How do I get bilingual speakers to teach me their language?

Today’s blog post is all about the answer to a question which had been eluding me for a very long time:

How do I get Hongkongers who are about the same age as me (22-28) to teach me Cantonese when 1) they already speak decent English and 2) have been trained to only speak English to people with European faces?

Generally speaking, unless one’s Cantonese is very high level, and one can persistently steer the conversation back into Cantonese, in one-on-one conversations, natives generally will use English to speak to you.  You sometimes have to be pushy, and that’s not a good recipe for long-term friendships.

Primary Solution

The problem is the ‘one-on-one’ part.  If you’re facing just one bilingual person (B1), they’ll look at your face and automatically use English.

However, if another friend is there (who’s from Hong Kong) (B2), B1 will speak to them in Chinese.

This then presents a social problem.  B1 may feel they’re being rude by switching languages like this.  You can exploit this.

All you have to do is provide a solution: speak Chinese.  This way, everyone can converse happily using the same language, and no-one has to feel like a jerk.

Of course, if both speakers speak very good English, this may not work – they may continue to speak to you (and each other) in English.

Secondary Solution

Obviously, you can just meet up with people who speak worse English.  Even if just one of the two doesn’t speak good English, and you keep trying with the Chinese, the conversation will drift naturally into Chinese.

An alternative is to invite more people.  (No Westerners, obviously.)  The more native speakers of Chinese there are at a gathering, the less likely it is that the conversation will turn to English.

It’s awkward and artificial for Hongkongers hold entire conversations with each other in English – it’s not their native language, and so they’ll quickly all revert to speaking to each other using Chinese.  A language switch to talk to the foreigner (who’s also chatting away in Chinese) will be jarring: it makes the Hongkonger look a bit of a jerk.  “I’m not going to let my Western friend practice his Chinese, even though he obviously has limited opportunities to speak and obviously spends a lot of time studying on his own.”

Social Engineering

Personally, I find that gatherings with two or three other people (all of whom are native Cantonese speakers) are generally preferable to one-on-one encounters for the purposes of learning Cantonese.

As time has worn on however, I’ve found more people willing to speak to me in Chinese in one-on-one situations – but this is usually after several demonstrations of my speaking and reading ability.  (Otherwise, they simply won’t believe you that you’re capable of communication in Chinese outside of ‘你好‘ or ‘靚仔’.)

Anyone else noticed this phenomenon?  if so, share your experiences!


4 thoughts on “How do I get bilingual speakers to teach me their language?

  1. I have never thought of the 2-person solution. So true!
    I have a Cantonese-speaking colleague who just cannot stand speaking English with another Cantonese-speaker, even when the rest of the group does not understand Cantonese.

  2. Great observation, so true. My two best friends speak Cantonese, and when we all hang out together, or when I’m at a family gathering of theirs’, sometimes they’ll drift off in Cantonese together. As a language lover, I totally don’t mind (even though my focus is Japanese), but some people might think it’s rude. I think it’s totally cool. And for a language learner, a great opportunity.

    I usually can’t get my husband to speak to me in Japanese for long periods of time, even though my Japanese ability is capable. However, when I’m with his family, obviously we’ll talk in Japanese together (though still, there are instances when we drift off into English). Large groups is definitely the key, and then you get to see the “Japanese” or “Cantonese”, etc. side of your friend.

    • Interesting… I’m kinda surprised they drift off into Canto! Are you learning Canto at all? And do you get what they’re saying?

      Why doesn’t your husband like to speak to you in Japanese? Is it because he’s just used to speaking English or because he actively wants to keep practicing? Good that you can still get opportunities to practice!

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