Difficulties in Language learning when so many people speak English

How do first-language English speakers feel about the frustrations of learning a language when English is so commonly spoken?

Personally I am interested in learning languages for fun and for a sense of personal achievement, but I feel despondent when I find that opportunities to actually make practical use of my growing competence in the language I am learning (currently Italian) are limited in the very country where the language is spoken, because so many people (and in particular young people) speak English.

Often when I am in Italy native speakers of Italian will respond to me in English when I have started the conversation in Italian.

This is a tough situation. I have felt the same in Japan

My advice is steel yourself and keep responding Italian as if nothing weird is happening. Eventually they will switch, or they won’t. Then you will at least get to speak Italian.

Do Italian people speak English ? Oh no ! In my experience, during my stay in Bologna, except for my Italian friend and an Internet Café worker, almost everyone talk to me ONLY in Italian even if my vocabulary is very very limited. Maybe English native speakers are not the same as me but I believe that Italian people will kindly respond to you only in Italian if you continue to speak only in Italian.

Shige, I would speculate that since the Italians probably assumed that English was not your first language, they thought they would not get good English practice from you. Just a guess…

You should learn French then.
Joking aside, do what Dooo suggested. I’m not sure all Italians have an excellent command of English however, so ask specific things and they won’t be able to answer in English. Or you ask them if they speak English first, if they say yes you run, else you can practice your Italian. There are plenty of solutions, and don’t worry not everyone in the world speaks English. Good luck with studying Italian!

As a westerner, what suggests that you even speak English as opposed to any other European langauge? Maybe your accent in Italian? But you can just pretend not to understand English and continue on in Italian.

Some good advice here. Just goes to show how important pronunciation is. I think you are right, in terms of gaining experience in the language it’s necessary to be quite forceful about not allowing the conversation to drift into English. This is fine if you have the opportunity for a long conversation however I was thinking more about brief practical exchanges, such as in a shop or restaurant, or in the street asking for directions. It’s not a big problem as these conversations are so brief that they never really offer a great deal of opportunity for practice anyway. It’s more a motivational issue, as it’s just so demoralising to be responded to in English! Its like the person is saying ‘oh you’ve learnt some Italian… you won’t need it’.

I think generally it is quite common for young Italians in the north to have a pretty good grasp of English. Not so long ago I was in Milan with a French friend who had a habit of just going up to random people and speaking to them in English as if it were the native language. The worst thing was that he would always get a response!

Whilst I think my pronunciation is pretty good, I suppose my accent probably does give me away as an English speaker. Plus I certainly don’t look Italian. It’s funny that pretending to not understand English has been suggested here as that’s something I was thinking of doing, or if I feel really cruel I could make no secret of being an English speaker and just pretend that I understand what they’re saying!

I have noticed that as I have gradually improved the likelihood of being responded to in Italian has increased, so that’s good. Is it true that the French are good with people learning they’re language? I hope so as French is next on my list. To be honest I had heard the exact opposite.

…I meant to say - make no secret of being an English speaker and just pretend that I DON’T understand what they’re saying

I must admit that I have never had any problems practising a language in the country where it is spoken. Yes, I did meet people who responded to me in English or German, but those were mostly people in the service industry and it was basically just a few set phrases that we exchanged in these situations.

Whenever I felt like striking up a conversation with somebody, I managed to do so. I simply tell people the truth, namely that I love their language and have a lot of respect for their country and culture and that I am eager to learn more about it. If someone still continued in English, I’d simply ask them to help me get a better grasp of their language by speaking to me in Italian, French, Mandarin, etc.

This ALWAYS worked. And if one day it should not work, I’d simply go on and try and find somebody else to talk to.

I should add that I don’t mind people trying to speak to me in German and/or English to get some practice but there is a limit to it. If I go to Japan, China etc. to practise my language skills I won’t talk to the locals for hours in English. I have noticed, however, that they do appreciate being given the opportunity to show their own skills and in most cases were more than happy to switch back to their native tongues after 15 minutes or so.

Unless you try to turn every passer-by into your private language tutor, I think you should be able to find at least some people you can have an interesting conversation with, provided of course your speaking skills allow for such conversation.

If I met a foreigner here in Austria who obviously wants to practise his German with me, I would never even think of switching to English (unless he isn’t able to make himself understood to me in German). But, of course, I would also have to be interested in talking to him in the first place. I would not have a conversation with anybody - irrespective of their linguistic skills - I don’t feel like talking to. If anybody wants me to go beyond the exchange of some polite phrases, chemistry does play an important role as well.

