Passport Psychology

Filed Under: Travel

I’m very fortunate to have dual citizenship — both of my parents are from Germany, but I grew up in the US. That means I have both a US and a German/EU passport, which is an amazing combination. I have expedited immigration in the US, I can use the European ePassport gates, and my EU passport allows me to avoid having to get visas for some countries which the US does require visas for, like Brazil.


I’ve been in Germany for the past week, though I don’t have my German passport at the moment. I got my German passport renewed at the consulate in Miami a couple of weeks ago, which was an experience in and of itself (Miami seems to be where German efficiency goes to die). And I’ve received word that my passport is now waiting for me in Florida, though that doesn’t help me immediately.

While I’d usually always use my EU passport within Europe, this time around I’ve been traveling with my US passport, and I’ve been noticing something.

I always speak German when in Germany, including when checking in at a hotel or airport, given that it’s the first language I ever learned (it’s also the language I primarily speak with my parents). And when I hand over my German passport they always start speaking to me in German.

Except almost without exception on this trip they’ve responded in English when they see the combination of my US passport and me speaking German.

In theory I can appreciate the intent of wanting to make a guest feel comfortable, but if I’m voluntarily starting the conversation in German, presumably I’m comfortable with the language.

Usually I’ll adjust and then start responding in English, since they seem to be suggesting that’s the language someone with a US passport should speak. Except today at check-in with Austrian Airlines I decided to just keep speaking in German. It took the agent about five minutes to process the check-in, and throughout she was always speaking in English, while I was always speaking in German… and she didn’t give in!


This is the first time I’ve noticed something like this, and I found it rather frustrating. And frankly I think it’s sort of bad service:

  • Even if someone had a US passport and barely spoke German, maybe they’d like to practice their German, and it would make sense to get the “hint” when they start the conversation in that language
  • If you’re trying to provide good customer service it’s nice to note the guest’s preferences, and if they choose to speak a certain language, that should be accommodated
  • I understand the perception, but it’s interesting how with my German passport that has never happened, while with my US passport it happened almost every time

I just find it all a bit ironic, given the perception a lot of people have of “ignorant Americans,” and how we rarely make an effort to learn other languages. When someone is making an effort to speak another language, you’d think that would be appreciated. And in this case I’m actually German. So I guess this just sort of caught me off guard.

What do you guys think — are people trying to be helpful by speaking the language they assume you prefer, or is it sort of rude to not note a guest’s language preference, and almost make them feel “not good enough” to speak a language?

  1. Maybe there’s some policy saying that “if you know the client’s (supposedly) first language, speak it to them” 😉 But seriously, I think it is just about trying to be polite, nice and welcoming. When I was checking my bags for a flight from Vegas to Charlotte last week on US, the lady at the counter immediately started speaking German to me as soon as she saw my passport – although the conversation had been going perfectly well in English up to that point. She was just happy that she got to practice her German again, after having spent six years of her childhood in a city close to where I’m from. And I must say, I found it really nice of her. There might be people working in tourism simply because they enjoy speaking English/German/Mandarin/whichever language they know on a day to day basis.

  2. I usually find that people tend to converse in the language that I (the guest) have chosen….. Over the years I thought that they were trained to do so as customer service….. I don’t know…
    Invariably, when when handing over my US passport to German officials and greeting them in German comes, “Do you live here?” I just say yes and then, it’s like “ok” and they hand it right back….simple and painless.

  3. Hi Ben, I’ve been a lurker for a longtime now 🙂

    I’m going to try to answer this one, as I’m a manager in a store (high end chocolates in France) and I have experience this situation quite often with tourist.
    Personally, when I see a foreigner whose trying to speak French, I’ll respect that and try my best to encourage it.
    If needed I’ll “teach” them some words or speak a little bit of English.

    I speak French, English and a bit of Spanish.

    Although sometimes, it happens that when you’re tired or very focus on what you’re doing. You just don’t pay attention to that kind of detail.
    What I mean, is that she probably did not answer you in German to annoy you.
    I think that she saw your US passport and start speaking in English without even paying attention that you spoke German fluently.

    Of course, this was not the best experience you could have. But Does it really matters ?
    I’m making an assomption here because, I know, I sometimes, did the exact same thing.

    After all, when you see a foreigner (well you’re not, since you are German) making an effort to speak your language, it’s always nice.

