How to get speaking practice in a foreign language, and get fluent as fast as possible

practice speaking foreign language

Welcome to my next series of post! In the previous series, I talked about memory techniques. While learning and memorizing new words is certainly an important aspect of language learning, putting theory into practice and actually getting the language on your tongue is an entirely different story. And that story starts with finding human beings with whom to interact.

So for this series, I’ll have four different posts (including this one), on the following topics: the language power struggle; online resources to get speaking practice; speaking the language as soon as one can; and finally, learning targeted common words and phrases.

Are you ready to dive in? Let’s go!

The Language Power Struggle

If you’ve been learning a foreign language for more than just a few months, you might have come across what some have termed—such as Benny the Irish Polyglot and John Pasden—“the language power struggle”.

Indeed, if you have the experience of learning a foreign language, you might have found it hard to meet with a native speaker and to actually speak in their language, especially if you’re a native English speaker. Why is that? Well, the obvious reason seems to be that a great deal of non-native English speakers want to learn/practice English. When meeting with them, they will most likely try to talk as much as they can in the language, so as to get some “free” practice. At the same time, you yourself will want to practice speaking in their language. Hence the term “language power struggle”. I’ve heard from Steve Kaufmann, for example, that Czechs are notorious for refusing to speak to foreigners in their native language. But Czechs are not the only nationality that engage with foreigners primarily in English.

Here in Korea, where I’ve been living for some time, many younger-generation Koreans literally refuse to speak to me in their native tongue. The other extreme is that they have acute English-language anxiety, and simply refuse to speak or make eye contact with a Westerner for fear of having to speak English. To serve as an example, out of many, I’ve had a situation where I was with a Korean friend and wanted to purchase some movie tickets; I asked the staff working at the counter whether a particular movie still had good seats for the time I wished to see it, and she proceeded to ignore me and respond to the question I had asked her to my friend.

Most Koreans under approximately 30 years old have been force-fed English classes so much throughout their entire elementary, middle, and high school, that by the time they meet a “foreigner” they either a) want to finally put to practice 12 years of language study or b) they cannot get around the fact that some Westerners are able to speak their language. This is especially the case with the younger generations; when I speak with Koreans who are around their mid-thirties or older, I do not get this kind of response. Granted, the overwhelming majority of foreigners living in Korea (even long-term expats) do not speak Korean beyond a beginner to low-intermediate level, so I guess Koreans tend to believe you simply cannot speak their language (even if you do speak Korean to them). But the point is that in some countries, meeting locals that are willing to cheerfully engage with you in their native tongue is not always easy.

In other countries, of course, the opposite may be true. Chinese people (younger generations may be excluded) are famous for being unwilling to speak any other language than their own. In one of Steve Kaufmann’s video on his YouTube channel, he discusses an article that points to a study conducted on Chinese immigrants living in Canada. The study found that Mandarin-speaking immigrants in Canada had made no significant progress in their English accent, fluency and comprehensibility seven years after their arrival in the country. And in my hometown of Quebec, and from what I’ve heard, in France too, most residents do not like to speak any other language besides their own (i.e. French).

Thus, when I was traveling in Japan, Hong Kong, and some other countries, I’ve had very different experiences from Korea. In Japan, for example, both younger and older generation Japanese would simply address me in Japanese, and most of them would not try to speak any English, even after I told them (in broken Japanese) I didn’t speak much Japanese. I think that’s great. It not only gives you the opportunity to get out of your comfort zone and to practice the little language you know, it also shows that people are proud of their language and not afraid nor shy about their poor English abilities. Plus, it’s a great motivator to actually kick yourself in the butt and start learning the language.

 

How To Avoid The Language Power Struggle

OK, so how do you avoid the language power struggle if you find yourself with people who, more often than not, want to speak to you in your native tongue, and not in theirs? Well I’ve found a way around the problem, and it has worked quite well for me thus far. To put it shortly, when two natives speak together, it’s pretty awkward for them to speak in any other language than their own. So, how can you and me benefit from this simple fact? Well, by making sure you meet more than one native speaker of your target language at a time, you will be assured that they’ll end up speaking their language more often than yours. The more the merrier.

What’s even better is when there are people among the group who have absolutely no English skills whatsoever, so that it would make them uncomfortable if too many exchanges throughout an evening happened in English (or whatever your native language is).

