Speaking English to non-English speakers

One of my friends was being grumpy this morning about how everyone spoke English to him even after he told them that he doesn’t speak English. His Chinese is pretty good and his English… well… not so good.
Anyways. I decided to test this theory. So today I told everyone that I didn’t speak English. But lo and behold he was right. Every goddamned moron who started speaking to me in English stayed in English even after I told them repeatedly that I did not speak English. I even had one (seriously strange in every way anyways) woman bother me for the length of a cigarette while I desperately tried to give her the “I don’t want to talk to you” vibe who would say a sentence in English and after I "Huh? Ni ShuoShenMa? TingBuDong"ed her about 10 times would say it in Chinese. Then say “Oh! NiDeGuoWuJenDeHenHao!” And then as I was finishing up the cigarette that she made me need even more than when I started she asked me “NiHuiShuoGuoYuMa?” (Can you speak Chinese). And I said to her “We have been speaking Chinese this whole time. How can you ask me if I speak Chinese.” And she just asked me again if I understood Chinese. Effin Weirdo.
Anyways. Why is this? Why is it that these wonderful people cannot seem to get “I don’t speak English” through their skulls?

You must’ve forgot… the TWnese think any white person is American and therefore must speak English.

I met an Italian guy at Shi Da who could not speak any English at all. It was cool meeting him because it was fun to speak Mandarin to a fellow foreigner. He also complained he was constantly accosted by idiots who insisted on speaking English to him after he clearly told them he could not speak it. I thought that sounded pretty strange. I guess I kind of didn’t believe him at first, or at least thought he was exaggerating. It made no sense to me that someone would keep speaking English to him even after he explained he doesn’t understand. One day we went to get a bowl of noodles at those stands behind Shi Da, and the lady behind the counter said: “What you want eat?”

I told her what I wanted and she turned to him. “You. What you eat?”

He shook his head and said, "Wo shi Yidali ren, bu hui shuo Yingwen. Wo hui jiang Guoyu. Wo hai mei jueding yao chi shenme. Qing deng yi xia. " [I am Italian, and I can’t speak English. I speak Mandarin. I haven’t decided what I want to eat yet. Please give me a moment.]

So he’s scrutizing the menu board at the front of the stall, and she says to him, “Where you from?”

I suspect he understood her, but was pissed at this point and so looked at me for a translation. I translated it to Mandarin for him. He looks up and says, “Wo yijing gaosu ni, wo shi Yidali ren. Ni weishenme hai dui wo shuo Yingwen?” [I already told you, I’m Italian. Why are you still speaking to me in English?]

And so on. He finally ordered and we ate our noodles. He was still pissed off when we got back to school.

I suspect Taiwanese people think all white foreigners speak English, because most do (even if not natively), and they’re just looking for a chance to practice.

I do understand that they think that we all speak English. But why is it that even when someone says they don’t speak English and clearly a) DOES speak Chinese and b) does NOT speak English do they continue with the English?

Maybe they don’t believe the person can’t speak English. Not that they think the foreigner is lying exactly, but just that they consider English ability to be an intrinsic part of foreigners.

Blame Hollywood, there are too many movies clearly showing that everybody everywhere speaks English (even aliens).

There’s one notable exception, though: the bad German guys. They’re often allowed to speak German because it makes them sound evil. Therefore, if you don’t want to (or really can’t) speak English, all you have to say is “wǒ bú huì shuō yīng wén, wǒ shì dé guó rén” and they’ll either run away or start talking about pí jiǔ. :wink:

Someone asked us same question.
One of my friends said:because English is international language not mandarin.We got used to speaking English when we met foreigners.But if they can speak mandarin with us it will be good,too.Anyway,we didn’t speak English well.

It’s because Taiwanese people don’t listen to a fucking word anybody says, nor do they process and act upon information supplied.

