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

Full disclosure: This post contains affiliate links. ?

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!

author headshot

Benny Lewis

Founder, Fluent in 3 Months

Fun-loving Irish guy, full-time globe trotter and international bestselling author. Benny believes the best approach to language learning is to speak from day one.

Speaks: Spanish, French, German, Italian, Portuguese, Esperanto, Mandarin Chinese, American Sign Language, Dutch, Irish

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