Americans Speaking to Americans in French Posted by on Aug 15, 2016 in Archived Posts

What happens when you’re in a foreign country, trying out the language you’re learning, and you discover that the person you’re talking to is from the same country you are? Do you keep speaking the language, together but probably incorrectly? Or do you bashfully lapse into your native tongue?

I have a pet peeve. I hate when you’re watching a film or television program and two people speak English to each other, but only for the benefit of the audience. For instance, I literally had to stop watching The Man in the High Castle after the Japanese guys spoke to each other in English – even when they were just by themselves! Why wouldn’t they just speak Japanese to each other?! It’s just lazy writing. They couldn’t be bothered to translate it. It takes me completely out of the story – because usually, when two native speakers meet in a foreign country, they switch to their shared native tongue. They don’t just speak the local language for the benefit of a non-existent “audience.”

But ironically, as much as I dislike this trope on the big screen, I try to follow it in real life.

My French is fairly mediocre, which is why I know I’ve got a lot of practicing to do. So if I’m in France, having a chat, and I discover that the person I’m speaking to is also an American, I’m going to die a little inside. Chances are, we’ll switch to English, particularly if we’re both struggling with French. After all, language is like water: always looking to be level. In a group setting, we try to find the language that’s easiest for everyone to speak – that’s the point of learning a language, isn’t it? To communicate as fluidly as possible. But sometimes that means reverting back to your native tongue.

So why does that bother me so much? It shouldn’t be a big deal. Another American probably isn’t my ideal language partner anyway, right? Better to learn straight from an actual Frenchperson, right?

Actually, no. As I’ve said before, I believe learning from other language learners is the best, especially when you’re still at a lower-intermediate level. If the learner is better than you, they’ll be able to correct you and answer any questions. Native speakers often feel awkward pointing out mistakes and usually have no idea how to teach the peculiarities of their language to you. And if you’re better than the learner, you can do the same for them, which is great – teaching is the best way to learn anything.

And yet, as much as I would like, and as much as I try, I almost always fall back to English in these situations. The fact is, I’m just happy I don’t have to struggle to communicate, for once!

What’s been your experience? Do you fall back to your native language with your fellow countryfolk, or do you insist on keeping up practice?

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About the Author: Malachi Rempen

Malachi Rempen is an American filmmaker, author, photographer, and cartoonist. Born in Switzerland, raised in Albuquerque, New Mexico, he fled Los Angeles after film school and expatted it in France, Morocco, Italy, and now Berlin, Germany, where he lives with his Italian wife and German cat. "Itchy Feet" is his weekly cartoon chronicle of travel, language learning, and life as an expat.


  1. Marit:

    I have never bumped into other Norwegians by chance while travelling, but I have on several occasions been mistaken for a foreigner in Norway, and as a result of that had people start talking to me in English. After a while we have that awkward “wait, you’re Norwegian? Me too. Why are we speaking English?”-moment. One guy continued to use English after I told him I was Norwegian, though, which I thought was a bit odd, but not a problem.

    • Malachi Rempen:

      @Marit Hah! Yeah I always wonder about that in countries where English is so widely spoken among the population, like Scandinavia or the Netherlands. I’m sure it must happen all the time. And if you’re equally fluent and comfortable in both, how would you choose the “right” one?

  2. GT:

    I was standing in a hotel laundry room in Wrocław trying to ask another guest in my very best and politest Polish: “Will you be here long? Should I come back later?”
    Given a puzzled look and incomprehension. Was my accent that bad? Or did I mess up the grammar again? Went for a more basic form. Still getting a confused and apologetic look. The guy eventually replies: “Sorry, do you speak English? I’m afraid my Polish isn’t all that great.”

  3. Eugene:

    I live now in Ukrainain speaking area. There are two ways Russian speaking peple speak here: mostly Russian everywhere, or Ukrainian in public, Russian with friends/some other group of people. I am the second kind, so it happens that I speak Ukrainian with other Russians (which are not less that 10% living here…)

    The funny thing you may be knowing s/he is Russian by their very standard way of speaking, without most of local words and fraseologisms.

  4. nasmah:

    hi greating iam from sudan i want to learn french language as begienr

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