I spent 90 minutes last night reminding a group of normal Taiwanese people that they know how to ask questions in the past tense. After agreeing that I was right, and demonstrating that they could do it right, they then reverted IMMEDIATELY to saying things like “when you went there?”

It doesn’t matter what you tell people. They don’t take a blind bit of notice.

They forget the golden rule when talking to people that don’t speak your language, YOU HAVE TO YELL REALLY, REALLY LOUD!


English is not an ‘International Language’. Everyone just believes all the shit the cram schools feed them to get their money.

Blahblahblah. It’s a living.

I get a similar response when I ask to people to please speak Taiwanese as I don’t understand Chinese. ( I do, but my Taiwanese is far better). They immediately go into Taiwanese and tell me how unusual it is for a foreigner to speak Taiwanese, then tell anyone nearby that I speak only Taiwanese and from then on, go back into Chinese. It’s extremely frustrating to carry on a conversation from then on. I am however, getting much better with my Chinese as a result.

Well, for Mandarin, sorry folks, but it just might be that your Mandarin isn’t quite as good as you (and your teacher) think it is. I’m not saying this is true for everyone, so don’t get your knickers in a knot. But in the case of folks in the lower levels at Shita who venture out into the night market area for a bowl of noodles – the teachers at Shita are used to figuring out what wrong tones and mangled pronunciation means. The folks in the night market aren’t. Yes, you would think they would make an effort, but they don’t.

Consider, also: Mandarin is more phonetically “fragile” than English, because each syllable is much shorter. If you say “rat” instead of “cat” clearly there will be a misunderstanding, yet foreigners expect that a wrong tone will be understood. It’s just as big a difference in Mandarin as “rat” and “cat” are in English. Mess up one letter in the word “probably” and you can still probably guess the word – one sound is a smaller percentage of most English words than one sound in a Mandarin word, therefore, accent problems wreak greater havoc by weight.

English speakers, as a group worldwide, are more used to dealing with non-native-speakers of their language. We hear accented English regularly in movies and on TV, if not in real life. We have the “idea” that foreigners can speak English, even if not perfectly. People who truly speak Mandarin well in Taiwan are not rare but at least somewhat unusual, and they are not featured in the media – the ones who make it on TV are usually the ones who have a little Mandarin and get roped into some awful show talking about how foreigners are sex fiends. Because of course the entertainer who really has great Mandarin is “an exception” and doesn’t pop into their minds when faced with a random foreigner on the street.

I agree it makes no sense to continue in langage A when the person has said he doesn’t speak language A. But then again, if the person chokes out that sentence about not understanding language A in barely understandable language B, and you’ve studied language A, a language that your eyes tell you the person might probably speak – you might continue in language A. (Even though your language A is probably worse than that person’s language B!!) :smiley:

I mean, I find it weird speaking to a person who looks Chinese in English. Yes, I can do it, but it feels strange. And I feel handicapped when dealing in English with, say, a Korean person who looks Chinese to me. The urge to speak Mandarin is very strong, so I guess I can understand it in the folks being talked about.

Don’t mind me, though, I’m a sociolinguist by training. We generally describe it like it is, not try to change it. I’m not saying it’s “right” or “comfortable”, just that those are some reasons why it might be happening.

Absolutely outstanding post, ironlady. Spot on, in my opinion.

I understand, and as I said before I think Taiwanese people consider English to be intrinsic to all white foreigners. But one would think that any normal Taiwanese person would resist the urge to use English when the foreigner has clearly stated he cannot speak English. That Italian student complained it was a constant problem. I guess the mental association between a white face and English skills must be very powerful in the average Taiwanese person’s mind.

I chilled out a lot about the whole unsolicited English thing in the past few months. Whenever I’m with my Taiwanese gf people generally tend to leave me alone and stare a lot less anyway.

