This must be the most frustrating thing for language learners or cross cultural people.
I can’t tell you how many times I have had this experience. I still haven’t figured out why it happens over and over again.
I am beginning to think that some people can’t conceive of or believe things that fall outside their own life language experience, or some are so totally fixated on the visual impression of the person they are speaking with.
Language lovers, ability comes when you don’t get discouraged.
I’ve had this experience in Taiwan, speaking Chinese, and with Chinese speaking friends here in America.
When I’m out and about, I’ll see people I know. The same person I held a conversation with in the language a month ago, or even last week, will forget I speak it next time they see me. They’ll make hand signs and gestures as if speaking to a deaf or mute person, when all they have to do is open their mouths and utter a few simple words in Mandarin.
This happens less so when I cut my hair short, wear thick glasses, or even wear a hat. It makes my racial appearance more ambiguous. The other person is likely to tolerate my linguistic yearnings, for whatever reason.
I hate that it would come to this for all my fellow lovers of language, but if you are really trying to get some practice in a foreign language, the best thing for you to do is to bring your appearance more in line with those from the culture you wish to speak to. Get them to think you might have some deep connection with their language.
You may just have to drum into your friends’ heads that you can speak their language by refusing to utter another word of English, no matter how they respond.
This indeed may lead to some confused moments or even lost friendships. Sorry. Some people just don’t understand a language lover. Kiss your old friends on the cheek and find some friends willing to understand you better.