What to do When Chinese People Insist on Speaking English
When you’re learning Chinese it can be frustrating if people insist on trying to speak to you in English.
If someone initiates a conversation with me in one language I usually go along with that language as long as communication isn’t a problem. If I’m on holiday in France and an Asian person speaks to me in French I’m not going to reply in Japanese. As much as I might like the opportunity to knock the cobwebs off my rusty Japanese skills I will try my best to speak to that person in French. After all, how do I know if the person is even from Japan? Only if communication is a problem will I switch languages, usually after finding out where they are from.
Most Chinese people don’t follow this rule when they see a foreign face. You initiate a verbal exchange in Chinese and they reply in English before they have any reason to believe communication will be a problem. For many long-term expats in China this strips away their sense of identity; no consideration is given to their nationality or first language as they just become a generic English-speaking “foreigner”. I’ve met lots of French people living in China and admittedly all of them have perfectly acceptable English, but that’s not the point. Living in a foreign country can be difficult enough without having your individuality and sense of identity stripped away.
For the student of Mandarin there is a more practical consideration. If you’re denied access to language input form real life situations you are being denied some of the best learning opportunities (and you know it!) What often ensues is a “language battle” in which the Chinese person tries to force the conversation in English and the other person tries to force the conversation into Mandarin. Here I’m going to look at 3 ways to get people speaking to you in Mandarin.
1 Don’t underestimate the importance of pronuncaition
It is often said that people form opinions about others within just a few seconds of meeting them, and that these opinions are heavily influenced by appearance. When assessing language ability people will often form similarly fast and superficial opinions, and those opinions are heavily based on pronunciation. English, French and Spanish speakers are usually quite familiar with the sound of non-native speakers speaking their language. However, most Chinese people are far less familiar with the sound of a person with a foreign accent speaking Mandarin.
This means it’s more likely a Chinese person will have difficulty understanding your Mandarin. It also means that, even if they do understand what you say, they will very quickly form a very low opinion of your Mandarin if you get a tone wrong, don’t aspirate plosive consonants correctly or speak with unnatural intonation and word stress. The plus side is that if you focus hard on pronunciation and have a few set phrases nailed then when you initiate a conversation you can trick the person into thinking you have a far higher proficiency than you really do. The better they think your Mandarin is in the opening exchange then the more likely they are to continue the exchange in Mandarin.
I used to have horrific Mandarin pronunciation. 100% self-taught and with no attention to tones. I passed the HSK5 but still had people insisting on taking my order in English whenever I went to Starbucks. I eventually faced up to the problem and transformed my pronunciation with intensive practice every day for about a month. I even had a Chinese friend spend half an hour with me drilling the phrases 来一杯美式 (one Americano) 大杯的 (a large one) 小杯的 (a small one) until I sounded like a native speaker. My pronunciation still needs work, but the way people respond to me has changed dramatically. They don’t try to speak English.
2 Be honest
If your Mandarin isn’t that great and English is still the optimal language for communication then it makes sense to speak English with the Chinese person. However, you can still get them to speak Mandarin by using Chinese culture to your advantage.
From my experience, Chinese people find it very difficult to turn down a direct request. This is why beggars get confused if you say 不好意思，我没钱 (sorry, I don’t have any money). Chinese people find it difficult to turn down direct requests; they either give the beggar money or they ignore the beggar. Turning the beggar down is something they generally don’t do. Similarly, if you directly ask a person to speak to you in Mandarin they often find it difficult to say “no”. Even if you have a very low level of Mandarin and communication is frustrating for them.
strangely, Chinese beggars often think that you’re going to given them money when you say “I don’t have any money”
This trick also works if your Mandarin is great and the other person is just using you to practice their English. Simply say 我不想跟你说英语。说普通话，可以吗？ (I don’t want to speak with you in English. Can we speak Mandarin?) It might seem a bit rude, but it works. It’s certainly far more effective than persisting in speaking Mandarin and hoping they get the message. I’ve never had anyone reply “no! I want to practice my English”.
3 Get a hobby
I used to hold a free English corner at my university. The first week we talked about hobbies and everyone said “my hobby is studying English.” The next week we talked about new year resolutions and everyone said “my resolution is to learn English”. After that we discussed travelling and it was “I want to travel abroad so I can practice my English.” The following week it was future plans, to which they all stated “my plan is to learn English!” I gave up after that because they were all really, really, boring people.
There is no point learning a language if you have nothing to say in that language. Conversely, people won’t care what language it is you’re using or whether you’re speaking it well if what you say is absolutely fascinating to them. If you’re in a context where you are sharing a hobby or interest then the focus is going to be on communication rather than what language you speak. The result is that people probably won’t want to speak to you in English.
My place is the gym. I sometimes end up sharing equipment with people, asking them to spot for me or chatting in the changing rooms. We’re talking about lifting. What session you doing today? What programme are you following? What assistance exercises do you do? Have you tested your one rep max recently? This stuff might bore the hell out of some people, but I can talk about it for hours. We are more interested in our conversation than in what language we are conversing in.
The same doesn’t go for expat bars. Those are usually English language environments, and the Chinese people there usually want to speak English. You need to find a hobby with a different environment. I’m not into gaming but I have a friend who gained popularity at numerous net bars in Guangzhou by playing DOTA. People wanted to talk to him about gaming. They didn’t care about talking to him in English.
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