However, one of my neighbours constantly does the only thing that still annoys me - when nobody else is within earshot we occasionally have the odd friendly chat about politics, business and who got murdered recently (hey, he brings this stuff up, not me). Whenever he has a friend come to visit he makes a point of shouting very loudly in English, ‘WHAT ARE YOU DOING?’ Given that we always speak Chinese and we don’t get many furriners 'round these parts anyway, it gets me all confused and I answer ‘huh?’ He says it again but by the time it sinks in they’ve already gone and I feel guilty for being rude. Then I start getting annoyed at him using me to show off to his buddy.

This also applies to people in elevators, restaurants or other spaces who start speaking English really loudly to their child/friend/partner as soon as they see a furriner. The funniest time was when a girl started doing this with her boyfriend and her boyfriend just stopped, gave her a weird look and said in Taiwanese something along the lines of ‘what the hell is THAT about, girl?’

I have now reverted back to a friendly ‘hello’ response for old people and non-annoying students. People who shout from their car into mine ‘HELLO IT IS DRIVING!!!’, ‘DRIVING ISUZUJEEP!!’, ‘BICEPS!! ACTION!*’ or similar get the finger, because my truck is a part-time battletank that will crush all my enemies. * all genuine driving shout-outs I have received from the good people of Taichung.

You can speak Taiwanese? That’s awesome!

Had a similar incident; silly mama pokes child and then points at their dog which she had on a lead. Says with really really crappy pronunciation; ‘What is it?’ The kid looked at her as if she was mental and replied in Chinese; ‘It’s the dog…’ Splurted with laughter.

Yes, my Chinese is crap. But your English is also shit. So why bother me? You (whoever you are) are forcing me to be polite and gracious to a stranger because you want something. Maybe it’s a cultural thing, but you CAN’T approach strangers in that way in my country. If you yap at a stranger in the street, the reaction will be fairly hostile.

I’ve posted this before, but if there is some kind of connection between us, or there is some reason for us to speak, then I’m very very friendly, but if you want something from me such as to practice English or to show off, and you catch me in the wrong mood, I will be a complete bitch because you have invaded my space and disrespected me.

Now I realise that I’m in another country and will submit to that country’s cultural mores, but it is also rude to disregard my culture and make me feel uncomfortable because I am also a human being and not here for your amusement/benefit. My French friends didn’t kiss me on both cheeks when I lived in France because they got why it was not always appreciated (As a reciprocal token of my esteem for this cultural sensitivity, I eliminated ketchup from my diet.).

I can understand the frustration it is.
One guy that studied chinese at the same school as me (I only tryed to study, but was too stupid)
was from Turkey and was having english class at the same time as he had chinese class.

I was lucky to have english classes every week since I turned 9years.

When people point and say american I point back saying japanese.
When they scream how are you I scream Ni Hao ma back.

I’m now threated like a normal person inside a radius of 100m from my home.

I think it really depends on how much international interaction the individuals in question have come in contact with. I mean for the average person in Taiwan, leaving the island is like a dream vacation.

I remember one funny incident at a pizza restuarant/bar in Taichung owned by a Frenchman and his Taiwanese wife, where people assumed he spoke English, but in reality he spoke very little Mandarin or English. It turned out his wife learned French.

I find it more interesting when you meet another fully bilingual person. My theory is that you will continue to use the language both of you were introduced to with. So if you’re in the USA, but were introduced in Chinese, you will use pre-dominantly Chinese in your future conversations. If you’re in Taiwan but were introduced in English, you will use continue to use English to communicate with. And trying to switch the other language with the person will become an effort.

But that’s the thing, there isn’t any “switch” involved. The foreigner in question has never used English, but does speak Mandarin. And yet the Taiwanese person just keeps speaking English.

I agree it probably has a lot to do with how much international experience/contact the person has had…but it’s still pretty strange.

It would be equivalent to me meeting a Chinese person here in the States and trying to speak Mandarin to him, and he says, in English, “I am Vietnamese, and do not speak Mandarin. I speak English. Please speak to me in English.” And then I go right on speaking Mandarin. I think most people would think I’m pretty crazy (those that don’t already, that is).