Skansen, Stockholm–taken by me, as with all photos on this blog except when otherwise noted.
The feeling of trying to speak the local language and being answered in English has given me more ego-crushing blows than almost anything else on my intellectual journey. I realized in retrospect that a lot of said ego-crushers can be very easily avoided!
And therefore this post is to ensure that you can realize what I did and ensure that you not go through this similar downtime. However, I cannot tell you that it is going to be super-easy…
The most important thing, above all else, is to be convincing. This means that you have to employ the following methods:
(1) You must speak without hesitation. Using pauses is okay, but you must employ an air of confidence in your speech. Don’t feel like you are shaking upon the words coming out of your mouth. Possibly smile (if it makes you feel better) and deliver your request as firmly as you can, and if you are a tourist, you may want to set aside any anxieties you may have.
(2) Which do you think is more likely to be more convincing:
“Excuse me, where is X?”
“I arrived to this city a few minutes ago and I think that I’m lost, I want to go to X, do you know where I could find it?”
Without question, the second answer (in any language) communicates a willingness to speak the language and not an “I flung open Google Translate for a few minutes on the train while the connection lasted” mentality.
Don’t prepare the genuine phrasebook material. Okay, use that as a starting point, but if you want to be answered in the local language you may need to use more complicated sentence structure.
Confidence by itself may be enough, and even when I was in Stockholm and still putting on my polygot shoes and getting them to fit, I usually wasn’t answered in English while ordering in Sweden as long as I firm enough. But in those rare cases in which being firm just won’t cut it, using complex sentences definitely will…and surprisingly, I don’t think that it is much work!
(3) One thing that people may tell you that honestly doesn’t matter: even if you are easily identifiable as an English speaker, you can still pull yourself off as a local!
I’ve done this in Stockholm’s Systembolaget every time I was in the store. For those of you who don’t know what Systembolaget is, it is the state-owned alcohol store chain in Sweden—any alcohol higher than 5% may only be sold at one of these chain stores.
You need a passport or a valid ID in order to purchase something. I had one of two choices: either my American passport, or my Swedish Residence Card (both indicated that I was a foreigner)
Guess how many times I got answered in English after handing over the American passport while using a few words of Swedish? Zero! Even after I got the passport handed back to me!
I’m used to saying that there were only two countries that I visited in which I was regularly identified as a foreigner on sight: Israel and the Netherlands. But in these countries, as well as any other, this needs to be stressed: trying to use the local language will only bring you good results!
(Interestingly, while I have learned French as a child, I have forgotten it, nor have I visited Paris, although I have heard multiple accounts, from foreigners, of a certain degree of language chauvinism coming from French people. I should say that my French-speaking friends, whom I hold very dear, are supportive of my very slight attempts to mangle their language via oral repetition. I can’t comment on these things as of the time being, but when the time comes, I will definitely write a post on it…)
(4) Another thing that may help is, if you have trouble grasping the local accent, use another accent that is very clearly not English.
Back when I was struggling with the German Language (and who doesn’t struggle with the German Language? Or with any other, for that matter…), until around March 2014, I put on a host of Scandinavian accents to disguise the fact that I was not German (I mostly used an Eastern Norwegian accent for this purpose). Interestingly, at times I heard that my accent sounded like that of a native!
I do not recommend using this tactic among your friends, however, who may insist that you speak in your normal voice. However, with servicepeople (waiters, flight attendants, etc.) their primary goal is making you feel at home, and they will address you in your language if they feel that will make you the most comfortable.
Speaking of flight attendants…
(5) I used this tactic on many flights, especially with Finnair, Lufthansa, and KLM: when the flight attendants address you in English (they do that to everyone), address them in the local language instead. Even if you stutter, you’ll be convincing just by virtue of this. Just don’t mangle your speech too much.
During my flight to Helsinki, I used this to pass myself off as a native Finn instantly! Not a single one of the stewardesses spoke English to me during the whole flight, even though I didn’t particularly understand their quick chatter amongst themselves (note: not all Finns are reticent and super-quiet).
(6) If you are with a person who doesn’t speak the local language, and you do (even not very well), it is very easy to convince servicepeople (and others) that you are the local who is guiding them around town. Use this to your advantage if you can.
(7) The rarer your language is, the more likely it is to get others to speak your language with you when you are outside the country that the language is spoken.
I don’t think that I speak Dutch particularly well (yet…), but interestingly I felt it was easier for me to get Dutch people to talk a bit with me in their language when I was outside the Netherlands than when I was in it (…them?).
(Interestingly, I feel that with Flemings it was the reverse, I’ve been told that my accent indicates that I had learned the language in the Netherlands [I did so in a bunch of places, but not really in the Netherlands nor Belgium]).
(8) You should really keep yourself to using complete sentences, filler words, and a pinch of slang. These make you convincing. Just using incomplete sentences and standard phrasebook material won’t do you well if you want to be convincing. If you are at that point, it is easy to fix it, even just by using Google Translate and a notebook.
(9) If you are in a country with lots of immigrants that learn the local language (Sweden is the example par excellence, as there are immigrants, from various countries, who learn Swedish before even touching the English language), you are in luck, and it is a lot easier for you to be addressed in the local language, because they understand the struggle with learning more than most.
(10) The most important lesson of all? Don’t be discouraged! If you are getting answered in English, this is a problem you can fix. Just read through my guide again and take it to heart. These principles hold true everywhere—in Italy, in Belgium, in Malta, and everywhere else I can name, both where English is widely spoken and where it may be a rarity.
What are you waiting for? Don’t use the “they’ll just speak English back to you” as an excuse! If you want to learn languages from countries with such reputations, don’t let it stop you! Now get learning!