On speaking a particular language in the presence of non-speakers


Having grown up in a household where I didn't speak most of the languages my parents and their friends use, I'm quite accustomed to being surrounded by conversations in a language I have no chance of understanding. If people are more comfortable speaking in a particular language, I say let them.

Some people object to this on the grounds that "They might be talking about me." Guess what: They almost certainly aren't. It may hurt your ego to learn this, but it's the truth: You're really not that fascinating to other people. It turns out that over 99.99% of all conversations in the world do not involve you to any degree whatsoever. People speak other languages; get over it.

While we were stopped waiting for bicycle repair assistance on the way to the Company Picnic, my friend called to inform a new acquaintance who was going to meet us at the picnic that we were delayed. Since they both speak French natively and I wasn't involved in the conversation, they naturally used French.

Later, at the picnic, my friend's girlfriend remarked in Japanese what a hot day it was. (She's not Japanese herself but has been studying it for a while.) I dug deep into my brain to pull out what little Japanese remains there and managed to produce a few words of enthusiastic agreement. At which point my friend interjected, "No speaking languages I don't understand!"

I wasn't quite sure what to make of that remark, especially since he was speaking French in the presence of non-French speakers just a while ago.

(By the way, a few butt pictures are now up. That's my butt in the first picture and my friend's butt in the second.)

Comments (30)
  1. dhiren says:

    The opposite was true when I was growing up – when my mother wanted to talk about us to her sister or her mother, she’d switch to hindi, knowing we’d have no idea what they were saying.

    We got them back tho – none of them understood afrikaans… although we never really had much to gossip about :(

  2. Jim B says:

    I find it uncomfortable when others speak a different language in my company not because I think they are talking about me but because I don’t know why they do not use English when they can.

    It is like whispering in company, they are probably not talking about me but why are they doing it?

    I never use my native language with fellow speakers when the group is speaking english.

  3. Ken Cox [MVP] says:

    When I was a kid, I played with a friend from a German-speaking household. The parents wisely used German so the kids could communicate with their grandparents and family in the old country.

    However, the rule was that as soon as a non-German speaker entered the house (like me), all conversations switched to English. This was very considerate because it can be uncomfortable feeling exclused from conversations that are going on around you – even if you are not directly involved.

  4. Robin says:

    Hehe, sounds like a nice set of double standards to me! :D

    Personally, I try not to use my native language (Dutch) when in company of folks that are (for instance) speaking English, but in some cases (ie work) it’s just quicker to explain something to my colleagues in Dutch, so that a design discussion can move on more efficiently. Then again, I’d most probably also add the english translation for the other folks…

  5. Miles Archer says:

    If you are the only native English speaker in a room with 10 Japanese speakes, why shouldn’t they be able to have a quick aside in Japanese. Never makes me uncomfortable.

    When I was in Germany, this happened frequently enough that I started to understand what they were talking about.

    By the way, the "butt" pictures, you should probably point out the other participant on the opposite side. I take it that the second picture shows you.

    The author of that page should be careful with the English/American. Key trouble spots:

    "I’ll knock you up in the morning"

    Bum/Butt – especially one of the US meanings of bum, meaning to borrow.

    Fag (for cigarette. possibly censored by the blogging software)

  6. ChrisB says:

    First thing I learn in a new language is "Please", "Thank you", and "I’m sorry".

    Next come the number and swear words of a language (apparently Japanees doesn’t have any–but I need some more confermation on that). Then food words.

    That usually covers the basics for me (that is basically what I know of Spanish and Dutch anyway).

  7. BlackTigerX says:

    >but in some cases (ie work) it’s just quicker to explain something to my colleagues in Dutch…

    I think that’s one of the main reasons why a lot of people speak a different language at times, I do that sometimes

  8. Alan De Smet says:

    The key is, are you excluding someone? When one is on the phone, you’re really just talking with the other person on the line, so use whatever language you like. (Although, when you’re on the phone, you really should try to distance yourself a bit from other people do avoid distracting them with a conversation they cannot be apart of. It’s also rude to remain part of a group while speaking on the phone because you’re essentially excluding everyone else from your call while remaining right there. But that’s true regardless of languages.)

    So given that rule, using Japanese in front of your friend may or may not have been rude, depending on how involved he was in the group. If he was just hanging out nearby, not necessary part of the conversation, it wasn’t terribly rude (although it may have been discouraging him from joining, making it very marginally rude). If the three of you had been having a conversation, well, yes, it was rude as you cut him out of the conversation.

