First things first, I will define Northern Europe as basically Scandinavia, the Netherlands, and Germany – all counties, especially the first two groupings, that speak a high standard of English. I want to talk about what the experience is like when thanks to the whims of the travel gods you have immersed yourself into their culture. An interesting experience happens given time, as by each day there is more and more of an expectation to learn their language. Allow me to detail some of my own experiences as to explain better what I mean.
In these countries the inhabitants look forward to the chance to showcase their English ability. The fact that you are a native speakers is seen as exciting to them. In particular in Denmark and the Netherland, they will astound you how well they speak. As they don’t learn as much regional slang they speak quite clean, accurate English. What is more, they have also watched enough English movies and TV and listened to enough English music that they can use slang and tell and understand jokes. What further will surprise you is entire groups will speak English, just for your benefit. This fact leads to the next point…
The Spotlight effect
When you are one native speaker in the midst of say ten Danish people it doesn’t take long to realize there is a spot light on you. Your presence is what is keeping them speaking English. The ultimate litmus test of this comes when you have to get up and go to the bathroom. Every time, and I really do mean every time, you come back the group will be speaking their native language. Where the spot light effect comes deeper into play is that the English conversation requires you to be constantly in the centre of it. If you are feeling animated and extrovert you may be able to really keep English as the language going for awhile. However, if you slip away from the conversation, even ever so slightly, you will hear someone say something in their language. Then the others will follow suit. When this happen, you have to choose when you have the energy to take back the spotlight and change the language to back English. When you do this someone will usually apologize and say – oh sorry, we should speak English.
Your Novelty wears off
Connecting to the last point given time and you being around the same people a lot, your novelty factor will begin to wear thin. What this means is that the grace period you have to maintain the spotlight without interacting much will become shorter and shorter… Groups will indulge you less and speak their own language when you are there more and more. Fair play to them, essentially what they are saying – or in the case of the Dutch – they’ll say directly to you, when are you going to learn or language, its time.
Never fear, this is pretty subtle and is never done maliciously, it is just kind of the way it plays out.