Some people may be surprised to hear that even when living in the country that speaks the language you want to learn, it can still be very hard to convince someone to actually speak it to you! Presuming you can read this blog you have been cursed with being a native (or fluent) in a language that so many people want to practise: English. It can be even more frustrating when you finally come across a native speaker when not in their country, but are dismissed with them answering immediately in English. Defeated, you continue talking in English, they win…
Surely they should be grateful? You've put all of that time into learning their language and may have even moved to their country. They should be helping you and encouraging you!! Well, not necessarily. From their perspective it may be much more interesting practising English, or maintaining a comfortable smooth conversation if they already speak English well. It's just not interesting or fun helping you speak their language if they feel your level isn't good enough. But there are ways to convince them!
Easiest way – just ask
It's amazing how quickly some of us give up; it's easier for us to speak English and the other person may quite like speaking English, so English can just seem like the logical choice. A lot of these people are used to meeting English speakers not interested in learning their language, so they may just presume that you prefer to speak English and speak to you in your own language. They aren't insulting your language level, they may actually be thinking that they are doing you a favour.
If you actually say “Do you mind if we speak in your language? I'd really like to practise” (saying it in the language in question of course) you would be surprised how often this works. You rarely have to actually do more than this – people in many countries are quite glad that you aren't a typical traveller convinced that English is the only way to communicate, and they may be surprised that you want to speak their language and ask why – and the conversing begins! 🙂 There are so many nice people in the world, and simply asking them is all you really need most of the time. In fact, in a lot of countries/cultures, this question isn't even necessary. I don't remember ever having to convince a Brazilian to speak Portuguese with me for example. I was “warned” that the Czechs may not be so helpful, but up to now most of those that I have asked directly to help me have obliged.
But with much more commonly learned languages, they've already heard it all before and may not be interested in hearing their language “butchered”. I felt this a lot when learning French in Paris for example, since I found them to be very proud of their ‘beautiful' language; in Paris some people can almost make you feel unworthy of speaking it (luckily this has not been my experience in the rest of France). Then again if their English is perfect (or if they think it is) they may feel like showing it off. What's even more frustrating, is when they find your attempts simply amusing. They may have other good reasons, but if they answer you back in English after you asked nicely, there are still ways to convince them!
Make helping you more personal
So if simply asking hasn't worked, it's time to make listening to you more interesting! This is especially important when your level is much lower. So, tell them passionately why you would like to practise (once again in their language). This can appeal to their human nature and make it much more personal and have them more interested in helping you. After occasionally getting answered in English here in Prague, I tell them about my 3-month mission. Mine is such a ridiculous story (fluent in Czech in 3 months?!?) that at worst, it holds their attention a little longer. At best it convinces them that maybe I am worth helping. Tell them that you are trying to discover your roots, or how you've always dreamed of one day speaking their language, etc.
Keeping the conversation in that language
Presuming this, or simply asking, has worked, you now have their attention for a moment; time to keep it! It can feel frustrating when they may smirk at your ‘cute' attempts and your mistakes, or even worse – look impatient as you are struggling to form sentences. This is where I like to spice things up a bit to get people's attention away from how “bad” my spoken level may be.
This is definitely not for everyone, but I dramatise my conversations a lot. Instead of an “um..” pause, and as well as conversational connectors, I like to add dramatic pauses looking intently at them just before very important information so that I can gather my thoughts and form the next sentence in my mind (And THEN he said something that would change my life forever……..). Change the tone of your voice and your facial expressions and be generally more expressive. Being more dramatic means that even when you are talking about something usually dull, and struggling to find the words to say it, they can still be made curious to hear more!
Everything about your body language should make it more interesting; speak confidently, open up your arms and use them to draw what you are saying. Many countries are much more expressive with their bodies than English speaking cultures, so even if your foreign language is perfect it can still seem uninteresting to converse with you compared to a local. Even when not in these countries I still use my whole upper body to tell a story. Always have a smile on your face to show that you are enjoying this conversation; any awkwardness you may create is less due to mistakes in your grammar and more due to how uncomfortable you are projecting yourself to others and making them feel the same way. On the other hand, a positive attitude is also contagious!
Usual social rules apply; talking about yourself too much may not be so interesting to the listener, so ask them about themselves and expand on common interests. It's important to be aware that many cultures don't talk about themselves and their achievements as much as we do in the English speaking world. I've seen foreign language speakers want to leave a conversation with many Americans for example, not because of their language level but because they won't shut up about themselves (I was also guilty of this!) Conversation should involve the other person as much as possible to keep their interest, but if you see they are genuinely curious to hear your stories, then feel free to keep talking!
If you feel annoyed that they are finding your mistakes amusing then just remember that it's not a bad thing. Since they are already in a laughing mood try to tell them a funny story! Then it will make you both feel good if they laugh! If you take it too seriously in the early stages then you won't have fun and neither will the other person; this can stress you out and make you feel like you aren't ready yet. You should try to enjoy yourself and forget about if your level is good enough and just have a fun conversation.
Are they still insisting on English? Time for a compromise!
There are some people that really, really do not want to give in and will insist on speaking English with you. In my early stages of travelling, I have unfortunately had some “friends” who disappeared as soon as I insisted on speaking their language. Some of them may have very good reasons, but (when you are living in the country) there are those that are simply using you for free English lessons. I see this too often; English speakers abroad that are very popular with locals and convinced that it's due to their amazing personality, whereas a couple of these friends are actually there because in a lot of places it's expensive to get English lessons, so why not practise for free! (I'm as guilty as anyone of doing this, but in the reverse direction). Sorry to sound so cynical, but I have seen this a lot! English is the path to a better career in many countries, so free English lessons are gold. If you give in during the early stages, it may be very hard to convince these people to suddenly stop speaking English with you.
It is important to stand your ground and keep on answering back in their language (in casual social situations). After a couple of times they may get the picture (sometimes it's a battle of personalities; who should win? The more motivated one or the one who speaks “better” in their learned language?) but if they don't give in then it's time for a compromise!
Since they want to practise their English and you want to practise your foreign language, why not do both? When I was on too tight a budget to afford private or group lessons, I did tandems (exchanges) with foreigners. 30 minutes speaking English in exchange for 30 minutes speaking their language, with the other person correcting and helping when their language is being spoken. It's free and both people get something out of it. If someone is flexible enough you can even take this to the next level and have your end of the conversation entirely in the foreign language and their end entirely in English the whole time. Too many people put emphasis on understanding, but in this way you are focussed entirely on actually speaking the language and not worried about understanding it; it gives you a mini-break and lets you relax each time the other person speaks. It can be confusing at first having a bilingual conversation, but it's fun and both people win!
A definite solution
Of course, the easiest way to have someone speak and teach you their language is to pay them 😛 If you are already willing to spend money on expensive CD courses or expensive group classes, then that money would be much better spent by getting 10-15 private lessons from a native. In early stages someone with teaching experience would be ideal to explain why things are said certain ways, but from intermediate on you can do it with any native that remembers to correct you, since it's just having a normal conversation. EVEN in the early stages, you should insist that most of the class is in the foreign language. From lower intermediate level up, no English should be used.
Most tips I'll be giving on this site focus on learning a language for free, and avoiding the usual age-old and inefficient academic method, but I have found private lessons great to help me reach the point to be able to converse with people naturally, as someone patiently explains my mistakes to me. Tandems are a great alternative for those on a tighter budget. Living in the country itself makes it very easy to find tandems with the amount of people interested in learning English, and if you are in an English speaking country then try putting advertisements in the local university to get the attention of exchange students. There are many more ways to meet up with foreigners that I'll talk about another time.