    Take care 🙂

  4. couple of weeks ago I was flying from Vilnius to Minsk and talked to the charming security girl in English – afterwards she figured out I am heading to Belarus, she switched to Russian (my mother tongue) and had a nice conversation. I agree Lucky, they should switch if your language, it is always a nice gesture

  5. Not related to your language problem but you should apply for a personalausweis which Germans abroad can now get at the consulate/embassy.

    In that case you have a valid travel document within the EU/Schengen that shows you are German if you don’t have your passport.

    It saves you of being an American in EU/Schengen.

    If you travel frequently within Europe that is even more handy than you passport as it’s only the size of a credit card.

    Plus you could in theory walk into any local government office and apply for a passport there. You will need to pay some extra € for a permission from Miami consulate which they obtain but you have a new passport within 48 hours if you pay the express fee.

  6. I used to be a flight attendant for Pan Am, and because Frankfurt was one of our hubs, would find myself in Germany on layovers several days each month. This, together with my German ancestry, prompted me to start learning German. So I hired a private tutor, and spent many hours every week studying diligently. Needless to say, I tried using my new skill in Germany at every opportunity. Except that I had exactly the same experience you did – every single person I encountered would respond to me in English. So frustrating – I eventually quit my German studies because of it. Why waste time and money on German when native speakers won’t even let you speak it?

  7. I don’t think they want to force you to speak a certain language…it is maybe just fixed somehow in the head, when they see a foreign passport to speak English. Then they concentrate and maybe don’t really notice that you are talking German.
    I remember me continuing to speak English at a checkin in FRA almost automatically, when the women was talking first English to me and then switched when she noticed I was German.
    Maybe you should just let her know (nicely) something like “Sie können ruhig Deutsch mit mir reden” 🙂
    I’m sure, she will smile and continue in German.

  8. Canadian here, no German language skills. But I seem to “look German” so get spoken to in German often even after I indicate English. I get an “oh sorry” and they get it the 3-4th time. Last was in LH F out of FRA.

    Mostly amusing 🙂

  9. Lucky, I grew up speaking Spanish at home in New York City. I also speak French, having studied it formally for 8 years and having worked in Paris, France. Additionally, I speak Finnish, having lived in Finland. I speak these languages with a soft American accent. In Paris and Montreal (where I currently have lived for the past 13 years), whenever I engage others in French, I am spoken to in French. In Spain and throughout Latin America, I am replied to in English without fail at every airline counter, during flight, and at every hotel front desk! To make a point, I continue to speak in Spanish. At the Westin Palace in Madrid I even requested that I be spoken to in Spanish after endless replies by me in Spanish to the regular check-in questions in English. I agree with you — as Americans we often have to hear how we don’t speak other languages, usually by persons who won’t acknowledge the fact that in a country of 300 million, many of us speak languages other than English and do so proudly.

  10. My first language is French but I have been speaking English as my primary language for more than 35 years now.

    Whenever I visit French speaking areas I start the conversation in French but almost 100% of the time the other party will switch to English even though my French is a lot better than their English. I have noticed this for years and have felt it to be an insult too.

    I am speaking the local language and am not struggling at it since I am fluent with it but I have a now have a foreign accent and instead of sticking with the local language they switch to a very broken and terribly hard to understand English. Maybe my accent is worse than I imagine and they can’t understand my French but I wish they would reply to me in French so that i can understand what they are saying instead of trying to guess at their English.

  11. I noticed the same thing when I was in Puerto Rico. Although I do speak Spanish (lived 2 years in the Dominican Republic), we must “look” American as everyone spoke to us in English.

    It did make it harder to talk to people since I was never sure what language to start talking to people in 🙂

  12. I do think it’s rude when you speak a certain language and are answered in a different one. The only exception to that is if a customer service rep, front desk clerk, etc. sees that you’re really struggling with the language. Now in Ben’s case I’m sure that’s not an issue. Why not accommodate the customer if possible?

    I know that happened to me in Puerto Rico a lot…I think they really enjoy practicing their English. There’s definitely some merit in that. As an English & Spanish speaker, I will switch to Spanish at work or out in public if I see someone is struggling with their English. They are usually really happy to know I speak Spanish despite looking like the average white American!

  13. Slightly OT. When you apply for global entry, do you list all countries you’ve visited on both passports, or just the US?

