An interesting phenomenon that has often frustrated me as a language learner, and I'm certain is also frustrating to many of you, is how hard it often can be to get people to speak with you in the language you're learning.
Unskilled conversation isn't very fun
Let's say, for example, that you're learning Spanish. You've got a friend who is also a native Spanish-speaker, and you hoped to practice with that person. At first, your speaking skills are sure to be much less advanced than your friend's English skills — after all, you were already friends, before you started learning (or improving) your Spanish, right?
Often, we find that your skills still leave you with only very basic things to talk about, and when you're accustomed to having more interesting conversations, both of you find that you just don't want to have those more procedural, robotic conversations in a new language, so you switch back to the language with which you're comfortable.
You'll say things like "I'm hungry," or "what time is it?", and your friend will smile at your progress, but when he responds and you struggle to understand what he said, he'll just switch back to English, and change the subject. And who can blame him? Unskilled conversation really isn't very fun.
But it's not uncommon for an unconscious prejudice to evolve. Because not speaking Spanish is a part of your identity in your friend's mind, the fact that you are learning it, or even speaking it quite well, will often fail to sink in, and your friend will continue to treat you as someone who doesn't understand.
You may notice your friend speaking Spanish to other people in front of you, even talking about you right in front of your face, still under the presumption that you don't understand. You may notice your friend translating things to you even though you already understand most of what you are hearing.
You might go to a Spanish restaurant and your friend will order food for you without ever letting you have a chance to speak. And you'll feel like this is rude! Not only is it a wrong assumption, but it's also denying you valuable opportunities to practice your new language skills! But your friend doesn't think he's acting rude... he thinks he's helping!
I have a dear friend who I've spoken with for nearly a year now. She's Russian, and we first started speaking because she needed help with her English. I already had plenty of friends with whom to practice my Russian, so I was happy to just speak English with this friend, and for 99% of our conversations that's all we've used. Just English.
One day recently, we had a conversation in Russian — not just a couple of words or sentences, but an actual conversation — and at one point she remarked that it was like talking to a different person. It didn't seem like me.
If all of your interactions with someone are in one language, that language becomes an integral part of the identity you have with each other. And once that identity is set, it's hard to change it.
When I learned Spanish, I found that I had to go to new places to speak it because the people who knew me always went back to English. I learned Russian while dating a Ukrainian girl, yet we almost never spoke Russian to each other in spite of the fact that I was speaking it with several other people.
Even on my recent trip to Poland, I found that I actually had to leave my friends and go off on my own in order to get the opportunity to use the Polish I had been learning. As long as there was someone around who knew me, they would speak for me without ever letting me have a chance.
Set the tone
There have been, however, several occasions on which I've managed to make it work for me. When I wanted an Italian speaking partner, I wrote my emails and all my communications in Italian, so even though the friend I made spoke excellent English, our default language together was always Italian.
Similarly, with most of the Russian-speaking friends I've made online, we always default back to Russian, even though I know many of them have improved their English to a very high skill level.
Now, if you're bilingual, and you make a new friend who is bilingual, it is possible to set a bilingual tone in your relationship from the start. But as long as you are still learning, if you want to have speaking partners with whom to practice, you need to set the tone right from the start.
Begin your friendship in your second language and be persistent. If you struggle and they try to switch to English to help you, don't switch! Stay in your L2 and set the tone. After that first meeting is over, the chances are, your identity is permanently set.
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