🇺🇸 The Urge to Switch Back into English is Mighty: Resist!

Don’t you find it frustrating when you say Bonjour to a Parisian and the person responds “Hello”. To be more precise, they respond Eh-lo with their French accent, which may sound cute but which is still frustrating because Je peux parler Français, why on earth me répondez -vous en anglais ! Eric Frenkil is my guest author for this article. He will share with you his own experience of being an American learning (not French, but) Arabic. You will see from his story that it is a common problem from every English native speakers, whatever the language that you are learning. 

By guest Author Eric Frenkil, my American friend anda lifelong student of Arabic. Eric works in strategy consulting and foreign affairs. He’s also the founder of the Global School of English.

“I began learning Arabic in 2009, zig-zagging between intense study in Egypt, then Morocco several times, Jordan twice, and interspersed with long bouts of absence from the language. Rearranging my life to spend time in-country wasn’t always easy, but I knew that immersion was the best way to grow.

What was the toughest part? It wasn’t finding ways to work remotely. It wasn’t cultural adaptation. It was that everybody wants to speak to me in English! Cheesy as it may sound, I considered wearing a hat asking people to speak to me in Arabic (and even had it printed).

If you’re learning a language and the global lingua franca is your mother tongue, the temptation to switch back into English can be mighty. So, here’s my advice on sticking with immersion.

Focus on First Impressions

For immersion to work well, you need to overinvest in the first words that come out of your mouth. People will quickly to assign you a foreigner label, and once they do then you’re swimming upstream. Depending on your stage and appearance, they might not assume that you’re local no matter what you do. But you can at least slip into the category of people who have spent considerable time with their language and culture.

What does that mean in practice? Accent is key. Whatever standard you held yourself to before, it’s time to become an accent investigator. If you listen closely, greetings sound very different depending on who’s saying them and it coveys a great deal about their social life. Work on those sentences that you know you use most often and master them at an Olympic level. After a few weeks in country, you’ll begin to pick up some colloquialisms. Finding ways to work those into conversation can be an amusing way to convey that you didn’t just get off the plane.

Stand Your Ground

Learning how to stick to your linguistic practice may be difficult against the efforts of others but you can turn this interplay into a sort of game. Here are the rules:

–    Develop a routine of fun responses. They can be self-deprecating, too. I would say that my Arabic was so bad I had to keep working at it if I was ever going to improve. Or that I travelled all the way to Jordan just to speak with them in Arabic. Or that if the shopkeeper speaks to me in Arabic, I would come back every day. Usually a combination of three or so of these works on even the toughest audience.

–    Practice the wry smile. This communicates that you’re going to be stubborn about using the immersion language, but in a nice way. You’re happy, you’re smiling, and you’re definitely not going to be reverting back to English anytime soon.

–    Just ask: “Is it okay if we try to speak in Arabic?” Simple. Effective.

Curate Your Social Surroundings

The people you first meet in a new country also tend to be the ones most likely to speak English. This can lead to meaningful friendships, but if left unbalanced it can also be the demise of your opportunity for immersion. Sort out where English is least likely to be spoken. Is it in working class or industrial neighborhoods? Certain kinds of cafes? Above a certain age? In rural areas? Track down these areas and consider finding a tutor on the side to guarantee some practice.

A word needs to be said on clothing as well. Reflect on whether it’s appropriate to dress as a local given the context. If so, make that happen. If not, think about what someone who fits your description would wear if they had been living in the country for a while. Often, that simply means being presentable and more fashion-aware. Other times, it means being a little grungy. You’ll have to use your best judgement, but the main point is to fit in as you are.

Additional Tricks, by Léa

  1. Spend a few days in a smaller town, for instance in certainly the most charming region of France, the Loire Valley 🌳
  2. I agree with Eric on that: Accent is key!
  3. When a French person starts speaking English, pretend that you don’t understand (because their English is so bad). They will switch right back into French. It may make them lose confidence to speak English in the future, in which case you can invite them to read the French version of this article “Pourquoi quand je parle anglais, les anglais me répondent en français ?” [this article does not exist (yet)]
  4. When a French person starts speaking English, say that you are Norwegian and you didn’t learn English at school. You may go even further and ask (in French bien sûr !) if they can speak Norwegian. They will switch right back into French.
  5. In the unlikely event that this same Parisian person CAN speak Norwegian, apply tip #1 and pretend that you don’t understand what they’re trying to say (because their Norwegian is so bad). They will switch right back into French.
  6. Do you know the social codes behind the Bonjour in French? Then read this excellent book, The Bonjour Effect by French-Canadian author Julie Barlow. You can also check out my interview with her.
  7. Meet older people
  8. Meet younger people
  9. Combine language immersion with a sports class, it’s possible even on a short stay!

Do you face a similar challenge when starting a conversation with French people? 

Author Léa Tirard-Hersant

Host of the Staircase

More posts by Léa Tirard-Hersant

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