  14. I am also a dual German-American citizen. Usually, I travel to Germany with my father and his passport only expires every 10 years, while mine expires every 5 years. He usually does most of the talking (in german) with the agent and I just hand over my passport…

    But this time, I was alone at FRA and my german passport had expired, so I only had my american one. First of all, the agent was surprised that a 15 year old was traveling alone, and second of all, while I spoke German the entire time, he responded to me ONLY in the most broken english. I even said Danke Schon at the end and he responded, you Velcome.

  15. Did you ask (in German of course) why they keep on speaking English to you ? They probably do not even realize they do something wrong. Also, in touristic areas (airports etc..) you switch permanently from your native language to English, the employees are almost answering like robots. with no intention to offense. Just ideas…

  16. I could see it being policy–if they start hammering out in German to an American or someone of another nationality besides german, they don’t want the liability of that person saying “I didn’t understand the ticket counter person, I thought they said I could carry on 3 bags” or something of the sort.

  17. if your German is as good as you think it is, how about asking the person to speak German with you, instead of whining about it? This is an incredibly stupid post, about nothing at all (other than a) whining and b) whining about how awesome you think you are). How dare these damn German-speakers speak the majority language of the country of the passport you handed over! Bastards!

  18. Lucky,

    It’s a German/Austrian thing. What you are describing would have never (well, mostly never) have happened in France, Spain, Italy or Greece. Germans seem to be very American-friendly, at least that has been my experience. I don’t see it as bad service, they just want to make you feel comfortable, and to also showcase that they speak good English. It may feel that way to you as, in a sense you are getting ‘rejected’ by your own people (which they obviously don’t know that you’re one of them). Should they have switched and spoken to you in German? Yes, but I don’t think that they didn’t do so because they didn’t respect you. I found that Germans got excited to speak to me in English, whereas the aforementioned countries insist on speaking to you in their language.

    I have a proper American accent when I talk, but I also speak Greek, and as a matter of fact, if any Greek, anywhere gets a hint that I am Greek they immediately start talking to me in Greek.

  19. I think you were closer with “not good enough” to speak their language, but it isn’t that they think that about their language, it’s that they think that about Americans and they have preexisting ideas that Americans are intolerant about speaking anything other than English or doing anything other than the way things are done in America.
    And is that wrong so much? You may be cool, but a lot of other Americans are not. haha
    I also think that America is what’s down all over the world, so everybody wants to be a little American or act like it.
    Overall, who knows why she kept speaking English. If you cared so much, why wouldn’t you have just asked her? It’s probably something innocent. I think it’s innocent. She wants to speak English with you. So what?
    Probably most Americans she checks-in can’t speak any German. She probably wants to make sure you understand what is being said, and if you speak German so well, she might also want you to hear her speak English, so that if she said something wrong or weird, you’d be able to correct her.
    It’s totally innocent.

  20. Ben…nice to see that you speak German with your parents. Do you speak pure Hochdeutsch oder with Hessisch accent?:) I always laugh when my gf uncle, who mooved to San Fransisco when he was a child, starts to speak German with a bavarian accent’lol’

  21. Hi Ben, I am Brazilian, but I fluent in English, Spanish (and Portuguese of course). Very often in Florida, once people notice I am Brazilian they switch English to Portuguese/Spanish/Portuñol which is quite frustrating.
    Same thing in Chile, Argentina or Peru, once they realize I am Brazilian they try to speak Portuguese, even when I reply in Spanish. I realize they try to be nice and sometimes I say they can speak the mother language (sometimes I say I want to practice, just not to make them uncomfortable).

  22. This has been happening to me in Israel for over 20 years. Every now and then it gets frustrating, but I just take it in stride.

    Maybe they can’t wrap their head around the fact a “foreigner” can speak “their” language? “Maybe they want to practice their English? I don’t know, but like you, I don’t give in.

  23. Perhaps she was thinking : “Damn, I’m trying to practice my English and this native speaker doesn’t want to help me ! How rude is he !” ^^ Kidding apart, I think the “Main language” inside an airport is English so naturally they speak English and as she is probably bilingual like you she didn’t even notice that you were speaking German… Sometimes the same thing happen to me and my wife, I speak English to her and she replies in French, and the conversation keep going this way. I could switch to French and she could switch to English but we don’t notice it (however for someone listening our conversation it must be really weird ^^).

