”. 50 euros an hour? Wow! Nobody would pay that here in Martinique.

  • Jonathan Black

    I went to a language school in Brazil and there other students who, like me, were paying to learn Portuguese, regularly hung out with each other and would speak in English. This made me mad because I hadn’t traveled halfway around the world to speak English. I was the antisocial one and refused to hang out with them, but I made Brazilian friends who spoke to me only in Portuguese. I remember having several language battles. I never said “I’d rather have my eyeballs boiled in acid than speak English with you”, but I did tell people that if they wanted to speak English with me I’d be happy to do it in the United States.

  • Vladimir Georgiev

    hi, I’m Bulgarian(now studying abroad, but it doesn’t matter)
    our language is Slavic from the Balkan Sprachbund and for us is much harder to learn Western languages than for people from other European countries. I went to study in Denmark 1,5 years ago. A little bit before that I took some Danish lessons and before my teacher told me, I didn’t even assume that the problem native-refsuing-to-speak-you-their-language.. so I don’t think you’ll have problem to not speak Bulgarian..
    I know English and 4 more foreign languages and heard a lot from natives saying how hard their language is, international students here take English as “easy language” and for granted.. but yesterday I remembered a funny story: I was 6th grade and even though I had subject English in school since 1st grade, I spoke next to nothing. For Christmas our teacher gave us a table with all the verb tenses in English and the crazy rules for using them and I asked someone from family: “Do the hell English people use all these tenses correct without mistakes?”
    написах ти отговора на английски, защото не мога да разбера дали и на какво ниво владееш български език

  • Michael Gannon

    One other possibility is to use a third language. For that, depending on your frame of mind and personality, you will require one or other level of competency, in my case, not just reasonable fluency. I have made less use of it than I would like, as I am the kind of dysfunctionally over-correcting perfectionist for which there is no doubt a nasty Freudian name. Even where it didn’t matter, I would be wary of being “called out” in case the insistent, non-native Anglophone also turned out to be fluent in the third language, and able to have some some with my grammar or … no, my pronunciation is generally pretty good.

    Here in Russia, I can’t make much use of it, as Russian is my only second language at a fluent enough level to avoid the above fear, although if really irritated I can always bung on a few phrases of Chinese. Currently I’m working on French. Once I’ve got that to a comfortable level, I might trot it out from time to time. Generally, around town, Russia is a contentedly monolingual place (not forgetting the many other nationalities here), and not too many people are going to try out their English on you. Places like airports are typical of where people whose English is at one percent of my Russian will try to make life easier for me by using very simple English expressions. That will be the kind of occasion for my new French. If it turns out they also know French, fine, we can continue in that.

    When I was travelling fairly often in China I would sometimes use Russian, not only for the current situation, but when bargaining, so that they wouldn’t think I was (especially) American. I soon realized that was a mistake, because those Russians who travel abroad have largely taken on the old American reputation of naive tourists, proud even to spend more than they need for the same result. In my first two or three days of any stay in China, I was usually glad of the relief of some occasional English, but after that it would tend to get in the way.

    • Michael Gannon

      “some some” > some fun, of course

  • Vladimir Georgiev

    My native language isn’t among the popular ones. If I meet a foreigner learning Bulgarian, I’d answer in the same language. If (s)he has low level and I need to select more simple words.. I’d do this, I will ask (in Bulgarian) if (s)he wants to practice my language more or prefers to speak in whatever language we have in common..
    but a lot of young people speak quite fast and are obssesed of “saving you from the torture of learning my lamguage”