There is a very subtle moment that defines whether you, the prospective non-native speaker of Chinese will use the language to communicate with a native speaker of the language, or if that speaker will throw your native tongue back at you upon first meeting.
For those who can’t speak Chinese you will be relieved that someone responded back to you in English if you ask a question in that language, say when traveling throughout China. However, for those trying to practice their Chinese and use the language to communicate with a native speaker but then receive a response in another language such as English may- just may be- one of the most frustrating things you encounter in your every day path to learning Chinese.
When either speaker firsts open their mouth, the listener is going to react within a millisecond and determine whether your grammar, pronunciation and lexicon fit the situation. Its best to first, always have a few set phrases set down with proper pronunciation and grammar etc. but this will only get you so far if you don’t understand the next phrase or question the speaker says.
Nevertheless, staying confident in your ability to speak the language, even if at a minimum, and responding with what words you do know regardless if they are surrounded by English, will indeed, make a difference, as this will show that you take initiation and control.
Sounds silly, yea? Well, for the language student spending thousands of dollars on an education abroad that hopes to take back some skills it is very important.
Lets say you the Western student is in China going to a language school and one day you find yourself out and about looking for a new restaurant but happen to get lost and need to ask directions as a result. If you ask someone and don’t understand a phrase, which causes you to say something such as “甚麼/what was that?”, and then the speaker responds in the “opposing” language, hold your ground, stay confident and don’t let yourself get red in the face out of nervousness. Respond then back in Chinese with something like 外面很吵(It’s so noisy outside) to let the speaker know you are still with it. Then, ask the person to repeat him or herself. If you still didn’t get it, well, then just pretend and move on to the next person until you do.
If you keep doing this you will likely maintain the so-called “dominance” of language within the conversation and more importantly, you will improve your Chinese. It sounds like a silly game, and it is once you reach a high enough level in Chinese, but for the novice this is important as more individuals in the country you are studying abroad in want to practice their language skills just as much or in not more than you do.
I see students of all language studies getting frustrated with such scenarios and there is this intense battle going on in their mind when they are about to have a conversation and practice their new vocab with someone. It really makes or breaks their day.
Continue to speak Chinese if you haven’t already “lost language face” and at the very least your Chinese will get better, as the more conversation practice the better. If both sides are about at the same level of language and neither is willing to budge, i.e. one is speaking English and the other Chinese, then so be it. Don’t get upset as many people do. The speaker probably wants to speak and practice as much as you do. Just remember, you are somewhere in the Greater China area and have another billion plus people to practice with whereas your language competitor just finished an English class and you are the first foreigner s/he has seen in days.
If you can’t keep up, however, you have to accept that you may need to study more in the classroom and move on. Some people meanwhile pull some shady moves such as speaking really fast or with a thick accent to the receiver in order to confuse him/her, and thus, prove the point that the person isn’t capable of speaking the language, which will then result in using the other language. If your ego is strong enough and you have to prove a point to the listener on the spot, then go with this method; otherwise, let it go and move on.
Overall though, timing your opening phrase at the beginning of a conversation is key and maintaining confidence throughout the conversation is important, but remember that your end goal is to communicate effectively and not get lost in translation.