Hey, can a native English speaker get a little help around here?
No no, not that kind of help!
The last thing you need is another eager local to tell you how to get wherever you’re going…in English.
You’d rather they just talk to you like they would their fellow countryfolk, so you can get some authentic language practice!
But the truth is, they’re probably used to tourists speaking English.
English is a major global language that lots of people wanna pick up.
As a result, many English learners consider helping out tourists good practice.
And far from finding being addressed in their native language annoying, your everyday English-speaking visitor is apt to be grateful!
You, on the other hand…well, let’s tell it like it is: You’re awesome.
English simply isn’t enough for you.
You’ve been studying your target language daily, working hard toward your goals.
But having spent so long learning alone in your room, you’re ready to finally rock up a whole different country and soak up all the new words around you.
Unfortunately, the world is not fully prepared for your kind.
So your attempts to communicate with native speakers in their own language might end in frustration, or even misunderstanding.
But don’t worry! I’m gonna show you real ways to get around this so you can practice your new language.
Plus, I’ve got handy tips for you on how to make friends and avoid staging destructive battles with aspiring English speakers along the way.
We’ll get you that real language practice yet.
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How to Prepare Yourself to Speak a Foreign Language in a New Country
While I’ll be drawing on my experiences from living in the Czech Republic and trying to practice Czech, these tips are applicable to any other location or language.
Many people will automatically try to speak English to a tongue-tied tourist. However, they won’t switch to English when they meet a confident foreigner with a good grasp of their native tongue. This has less to do with your level of language than you might think. What is totally vital is your preparation and the impression you give.
So here are a few things you can do to project the right impression.
Visualize yourself as a confident speaker
Visualize yourself feeling confident in your target language. How do you stand? How do you gesticulate? How do you smile? Try to imagine yourself with a group of English-speaking friends with whom you feel comfortable, and then act out that feeling.
Specifically, imagine how you’ll respond when a native speaker switches to English. What would a confident, competent native speaker do? They’d probably be a little surprised, but keep on talking confidently.
So that’s what you’ll need to practice: remaining confident.
You’ll be surprised how often it tilts the conversation back to your target language.
Find people who don’t speak English
Believe it or not, lots of people are very willing to speak only your target language. You just need to know how to find them. Here are a few ideas:
- Arrange to live with a non-English speaker. This will ensure you get in authentic language practice every day, and won’t have to worry about escaping English when you’re “at home.”
- Check out Couchsurfing to find a pal to get coffee with you or show you around. The cool thing about this site is that it lists the level of languages that users speak. So if you find someone who doesn’t list English at all, or who has a very low level, you’ve found a winner!
- Get thinking about other ways to interact with locals before arriving, so you can get started right away. I used to volunteer, which once gave me the opportunity to talk to a group of active senior citizens in a nursing home. I enjoyed chatting with them and they enjoyed my company, comic accent and tales of faraway places. Another great option is to work with kids, because they don’t expect any sophistication on your part and they’ll help you communicate. Even if they laugh themselves silly at your weird wording, you’ll know it’s honest and not malicious.
So why not volunteer to work with a youth group, seniors or disabled people? The opportunities are limitless and so are the improvements you’ll see in your speaking. Dig your heels in as a confident speaker from the start. This will help you establish yourself in those first few vital weeks.
Talk to yourself
Find little ways to practice each day, before leaving home. You can even practice at home alone.
You can also practice your target language using FluentU, an online immersion platform.
A friend of mine makes a habit of conducting his inner dialogue in Czech every day, like this:
“Where are my keys?”
“Now, let’s see, what am I doing?”
“It is so cold.”
Slipping these little sentences into your subconscious will put you on the route to thinking foreign. So don’t let yourself think in English, either!
Try to increase your amount of “self talk” as your departure date gets closer. This will boost your confidence and motivation as well as your ability to think in a foreign language. After arriving in your new homeland, be sure to keep on speaking and thinking your daily narrations in your target language.
How to Convince Native Speakers to Speak Their Language with You
Be tough at the start
It’s important to establish the nature of the relationship from the start.
Once you chat with your new friend for the first few hours in English, they’ll probably accept this as the model for your friendship.
Down the line, when you want to try practicing your foreign language skills, it may seem awkward or out of the blue.
Your new friend may laugh aside your attempts or talk a few minutes with you before switching back to “normal.”
