How To Get Native Speakers To Speak Their Language With You

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.

Offensive presumption

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!

Identity

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.

Author: Yearlyglot
I'll lead you through a 12 month journey from knowing absolutely nothing about a language to having professional fluency.

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  • This is an excellent post full of great and accurate observations.  I don't know how many times something similar has happened with me.  Some people can't understand why a person isn't fluent in a particular language if they have friends who are native speakers.  Sometimes it's just not that simple!

  • Exactly!  Thanks for your comments. 

  •  Great advice. I like the idea of setting the tone right at the beginning.  In Turkish, it's not just my friends who don't want to switch, if I started in English, it's hard for ME to switch.  Our friendship is an English friendship and I have a hard time letting go of that original identity.  I need to work on this too.

  • Talking to people who are studying Russian and  my own learning experience has  helped me understand the importance  of letting  a native English speaker, who struggles with Russian, express himself without my unsolicited help of translation into his language for things he doesn't understand. You  just want to make the task easier for that person, but in reality you  make him angry at you or disappointed. Only when I had similar experience but backwords  I realized that there was no help from my part.

  • Indeed!  What I find works best (when I'm helping people with English) is to give the explanations in English, but to use simple words if I think they'll have trouble understanding.  Often, though, I am surprised by how much people understand, and I stop using the easy words.

  • Absolutely.  Once it's part of the identity of that friendship, it will always be a struggle. And since English is so popular, we native English speakers will always have a hard time with this. 

  • I can certainly agree that a language becomes a part of the identity of a friendship.I became friends with an Italian some 15 years ago, before I had learned Italian, so of course we spoke English (he speaks it very well). He's seen me learn Italian from scratch, all the way through the Italian university system. Unless we're in a group of Italian mono-linguals, to this day we still speak in English to each other.

  • I agree with this but I'll also add that another very simple solution, if you're willing to actually spend a bit of money and can afford to do so, is to simply hire an online tutor who specializes in the language you're learning: you speak only that language for the period of instruction (usually an hour) and it's far, far easier to schedule lessons than it is with people who you're not paying (e.g. friends or language exchange partners).  This is a very good solution for people who have the money to spend on it and don't have a lot of time to spend dicking around trying to find people to converse with and then convincing them to actually do it and getting the whole scheduling thing worked out.Cheers,
    Andrew

  • Funny, isn't it? 

  • Even still, the point here remains the same: even if you get a tutor, you need to make sure to only speak the target language with that tutor... and if you're paying, you can demand that they never speak to you in English.

  • Great post!  I had a similar experience with identity crisis as with your Russian friend.While in uni, I did a 5-week summertime immersion program for French.  The program was strict and we'd be kicked out for speaking anything but.I dated a Brazilian chick for the final couple of weeks.  At the end of the program they had a NASA-style countdown, after which we were allowed to speak whatever we wanted.Her Portuguese-flavoured English was so cute!  And she seemed completely amazed by my fluent English.  But I think we both felt that the English-speaking person was someone completely new and different!It was much the same for all our friends in the program: the Mexicans, the Canadians, the Brits.  We'd just been together everyday for five weeks but all of a sudden... who are these people?!  :)

  • I have a Canadian friend who spent many years in Japan as a teacher of
    English.  In fact, her entire working life has been in multicultural or
    language-teaching roles.She suggested to me that the initial contact - the first impression - is
    perhaps the most important factor in what language two people will
    speak to each other.Whatever language you start off with is the language you will keep using.  It's so hard to make the switch!

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