So, don’t be disappointed if some people keep switching back to English. You will definitely meet people who very much appreciate your obvious effort to learn their language and the better you get at the language you study, the easier it will be for you to find people to talk to.

As for the French, I can only attest to their readiness to help you with the language. I have always had a wonderful time in France. Just forget about all the stereotypes you hear. Like anywhere else, you may meet some narrow-minded people but I have found the French to be some of the nicest, most polite and helpful people I have ever met. Besides, I love their language :wink:

Language is for communication. If my interlocutor responds in English I stay in English, and do not force my version of their language on them. However, as I improve, fewer and fewer people respond in English. So this is a measure of our improvement.

Good advice from Steve!

I think that’s the best way to look at it, to see it as a marker of progress as native speakers become more likely to accept you as a speaker of their language.

I’m Italian and I can assure you that not so many Italians know fluently English: I think that if they answer you in English is because they are trying to be polite, let them know you like to speak Italian to exercise yourself.
On the other side in Italy if you don’t use English for work is not so easy find someone to speak to, so, maybe, someone wants to do some pratice, like you. :slight_smile:

Wherever you go in Europe, people in the service business (in touristy areas) tend to switch to English (or German, or whatever other language is common) when they hear an accent. It’s just for efficiency. If you go to the same shops and the people get to know you, you probably won’t get that anymore. People probably aren’t used to foreign tourists speaking Italian well.

Plus, my experience has been that as my ability improved, people stopped speaking in English - although I was in Japan, not Europe. If you speak Italian better than the Italian person speaks English, then you’ll probably end up speaking Italian.

Your other option maybe is to look for things in your pronunciation that mark you out as an English speaker and see if you can do something about them.

I don’t really think occasional encounters with strangers on the street is where I’ll be learning my languages. Nevertheless, if people switch to English and it bothers you or if you feel it limits your learning possibilities, then make a point of going back to the language, even if you have to explain shortly that using the language as much as possible is important to you – I doubt many people would object to a person using their language after they’ve stated that learning it is important.

@Steve: “…as I improve, fewer and fewer people respond in English. So this is a measure of our improvement.”

I think there is a certain sense in which this is true - but in my opinion things can sometimes be a little more complicated.

Of course one obviously needs to have a certain minimum level of operational fluency in a target language in order to communicate effectively. If a learner falls below this minimum level, and if a native speaker has a better level of fluency in English, then is entirely logical and natural to conduct the exchange in English.

BUT: I have no doubt that there are some people out there who will respond in English, even if it is crystal clear that the person with whom he/she is speaking does indeed have a very decent level of fluency.

I personally know, for example, of a least one British academic who has done teaching exchanges to Germany (where the person in question was giving lectures and taking classes in German!) who has spoken about how people in cafes and shops often reply in English!

I agree with Alexandre that this isn’t really a huge problem for long term residents in a foreign country - because one is not ultimately going to learn a huge amount from brief exchanges with people in shops, bars, etc.

But being replied to in English in these situations can feel like bad manners, or like a kind of pointed snub (even if it probably isn’t intended that way in most cases.)

I guess this is the ‘dark side’ of being a native speaker of a major world language…

I really do not understand all this complaining about people responding in English. First of all most of the people I dealt with in Berlin on my recent visit responded in German, in stores, in the hotel etc. The same was the case in Portugal and Spain. But in some cases, they responded in English. That is their right and I did not insist on English and did not find it rude.

Interesting point about Berlin, Steve. I’ve heard several people say that Berliners are less addicted to English. (Maybe this has to do with the city’s location surrounded by the former East Germany, and with the greater importance of languages like Polish, Russian, and Turkish?)

How does your Italian sound? Unless your version of the language is at particularly low level (maybe it doesn’t even sound anything like Italian), there’s no reason why they should respond in English. But if you DO have a thick accent, and the natives feel that you’re having difficulties speaking Italian, there’s no reason why they should throw machine-gun Italian at you.

My Italian is far from fantastic but I’d say its at a level such that it isn’t really necessary for people to revert the conversation to English. I agree with Jay, in certain situations this can feel like a bit of a snub.

Agneserca’s point that maybe they are just trying to be polite is an interesting one. I think in the services industries when people switch to English they are certainly just trying to be helpful and it’s probably considered a part of their job too, so getting annoyed with them is probably quite unfair.