So how can you end up meeting more than one native speaker at a time? Well, if you’ve already got a language exchange partner, you could ask him/her to go out with his/her friends for a drink or whatever. Another option would be to join groups or clubs through websites such as meetup.com or couchsurfing.com. In my next post I’ll introduce additional websites through which you can meet locals.

Another trick is that if you really prefer to have a single language exchange partner, make sure their command of the language they are learning (i.e. your native language) is very basic, or at the very least equal or lower than yours. This is crucial. If they have a much better command of English than, say, you have of their language, chances are they will win the language power struggle without too much effort. If you are a beginner in Chinese and you’re meeting with a person from Beijing who already speaks high intermediate English, believe me, not much interaction will take place in Chinese. I speak from experience.

A Few Points To Keep In Mind

A last few points: if the people you’re talking with really need to improve their command of your language more than you need to improve your command of theirs, then it would be somewhat self-indulgent to insist on practicing theirs with them. And if your command of the language you’re studying is very rudimentary, and you’re speaking with a native that has a good command of English, it might be frustrating for that person to stand your attempts at communicating in their language. In most cases people would rather communicate information efficiently than waste time debating over choice of language. In cases where both parties share more than one language in common (native or otherwise), the language which is used for communication is often determined rather quickly based on this criterion.

Last but not least, compliment people on their English skills before speaking to them in their native tongue. Keith Swayne, a Vancouver-based Canadian language enthusiast, has given this advice in one of his videos (great video by the way!), and it’s a great piece of wisdom. Basically, if you answer to somebody in their native tongue after they’ve addressed to you in English, they can feel offended (usually this is the case if the exchange happens in an English-speaking country—say you live in the U.S. and you respond in Chinese to a waiter in a Taiwanese restaurant). They might think you speak to them in their tongue because their English is not good enough, or they might simply be wondering why you suddenly speak to them in their language out of the blue. A good strategy is to tell them, in their native tongue: “Wow! Your [English] is very good! I’ve been trying to learn [Chinese] for X number of months and it’s not easy, but I really enjoy it. I’d love to go to China one day.” This will ensure a smooth transition is made into the target language, and it’s a great conversation starter.

Alright, that’s it for today. I hope you’ve enjoyed this post on the language power struggle, and once again in my next post I’ll be talking about resources available online to get speaking practice and to find native speakers to meet up with in the area you’re living. See you soon!

 

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  • Show Comments (15)

  • Hey Sam, I really like this post. It sounds like your experiences with Korean have been quite similar to mine — most of the young people I met there were either excited to use their English, or were not interested in talking with foreigners. (I lived in Daejeon for 3 years, FYI.)

    I’m not very assertive about winning the language power struggle, so this was always a problem for me.

    In contrast, during my semester abroad in Japan a few years back, it seemed much easier to find people willing to have a conversation with me in Japanese. Or at least I didn’t feel like I had to force my conversations into Japanese instead of English.

    I’ve been considering giving Chinese a try. Based on the experiences of a few people I know and what you’ve said above, I think I might have more luck with it than I did with Korean.

    • Hey Henry! Thanks for the comment.

      Yes it seems you do have a similar experience as me! But as I’ve said, there are ways to get around this language power struggle. I got used to the younger people addressing me in English here in Korea, and I simply speak to them in Korean, and they often give up as they see I’m fluent enough in their language. But the problem is that it’s hard to find Korean friends here, except, of course, “friends” who wish to practice English, which there is no shortage of. From my experiences in Hong Kong and Macau, Cantonese speakers almost never addressed me in English, even younger people in their 20s. There people simply expect you to speak Cantonese.

      I’ve heard it’s similar in Beijing and Shanghai, although a similar phenomenon as Korea might be developing due to the intense focus on English education happening in China as well (see John Pasden’s post). If you hang out with older people (in their 30s, for example), you can get around this problem easily.

  • Hello Sam,
    Thanks for the intersting post.
    But I think it is a bit wrong: …”let’s talking my target language because teaching you english is boring for me”.
    If you both are friends for exchange then you should speaking 50\50.
    Start to talk on his target language and then your friend will respect your interests too. If he does not understand that you want to practice his native language then just tell him “as is”.

