“Why Do They Switch to English?” — Thoughts, tips and tricks for language explorers

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Have you ever travelled to a place where you don’t “look” local, or where you are just one of the many non-locals, and been frustrated that people switch to English?

It’s a thing many language learners complain about. “But they always switch to English!” I know, I get it. Happens to me. In Korea, it happened more than anywhere else.

It’s frustrating when people switch to English, because you’ve been working hard on the language and you want to show it off. You might suspect you speak the local language better than the random barista or flight attendant speaks English. After all, you’ve had many long conversations with your language teacher about culture, work, and what you did on the weekend.

So it may bother you that a stranger doesn’t trust you to understand a question like “Will you be dining in or taking away?” in their native language.

Yes, a language is for communicating. But we’re language learners and cultural explorers, and we like to blend in and practise, practise, practise. That’s why we spent all that money on those tickets, right?

(By the way, I say “English” here, though in some situations people will switch to another local lingua franca, like Spanish. But for most situations, no matter where you’re from, people switch to English.)

Blog post cover for people switching to english while language learning

Why It’s Frustrating When They Switch to English

The first reason it’s frustrating is that if you have already tried speaking the language, a response in English seems to say “You’re terrible! Let’s not do this.” It can feel like a personal attack. If you already feel shy about your language ability, it can be deflating.

But even aside from language learning, sometimes we’re trying to blend in. When you’re really trying to learn a language, being spoken to in English can take you out of your zone. It’s like being reminded “You’re not one of us. You’re a tourist.”

Worse — and this might be in my head, but it’s hard to shake after a lifetime of it — it’s like being told “You’re not one of us because you look different.” It doesn’t feel good.

In big international cities like London, New York, Paris, Sydney, and Buenos Aires, nobody assumes your language based on how you look. It doesn’t matter what you look like (whether it’s your dress, hairstyle, skin colour, or anything else), everyone assumes you speak the local language, and may even be surprised when you don’t.

Because people from big cities may be used to this level of assumption, it sometimes feels disconcerting when someone assumes you don’t speak, for example, an Asian language, just because you have no Asian facial features.

So let’s look at

  1. Why do they switch to English?
  2. How can we work around it?

Why They Switch to English

The first thing I try to do is understand why this happens. Think of context. What do you look like, what country are you travelling to, and exactly to where are you travelling?

If you’re a non-Asian person (as I am) in China, Japan, or Korea, and you are in a particularly touristy part of town, then it’s entirely reasonable for someone to assume you don’t speak Chinese, Japanese, or Korean. After all, the person who sees you has been conditioned through 99.99% of their interactions every day.

Even in Florence, Italy, a place where I look totally normal from my skin and hair colour, I’m often in places where the vast majority of customers are non-Italian speakers, especially in the summer. So I would expect people to assume that I don’t speak Italian either.

Beyond assumptions of language ability, I always remember that this is just someone trying to get through their day. They’re not there to educate you. They’re on relatively minimal wage, may have worked long shifts, and are tired of standing up and serving people. Just as I’m trying to speak their language to make their life easier, they’re also speaking my language to make their own life easier. I’m not the main character.

So if you’ve learned just enough of a language to order food and get by, and are keen to practise it, the person you’re speaking with might know from experience that it’s much easier for everyone to just use English.

In places where it’s something to do with ethnicity, it does make me feel uncomfortable that they’re making this assumption based on how I look. But still, I can’t change how people think, so the best I can do is to learn to accept and understand it.

In many establishments, speaking English is an asset staff are paid for. A server that speaks English gets more jobs and shifts. So it’s only natural that they’d want to put it to use. “It’s my job to speak English!” they think. Maybe their boss is listening, too.

Outside touristy areas, people sometimes use English phrases with me for a couple of reasons. The main thing, I believe, is that people are trying to be friendly or charming by speaking what they think is my language, in the same way that I am being friendly by learning some of the local language.

I think this might be a bit hard for English native speakers to empathise with, so let me explain.

