How to avoid speaking English to Chinese friends

A difficulty I’ve encountered while trying to practise Chinese with my friends in China is that most of them speak to me in English!  This is not surprising at a beginner or even intermediate level, when your level of Chinese is likely far inferior to their level of English, so that, even if your Chinese friends aren’t deliberately “using” you to practise their English, you’ll most likely end up in a situation where you’re speaking far more broken English than Chinese.  Obviously, this is not good, as it doesn’t help you improve your Chinese, and even can even worsen your English!

Here are a few suggestions for how to avoid that trap.

  1. Set a precedent – when meeting a new person in China, speak Chinese.  The first conversation (even if it’s written) you have with a Chinese person will set an important precedent for how you will communicate the rest of your relationship.  Of course, this precedent can be broken, but that would take a conscious effort on the part of one of the parties.  After a few interactions in Chinese, your friend will think of you as someone they speak Chinese to, and may even feel weird talking to you in English.  From my personal experience, this precedent can persist even after you leave China (e.g. if you and your friend go travelling together to some other country that doesn’t speak Chinese).
  2. Hang out with groups of Chinese people – shockingly, Chinese people speak Chinese to each other.  If you’re the only English speaker, they might communicate in English for a while so as not to exclude you, but eventually this feels too unnatural and tiring for them, and they’ll revert back to speaking in Chinese.
  3. Have a language exchange – if you are friends with someone who wants to practise English, you could have an agreement where one of you only speaks Chinese and the other only speaks English.  I did this for a few months with one friend and found I became a lot more comfortable speaking Chinese as a result (even though she was naturally much more talkative than me).  After a while though, we both plateaued a bit and got a bit sick of listening to each others’ poor grammar.  We then agreed to do alternate days speaking only Chinese or only English.
  4. Practise with people who already have plenty of opportunity to practise English – in Yangshuo, I had a friend who would speak to me in Chinese even when I was trying to take the lazy way out and speak English.  This was really nice of her, since she was trying to encourage me to speak more Chinese.  She didn’t need to practise English with me because we worked together in a company full of foreigners, and the job required her to speak English almost 100% of the time.  For Chinese who are already forced to speak a lot of English in their lives, they’ll likely welcome a break from it.
  5. Befriend elderly people or security guards – this is someone else’s idea (unfortunately, I could not find the original blog post that suggested this, so I hope this disclaimer will suffice).  Basically someone had found that he kept attracting university students who wanted to practise their English on him, while he was determined to keep learning Chinese.  His solution, a rather ingenious one, was to talk to the security guards outside his apartment complex and retired people, figuring that they had a lot of free time on their hands and have no interest in learning English!
  6. Improve your Chinese – well, that’s obvious, but the point is that until you reach a level when you can converse about a range of topics, it’s quite hard to implement some of the suggestions above.  Whether or not you try the above suggestions now or until you reach a higher level of proficiency is up to you.
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