    Usually, a good friend respects your interests, but another question is “How to find a lot of good friends?” 🙂

    There is an interesting post same theme http://www.thepolyglotdream.com/how-language-exchange-is-like-tug-of-war-guest-post/

    Looking forward your next post!

    • Hello Konstantin!

      Thanks for your comment. I understand your point of view, and of course if you are specifically meeting a language exchange partner, there is absolutely no doubt that you should split the language practice 50/50.

      However, what I am talking here is a situation when you are speaking spontaneously with natives. In my case, I live in Korea, and I therefore expect people to address me in Korean. Just like in Canada I would expect people to address me either in English or French. But this is where it gets a bit interesting.

      Just like yesterday. I was reading the newspaper in Korean in the subway, and a woman in her 40s told me in English “wow you can read Korean?” I responded, in Korean, yes I do. She kept talking to me in English, and I kept answering in Korean. It can be sometimes quite frustrating. And if I want to make true friends (locals) and really learn and understand more about Korean culture, it’s always hard because most Koreans I’d meet would simply see me as an opportunity for free English practice.

      I think there is a line to be drawn between a language exchange partner and a true friend. In any case, it’s not a problem with an easy solution!

      • Thanks for the answer, Sam.
        I understood your point.
        I would advice you answer to the “english-lovers” in french 🙂

        Have a nice day!

  • Nanushka

    Hi Sam,
    It’s the first time I get access to you blog. I found the article interesting and enrichening.
    I agree with you, that it’s sometimes hard when you feel the others like saying to themselves “heyyyy here is an opportunity of free language practice, I won’t skip it!”, while you’re just seeking a “normal” friendship … Just keep responding in Korean 😉 hhh … Thank you very much for sharing your experience 🙂

    • Thanks for the kind words Nanushka! I’m glad you found the article interesting. Which language(s) are you learning at the moment?

  • Han

    First of all, thank you for your effort to help people to get around the language power struggle.
    Second of all, it was very interesting to explain your experience of Korean.
    This is because probably I am a Korean.
    But I am not living in Korea any more.
    I have been living in Malaysia since 2011.
    Anyway, I’ve never thought what you’ve mentioned response of Korean when you speak to them. especially the part comparing to Japanese’s.
    Yes, you’re right. I think we don’t have pride of our own language.
    (It makes me very sad.) or We are very afraid of meeting foreigner,
    because we have few chances of making conversation with foreigner while we are growing.
    So, I think your method you recommended is quite good.
    And I am going to now move on your next article..
    Thank you again.

  • al

    Hi I think that there are lots of different situations, the random encounter, friends, colleagues, a language exchange, and so on. Generally my feeling is that if one has travelled internationally to learn a language it’s only that fair that you get to use it, and you can make this point, nicely, to your friends and colleagues. You’re not their unpaid English practice. However with the random encounter it’s a little different. If your encountee talks to you first in English, it is only polite to answer in English. These encounters usually only last a few minutes, and sometimes it can really make someone’s day. I remember an old man who came up to me in China and spoke to me in impeccable English for a few minutes. My genuine praise of his English made him so happy. But if even those few minutes are too precious for some language learners, one could turn to one’s encountee and speak an entirely different language and then switch to the local language.

    I just think that good manners are more important than linguistic ability and that sometimes us language learners can get too caught up in ourselves and our goals (and dare I say showing off our skills).

    As for Czechs being “notorious” ( a little strong imo, implies practically criminal behavior) for not speaking Czech to foreigners, the French have long been criticized for refusing to speak English to holidaymakers. So it seems that you can’t win.

    Anyways, nice blog, keep it up.

  • ANL

    Hi Sam, I found your blog to be very insightful. I have recently been having a language power struggle at work, and am trying to figure out how to handle it. I am interning in China, and when I first started I did not speak in-depth about anything in Chinese, so it was more or less assumed that my Chinese was impeccable by the brief self introduction I gave in the language. After that, I ‘won’ the battle… but not for long. It’s been over three months and eventually my coworkers and boss realized that although my Chinese is decent, I am not quite at the fluent level, especially in the business environment. This resulted in all of my coworkers starting to predominantly use English with me, with me struggling to practice my Chinese. Since I am abroad for the sole reason of improving my Chinese, and made this clear on my first day, I sometimes feel frustrated. My coworkers’ English is decent, and my two bosses speak nearly fluent English. I myself have noticed the same thing as you, when we are in groups of two or more, we usually use Chinese. I can usually understand most of what is said, but sometimes my speaking is not up to par. One of my coworkers (whose English level is probably the lowest out of the group) even laughed at me the other day during a meeting, while my boss had the most puzzled look on her face and replied to me in English. Yet one of my bosses understood what a meant and another coworker said she also understood the meaning, making me feel quite offended at the other reactions. Do you have any tips for me? I only have two months left during my internship in China and want to get the most out of it, without offending anyone by using Chinese, especially my bosses.