You might intuitively know that people who speak small languages have very strong emotional connections with them. This is particularly true if they’ve struggled to maintain or revive a language after a period of repression of the language, which may be ongoing. So if you bust out a few words in Welsh, an Arabic dialect, Maori, or Khmer (never tried this one myself), it can go a long way. When someone says a few words to me in Persian, I’m always a little shocked and impressed!

But English is the de-facto international language, so it is harder to impress someone. Most English-speakers essentially expect people around the world to know how to say “Hello” and basic phrases. So when someone says “Hello, how are you?” to an English native speaker, it may not touch us in the same way. The person is trying to do the same thing we do for them — but it doesn’t have the same impact. It’s not their fault!

So if I perceive it like that — as someone trying to connect with me — then I receive the message differently.

How to Avoid / Anticipate the English Switch

Understanding the motivation for people to switch to English gives me a starting point for thinking: How can we avoid it or work around it?

The following are some things that I do to avoid and anticipate people starting in English or switching to it.

The first, most obvious thing: Don’t go to the center of the most touristy center of a big city with middling language ability and expect people not to speak English to you.

If language learning is your priority, go outside the touristy center, or go to smaller towns. In those places, people will be much more receptive to speaking a local language with you. In fact, it may be the best choice. And maybe they’ll have more time to speak, and be more interested in a foreigner, too.

My personal experience is that even though my Spanish and French are essentially fluent (I’ve worked in them and do all my daily life stuff in them, including hobbies, customer service calls, and medical appointments), my interactions in touristy centers might still be in English. I just wear it. Of course, I’m also not looking to practise those very routine conversations anymore.

But anywhere else in the city or country, outside the tourist centre, it’s the local language. This is also true in other places where I’m less fluent.

There are some other “tricks” I use to set the tone and language.

Firstly, to set the language, I speak first, and speak loudly. This works really well for me in places where I don’t look the part, like in Asia. My Korean is intermediate level (here’s my recap of how I went after three months of immersion), though good enough to do things like order food or buy stuff at the market.

But because I have a slightly brown and stubbly face, I’m aware I may cause alarm for people who feel uncomfortable speaking English. The lion’s share of people who look like me don’t speak Korean.

So, to set the language clearly, I speak loudly. In Korean or Chinese I start with a loud greeting and then a follow up. Like “HELLO! ARE YOU OPEN? IS THERE A TABLE FOR TWO?” Sometimes it’s like I assume they’re hard of hearing! It may seem rude, but frankly in many places like restaurants or markets it’s OK to be loud. (Chinese food culture celebrates places that are “hot and noisy” — See more on that phenomenon here.)

Secondly, when they do speak English to me, I just respond in English, to be respectful, and then say the same thing in the local language, to put them at ease. It’s a delicate balance, and how I approach that depends on the culture. Sometimes, when it’s obvious they’re totally fluent (happens in the most unexpected places!), I just keep it in English.

Finally, I don’t get frustrated. If they want to speak English at me, so be it. If they’re cool, I’ll keep speaking to them. If they’re not cool, I don’t want to talk them anyway!

And here’s a cheeky life hack that I sometimes use to get out of unavoidable situations: Sometimes I respond in English, but I don’t tone down my natural accent. I admit this is a bit rude, but I only use it with people I can’t avoid who always speak at me in English, when I don’t want to talk to them in any language. 

I used my “natural accent” technique with one guy in one of my hobby classes (so I couldn’t avoid him) who always spoke to me in his broken English, obviously practising. He had a bit of an ego and we didn’t get along in general. So my response was just I started to speak in a natural Australian accent at him, slurring my words and speaking quickly. When he said “What?” I responded in Korean.

That last hint is a bit like the fake phone number: Only for situations that are hard to get out of. But it worked!

Wrap up

Hope some of that was useful. Travel is a wonderful way to inspire your language learning — and to inspire you in general.

If you have other reflections or ideas, I’d be glad to hear them, so leave a comment below.

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