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I'm traveling in an area where bilingualism - specifically, English - is extremely common. As in, I'm yet to meet someone who doesn't speak pretty good English in the two months I've spent here (across many trips). This is a lifesaver, because I don't speak the local language. I have a vocabulary of about 50-100 words, and can't form a sentence from any of them, though I know enough other, similar languages, and own a smartphone, so can handle most written material.

What I haven't figured out for he life of me, is how to politely and non-awkwardly say "hey, I'd really prefer to have this conversation in English." It's easy enough when I'm initiating the conversation, but often, at a restaurant or shop, I end up embarrassed and staring at a person for a minute before desperately apologizing for asking them to speak my language.

My instinct has been to respond to being greeted in the local language with a clear English reply of "Good morning" or similar, but for some reason it feels rude to me to not respond with an appropriate greeting in kind.

Do I just need to get over myself and just respond to (for example) 'Anyoung Haseo' with 'Hello'?

  • 14
    Yes, that. If wish to converse in English ... converse in English. You don't have to be stereo-typically American about it, just talk in English, and if they speak in the local patois, tell them, nicely, that you don't really understand. I would even go so far as learn and memorize "I'm sorry, but I don't speak enough XXXX to order; can you speak English?" – CGCampbell Oct 30 '14 at 2:26
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    or just do what English speakers have been doing for centuries when people don't understand them, which is to speak louder and louder until they go away :) – jwenting Oct 30 '14 at 7:35
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    I'm curious where you are that most people are bilingual in Korean and English! – Max Oct 30 '14 at 9:00
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    Some people wear a lapel pin of their county's flag. – Gayot Fow Oct 30 '14 at 11:33
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    @LessPop_MoreFizz Well, notwithstanding answers you already got, I think it's actually important to specify the place instead of making the question generic, because it does matter. For example, in Montreal it's perfectly acceptable to reply "hello" when greeted "bonjour", and in fact, on the street you're better off just opening your mouth and speaking English instead of asking "Do you speak English?" because the latter doesn't get to the point (beggars ask "Do you speak English?" in order to engage you in conversation before you realize what they're really after). Other places, other customs – Celada Oct 30 '14 at 18:50
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Generally most people respond well when you make an effort, even if you can't speak their language fully. Responding to "Hola" (Spanish for hello) with "Hola", saying "dankie" (Afrikaans for thanks), or whatever - little words. They'll quickly realise you can't speak their language fully, but appreciate the effort. Usually.

However, it's those tourists that just walk in and expect to be understood in English, and will repeat the phrase in English louder - makes one shudder just writing it - that's the brash other extreme that you want to avoid.

So, what I normally attempt is to initiate the conversation in their language - "Konnichiwa" (hello in Japanese) or whatever the local language is, and then ask "English?" or "hablas ingles?" (Spanish for do you speak English?) (ie if you know how to ask if they speak English in their language, go for that).

This prevents misunderstanding, prevents that awkward minute of embarrassment. You mention it's harder when they initiate it - but for example, in Russia, where I speak maybe 10 words, I'd get a stream of words at me and I'd reply in broken Russian that I can't really speak it. I learned how to say I'm from New Zealand, and speak English, and that'd usually convey it clearly and without much embarrassment at all.

I'd advise against just replying with "Hello" - maybe others would disagree, but to me it makes it seem like you're overruling their language of choice. The "do you speak English?" asked immediately makes the situation clear, whether said in English or their own language.

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    This. I find little more obnoxious than someone walking up to me in country X with a "hello", when "hello" has nothing to do with the local language. – Lightness Races in Orbit Oct 30 '14 at 10:53
  • @LightnessRacesinOrbit Agreed 200%. Unless of course the initiator speaks English and not the local language, but alas this is rarely the case. – lc. Oct 31 '14 at 14:20
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    @lc.: "Alas"? I don't see why it's "alas". It's not unfortunate that locals don't speak English: it's unfortunate that tourists don't bother to learn the local greeting. – Lightness Races in Orbit Oct 31 '14 at 14:21
  • @LightnessRacesinOrbit Sorry, I think I initially misunderstood. I took your comment the other direction - that the local randomly comes up to the presumably-not-local-because-of-their-looks-and-so-there's-no-way-they-could-possibly-speak-the-local-language person and starts with "hello". But I see what you're saying now and definitely agree with that too. I don't expect tourists to be fluent, but at least a greeting or two and thanks/sorry goes a long way. – lc. Oct 31 '14 at 14:30
  • @lc: Aha yes. :) – Lightness Races in Orbit Oct 31 '14 at 14:34
23

This is much the same as has already been written by Mark Mayo but I have heard some arguments in favour of duplication of answers (basically that one answer may reinforce the other).

I think inability to speak the local language is nothing to be embarrassed about. There are well over 100 “major” ones and nobody speaks all of these. Staying away until you have learnt the language of the country you propose to visit does nobody any favours. If you speak English bear in mind that, being the “lingua franca”, you are very lucky there is a good chance that whoever you are trying to converse with will welcome the opportunity to practice their English. However that should not be presumed (especially in France!) and it is only courtesy to make some effort to speak the local language.

So I would recommend commencing a conversation in the local language where at all possible. It shows respect but also, from the accent and speed, may help someone who might be expecting you to be fluent in their language to realise early on that you are not. It is less of a shock to the person to whom you are talking, who might even volunteer to switch to English without further prompting because they appreciate you made the effort and so are more inclined to help you. Whereas a few people fluent in English as a second language may assume deafness if affronted by lack of consideration.

