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How to Get People to Stop Speaking English to You (i.e. How to Get Native L2 Speakers to Speak the L2 to You)

Many kids getting used to Japanese (and, incidentally, Cantonese) complain that “non-simulated” (:D) native speakers persist in speaking to them in English. And, yeah, this is a real thing. But it barely even deserves the title “problem” because it is so easily overcome. Resolving it is super straightforward.

It may seem like this is something out of your control, but it really isn’t. Why? Well, for starters, you control how:

  1. persistent, and
  2. proficient

you are. That is, you control both how tenaciously you behave with other people and how tenaciously you behave with yourself. It’s a war of attrition and you are in charge. They can’t win, only you can lose. So here’s what you do:

  • Keep speaking the L2 to them, even if they speak English to you. Do not give in. This is a (friendly and harmless but very real) game of chicken.
  • Accumulate enough active vocabulary and phraseology so that you do not have to resort to English to express yourself.
  • Accumulate enough passive vocabulary so you can understand everything (9X.Y%) they could, would or might say in the L2.
  • Ask them for L2 corrections — this does two things. It strokes their ego — because you are admitting weakness — and also gets you free teaching.
  • Ultimately, you want to hit and pass the tipping point. That is, you want to get (and continue to be) better at the L2 (presumably Czech, Chinese, Japanese, whatever) than they are at your L1 (English, for the sake of argument/this post). When this happens, everybody — and I mean everybody — will cave within minutes.
  • If you’re not yet good enough to hit that tipping point then that — and not other people’s attitudes or behavior — is your problem. You need more exposure. You need to build your passive and active L2 vocab more.
    • As Stephen Covey would put it — you need to rack up a lot of private victories before you really get them big, public ones.
    • Every second you tend to your immersion environment is a private victory.
    • Genghis Khan was horsing around (literally, on horses) and doing bush league conquest and coalition-building long before he took over Eurasia. Talking to adult native speakers is the major leagues. Your private immersion environment is the minor leagues. Prove yourself worthy of going toe-to-toe with the big boys by playing your heart out and building strength in the low-stakes minor leagues first. Stack up those experience points so you can eventually fight and beat the big boss.
    • Yes, language is “aggressive”. But it’s a beautiful, nonviolent aggression that all participants can enjoy.
  • The trick to building an active vocab is to build a passive one. A sufficiently wide and deep passive vocab will naturally bleed into the active.
  • Again, it is a war of attrition.You scale the mountain one dictionary lookup at the time. It requires grinding. But it doesn’t have to be “a” grind; it can be some of the most fun you can have with your clothes on — if you let it.
  • Sidenote: I find that Mandarin speakers from Mainland China are often all too willing to speak Mandarin to you if you show even a little bit of proficiency. The mere vapors of fluency are enough to turn them into a true believer in your ability. But I take this as a compliment 1. Their willingness to talk to me as if I were a native speaker never fails to light a proverbial fire in the seat of my pants. Not a proctology joke.



  1. Taiwanese and Hong Kongers generally have more cosmopolitan swagger: they will generally compliment your Chinese but continue to speak to you in English unless and until you prove worthy by hitting that tipping point hard. I say “generally” here not merely to be PC but because there are plenty of exceptions and reverse examples.

  1 comment for “How to Get People to Stop Speaking English to You (i.e. How to Get Native L2 Speakers to Speak the L2 to You)

  1. Ana
    February 11, 2018 at 14:16

    This post completely resonates with my experience in recent weeks! Although I have now lived in Hong Kong for 4 years, I feel I should have mastered the language much sooner, but anyway, I finally started completely abandoning English and only brainwashing myself with my favorite Cantonese media (which is mostly 60’s to 80’s movies, series and music – because I was probably a HKer in my past life).

    Since I’m of (mixed) Asian heritage (not Chinese though), I don’t have any problems having strangers speak to me in Cantonese in daily life, something that I think is super for my Cantonese learning (if everyone expects me to know it, then I also have high expectations of myself to know it!). But friends and acquaintances (and my now bf) have been used to speaking to me in English since when my Cantonese was a halting intermediate level.

    A few weeks ago (when I decided to abandon all English YouTube) I decided I had enough of being seen as an English speaker (English is not my L1 anyways…), and tried only speaking Cantonese with an acquaintance who I feel only wants to be friends with me because I’m an English speaking foreigner – just to mess with her and maybe leave me alone to find someone else to speak English to. From there it snowballed, and other friends were more willing to speak Cantonese with me, so my level skyrocketed! Even though my bf still can’t abandon his habit of speaking English with me, I’m still persistent with Cantonese and won’t let a single full sentence of English come out of my mouth (because I know it’s then a slippery slope back to Englishland…).

    I can now say I’m relatively fluent (working towards native level) and really strict on keeping an authentic accent (although more 60’s-80’s style accent – which I love much more than how many youngsters today speak with their 懶音). Not only that, but I super love bathing in the Cantonese media and am now spending almost all waking hours when I’m alone either watching old kung fu series (like 天蠶變), listening to 80’s Cantopop or listening to 80’s 衛斯理廣播劇).

    PS! You mentioned Genghis Khan in this post, I just happened to learn the lyrics of 林子祥’s song 成吉思汗 by heart last night:

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