  24. Lets flip the scenario around. For example, at Sofitel hotels in Oz, you are always greeted at reception in French which is a nice touch – sadly though when you respond in French they look like a deer in headlights. Same with Asian airlines.. as a Westerner you get a stunned look when you respond in their native tounge.

  25. When traveling in countries where I have a working knowledge of the language (French and Spanish) I make an attempt to speak in the appropriate language but do find the response is more often in their command of English…maybe it is their attempt to show us they too know a second language, though for most western Europeans born since the 1950s, English is pretty much a universal given pop cultural flows. You’ve demonstrated a respect for trying to speak their language and they offer a mutual respect/response in that regard. It’s a bit like coming to an accommodation over those middle seat arm rests!

    Pardon me for moving off on a tangent though. I am strongly of the view that people should only be permitted a passport from one country, the one in which they have their current citizenship. I don’t believe in dual citizenship or holding dual (or sometimes even more) passports. If you are an American either by birth or naturalization, that should be your passport. While I recognize the convenience of having a second one for visa reasons (nothing more frustrating than having to give an embassy or consulate your passport for a week or two to process a visa) or ease of entry, it actually makes naturally-born citizens who’s parents and grandparents etc. were also naturally-born in the US (or in my case Canada) second class citizens in our own country. Now I don’t want to sound like Donald Trump, but if you’re an American, you’re going to have to give up any other claim to nationality (other than your familial proud heritage!

  26. We’ve had similar experiences. Mrs. Fredd speaks German somewhat fluently, to the extent that Germans often assume from her accent that she’s from “another” part of Germany – or occasionally Holland. When we’re in a very English-language environment, e.g. Hilton, Marriott, she usually just goes with the flow.

    We’ve taken young grandchildren to Europe two consecutive summers and, when in Germany on these occasions, she spoke it whenever possible to encourage our little rascals to pursue their own language studies.

    We’ve certainly experienced situations in which her German was better than the other person’s English, but she’s happy to translate the word they’re looking for and stay in English.

    We’ve had only one truly unpleasant experience, that with a clearly sexist and incompetent foreign-born taxi driver in Vienna who knew we were Americans and accused her in his broken German of mispronouncing an address (she who spent a year studying at the University of Vienna). In fairness, his English was better than his German as he understood the swear words I eventually directed his way on one of our worst ever cab rides.

    To answer your question, She loves the opportunity to practice and use her German although she never pushes it, but then she’s not a native speaker like you. I can understand the twinge of annoyance (bemusement?) you must feel, standing there with your German passport and being addressed as an Ausländer.

    Let me ask you a more practical question, Lucky. Does your fluency as an American speaking German ever score you an upgrade? For us, sadly, the Gemütlichkeit has never extended to that. 😉

  27. Yeah, some ppl the get stuck on a language, my spanish is fluent but I’m northern european, I had the most comical experience in a bakery in Barcelona, the cashier just wouldn’t change to spanish, problem was I couldn’t understand her english at all, ended up with the whole bakery telling her, please speak spanish with him, he is addressing you in spanish and can’t understand your english 😀

  28. Good post!

    I’ll preface this with some basic info:
    Born in western (ie anglophone) Canada, lived here all my life (20).

    I have both Canadian and Polish citizenship and passports and speak English and Polish 100% fluent and sans accent. I also speak French, it’s fluent and no accent but my vocabulary isn’t as rich as I’d wish (leaving me describing things sometimes). In all three cases, regardless of which language I speak, people will continue in that language. In Poland I show my Canadian passport when checking in – they will speak Polish. I also speak Spanish but I don’t travel as much to SA or Spain so I have little experience. Though the FA on HV (Transavia) AMS BCN asked me to translate to Spanish…

    And as above, LH also thinks I’m German. 🙂 I understand it so that’s fine but they generally switch to English (though not always!).

    I’ll end this saying that anglophones often think I have an accent. I smile and say that I rather speak clearly and concisely, you know, eh?!

  29. This same thing happened to my mom when flying Lufthansa. She’s fluent in German from having lived there for awhile. But immediately upon seeing her USA passport, they switched to English. She continued the interactions speaking German. On the other hand, in Spain, people had no problem talking to me in Spanish even knowing I was an American.

