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Coalition Of The Willing September 7, 2007

Posted by Edwin in Cantonese, English, French, Speaking.

Naturegirl left a comment on my previous post, mentioning a common scenario, where you want to practice your target language, only to find out that the other person always responses back to you in English (or your native language).

This is indeed an extremely frustrating experience. This could be by far the number one enemy for language learners who want to practice speaking. I remember Milan has been ranting about it in his blog all year long!

A common counter-move is to tell the other person that you don’t speak English. This could be funny at first and probably help to break the ice. But I believe it won’t get you very far. Alternatively, I have some suggestions based on my experience and those from the others.

If you are a beginner’s level speaker, don’t expect people to put up with your broken sentences. They would only do that out of generosity (well, except if you pay them). You must state explicitly that your are a learner and want to speak the language. Do this right at the beginning or after the usual greeting exchange. Say this in the target language so to build up your confidence and at the same time to show the other party that you really know something about the language.

I have been trying this protocol in Skype to practice my French. The greeting part is usually simple and standard. Then the other party would start to throw in more complicated vocabulary and increase his speed. Sooner than I would expect, I become lost. I would then tell him that my French is not really good and I am a learner, and he would slow down and return to more basic conversation. At this stage, don’t expect anyone to stay up with the conversation very long. Even if some are willing, your own tongue will begin to tide up very soon, and you will get discouraged. I would recommend the conversation to last no longer than 5 minutes. Then you may end it or switch to another language.

For advanced speakers, I have once learned a tactic from Cecilia’s podcasts. Cecilie Gamst Berg is a Norwegian living in Hong Kong since 1989. Besides Norwegian, her mother tongue, she is fluent in both English and Cantonese. She has been doing a Cantonese learner’s program in a Hong Kong radio station. In one episode, she went to the subway (MTR) to demonstrate how to buy a ticket (to increase the value of her Octopus card to be exact). Seeing a Caucasian, the ticket clerk replied in English right away. Being intolerable with this seemingly disrespectful action, she replied immediately:

“你講乜嘢呀?唔好講英文啦你!” (What are you talking about? Don’t speak English!)

The “啦” (laa1) towards the end of the sentence is a emotional particle in Cantonese. Together with the unsatisfactory mood she carried when saying it, the sentence should be more correctly translated as:

“What are you talking about? Don’t speak English for goodness sake! This is Hong Kong after all. Why would you as a Chinese speak English? Shame on you!”

Then I could hear the clerk switched back to Cantonese, feeling very embarrassed.

If you do this successfully to someone you will be seeing regularly, I bet he won’t dare to speak to you in English anymore. But then of course, you have to show your confidence speaking your target language in the first place.

With the above suggestions being said, I don’t believe there is a perfect solution to the problem. My own advise is to pick your speaking partners carefully. No matter how well you speak, there will always be people who are not willing to speak to you in their own languages. After all, they also have their right to practice their English, right?

I have many Mandarin-speaking friends and colleagues. Some know me for a long time, well before I started to pick up the language. They just feel speaking Mandarin to me a bit unnatural, and they would rather speak English to me, as it has been done for years. So I have decided to give up speaking Mandarin to them. Now, I only pick those whom I have recently met, and those who are willing to put up with my weird accent.

I believe the overall approach is to find a few speaking partners who are willing, stick with them, and leave the unwilling ones behind. Just like Mr. Bush’s “coalition of the willing“, you don’t really need a lot of them.



1. Nacho - September 7, 2007

Many of my students feel disappointed because many times they try to start a conversation in Spanish and they get a reply in English. When they tell me about it I say that a good strategy may be to continue talking in their native English normally, as if they were talking with another native English speaker, or even faster and using regionalisms. The interlocutor, very likely, won’t understand a lot and will decide to take the conversation to Spanish again.
I also tell them that, in the same way the want to practice their Spanish, other people would like to practice their English, and it wouldn’t be fair to ask for their attention for a long time. So I say that if your plan is having a long conversation you could make a deal and take turns for both languages.

Very cool blog. Thank you!

2. Edwin - September 8, 2007

That is a very interesting tactic. Thanks, Nacho.

3. naturegirl - September 9, 2007

Thanks for mentioning me in your article!

When I read
“A common counter-move is to tell the other person that you don’t speak English. This could be funny at first and probably help to break the ice.”

I remembered a funny situation when I was traveling in China with some German friends. They were like magnets and so many Chinese tried to sell us things in English. I’m sure other foreigners have experienced this in China. So finally we figured out they would leave us immediately if we say “No English!” and “不要“ (bu2 yao4, I don’t want). So the No-English tactics can be very helpful in China.

4. Edwin - September 9, 2007

It could be just a coincident. I have recently watched this amusing clip from Maxiewawa:

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