Sometimes, I find myself in a conversation with people who can't speak English (or some other language) with standard pronunciation. Of course, not everyone has good speaking skills to begin with, and I believe it's more of an issue with my hearing than everything else. Moreover, I don't want to discourage anyone from learning a new language by making remarks about their skills.

However, when I have a decent understanding of the interlocutor's native language, I feel like the conversation evolves more naturally if they use it.

For instance, I've just helped a French tourist get around my hometown. While I couldn't understand her strongly accented English, the conversation went smoothly as soon as she started speaking French to me. I can't speak French, so I just answered her questions in English, making it a bilingual conversation. Due to the circumstances - we were at the subway, plus she's a stranger I'm unlikely to ever see again -, I was able to say "I'm sorry, but I cannot understand your English, can we try French, please?", but this sounds like a rude way to start talking to people I must see on a daily basis.

In another example, one of my best friends' wife is Peruvian and I struggle to have a talk with her in any language other than Spanish. Having been living here for several years, she has a decent vocabulary and most people get along with her just fine (in fact, she's lovely). Yet, whenever we're talking using the local language, I seem to miss about 20% of what she's saying and I don't have the courage to tell her.

How can I politely get someone to talk to me in an understandable manner, without making them feel like it's their fault somehow?

I'm ok with little white lies, as long as it doesn't discourage them from keeping on trying. I do feel like this is more of an issue with me than the other person, but saying this out loud sounds like I'm just trying to call them out politely.


5 Answers 5


Here's what I would say:

You speak [whatever language]? How lucky I am! I love learning new languages. Do you mind if we try speaking in [whatever language]? Would be great for me if I could practice.

Helped me maaany times (and I guess that you really do love learning languages, so nothing bad is done there).

I have been expatriated in Hungary for the last six months and I live with German pals. My German accent is terrible but listening to them was so beneficial I can almost understand everything they say. Moreover, people tend to think that learning languages is difficult and that you're doing them a "favor" asking them to speak in their mother tongue so I guess very few people will be shocked by your demand.


A non-judgemental way of doing this might be:

Would you prefer to speak in French instead? I really need the practice...

From there, you can share experiences of language barriers and hopefully go on to helping one another.

I don't really speak any other language than English, but I'd be mindful of not reminding people of how bad their English is...

  • 1
    Thanks for the answer. I don't speak French, however, so I wouldn't be able to join. I'm in this weird situation where I can understand and read French/Spanish/Italian but not really speak or write in them.
    – Ramon Melo
    Aug 31, 2017 at 14:20
  • 4
    I think that asking to only listen is okay, though I'm not sure it is easy for people to see the point to understand a language but not speak it.
    – avazula
    Aug 31, 2017 at 14:53
  • 1
    @AvaZula It's definitely not easy, but also not unusual among immigrants' children.
    – Ramon Melo
    Aug 31, 2017 at 16:58
  • 2
    "Would you prefer to speak in French instead?" Is this really non-judgemental or could it be seen as indirect criticism of his usage of English instead? Sep 1, 2017 at 11:23

I'd say the thing is they probably do want to learn English, so may not want to go to their native language. So having them speak it will help that. If someone is not a native speaker don't be afraid to say to them something like

Could you repeat that a bit more slowly/clearly?

If you need a reason you could add

I'm a little hard of hearing

Or ask for clarification on what they mean. Like say

Do you mean 'this'?

Most people who are learning a foreign language like to know when they've not got something quite right and won't be offended as they actually want to be able to speak the language properly not just have people pretend they understand.

  • 4
    Also, try not to take the speaker's frustration with themselves or the situation for their being offended by you. They very likely know they're not speaking fluently, but they don't know how to be more clear. It's frustrating to be unable to express yourself. Aug 31, 2017 at 14:34
  • 1
    Thanks for the answer. Thing is, I feel like asking them to repeat so often feels rude even if I mean well...
    – Ramon Melo
    Aug 31, 2017 at 14:42

There are two possibilities, where in each only one speaks in his native language. You guess that the better solution would be that the other part using his native language. The conversation partner is probably not aware of this possibility (not knowing that you speak his language). You don't want to be rude.

You should:

  • Make the other party aware of your language skills
  • Decide together which combination works best for both of you
  • Reassure him that it's not because his skills are completely terrible

For example, say:

Just one small thing. I realized that you are from France. I'm quite good in French. We could continue in English, but why not trying out French. What do you think about it? (The last sentence could also be already in French)

Your conversation partner will deduce that you think that his English is not very good (or worse than your French) which is the truth. If you want you could tell him something nice about his English before. You may even pretend to have other motives (like wanting to practice French, ...).

He may agree and be thankful. Or he may disagree and insist on using English in which case you could answer:

I apologize. I didn't want to be rude. Indeed I have some difficulties understanding you. Let's continue.

How to come across as not rude always depends a bit on the culture. If you say it with a smile, some form of judgement is usually taken better.


It happens typically in an environment, where your native language matches the language of the region, but his/her doesn't.

I am living in a country with a different and hard language as my own since years, and I already faced this problem from the other side many times.

What they feel, if you ask their native language: fear. The fear that their language skills are too low. Most of them have no clear way to know, how his/her pronunciation and spelling sounds for you. They have only the feedbacks of the native speakers to determine that. And they also know, many of them are so polite, that they hide the sad truth. The result is that only the negative feedbacks are believable for them. However, they need the feedbacks.

Thus, if you ask this:

"What is your native language?"

Then they understand this:

"You poor man, I can't understand a single word what you say. What is your native language? Maybe I am better on it as you are on English/German/Spanish."

Sometimes this question sounds as a polished form of "What is your nationality?" what may be also a sensitive topic for ones (which is irrational in my opinion, but so is it).

What I experienced is that many native speakers want to switch from his language, only because they want train themselves on yours. It is the best possible outcome for you:

  • If (s)he is in the lucky position that his/her native language is useful for you, then (s)he can help/train you and reward the many tolerance what (s)he got from the native speakers already.
  • If it isn't, even in this case is it the best possible outcome for you, that you checked if there is a way for a little language training.

Asking them to talk understandable, that you can't. It is because they give already their best (if they wouldn't, it is highly impolite/rude thing from them!). If they concentrate more, maybe it can help a little bit, but not more.

Try to make it looking as if you would want to find a way to tune your foreign language skill.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.