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If you've ever been a "foreigner" in China (especially in major cities), you may have encountered the intensity in which some Chinese people try to practice English with you. I certainly have. I've asked Europeans who aren't native English speakers, and they too have this same experience.

Regardless, I don't recall ever seeing a Chinese person practice English with another Chinese person, even though both may be keen on practicing. It's like there's some kind of unwritten cultural rule here: thou shalt not practice English with fellow Chinese people.

Question: Why don't Chinese people who are eager to practice English simply practice with each other?

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    I don’t know the reason, but I have a suspicion that people with the same native language tend to make the same mistakes in English, so they’re less likely to fix their mistakes by practicing English with native speakers of the same language. Regarding them doing this with any Europeans - I’d imagine life in China would be tough if you spoke neither one of China’s languages nor English.
    – Golden Cuy
    Commented May 28, 2022 at 6:19
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    Doesn't seem specific to China. In France (where I'm from) you wouldn't find many French people trying to practice with one another either. One reason might be what Andrew mentioned, and another might quite simply be embarrassment (it might be an in-group vs out-group thing, I don't know, but the fact is that it can feel quite embarrassing for some to speak another language to members of their own group). What might be different between the two countries is the eagerness to speak English with foreigners...
    – user10134
    Commented Jun 3, 2022 at 5:14
  • There's not much point in practicing with someone who is not a near-native speaker at least.
    – Lambie
    Commented Oct 20, 2023 at 19:37

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I am Chinese based in Shanghai/China, and so is my girlfriend. My girlfriend has been working in foreign companies since 2016, and I have been keeping using English as much as possible since 2014. My master's thesis (2016, ECNU) is about EFL writing, and I am developing a vocabulary learning and acquisition application for language learners. What's more, we are both preparing for our next IELTS exams. I mean, my girlfriend and I are the Chinese people who are eager to practice English.

The fact is that the method you mentioned/recommended is not that practical for us as it may sound.

In our 4-year relationship, my girlfriend and I have tried to communicate in English on WeChat(think of it as a Chinese version of WhatsApp for those who are not familiar with it), but quickly we switched back to Chinese. The reason was that the communication became more and more like a slog. Learning or practicing is usually not a happy or easy process, though it may lead to happiness and convenience. Communication should be as convenient and happy as possible, and hence English as a barrier should not impede our happy bonding experiences.

We have never tried to talk to each other directly in English, even when we were joined by a native Anglophone in a conversation. Just because English could widen our bonding/distance, and it would be awkward. Imagine that an Italian man is having a classic Italian meal in a traditional Italian restaurant in Rome, and all diners there are Italians. The awkwardness may just be like the gentleman and only that gentleman is trying to practice using chopsticks in that environment for his pizza and pasta.

The learning goal does not match well with the learning environment, the learning content, the learner's characteristics, and the support provided.

About half a year later, I'd like to add three points: 1. Your feelings. 2. The integrative approach. 3. Possibilities.

Firstly, the Chinese people who approached you to practice English might annoy you because you might feel degraded as being treated as an English practitioner or English-speaking tool -- an ugly and ignoble job. Additionally, in our daily lives, we are often so stressed and busy that we don't necessarily have the time, energy, or patience to serve as language practice partners (as commented here). That's totally understandable, and that's why I stopped doing that myself after reading your question.

Secondly, I thought maybe those who tried to practice English with you were learning English driven by integrative motivations, like me. They learn English not to merely leverage it as a means to an end, such as professional growth and making more money. They learn English to assimilate themselves into the Western culture and interact with native speakers. Instead of practicing the linguistic techniques, they were perhaps assimilating into or interacting with the culture, which they could not access otherwise. I thought they would feel very embarrassed, frustrated, misunderstood, or rejected.

Last, I do have found some possibilities. I have participated in many English-medium events, such as the English corner held weekly at Shanghai International Studies University (SISU) and Toastmasters conferences. What's more, my girlfriend and I have been keeping reading two books written in English for about 3 months. Sometimes, we also would integrate some English keywords into our messages.

I'll add more in the future for this intriguing issue. Hope it helps.

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General points
Foreign language is usually learn in order to communicate with the native speakers of this language (in addition to passively absorbing information from sources in the target language). Although this might be not exactly the case for English, which is important as a language of international communication, the native speakers still remain the standard.

In addition, communicating in a foreign language between the people who share the same native language is usually difficult - first of all, because one is tempted to switch to the native/local language when lacking words or expressions, but also because one is likely to repeat the same mistakes and/or lack the same knowledge as the interlocutors.

Chinese speaking English
(The following focuses on Chinese, but applies generally to learning a foreign language, especially one from a different language family)

  • Pronunciation Chinese speakers learning English encounter major difficulties in the area of phonology/phonetics: both in terms of understanding the English sounds, as well as in terms of producing them. What is perceived as different sounds by an English speaker might not be differentiated by Chinese and vice versa. Since a Chinese speaker also speaks with a Chinese accent, improving phonetically is almost impossible when speaking to each other.
  • Grammatic structure Chinese grammatic structures (starting with the word order in a sentence) are very different from the English ones, and likely to be among the commonest mistakes reproduced by the same language speakers, and not easily fixed, since they do not cause incomprehension.
  • Finer language points A native speaker has a more refined vocabulary and range of idiomatic expressions, which simply cannot be encountered in a conversation with non-native speakers. Even vocabulary of highly proficient speakers of a foreign language usually lags well behind that of natives.
  • Access to native language speakers and original resources in that language. Books and other materials in a foreign language might be hard to find, even when it comes to English. Internet makes things easier, but the resources are often less adapted to ones level and/or needs/interests. English speakers are rarity in China - a fact perhaps less appreciated, e.g., by the Americans learning Chinese, due to big Chinese diaspora in the US.
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  • [grammatical or grammar structure. grammatick is like 16th century or something.]
    – Lambie
    Commented Jul 16, 2022 at 20:27

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