So, what if they only wanna speak English?

So ignorant

Ah, the classic problem amongst most Western language learners. This is known colloquially amongst the language learning community as the ‘language power struggle’.

Speaking English is both a blessing and a curse in this world, particularly if it is your native language. If English is your first language – then hey, you just won the jackpot, as long as you’re not interesting in learning any other languages. If this is you, (and I don’t know why you’re reading this blog), then congrats, you speak the current de facto language of the world in most arenas such as business, science, medicine, etc, and can probably get by in life without too much difficulty.

Wait, what’s that you say? You want to speak another language? Well, compared to someone who speaks some random language (any Patuá speakers out there?) that no one knows or cares about, you are at a disadvantage, and that’s just tough cookies. 
Firstly, you will likely have far less motivation to do so, as it is unlikely to be necessary for your social or economic stability. If you speak English, you’re laughing, mate. 
Secondly, chances are, the people whose langauge you’re trying to learn speak better English than you speak their language, and so in order to promote efficiency of communication, the language used will by default be the one that is easiest, or the one that both parties are best at. This problem is exacerbated by the fact that in many countries (such as France), speaking English is cool. Often, too, overzealous parents or government programs have forced the kids to learn English since they learnt to walk, resulting in one of three scenarios:
  1. They want to speak English with you to finally get some use out of the decade they spent learning English at school, and so will speak English to you. 
  2. They are convinced that learning English is essential to success (a belief common in China amongst young people) and so will, at all costs, speak English to you.
  3. They want to get out of their shitty country, and see English as their first-class ticket, and will speak English to you.

Now, this becomes increasingly annoying/frustrating when the person involved has delusions of grandeur in relation to their English speaking ability, and they actually suck. 

Although I have perhaps been guilty of this myself in the past, in some dark, far off time, and so me saying this is a bit hypocritical, but one of my pet peeves is when people insist on freeloading and speaking English to someone in a country that is not English-speaking, when they are trying to learn the language of the country they are in.
It’s just like, shit, son. I’m here to learn Chinese/French/Spanish/Whatever, why are you speaking to me in English? It can also seem quite insulting, as it is kind of like saying you are not good enough for the conversation to go ahead in the language your are attempting to learn.

This said, in situations where the other person really has no opportunity to go abroad or otherwise practice their English, and it is important that they learn English, then it might be a bit selfish to insist on speaking their language at all costs, even if you are in their country. You can have moments of weakness. Maybe, at the very least, you can do a language exchange sort of thing? Or just humour them for a bit and ditch.


One of the most common ways of getting speaking practice is by doing a language exchange. I have even advocated this over on my Resources page.

And, well, this is not a bad place to start. BUT. And, as a disclaimer, you may not be comfortable with doing what I am about to suggest – but if you are keen on learning a language the most efficient way possible: keep on readin’.

There is no need to ‘buy’ conversations with your English skills.

Now, I was reading about this over at John Pasden (from ChinesePod)’s blog Sinosplice. Quality blog, by the way, remind me to add it to me Blog Roll.

Anyway, he was talking about how he first learnt Chinese in China. He had the common problem of encountering far too many University age students who sought to use him to practice their English. The solution? Find people who are really bored, or those that have to listen to you. The former is better, though, for reasons I will outline.

John used to spend an hour a day talking to the guards at the building complex where he worked. Their job consisted of essentially sitting on their asses all day, pressing a button to open the gates every now and then when a car came. They were, understandably, very bored – and therefore far more willing to put up with his broken Chinese, and were even patient enough to explain things to him when he didn’t understand, and to speak slowly at first to accomodate for his lack of ability in Chinese.

Bingo. Did someone say free Chinese tutors?

The best thing was, that they loved having him there to distract them, and invited him to visit them every day. Needless to say, John’s Chinese is now amazing – and he has now decided to reside indefinitely in China. He’s been there for almost 13 years now.

Okay, okay. That sounds great and all. But how do I do it?

I used essentially the same technique whilst I was studying French in France – namely to go into shops and talk to the owners (bookshops are great), or to befriend senior citizens, who are usually more than happy to sit in the park and talk to foreigners interested in their language and culture.

Despite this, until now, I failed to join the dots and realise that this is possible in my own home city of Melbourne. If you live in a city with foreign immigrants speaking your target language, go find them, and talk to them!

Old people seriously are great though. They are interesting, generally more patient, and generally have not much else to do. Also, many of them love being ‘down with the kids’.

Anyway, I intend to put this into practice – I just gotta find some old Chinese people!

Let me know what you guys think, and whether you’ve tried it yourself!

Author: Dan

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  • Thanks for sharing this nice post. It is very difficult to convey points properly to the listener, if you don’t make your mind before speaking something in English..

    English Speaking Tips

  • Scott

    I live in Taiwan and I used to get a lot more frustrated with going to certain places and having people trying to speak English with me. If you want practice the best place to go is where they don’t see or expect foreigners. Firstly, avoid Starbucks and international chains of any kind, even McDonald’s. Secondly don’t go to restaurants selling Western food. Everyone gets a hankering for a hamburger every now and then but if you go there don’t be surprised when they speak to you in English as most Western restaurants will have at least one waiter/waitress who at least knows the items on the menu in English. Thirdly, avoid bars where foreigners frequent. There may still be a lot of locals there, however they will more likely be friends with foreigners or perhaps looking to make friends with foreigners.

    As far as looking for free conversation I find that finding local businesses with friendly staff, e.g. small restaurants, local shops and corner stores etc are quite good. If you go there enough times you can slowly build up a relationship with the people who work there. You will get more conversation this way than constantly going to new places and having to ‘break the ice’ again and again.

    • Hi Scott,
      Thanks for the tips! I guess brands like McDonalds and Starbucks would attract a lot of foreigners (especially those who are feeling homesick or just want a coffee), and so I imagine they might try to hire at least some English-speaking staff. I forget sometimes that language-nerds like us are actually in the minority – most people would be overjoyed at finding a place in China where people would speak to them in English!

      In your experience, have you found it difficult to find people who are interested in being friends with foreigners, but who don’t have a particular interest in learning English? They would be the ideal demographic for Chinese learners, however I suspect they might be few and far between.

      • Scott

        I have some good local friends who allow me to practice Chinese with them, but most of them can and will speak English with me too. I don’t think I have any local friends who aren’t interested in learning English, however I have some with whom it isn’t much of a battle because my level is higher than theirs. I think there are people like this out there, but you are right they are definitely in the minority. I found when I was away from Shanghai and Beijing in China I found people quite chatty and approachable.whether or not they could speak English.

        • That’s good! Despite never having been to China since I’ve started learning Chinese, the Chinese people I’ve met abroad and over the Internet seem extremely friendly and eager to share their language and culture with me. They generally don’t insist on speaking English, either, in my experience.

  • Still these types of attitude and arrogance are prevailing in the country. Since the inceptions of the revolution in the country every single people facing the harsh word of not saying the language properly. Not knowing the English is not a big offense but they are treating the people in way so they are not in the country since long. Therefore this action should cutoff in all the way.