    • Hi ANL.

      That’s a pretty complicated situation you got there. First, I’m wondering whether your internship is a paid one. If not, naturally you have the right to request, whenever possible, to communicate in Chinese with your co-workers given that technically this would be part of the training and skills you would get out of this internship.

      If this is a paid position, it does get a little trickier because of course your employer is ultimately the one calling the shots and making decisions based on effectiveness and efficiency at work. If they feel like talking to you in English is more efficient and simpler, they will likely take that road.

      In the end, it’s all about fostering good, positive relationships at work with your co-workers and supervisors. Don’t get offended if your co-workers react in a certain way when you speak Chinese. Take it lightheartedly and try to laugh at yourself. If you feel like you have a close enough relationship with some of your co-workers, ask them whether they could try to speak to you as much as possible in Chinese, since this is a skill you want to work on and it’s the reason you decided to do an internship in China.

      In the end, you are the person better placed to react and make decisions based on your working environment, your co-workers personality, and the culture of the company. Good luck!

  • Ren

    Those are great tips. I still think that having native speaker english conversation is the best way to learn. There are websites like http://preply.com/en/skype/english-native-speakers where you can have a native teach you.

  • Elisabeth Fitzgerald

    Hi Sam. Thank you for this blog. I feel so validated! I thought it was just me — me not being assertive enough. I thought it me standing in my own way of getting the most out of my attempts to get language practice . Great to know that it is a thing – a Language Power Struggle. I experience it often and appreciate your tips and insight.

  • Adam Pearson

    I struggled with the Power Struggle in Germany. I was an exchange student sent there for a year with very little German. When I first got to Gymnasium a lot of the Germans would want to practice their English with me and I simply answered back, “Ach man o man eh, ich bin hier doch Deutsch zu lernen, ich kann schon English.” Dude, I’m here to learn German, I already speak English. And so it began. What ended up happening was that it would encourage me to learn German that much more. The speaking with two other natives is a great idea! The only downside is sometimes the two natives want to prove how great they are with their foreign language skills to each other and it gets ugly, “So Markus waat dyu you sink about zat, zat we go to dah uhhhh down da stayahs to enjoy lunch wiz Edam.”Anyway, one thing I noticed to stop this from happening earlier on was work on your accent. If you have a solid German (or whatever language) accent they will think you speak better than you do. I met a couple Germans with really, really good accents whose English was bad. After I was fluent I told them in German to try out their English with me for fun. They’d be embarrassed, but some just had a really good ear and their British or American accent was clean. After a awhile towards the end of my year in Germany my goal was to receive the following: The best was to speak in a noisy bar and have a German I just met believe that I was German but from another area of Germany (I spoke southern German). That was the ultimate compliment. But anything more than 5 minutes talking and I’d be bound to make a grammar mistake somewhere. Second was for them to believe that I was German but maybe slightly, uh… mentally handicapped or “slow.” That was fine with me too. And third was they knew I was a foreigner but they didn’t know from where. That was a compliment too. The ultimate insult was if they said I must be American and started speaking English to me. That rarely, if ever, happened towards the end of my year. Remember: work on your accent!!

  • Ellie

    Actually, the best thing to do is pretend you don’t know English, to be honest. English is my native language, but I’d be all, “Sorry, I don’t speak much English. French is my native tongue.” Then I’d say a few phrases in French (which I don’t actually know past how to introduce myself and how to count haha), and then switch to their language.

    They can’t practice English with me if they don’t know I speak it. Learning Korean, btw. And luckily, French seems like a good backup language bc most Koreans learn English and Japanese, NOT French, so hopefully they won’t be able to tell I’m not actually a French speaker.

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