Speak your target language as much as possible in first meetings, whatever your level. Even if you only know a few words and greetings, get them in.
Make sure to nail introductions
You want to portray yourself as something like “John the foreigner who really wants to speak Czech.” It’s a much stronger starting position than “John from England,” to whom everyone will flock to practice their English skills and talk about the Queen.
Later on, you’ll be introduced as “John who speaks pretty good Czech.” So just make your position clear from the start!
Try language exchanges
Go to language exchanges, where you’ll meet and talk with people who want to learn your native language. The usual for a regular language exchange partner is to spend half the time speaking your target language, and the other half speaking English.
Language exchanges are great because the terms are agreed upon by both parties, so you can concentrate on speaking instead of establishing your right to speak your target language.
There are other advantages, too. You get to speak in an immersion setting, which is the quickest way to improve. You also keep some of the confidence that comes with communicating in a familiar language, since switching back to English will make you feel reassured and in control. This stops panic and the creeping feeling of stupidity that sometimes comes with being a foreigner. With language exchanges, one minute you’re a novice, and the next, a master!
And so it continues as you both learn.
I’ve found that some people can be a little wary of this idea, as it seems fake or contrived to them and they would rather speak “naturally” or “as it comes.” My advice for implementing language exchanges is to find people who are as excited about the idea as you are. Or, if it’s with someone already in your circle of friends, like a new roommate, then stick to the rules strictly (perhaps explaining that you are now on your “Czech hour” and are only speaking in Czech). If you keep it lighthearted and they are aware that there is a time limit, chances are most people will be happy to go along with you.
Make others the teacher
English speakers abroad often automatically become seen as “my English teacher,” always on hand to explain grammar or new words. You need to turn this around as quickly as possible.
One way to do this is by asking questions about your target language as various subjects come up:
“How would I say that in Czech?”
“Is that the same as…?”
Get yourself out of the teacher role and put them in it. This is natural, as you’re in their country.
And make sure to jump on every opportunity! If they ask questions about English, turn those questions around and ask how the same scenario would work in their language.
Once you’re friends, the relationship can become a more laid-back two-way street. But again, beginnings are important.
Pay sneaky compliments
People love to be flattered. So flatter people about their country—just don’t lie. Chances are high that if you want to learn their language badly enough to read this post (and travel abroad!), your flattery is genuine. Make your interest in their country clear. Tell your new friends why you want to learn their language—how beautiful, expressive or clever it is.
Also flatter them. Tell them how good their English is and that you would love to speak Czech at that level. Or how beautiful their Czech is and how you would love to speak like that one day, too.
Flatter, flatter, flatter. But try to tell the truth. People love a flatterer but can usually spot a liar.
Be flexible and charming
You need to work to make people want to indulge you.
I was once in a tourist agency in Brazil waiting for some advice. In front of me, a young American backpacker marched up to the desk and started off by saying, “I refuse to speak English. I want to speak Portuguese.”
This, unsurprisingly, did not create a positive atmosphere.
The staff felt shouted at and were not motivated to help or understand him. It also put him in the position of having to speak well. This is an example of a linguistic power struggle. These should always be avoided.
What you want is to aim for the opposite attitude: Be charming, admit your weaknesses and let your enthusiasm show through. Be a likable and flexible character, but stay firm.
Being likable doesn’t mean letting others walk all over you.
Clearly ask for practice
It’s perfectly okay to just ask something like “Could we speak Czech for a bit? I would really like to practice.”
Your new companions have known from the start that this is your position and have no reason to feel surprised or offended now. This makes it harder for them to ignore your requests.
But if they do, use my next tip.
Use your target language as a test of people
As a recently arrived English speaker, you may find yourself with a lot of new friends. Everyone wants to take you out for drinks, chat about your home country (if it’s England, mainly about the Queen). This is nice but a little draining, especially when such new friends melt away suddenly as soon as you stop speaking English.
But even this can be used to your benefit. I genuinely believe that most people have no idea that they’re using you for English. Indeed, they would be horrified if they realized it. These people really do want to be friends.
Still, some people actually are using you, and you don’t have time for them.
So, if you’ve been active from the start in expressing interest in your target language and very clearly asked for practice and they still insist on speaking in English, then walk away. You have better people waiting to meet you.
