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!
By Sam Gendreau