The Language Switch

Posted on Wednesday, May 29, 2019

“French people don’t like it when you speak English. They really appreciate it when you speak French.”

I want to talk about something that had a huge effect on my time in France. It’s known as the language switch. It’s when person A speaks one language and person B speaks another. Its most common use is to talk about non-native speakers of a language being spoken back to in English.

I’ve heard the above quote so many times and once even believed it myself. However it’s mind-boggling to me that people actually go to France and still think that, because my own experience is heavily affected by the language switch. When I went to France, I had formally taken 7 years of French. I wasn’t fluent or great but conversational. I was absolutely determined to become fluent and did not speak a word of English to any French person for the time I was there. However, it started happening again and again: I would approach a French person and speak to them in French, and they would reply in English. It was incredibly insulting. Down the line, some people would speak to me in French but keep asking over and over again, “Are you sure you don’t want to speak in English?”

It took about 3 weeks before I cried for the first time over it. It angered me. An experience could be soured by being spoken back to in English and I grew fearful of having it happen. The language switch came to the top of my mind and became the everyday bane of my existence from which I had no escape. I turned to the internet to find the niche that had dealt with this issue as well – and there are a lot of people out there who experience this phenomenon.

Some people think they’re helping by speaking English, but it’s really only a handful. That’s the polite answer. A lot do it because your French, or whatever language you’re speaking, is poor or has a thick accent. They want you to know you’re not entitled to their language. I learned this by asking people to please speak French to which they replied, “No.” I mentioned that I always spoke in French, and some people asked me to stop and speak English. It turns out I have a thick German accent, which is bizarre considering my first language isn’t German.

(Some comic relief: some people kept speaking back to me in German and insisted on it, which was actually a disaster considering my German is very poor.)

Some people also say it’s because they can’t understand you, but there were never any hiccups in our communication. I got exactly what I wanted when I asked for it. I got replies in English and French that made complete sense in context. That theory falls flat. I’ve also read and heard a plethora of stories of people refusing to speak French to a French person because,
1.) the person left the country and “turned his back on France”,
2.) was not white (yup – I had a friend of middle eastern descent who grew up in France and some people refused to speak French to him),
3.) they were from a country that wasn’t France and didn’t speak French à l’Academie Française.
So yeah, it’s not because they can’t understand.

(Some more comic relief: my mom and I did an experiment where she would go into a store, buy something, and then I would do the same. People kept talking to her in French even when she kept speaking in English – all the way through. Hand gestures and everything. When I went in, I would speak French and the same people kept speaking back to me in English. Hmmmm. Sweet validation.)

But how was I going to learn French if I didn’t practice? And couldn’t I just reciprocate and say, “Stop speaking English – your accent is horrible and your grammar is poor.” But it’s awful to make fun of peoples’ English, right? It’s also awful to make fun of peoples’ French, Spanish, etc. – and the feelings I got when people refused to speak French to me were horrible, especially when I asked them to speak French or told them I didn’t speak English. Yes, I told people I didn’t speak English and they continued to speak to me in that language.

It made me feel stupid, like everyone else can speak two languages but I can’t. It made me feel like my own first language was up for grabs but I couldn’t learn another language in return. And let’s be honest – horrible English is everywhere and it’s acceptable because English is what many people speak as a second language. But why is it OK for English to be half-assed but not French? Spanish? German? I also felt like part of my identity had been dissolved.

I write all this because if you have the same experience, I want you to know that you’re not wrong. Your feelings are valid. Even if we eliminate “right” and “wrong,” let’s be honest: anyone in the same situation would be hurt. It’s completely natural to feel anger, disappointment, and any range of negative emotions.

But I want to save you from that. And that’s why I’m writing this post.

While my feelings on the topic were valid, I failed to accept what a small fish I am. English is becoming the global language. It’s spoken as a second language in many countries and others are trying ferociously to help their citizens become fluent. Is it fair? Well, not really, but with globalisation on the rise, a universal tongue makes things so much easier. Is it acceptable that people treat you rudely because of your first language and origin? Not at all. But unfortunately, it came to me that it’s not going to stop – at least any time soon.

By accepting this, we are not defeated. We are merely caring for ourselves.

I once read about a man in Iceland whose “blood boiled” every time someone spoke back to him in English, even though he was fluent in Icelandic. I felt like that in France. But really, what good was the boiling? I was pissed. People could tell I was pissed. French people didn’t care. I was making my friends and loved ones around me uncomfortable with my anger. I needed to ice my veins, and sometimes the way to do that is to let go.

I’ve since gone back to France and have spoken English, unless someone requests French. Does this mean I don’t know French? No. Does it make me an ugly tourist? No. I am merely playing along with the game called life, and I am so much happier.

My advice for people living in a country is to fight it – but don’t try to win. Keep speaking your second language. If people switch to English, just keep going. Maybe tell them it’s hurtful that they’re not speaking to you in their language if you wish to change a few hearts. It’s so easy to get upset over being treated in a way that makes one feel stupid. Try not to think about it. Focus on what’s in front of you – the food you ordered, the clothes you’re trying on, etc. Make friends with people who are willing to converse with you in their language. It is with great displeasure that I tell you you’re going to lose if you try to change an entire culture, but it’s the truth.

Misery loves company. A lot of the research I did lifted so many negative emotions from my shoulders. For example, I found one vlogger who’s lived in France for over 20 years. She is fluent in French and still gets spoken back to in English. I found and have met several French Canadians who go to France and get spoken back to in English – and French is their first language! And of course this is not just the French but a tonne of cultures. A lot of people have the same experiences and even though it may seem at times like it’s personal and directed only at you, it’s really not.

Just be sure to take care of yourself. At the end of the day, it’s only your time you’re spending, so make sure you spend it well.

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