8 Ways To Win The ‘Language Power Struggle’

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What is it and why do you need to win?

A ‘language power struggle’ is the term that has been unofficially been adopted to describe the phenomenon where two people from different linguistic backgrounds, each learning the other’s tongue, engage in a battle of wits to determine which language will be used for the exchange.

As a quick disclaimer, I still think that it’s important to be respectful when trying to win this battle. No need to be a dick. The general rule should be that, out of general decency, the person trying to speak the language of the country the two people are currently in should prevail. In my hometown of Melbourne for example, although I will definitely try out some Chinese on the Chinese people I meet,  if they indicate that they absolutely want to speak English then I will, of course, concede.

I’ve been in China for about three weeks now, and I’ve actually had an overwhelmingly positive experience in terms of speaking Chinese. I’ve really only met a couple of people who insisted on speaking English (even after I pulled out a number of the nifty moves I’m going to teach you below), so it hasn’t been a huge problem so far, even in the big cities where you would expect that more people would speak English. I quickly ejected myself from the conversation in these instances – ‘cos ain’t nobody got time for that.

In all seriousness, while it may seem harsh to just walk away from a person merely because they won’t speak Chinese with you, but it’s absolutely necessary if you’ve come all the way to China to learn and are serious about learning.

Your time here is (I assume) limited, and not only is time spent speaking English to people time not spent speaking Chinese, but I’m convinced that speaking too much English disrupts the immersive environment that you should be creating that, if achieved, greatly accelerates the rate of language acquisition.

Compared to most European countries, in China people are much less likely to speak English in my experience, even though they are all forced to learn it for years at school. People are also generally very self-conscious and will generally rather speak Chinese with you (if you show some signs that you speak it). They’re also often very interested in learning about your country and culture, and in sharing theirs, making for the perfect language learning environment.

Therefore, unless you’re Chinese is at a very basic level, you shouldn’t have any problems finding people who are willing to talk to you in Chinese. Really, you shouldn’t be doing language exchanges even. Just get out there and make some friends, or talk to old people. Taxi drivers are great (but often have very hard-to-understand accents) as they kind of have to talk to you since you’re paying them and you’re both trapped in a confined space. Plus they’re generally pretty hungry for some conversation to break up their day a bit.

For a more scientific-esque discussion of language power struggles and why they actually occur in the first place, click here to see John Pasden of ChinesePod’s article on the subject.

How do you win?

Despite the language power struggle being a battle of the minds, with the stronger personality generally winning, in most instances the person with the better language ability will win. In other words, for the sake of efficiency, both sides will speak the language that is the easiest. For example, it might seem a bit strange to speak to a Chinese person in Chinese when they speak English fluently, but you only have basic Chinese.

To avoid the headache, it’s a good idea to where possible find people to talk to you who speak English worse than you speak Chinese. In China, this isn’t particularly difficult, especially as your Chinese gets to the Intermediate level and beyond.

That said, here are the methods I use to win the battle! I’ve ranked them in order of their effectiveness.

  1. Say you’re French. My ‘go-to’ is by simply by saying that I’m actually French, and can’t speak English. By looking confused (or offended) when they speak to me in English, they usually get flustered and revert to Chinese. For a bit of fun, you can insinuate or even directly ask them if they think all white people look the same. This is the best method in my opinion, as they can’t speak to you in a language you are pretending not to speak! When I first arrived in China, I was actually genuinely slightly vexed that most people assumed I was American – I thought it was strange as I would never assume an Asian-looking person was Chinese, Japanese or whatever! Win.
  2. Pull the guilt card. Explain (in Chinese) that you’ve spent all this time learning Chinese and all this money coming to China, and so you want to speak Chinese. Invite them to visit you in your country and promise that there you will both speak in English.
  3. Bluff. Act genuinely surprised that they are speaking English, and be like ‘Dude, why are you speaking English? This is China. People speak Chinese here!’ (You can also do this sarcastically, but that will make you seem like a bit of a dickhead).
  4. Ask them (in Chinese) to guess where you’re from. Their first guess will most likely be America, and if this is the case just say ‘no’ and refuse to give them another guess! Usually annoys the hell out of people.
  5. Compliment them on their English. If you reply in Chinese when they address you in English, some people might be offended and think you’re doing it because their English isn’t good enough. To avoid the awkwardness, you can just say to them (in Chinese) that their English is really good, and even just ask them (especially if you’re in China) if it’s okay to speak Chinese since you need to learn it.
  6. Meet with more than one Chinese person at a time! This one is great. If you’re with two Chinese people, and your Chinese is decent, then it makes far more sense for all of you to speak in Chinese, especially if one of the Chinese people can’t speak English well.
  7. The (almost) last resort. Compromise and do some sort of language exchange. I.e. you speak in Chinese, and they reply in English. Or you can speak Chinese for a while and then switch.
  8. The last resort. It’s pretty mean, so don’t do it unless you have to, but you can just pretend you can’t understand their English. If you have to go to this extent, it’s probably worth just finding someone else to talk to though to avoid hurting their feelings.

