Monday, February 19, 2007

I'm Fine, Thank You. And You?

We've all come across them. Those men and women who insist on speaking English to you instead of their native language, the language you are trying to improve in. There are many complaints about someone trying to practice and the person they are speaking to refusing to respond in anything but English. Actually, this doesn't really annoy me. If their English is better than whatever I'm studying, I speak English. If my Korean or Japanese (definitely not Cantonese, yet) is better than their English, the conversation shifts to Korean or Japanese. If we both equally suck, we mix it up. In any case, having the conversation proceed in the language that can be communicated in best is far more important in the long run. The message is more important than the delivery.

Another thing to consider is that knowing a few phrases here and there doesn't warrant the expectation that people NOT speak English to you. To put it bluntly, if you still suck at it, people will speak English to you if they can. Honestly, while I try to be a nice guy and let other people practice English with me no matter how bad it is, it gets annoying quick and I will switch to Korean or Japanese. So in the case of Cantonese, I don't want to torture anyone with my bad Cantonese the way bad English annoys the hell out of me. My ability still has a long way to go before I have the right to expect people to speak Cantonese with me. In my experience, people will speak to you in whatever language you are studying if it is obvious you are good at it or if they have no English ability at all. So if they aren't especially interested in talking to you in anything but English, it might mean you are just not good enough yet.

Once in Korea, I ran into a 7-11 inside a shopping mall to get something to drink. Girl at the counter asked me in English if I wanted a bag. I didn't understand her the first few times until she showed the bag. I said sure. I then asked in English what time the shopping mall closed. She didn't understand so I asked again in Korean. She told me the time and asked me (a little angrily) why I just didn't speak Korean. I reminded her that she spoke English to me first.

Anyways, that is my usual MO. If I speak first, I use Korean/Japanese. If they speak English first, I'll speak English. Eventually, we figure out which is the best to use. In most cases, they are relieved that you speak their language. The only thing that really pisses me off is when my Korean/Japanese is far better than their English and they insist on speaking English because it takes five minutes to say what should only take 5 seconds.

So if we don't practice our language with native speakers (and consequently annoy them if their English is in working order), how can we improve? Besides the obvious of building your vocabulary, studying grammar, and watching tv/movies/etc, a good way to force yourself to improve is to put yourself in an environment where no one speaks English. Kinda difficult in HK, but if you are trying to make people speak to you in Cantonese in Central, you are under some serious misconceptions. Might be easier to move to Sha Tin or Tsuen Wan.

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