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I often meet people who do not natively speak my language (German) but are learning it and would love to practice it by speaking German to me.

General Situation

The problem is that I talk in a slight dialect (Norddeutsch), speak very fast and often kind of unclear. Even other Germans occasionally have a hard time understanding me. I usually say just that - "I'm sorry, but [insert what I just said]". They usually suggest to try it anyways, I agree and as soon as I realize they don't understand my normal German, I switch to a forcibly slow, clear and accent free speech - often still with no success.

This is incredibly excruciating for me, not at least because I'm insecure about the whole not being understood thing in general. (Especially my dad treats it very rudely, I might tell him and his girlfriend a story and when I'm finished he'd just look at her and ask "Didya get any of that?" which makes me very self-conscious about this, but that's a whole different story.)

When I then again suggest conversing in English, the other person usually responds with "Oh no, it's fine, I can do it!" and I'm just thinking "Yeah but I can't".

Cases

In one extreme case, I had an online friend who was learning German and he got so angry with me always giving up speaking my native language that it contributed to the end of the friendship. Apparently, even if I say that the problem is on my side and my insecurities it's still taken in offence.

The other times I have these situations with people, besides online, would be while doing sports. I do Parkour, where often international people come to check it out - they might be refugees that are just learning German or transfer students from literally anywhere. Besides conversation content, it usually goes as described above.

Question

How do I politely tell someone that I do not want to practice my native language with them?

  • Welcome to Interpersonal Skills! I invite you to take the tour and visit our help center to learn more about the site and its guidelines. Good first question, by the way. :) – NVZ Aug 31 '17 at 18:52
  • You might find this related question useful: Asking someone to use their native language without being rude – NVZ Aug 31 '17 at 18:53
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    If you are speaking to someone learning German, of course they want to speak German with a native speaker. That is only natural, especially if that is at least partly the reason you (or they) are communicating. If it weren't the case, using English wouldn't be a problem. I am just wondering if you are being fair to them if some language learning is implied. – user3169 Sep 1 '17 at 7:03
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    Not sure if this makes practical sense, but why not communicate in English from the get-go? Unless they know your background you might get away with it. – user3169 Sep 1 '17 at 7:10
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I'm not sure but, based on what you've said, I might recommend slightly different phrasing.

I talk in a slight dialect (Norddeutsch), speak very fast and often kind of unclear. Even other Germans occasionally have a hard time understanding me.

While this makes sense as a reason for you to not want to talk in German with non-native speakers, people with low empathy may not understand from this explanation that it is uncomfortable for you and you want to avoid that discomfort. People might interpret this as an expression of concern for the inconvenience you might cause to your conversation partner, and then think "Oh, I am good at listening, he shouldn't be concerned on my behalf".

I say that the problem is on my side and my insecurities.

Sometimes self-deprecation can work as a conversational strategy, but I think in this case it is a problem because it de-legitimizes your preference.

Introduce it as a preference, and if people push for an explanation, say it is because you feel self-conscious about your pronunciation

I would recommend trying to express explicitly that you prefer to talk in another language when possible: speaking in German is uncomfortable for you because of your dialect (you could even say something like "I have a slight speech impediment in German" if you think that is a reasonably accurate way of describing it). I think this is a valid preference and hopefully phrasing it this way will help people realize that it is rude to disrespect it (unfortunately, rude people do exist, so some people might push you anyway). Perhaps something like

"Actually, speaking in German is stressful for me because I feel self-conscious about my dialect and pronunciation. I prefer to speak in English."

I don't think you should bring up the issue of your speech being hard to understand—that gives people an opportunity to contradict you by arguing that they understand German as well as a native speaker, or stuff like that. To make it clear that this is about you and not them, don't say things that could be interpreted as assumptions about their abilities. (Even if these assumptions are probably correct.)

If someone keeps pressing you and you want to give some more explanation, I would still try to avoid talking about how your speech is fast and difficult to understand. I think it might work better instead to mention your father's rudeness (if you don't find it too personal to share; you could also just say "people" to make it a bit more generic); also, a bit of self-deprecation of the "I know it sounds weird, but it's true" variety might work here:

"I know it sounds weird, but my father has/people have made rude remarks about my pronunciation in German, and because of this I really feel more comfortable speaking in English."

Could you speak in English while the other person speaks in German?

I'm not sure if you've tried this already, but it is possible to have a conversation where each person speaks a different language. If you don't mind listening to non-native speakers' German, you could add on something like "...but I don't mind if you reply in German to practice your speaking skills."

  • Welcome to Interpersonal Skills! Nice to see you here, old friend! A good first answer, by the way. While you're here, I invite you to take a look at our Interpersonal Skills Meta discussions to get an idea of the culture and expectations here (which is still fresh and awaiting consensus) :) – NVZ Sep 1 '17 at 5:49
  • @NVZ: Thanks! I did take a brief look. As you said, it seems there is still not a consensus about what to include in an answer; while I did try to include reasoning here, I wasn't able to find a specific reference or personal experience that I have had that seemed relevant – sumelic Sep 1 '17 at 6:49
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Put the blame entirely on yourself and don't even hint that their competence is relevant:

I'm sorry, but my dialect makes it difficult for me to speak in regular German, even with natives. I'd appreciate it if we could continue in English.

That way they can't claim they can fix the problem.

  • Questions here need to explain why the solution is a good solution, not merely propose a solution. Please add details to explain your solution and why it will work when the OP's current attempts have failed. Please see Good Subjective, Bad Subjective for some guidance on how to answer subjective-type questions. As it is, this is not an answer. – Catija Sep 1 '17 at 6:58
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Maybe this could be useful. I have a friend who teaches language, several of them, and has lived in several countries while doing so. He teaches at a college level, so people often assume he wants to speak with them, help them, etc. He instead says he is a bit tired of it as he does it all the time (saying this to me). So what I have observed him doing is simply to apologize and simply assert he would really rather not right now. He is simply trying to relax and doing so requires more concentration on the conversation than he finds enjoyable.

I think it makes sense. I think people often assume that because he does this for a living he wants to do this all of the time. If I had never met him, I may make that mistake too if I met someone like him. I think it is perfectly reasonable to not want to do that and you should not feel bad to say so.

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Nordisch by Nature. ;)

If you have troubles communicating with people and they don't understand you even though you really try to speak clearly, then the issue might be in the other parts of how you communicate. Talking to people is not simply exchanging words (what you say), also the body language and structure is very important (how you say it).

In your text above I for example have troubles understanding some sentences, because the structure of those sentences is not immediately clear to me. After re-reading them I got the message. I don't know in which way and with what structure you are speaking, but according to your writing skills, you might confuse people simply because you do not use the 'common' structure.

Learning to speak in clearly structured sentences is a skill that you can acquire and improve like most other skills. If your parents didn't properly teach you, there are some institutions that can assist you. If you discuss that issue with a counselor (Psychotherapist), they might be able to help you get into such a course. And if they conclude that you are indeed suffering form that, there is a good chance that your health care might cover some or all of the cost.

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A common response among German-speakers when confronted with someone who is learning German is simply to reply in English. Since it's common, the speaker will just assume you're doing the cultural default. If the speaker presses you, explain in English that you speak a dialect of German that even many Germans don't understand.

So first you do what's expected. No confrontation. If that doesn't work you place the blame entirely on yourself. If the speaker continues to press you, explain that you are late for an appointment or need to make a phone call and must leave now. Yes, it's a little lie but lies like this, "little white lies," are a common technique of etiquette.

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