Do Foreigners Speak English to Americans to “Practice” It?

two people conversing

Image by Oli Young

I often hear from Americans who visited or studied abroad that, to their frustration, younger people would switch to English when speaking to them, not giving them a chance to improve their level of the local language. A lot of these Americans visitors felt like their hosts just wanted to talk to them in order to practice their English.

While I understand this frustration and recognize this is often an accurate assessment of the situation, I find that another possible motivation is overlooked here — namely, each language’s “suitability,” so to speak, to talk about certain things.

There has been research suggesting speaking a different language makes one manifest a different (facet of their) personality. It may stem from the fact that the different languages are used in different settings — for example, one at home and one at school. As a result, speaking each of the languages brings out a different side of the person.

This has certainly been the case in my own subjective experience. So, dear traveling/expat Americans, whenever I used to talk to you in English, it was rarely about “practice.” Yes, I’m sure part of it must have been to signal my group membership as one who has lived in the US and “belongs” in your company. However, most likely it was simply because I could not come up with a way to talk about any US experiences without sounding like I was clumsily explaining US suburbia to a confused Russian grandma (or answering something like “Are all Americans really fat?”). In my experience, Russian isn’t very well-suited for that.

Does that mean that I should thwart all your attempts to speak Russian? Not at all! I just wanted to write this post to explain that I did care about you as a person and was not just using you as my free English tutor — which, immodest as it may sound, I don’t think I needed that desperately. All in all, it was not about your inadequacy in Russian — it was about mine. Native speakers will struggle to express some ideas in their language, too.

What’s the solution? I have certainly made an effort to honor my partner’s choice of language. To make it easy on the obstinate native, though, consider talking about things the local language will have no trouble describing – local stores, events, or institutions. This may be easier for everyone to describe than all things American.


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