How to overcome locals replying in English when traveling as a native English-speaker

by | Apr 28, 2016 | English, Travel

Being an English native speaker has huge advantages when traveling as it is often the international language most widely spoken at your holiday destination. However, as an avid language learner, the ubiquity of English can cause serious problems for you as you travel if you are learning the local languages.

You spend hours back home studying and learning a language and when you arrive in a country where it is spoken, the locals ignore your well-intentioned attempts in the local language and reply to you in English. The experience can be confidence shattering as well as extremely frustrating.

So what can you do to overcome this? At the 2014 Polyglot Gathering in Berlin (video at the end of the post), I outlined the 3 reoccurring pieces of advice from the world’s leading polyglots” along with my own personal strategy.

1. ‘Stubborn until prevail’ strategy

Start with the target language and simply stick to the target language no matter what. For example, you enter a shop and ask for something in the target language and keep speaking the local language no matter how often the locals reply in English.

Sommerfest Blumenau

Me with German-Brazilians at the Sommerfest in Blumenau, Brazil

2. ‘Appreciate but insist’ strategy

Here, you employ a polite but firm approach saying something along the lines of “I appreciate you speaking English to help me. Thanks! I am here to learn your language and want to improve. If you could speak to me in X, then it would be a huge help to me.”

Anyone who still insists on speaking to you in English after that speech is possibly not really a person you want to spend much time around anyways.

3. ‘Denial of nationality’ strategy

Say you are from another country and don’t know English. Always best to pick somewhere obscure!

My Personal Approach

My Personal Approach centers on three principles:

1. Focus on communication & building genuine relationships

Those who are really interested in spending social time with you will ultimately switch between the different languages depending on the social context.

Polyglots Brussels

Me with polyglot friends who speak Dutch (Jan Van der Aa), French (Félix Wang) and Portuguese (Lucas Bighetti) as their native languages

2. Avoid those looking for ‘free’ English lessons

In many parts of the world, learning English can be a huge asset for a non-native speaker to learn to improve their employment opportunities so there is always a risk that someone may befriend you with the objective of having free English lessons. I advise to stay clear of such people as they are not genuinely interested in you only in having a free English teacher. Usually you can tell who such people are.

3. Don’t over-insist on using the local language

If you do then you are the one who is just looking for ‘free’ local language lessons which is not a good strategy for long-term learning. I believe that genuinely living through the languages is much more enjoyable and effective.

Presentation at the 2015 Polyglot Gathering in Berlin, Germany

If you want more tips about how overcome this problem then watch the video (from the Polyglot Gathering 2014 in Berlin) where I cover the tactics that can be employed for such situations like living abroad, traveling and staying in your home country.

Moreover, I show you how to deal with even the most stubbornly persistent English-replying local and finally, I go into detail on how to boost your confidence in order to overcome the frustrations of encountering such language learning blockers.

Are you a native English speaker (or any other language) who has faced this problem when traveling? If so, please let me know about your experiences in the comments box below. I love reading your thoughts and feedback! 🙂

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