Play language tennis
Finally, make this whole process fun for yourself! Don’t look at the world’s desire to practice their English on you as a stumbling block or a huge injustice. It’s part of your unique journey, and a challenge to be overcome. Like tricky grammar or that word you just can never quite pronounce.
So take the same light-hearted approach.
I see this as language tennis. They keep aiming English at me, I keep swatting it back.
The above tips will help you swat back and have fun getting to your language goal.
Deeper Bonds: How to Keep Practicing in Your Friendships
In my experience, living abroad really is very different once you’ve been in the country a while and are dealing with real relationships with people you work with, live with and care about.
The best preparation for this next step is to stick to the policy above of being strict from the start. This puts you in a stronger position by doing the following:
1. Ensuring you have a good grasp of the language so people will want to speak to you (and are able to do so).
2. Filtering out those people who will inevitably use you for English practice.
Both these considerations put you in a great position to make real, lasting relationships while improving all the time.
So now you’re ready to take your language learning into a new phase. The advice in this next section will help you navigate these slightly murkier but ultimately very deep and rewarding waters.
Balance language learning with friendship needs
A friend of mine, who has always gracefully allowed me to speak only in Czech to her, recently fell in love with a Finnish man with whom she communicates only in English. So to me it’s clear that as a good friend, I should help her improve her English instead of strictly sticking to our previous agreement.
This is a classic example of how your original tough stance can flow and evolve once you’re more settled.
You don’t want it to be all them. Or you. Absolute rules don’t work between friends. You may end up being that person you hated and your friend may end up feeling used.
Picture this: It’s Wednesday at 2 p.m. on a sunny afternoon. You’re out for a walk. You want to speak one language and your friend replies in the other. What to do?
We’re not talking for the rest of your friendship. Just right now, in this moment.
Weigh up how important this is for you today. Maybe it’s time to let them have this round. Or maybe today you’re pumped up and really want some practice. Just tell them. At worst, you can still plan a language exchange. With friends, every situation is floatable. So keep it open and keep it varied.
Find a system that works best for each friend
You’ve bravely refused to speak English for your first few months, and have a good group of friends who respect your desire to learn their language. Now you can think in more detail about how to really use each relationship for maximum learning and enjoyment.
You both want to enjoy communicating, so you just need to find the mode that best allows that to happen. For example, you may have the following:
- A friend fluent in English: You talk in both languages and have occasional intensive learning spots where they correct you a lot or you correct them. Make use of their ability to explain things. Raise your level and experience the joy of speaking English at a high level.
- A friend of similar level to you: You vary the language and sometimes have language exchanges. You feel secure that they, too, are far from perfect and can talk naturally with them.
- A total beginner in English: You normally talk in their language but also occasionally speak English slowly to help them along, too.
All these variations will prevent you from feeling frustrated or stuck. And the great thing is that these arrangements are open to change as everybody’s level improves.
Think about what learning English means to your friend
When I feel myself getting angry when people won’t let me talk in my target language, I try to keep calm and remember times I have done the exact same thing when desperate to practice a language. I’ll also stop and realize what English means for young people everywhere.
For them, this could be a path to a future job (in many countries even to work in McDonald’s requires at least one second language). Or this could be vital practice to make them more confident in that Erasmus stay or au pair position they’re so nervous about. They may also adore English or American (or Australian, Canadian, etc.) culture and want to be close to it through you.
All these thoughts chip away at your frustration and allow the other person to be human again, not an ogre keeping you from your dreams.
Deal with your frustration, as it’ll bring bitterness into your relationships if you let it fester.
Release your frustration and move on
Sometimes you’ll get really frustrated. It’s important to work with these feelings, or they can embitter your stay abroad and spoil the fun of learning. You may start seeing English-speaking foreigners as the enemy. You may fear that familiar kick in the stomach when you work up all your courage to speak only to be answered yet again in English.
Find whatever works for you. Rant to people in the same position, or people at home who find it amusing. Be supported. Run or play sports. If the situation ever gets really infuriating, you can hit pillows in your bedroom. Make sure the negative feelings flow onward and you’ll be left with the joy of learning and the excitement of discovery.
Don’t lose heart. Have fun.
And be tough!
Remember, you’re doing a great and brave thing. You deserve a little help along the way.
This blog post is available as a convenient and portable PDF that you
can take anywhere.
Click here to get a copy. (Download)
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