  30. When I studied in Germany I ran across this all the time. My German is plenty good enough to get around, but you can probably still tell I’m an Auslander. There were many times interacting with people, especially in train stations, where I would have a whole conversation with me speaking German and them replying in English. Sometimes I think they figure it’s easier just to speak English, since I’ve often found that Germans’ English is better than my German. 🙂

  31. I speak English and Cantonese fluently and my Mandarin is good enough for short conversations.

    I usually speak whatever language is easier for the agent since I believe that will speed things along. I’ll tell them Chinese is fine even though I present a US passport.

    That being said, I’m of Chinese descent and find that in mainland China, I’m offered poorer service compared to a foreigner because I’m of Chinese descent and they assume I only speak Chinese. In situations like that, I’ll immediately only speak English and service becomes much better.

  32. Timely post! My husband was born in Holland and literally came over on the boat at age 6! The Rotterdam to be exact. I have inquired on how he can get his Dutch passport since his mom was born there as were he and his sister. Dad was American and when mom and dad married they came to the US.

    Why would you, Lucky, be able to get a dual passport and not he? His relatives in Rotterdam have said with the influx of migrants the Dutch have stopped this practice? So if your German you can get an EU passport but if your Dutch your SOL?

  33. I think part of this is a presumption that you may be speaking German initially to be polite, but as an American citizen they’re presuming you would be more comfortable in English. After a few sentences I’d think they’d realize you don’t just speak a few words of German (I can speak a few words of it, but not much, and I can’t understand it unless the other person speaks very…very…VERY slowly and uses small words.), but are actually fluent. I don’t think they’re being rude, just a bit presumptuous.

    @Mark – I’d love to have the 10 seconds I spent reading your comment back. But such is life. I understand your frustration in not value for money reading this blog. Oh, wait…

    @DavidB – how does someone else having dual citizenship make “naturally-born citizens” (as opposed to artificially born?) second class? It’s a different concept of “citizenship”, where some countries recognize that even when one of their citizens (and those citizen’s children) emigrate, they don’t automatically sever all ties to their ancestral homeland. Those nations have chosen to define citizenship rights that way, but that doesn’t affect your relationship with, in your case, Canada. You don’t have less just because someone else has more. Now in a time of war between their dual nationalities, a dual citizen may have to make a choice between one and the other, but it sounds like you are automatically presuming their first loyalty is to the other nation.

  34. I have the same dual citz as you Lucky. My German has an accent but one time the Austrian Biz class agent said something and I missed it and she replied, ” you are a German — start speaking better!” – just because I am the “typical blond light eyed” looking German with my reisepass, they expect me to be fluent.
    I have lived in Asia half my life and speak fluent Japanese and the FA are always in shock when I speak in Japanese and they never use English. I speak very quickly in Japanese and they realize it saves us all time.
    Great post but I wouldn’t worry about it. Speak whatever and whenever you want.

    Re the one comment on personalausweis — you need to take up residency in Germany to have this card I thought…I had one when I was a resident but had to give it back when I wasn’t anymore. To renew your reisepass you should only need your yellow certificate of citizenship that you got when you received your first reisepass.

  35. I can relate to this, i speak perfectly Flemish, French and German, having grown up in Antwerp, Belgium. Yet every time i try to speak Flemish in The Netherlands, the Dutch insist on answering back to me in English. In France its French, ’cause they just don’t have a decent command of the English language and in Germany & Austria, its a bit of both. Hotels n Airports reply in English, shops, caffe’s, Restaurant staff reply in German and happy to do so.

  36. What i actually find more amusing is whenever i check into the Churchill Hyatt Regency or Marriott Grosvenor Square hotels in London, some of the German front desk staff love it when you address them in German. It even landed me suite upgrades twice.

  37. @Brian I have a similar experience in Iceland. I must look Icelandic because practically every time I have an interaction with a local where they speak first they start speaking to me in Icelandic.

  38. I have a decidedly German surname, albeit anglesised in spelling. When in German speaking countries, once they see my name, they always speak to me in German – especially on German airlines. I learnt German twice – once as a child, and again at school as an adolescent. My initial German is a bit archaic – the result of a ‘trapped’ German community in South Australia. As soon as I assert my Australian nationality, they instantly change to English. I suspect it is my accent and archaic forms that brings me undone.

  39. I would have loved to have been a fly on a wall for that exchange. It almost sounds like that, with a few tweaks, it could be a skit on Key and Peele.