That’s all I have for now! I hope you enjoyed the post. If you have any other tips for how to deal with a language struggle, then let me know! I could always use more!

Author: Dan

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  • Scott

    I find it’s also useful to just ask the person, say ‘I’m learning Chinese, may I speak Chinese with you?’ We really shouldn’t have to ask for permission but many especially those who consider their English pretty good will get all huffy if you just get into a battle of wills with them.

    I think many of them consider it an insult to their English that white people want to speak Chinese to them. Must be a 面子 thing. But if you act humble and ask they’ll look like a dick for saying no, which almost never happens. Or if they say yes but continue speaking English you can call them out on it.

    • True, although I think part of the problem is that Chinese people expect foreigners not to be able to speak Chinese – and so them speaking English from the get-go is in their view often in order to avoid the awkwardness of potential misunderstanding. Usually, once I signal a desire to speak Chinese and show that I, in fact, can speak it, resistance is generally low. The Chinese are often self-conscious about their English, too.

      I haven’t had any experience of Chinese people being offended when I speak Chinese to them, and if I did I would explain to them that in fact I should be the one being offended that they refuse to speak Chinese with me even though we’re in China and I’m learning Chinese. I have come across a few people that were pretty insistent on English, though, but I just generally be polite and eject myself from those situations. I often help my Chinese friends with their English, but dislike being used. As one of my good friends in China told me, if you want to make a friend, first be a friend!

  • The pretending to be from another country method can backfire if it turns out they also speak that language!

    • Hey Hugh,
      Haha indeed it can! Generally I pretend to be French (which I speak), and generally only when people approach me randomly on the street to practice English on me.

  • Ben

    A great trick which worked for me in France was to study in a rural environment. Few, if any people spoke English and so there was no war to be won. I went from beginner level to reading novels in about four months.

    Similarly, I’ve picked a 2nd tier city in China with a scarcity of English-speaking foreigners. Working with me in Chinese is the only option for the locals – and it’s doing me wonders.

    • Completely agree Ben. If possible, study in a rural environment where people are unlikely to speak English or have any interest in doing so. That said, the difference when living abroad as an adult compared to as a teenager is that language learning may not be the only goal – in our increasingly competitive graduate job market, getting an internship or a job is often a requirement for making the trip worthwhile. Unfortunately these opportunities are almost always in the big cities. In my case, I’m constantly seeing great opportunities with AustCham etc popping up, but only in Beijing or Shanghai. If your goal is only to learn the language well, though, then a rural environment is definitely the best option.

      Having said all that, apart from the fact that more people may speak English in big cities, associating with foreigners is a choice and living in a rural or second-tier city will only remove the temptation to make friends with them. In China, I actually find it incredibly easy to make friends and forge meaningful relationships with Chinese people. Even so, the laziness factor means that most foreigners also surround themselves with other foreigners. Many justify this by saying that if they attend Chinese classes for 4 hours a day then that’s enough, and they don’t need to do anything else. In reality though, you aren’t going to improve anywhere near as much you could if you’re only exposure to the language is in class. All of the real progress occurs outside of the classroom.

  • redking

    Dan, I am definitely not a fan of #8, the last resort.

    Why? Because foreigners have pulled that one on me a few times, and it is very frustrating. A better #8 would be ‘walk away’.

    • Agreed! I would always choose to walk away. Nevertheless, I found a need to include that one on the basis that I could see myself having the desire to use it in very rare circumstances – such as when the person is being so obnoxious and insouciant about my feelings or situation that I feel compelled to respond in kind.

      • redking

        My friend has a great method.

        Whenever a foreign person attempts to ‘language rape’ him, he pulls out a business card with his rates for English conversation practice. He said that it is incredibly effective.