How to: Deal with People Speaking to You in English

 
Two girls talking
 

Dear Helen,

As you know from our many articles related to language learning (such as studying at a language school, taking at least one class in Spanish, and taking all your classes in Spanish, to name a few), we are really big proponents of working on your Spanish language skills while you’re living abroad in Spain. Learning how to live—and thrive!—in a foreign language can be such a transformative part of your experience and so we encourage you to do your best to engage with it every day. Still, you’re bound to have those situations in which Spaniards want to engage with you in English. What’s a guiri to do!?

First and Foremost:

You must remember that just because someone is speaking English to you does not mean they are passing negative judgment on your level of Spanish. It took me a long time to realize this, but hopefully hearing it from the start will help you avoid getting caught up in the negativity. There are many other reasons this person may be responding in English!

If the person works in hospitality or customer service (especially in a touristic part of town), it is likely that their boss has specifically requested that they speak English with any foreigners. Although this may be frustrating to you, if you're someone who wants to be treated as a local, many tourists who haven’t focused on learning Spanish will find this comforting.

It’s impossible for an employee to know which type of person you will be and so if there are any ‘foreigner flags’ (i.e. if you were just speaking English among yourselves, if you simply have blonde hair, or if you speak with a slight accent) they are likely—even subconsciously—to switch over. On the other hand, they may simply have their mind in “English mode” if, for example, they are a waiter with all English-speaking customers aside from you. It’s very often NOT personal.

 A busy waiter may simply not have time to think about what language you want to speak in.

A busy waiter may simply not have time to think about what language you want to speak in.

Don’t Let Yourself Forget:

For all of the same reasons you want to engage in Spanish, someone else may really want to engage in English. Perhaps they have also been working on their language skills but, living here in Spain, haven’t had a lot of opportunities to practice English with a native. If the person is studying Translation and Interpretation or you met them through an intercambio it is especially likely that they will fall into this category. Be understanding! If you hope to cultivate a friendship with this person, you’ll probably need to recognize that language practice should be a two-way street.

How Do I Handle This Now?

I used to take serious offense each time someone switched languages on me, but now I try to be more accepting and put myself in their shoes. I’ve come to realize that there are certain situations in which I don’t mind switching to English and others in which I “stand my ground.” Personally, each situation is a little different, but typically I follow these patterns:

1.) Inconsequential Customer Service Interactions: Honestly, if I’m just placing an order and/or paying the cashier, it doesn’t really add much value to my life to speak those few sentences in Spanish. I now just proceed in whichever language they use.

2.) Friends and Acquaintances: I tend to get into different patterns depending on the person. The majority of my Spanish friends have at least a basic level of English, but the majority of our relationships were ‘built’ in Spanish. If I’m hoping to build a relationship with someone new, I’ll be honest with them about why I want to speak in Spanish and simply have an upfront conversation about how we can proceed*.

 Discuss with new friends why you want to speak one language or another—but be understanding and listen to their reasoning, too!

Discuss with new friends why you want to speak one language or another—but be understanding and listen to their reasoning, too!

3.) Important Service Interactions (at banks, doctors’, foreigner’s office, etc.): In these cases, understanding is crucial. I don’t want to leave an experience like this wondering if the other person understood what I needed or not. With the level of Spanish I have now, I will often power through any changes to English (i.e. consistently switching back to Spanish) as I often feel my comprehension in Spanish may be stronger than the other person’s is in English. On the other hand, when I feel that I may not have the most precise language to deal with the situation and the other person’s English is strong, I will switch over as getting the correct information is more important than my pride with using Spanish.

Obviously, there is no one correct way to deal with these frustrating moments and you have to take it one situation at a time. Still, I hope my insights and personal conclusions gathered over my time living here in Spain will help you evaluate your circumstances with less indignation (trust me, been there/done that) and proceed in the best way for the particular moment.

Do you get frustrated that others speak to you in English or do you actually find it to be comforting? Why do you think you feel that way?

Sincerely,
Spain

*Sidenote: From time-to-time, especially at intercambios, people have suggested that they’ll speak in English and I can respond in Spanish. While this may seem like a perfect compromise, I actually find it much less effective because neither person can think solely in the language they want to practice as they need to translate every question first. Instead, I’ll suggest we switch off at regular intervals (anywhere from every 10 minutes if I’m at a meet-up to every other outing if I have an ongoing relationship with the person).