I would not chose to start with “a clear English reply of "Good morning"”. If you are around for long enough the local language you kick off with might gradually be extended from say (in Korean or whatever) “Good Morning” to “Good Morning, did you sleep well” or “Good Morning, it is a fine day” or whatever is appropriate. That should gradually enhance your grasp of the local language and build confidence in it more effectively than never practicing even if learning from a book/audio or taking lessons. I was forced into an approach of this kind and after only a couple of months was very surprised to find myself being called on to provide translation services (of a kind). Murdering the grammar and an atrocious accent is not nice but for most a much quicker route to passable fluency than meticulous attention to the detail of both. In musical terms, the discipline of scales may lead to concert pianist standard in due course but plonking away on a keyboard may achieve something pleasant enough to listen to sooner. Selling the piano however may mean no progress at all.

I repeat that lack of fluency outside your home country is not shameful because if you feel embarrassed by this the chances are that you will make whoever you are trying to communicate with feel awkward also, whereas they should probably be feeling proud of their language skill.

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    I like the analogy! – Lightness Races in Orbit Oct 30 '14 at 10:54
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    I don't understand why you separate outFrance specifically. If you tell them that you only understand English, they will be kind and repeat what they said more slowly (still in French, though) ;) – Hagen von Eitzen Oct 30 '14 at 13:23
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    +1 for pointing out that English is the Lingua Franca. Always makes me smile, – Jon Story Oct 31 '14 at 0:27
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    @HagenvonEitzen I worked for a time on the French/Swiss border. I was sent with relatively little notice and had chosen German at school so was starting absolutely from scratch. I made a real effort - I mentally tortured myself over buying milk. I was treated with absolute contempt. I gave up. I think I actually got slightly fewer dirty looks for saying "Bonjour" then proceeding in English than I did trying to muddle through in broken French. Otherwise, lovely people. – DeveloperInDevelopment Oct 31 '14 at 22:35
  • I've visited France numerous times. I have a little French, and have often started conversations in French, only to have the other person immediately switch to English. I remember a total of two cases where someone has reacted rudely to hearing me speak English (not directed at them). – Teemu Leisti Feb 19 '15 at 10:30
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Traditionally, one would just point and shout their requests in English... As a nation, it's served us well for at least 600 years.

The more advanced may wish to transpose a few words into the local language, numbers, 'please' and 'thank you' being the most common

For example in French:

UNE OF THOSE SIH VOOO PLAY

  • Is PLAY French or English? – ADTC Oct 31 '14 at 12:57
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    Sih vooo play was a bastardisation of S'il vous plait ;) – Jon Story Oct 31 '14 at 13:37
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    LOL. Love the s'il vous plaît transcription. – Richard Gadsden Nov 6 '14 at 12:10
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I think it's actually important to specify the place instead of making the question generic, because it does matter. For example:

  • Montreal is a locale where most people are bilingual with French and English. It's perfectly acceptable to reply "hello" when greeted "bonjour", and in fact, on the street you're better off just opening your mouth and speaking English instead of asking "Do you speak English?" because the latter doesn't get to the point (beggars ask "Do you speak English?" in order to engage you in conversation before you realize what they're really after).

  • In Japan you should follow the advice that others have given you and make an effort to at least use small talk words in Japanese. It shows your effort and that you are not inflexible. On the other hand, if you look like a foreigner, lots and lots of people will assume you don't speak Japanese anyway, so they may greet you in English to begin with. More likely, they will avoid you because they don't want to become responsible for a conversation they can't carry on. Korea might be similar, I don't know.

  • If you are a tourist in Nepal I don't think you need to worry too much about not speaking Nepalese: so few foreigners do. Just say "namaste" and you'll be fine.

  • In Europe (like France, Germany) you might annoy people if you expect service in English, as others have said. I don't have much experience there, but my guess is that you should go out of your way to demonstrate an effort if possible.

  • Other places, other customs.

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    Every place I've been in Europe, many people (but not all) spoke to me in English even_if I had already spoken to them in very good Spanish or passable Italian. – WGroleau Apr 12 '17 at 23:22
  • @WGroleau That's been my experience in most of Europe the last 10 years. In contrast, when my brother and I visited Spain in 1978, no one spoke English. Not even a travel agent. (Our Spanish was good back then, so no problems.) – Andrew Lazarus Sep 25 '17 at 23:48
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It appears your situation is somewhat specific to a metropolitan area of South Korea. This country can be tricky in some cases, especially if your appearance is Asian but clearly not of Korean stock.

As someone who was once compelled to study several languages and then lost speaking fluency in many but somehow retained literacy (so I get sent to X, Y and Z frequently) I can feel your pain. My advice is to learn a few phrases that explain your situation in the most polite dialect available.

In particular:

  • "I'm sorry, I do not speak ____. Do you speak English?"
  • "Do you speak English?"
  • "I'm sorry, I do not speak ____ well. More slowly?"

and whatever else might come to mind and seem reasonable. Most of the time if they initiate the conversation it winds up like:

Them: [Snoopy parents...]

You: [I'm sorry, I do not speak ____. Do you speak English?]

Them: "Ah, you're not from here! Anyway, so you want cheese or onions on that?"

and life goes on. If you initiate, try to go as far as you can in the local language and you'll accidentally get much better at it daily.

Anyway, there are worse things in life than being embarrassed or having your feelings hurt.

2

I think that "I don't speak this language well" is a phrase worth learning. That way you at least engage the person in their native language but state your preference.

For your Korean example it would be: "Han-gu-geo-rul chael mo-te-yo"

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    And don't worry about the pronunciation. As long as they can figure out what you were trying to say, the worse it sounds, the more effective it is at getting them to switch languages. – WGroleau Apr 12 '17 at 23:19

protected by mindcorrosive Oct 31 '14 at 6:29

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