  40. To be hung up on such a non-issue sounds more like passport “psychopathology” and “psychology”.

    What difference does it make which language an agent wants to speaking in? I once checked in with the agent and I speaking different languages that we both were fluent in — she probably did not even realize what was going on.

    In the interest of efficiency and expediency my suggestion is to defer to the agent in a case like this and speak which ever language s/he wishes to speak in because I am 100% that in her/his mind s/he is being accommodating and not “rude” 😉

  41. I suspect some of the posters claiming to be fluent in a certain language actually overestimate their proficiency and/or underestimate how strong their accent is. Many of my colleagues and friends are ESL and, while they would all consider themselves fluent in English, I find some of them very hard to understand at times. Maybe the airport staff would rather use their reasonably good English than have to try to decipher your strong accent.

    As an example, in my experience many Parisians hate speaking English. The easiest way to make them do it is to speak to them in Quebecois, which is basically 16th century peasant French. The accent is so broad and grating to the ear of a true Frenchman that they’d rather speak English!

  42. Funny your comment about Miami. What exactly works there? 🙂 That is the world capital of inefficiency starting by their airport which I avoid like the plague.

  43. Yep, I’ve experienced this many times before while I was living in Austria around 10 years ago. I’m a US citizen (only), and fewer EU countries were in the Schengen Agreement than now. I spoke proficient German and even had the Austrian accent down, tried my best to speak German wherever I could. If I was in situations where I didn’t need to identify myself, everyone spoke German back, no questions or attempts to engage my mothertongue. But if I needed to ID myself, almost instantly those who looked at the passport (who were either service/hospitality industry or law enforcement) would snap immediately to English.

    One exception was the ÖBB attendant who processed my Vorteilscard, she knew I was American but I spoke German and engaged me in German the whole time. Also I remember the German Border Police checking me on a DB train from Switzerland into Germany (before they joined Schengen). I started talking to them in German before surrendering my passport, they continued conversing me in German but were audibly surprised that I actually spoke German when they saw I was an American.

    One time I flew from Paris to Vienna on Austrian, the couple next to me were French, spoke French to each other, English to me and the flight attendant. I spoke German to the flight attendant and the couple assumed I was Austrian, asked me about places to visit, what I enjoyed, etc. A small moment of pride if you can, even indirectly, make it seem like a local.

  44. I agree. I have the reverse problem. Whenever I fly Lufthansa they speak to me in German the entire flight even though I don’t speak German (well not much) and even after I ask to speak in English.

    I found it so frustrating I have been politely avoiding the airline for years.

    Anyway apparently I look German.

    And apparently you don’t!!!!

  45. haha. This sort of hits home… I speak Japanese at a naitive level but I look quite “American” so this happens alot over in Japan. I’m speaking Japanese but they reply in English… and keep sgoing on until someone gives in. But, many times they don’t quit e “grasp” that you’re actually speaking their language, they see a foreign face and assume English is coming out of your mouth!

  46. With regards to airline/hotel/immigration/etc., I actually have the opposite experience to Lucky. I have a VERY Dutch surname, and despite looking like the typical overweight North American, presenting a Canadian passport, and saying “Hello” or “Good morning”, anyone even remotely connected to the Netherlands always tries to speak to me in Dutch no matter where we are in the world.

    Fortunately, after hearing me struggle through “Pardon, ik spreek maar een beetje Nederlands” they switch right to English (which most Dutch people speak better than I do!)

  47. I think this varies by country. As a Brit growing up in Germany it was hard to learn German because they pedantically insisted on speaking in English with me. A German once said to me “Germans are happy to sell in English but they always buy in German”. However, in Quebec they have appreciated my attempts at High School French and show great kindness by replying slowly and enunciating clearly when they speak French in return.

  48. You are in Japan. You can speak fluent Japanese but the Japanese people you meet insist on speaking English to you. What does that tell you? (a) They wish to impress you with their knowledge of English; (b) they just see it as an opportunity to “practice” their English; (c) both of the above because, after all, they speak Japanese all the time , so is it not actually more fun and educational to speak in English?! (d) All of the above.

    I am right now in Kinshasa, the capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo, the largest francophone city/country in the world. I speak fluent French and everyone I interact with at the hotel where I am staying knows this, but they insist on speaking to me in English. Why is that? For the reasons that I just gave above and the proof is that they invariably look very pleased when congratulate them on how “good” their English is…

  49. Here in Israel it’s pretty common to hold a second passport, given that most people here are either first, second or third generation of immigrants. As lots of Americans have European origins I don’t understand why isn’t having a second passport common in the U.S as well. That said, if the language I was approached with when entering Europe was based on the passport I’m holding it would be quite useless as I don’t speak a word in Romanian (and actually have never even visited Romania).

  50. I have a fond memory of checking in at an Ibis in Düsseldorf. I was determined to do it all in German. The nice lady behind the counter had about 5 flag pins on her lapel — including a Union Jack — but we continued to speak German — and she even helped me out once when I was stuck for a word. She clearly could have done things quicker in English but I appreciated that she stuck with me.

    Now if there had been 20 people waiting to check in it might have been different…

  51. This post made me laugh out loud – in a good way !

    Nice to see that the dogged german stereotype is alive and well 🙂

    I was going to suggest that you should just tell them that it’s ok to speak english … but I prefer Alvin’s suggestion that you pretend that you can’t speak english !

  52. I recently had the opposite experience on Austrian. I’m Belgian and my native language is Dutch.

    However all cabin attendants consequently spoke to me in German. I had a chat about it with the purser when she came around for her welcomes and she said that in their rexperience Belgians are fluent in German (a small part of the country is German speaking).

    Now, I understand Most things said to me in German, but my speaking skills are very limited, resulting in not very natural conversations during the flight, but I got to practice my very basic German skills :p

  53. On a mildly related note…

    …the eagle on Lucky’s American passport is prettying *gone*.

    I know he puts it through its paces, but I’ve never been impressed with the quality of our travel documents. Hopefully they make improvements in that department with the new 2016 edition that’s coming out.

  54. I have been practicing my French for late September trip to Paris and Geneva.
    The four B words should meet most of my needs: bonjour, biere, brie and baguette.

  55. I’ve had the same thing happen when people see my passport in Portuguese, German, and French. The same people would not have switched a few minutes before had they not seen my passport. In some cases perseverance pays off. In others, it’s a moot point.

    Find somewhere else to practice and stop needing to prove to someone that you speak the language. Sounds like an inferiority complex to me.

    I grew up bilingual (none of the above nor English). If you truly are bilingual, you’ll either:
    A. switch to whatever language the other speaker is speaking in, or
    B. Continue speaking in your language while the other party is speaking in their language (assuming they’re just as bilingual). If you can do that then both of you are truly bilingual.

  56. Maybe, for whatever reason, she’s under orders to speak English to holders of US Passports. Since she’s German, orders get obeyed. And maybe your German is not as good as you think. All we can do is guess. The wily ways of immigration people are almost always inscrutable to lesser beings. Anyway, you can shake the English later by checking into cheaper hotels, where you’ll tend to encounter a less cosmopolitan staff.

  57. @DavidB — you will not want to meet my daughter: born in Costa Rica to a Nicaraguan mother and (crazy) Gringo father. She’s quite proud of her THREE passports…

    @Ric Garrido — my Life is fulfilled by the 5C’s: cafe, cigarros, chocolate, cerveza and chicas. Doesn’t work out so well in English!

  58. I am 50% Greek and did not learn the language growing up, but studied it later on in college and am fairly conversant (though heavily accented). In almost all cases, I am initially addressed in English, but when I reply in Greek, I have found that people enthusiastically continue the conversation in Greek (which then always includes where in Greece my family is from because, presumably, no native English-speaker without Greek heritage would decide to learn modern Greek). I jump on every chance I get to practice my Greek, so I have been thrilled with the extended conversations.

  59. Just came back from Cancun most touristy place in Mexico and people were surprised that I spoke Spanish so well. However, my husband who is 4th generation Mexican American does not speak any Spanish and 1st time in Mexico was told by immigration officer how his parents did him a disservice by not teaching him Spanish! I guess she felt strongly that he should speak the language and acted shocked that he didn’t.

  60. Using “usually always” in a sentence is an oxymoron, and a major grammatical wrinkle in your otherwise readable article. I know Americans take great liberties with the English language but this might be a step too far!

  61. I’m also a dual passport holder, though my Taiwanese passport is much less useful compared to my US one.

    In Asia, I’ve found that everyone speaks the local language to me, aside from China, where they assume I’m from Korea. This has resulted in a Mongolian waitress shouting at me and assuming I’m mentally handicapped or having a go at her. Most of the time though, I have to correct people and get them to speak English to me (I only speak English, Mandarin, and passable French). In China though, people are happy to switch to Mandarin with me, although some do stick to English when they see my US passport or my fiancee (who is Caucasian).

    In France though, people generally spoke English to me in Paris, but would humor my French speaking anywhere else, like Lyon or the countryside.

  62. Whenever I’m in Germany, I find that in most restaurants and shops I can speak German and they will respond in kind, despite my obvious English accent. I’ve only had people automatically switch to English in airports, international hotel chains, and perhaps some of the more touristy restaurants.

  63. I have this experience all the time! I only have one passport, and normally travel within Latin America. Even if I start speaking Spanish, if someone in a customer service job in the travel industry is able, they talk to me in English. It is very annoying. What is worse is when their English is terrible and I can’t understand them and I try to go back to Spanish, but they seem to want to “practice their english”! Just give it a rest and take the “hint”. If I wasn’t comfortable I would address you in English!

  64. I’m Asian and have learnt German since teenage. Whenever I’m in German-speaking countries, I try to speak as much German as I can. People react very positively to my German even though I’m not a native speaker and reply to me auf Deutsch almost every single time. That’s why I feel that my German gets better and better every single time I go to Germany, Austria and Switzerland.

  65. I’ve had this experience in France. It’s almost like a game. They speak English to me, I respond in French. They respond correctly in English, so they clearly understood me, and yet they won’t speak to me in French. It’s not all French people, but a significantly high enough number for it to be more the norm than the exception. Depending on my mood, I either keep at it or give up and speak in English. Never asked why it is, but some people seem to think it’s the “not good enough to speak my language” thing.

  66. FYI: if you are German, you HAVE TO enter Germany with your German passport, even if it is expired, failure to do so is considered a misdemeanor.

  67. This is also valid in Norway, I am a dual citizen (Norway/France) but when i come with my french passport to check-in at OSL speaking Norwegian they insist every time on speaking English without giving in (Even better, i mostly fly AF out from OSL and the agents are mostly the same…). However in France i can use my Norwegian passport and start the conversation in French and there the agents get it and speak French instead of English!

  68. I always get so annoyed by this!!! If you’re fluent in another language and they find out you’re American, that doesn’t mean you have to switch to English!! I think it’s a big misconception.

  69. H there, i completely agree, i also feel like it’s rude or non customer service oriented. after 3 & 1/2 years of living in Italy & taking intense language courses, i’M pretty comfortable & efficient with my Italian speaking abilities yet, it never fails, i start to speak in Italian and (obviously i do not look italian, i am Peruvian Born American) so they will respond in English. I love to go out shopping, dining, etc & practice what i study but rarely get the chance. I am fluent in Spanish obviously & when i have traveled in South America they never do this to me. I have also experienced this in Germany with german speaking friends, They will just finish out the convo in German… go figure.

  70. if there’s anything “foreign” about you they will do that, it’s probably a German “thing” happened to me hundreds of time, even after learning German good enough to graduate from College. Once I got so annoyed I actually said to this guy (whith a big smile and a veeeery sweet tone) “Sprechen Sie auch Deutsch? Ich kann kein Englisch…” the look on his face was priceless!!!! he even apologized!! 😉

  71. Well, I am a Romanian-American, and whenever will travel in EU I’ll use the Romanian passport, of course. But, in Amsterdam, Paris, Frankfurt I’ll be greeted in English either way as they do not know Romanian…. Their attitude it will change once I’ll mention that I live in US. Go figure… why they have a different attitude. My point here it is that they can be polite only if they been made aware that it may not be pleasant.

    I have been pulled aside last time in Amsterdam for using two passports…US leaving and Romanian while departing from Amsterdam to Bucharest… I have been told that because I have used both passports they have to check me…Anyway…. my conversation with the agent it was friendly after a while. Most of the discussion was about US elections and guns…Yes, guns even for Western Europe apparently it is a tabu subject…I’d expect this from an Ex-Communist country… Now, seriously…. even after two world wars they did not learned a lesson!?
    Perhaps, they must learn again to defend themselves…not relying on the others to defend the whole Europe for them.

    When, I’ll arrive in Romania I will encounter another type of border agent that it is not trained well to greet people or it is tired of long hours with less paid salary…than their counterparts in Western Europe.
    But, they will speak to me in Romanian when I greet them even I’ll show them my US passport.

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