    Of course, no rule is hard and fast. If there isn’t a common language in a group, well, there are going to be exclusions as people communicate in a mix of languages. Nothing is perfect.

  9. peterty says:

    I think it depends on the exact situation and how skillful you are in managing the interactions, when we were in Yokohama in the past days for the Imagine Cup Finals, there had been many such occasions, but I think we did handle them well.

    Usually the problem is that when you start talking in a language that someone does not understand, you are excluding him in the conversation, so it is all about properly engaging people during interactions.

  10. Watashi says:

    In Japanese, there are no swearwords, they swear by speaking agressively and loudly, so they could say "you are an idiot", but if they shout it, it could be translated as "you are a goddamn fucking idiot!" It is not really offensive in Japan, apparently, to "swear".

  11. Mike says:

    I’m not afraid people are talking about me, I just find it rude to not use the predominant language of the area in public if you are capable of doing so. If I’m in the US I expect random people to speak English, if I’m in Japan then Japanese.

    Where it really bugs me is in restaurants, especially fast-food places. In my area most people in general are native English speakers but it seems like the vast majority of the staff in the fast-food places are Mexican. They take my order in English but then relay it in Spanish and I have no way of telling if they’ve got it right. The non-counter staff often speaks English so poorly that they have to use the counter staff as translaters if they have a question about the order.

  12. Mihai says:

    I think it is a lot about perception.

    Personally, I am not afraid people are talking about me, but I find it rude (like whispering in someone’s year in public).

    It find be acceptable if one of the persons involved has low skill with the common language, they apologize, then quickly solve the problem in the unknown language.

    My perception is shaped by my past experience (duh :-)

    I am 1/4 German, from my mother side, but I do not speak/understand German. And a representative scene is quite relevant: visiting an aunt and uncle from the “German branch”, they where alone in the kitchen speaking German (I guess kitchen stuff, the kind you do when you have guests). In the second I have entered the kitchen to get some water, even if I was about 10 years old, they instantly switched to Romanian (my language, and the language of the country).

  13. David says:

    When talking to my wife, I frequently will use Japanese since it is her native language. I have lost most of the speaking ability, but I can still understand most of what she says to me as do our adult children. I also use Japanese when I don’t want others to understand what we are saying. I feel that I have only one relationship this close and if someone is offended that we use a private language, too bad. Get over it. I may want to confirm that she is ready to leave an event and we don’t want to share that communication.

  14. jeffdav says:

    This seems to bother lots of Americans.

    See http://www.slate.com/id/2123487/ (scroll down to the fourth letter).

  15. Mathias says:

    You should never take your friends too seriously Raymond. I’m sure he was teasing you and his gf. :-)

  16. D. Philippe says:

    Speaking languages others don’t understand makes people feel uncomfortable. A gentleman that will avoid using languages that others can’t speak when he could use one that everyone speaks. The primary reason is politeness.

    …Just an observation from someone who grew up in a dozen countries that spoke about as many languages.

  17. Norman Diamond says:

    I dug deep into my brain to pull out what

    > little Japanese remains there

    Oh, if I’d known that when we were discussing some pages of the MSDN library, I would have sent you links to some of the Japanese MSDN pages. It’s really cute to see statements written in Japanese saying that the ANSI code page has 256 characters and every character’s codepoint fits in a single byte. Or saying in Japanese that the default font is Tahoma or MS Sans-Serif.

    Thursday, August 04, 2005 10:25 AM by Jim B

    > I never use my native language with fellow

    > speakers when the group is speaking english.

    Funny situation, it’s exactly the opposite for me.

    Thursday, August 04, 2005 11:19 AM by ChrisB

    > Next come the number and swear words of a

    > language (apparently Japanees doesn’t have

    > any–but I need some more confermation

    I’ll unconfirm it for you.

    Thursday, August 04, 2005 12:34 PM by Watashi

    > In Japanese, there are no swearwords, they

    > swear by speaking agressively and loudly,

    False and true, respectively. In situations where a person speaks angrily to another, it is more common to speak aggressively and loudly than to use swearwords. Also the intended target will more immediately perceive the anger or insult from the use of aggressive words than from use of swearwords. Swearwords are offensive but they make the speaker look like an idiot instead of having the intended effect.

  18. kr says:

    you are almost visible holding the blue ball in the second picture

  19. Mike Walsh Helsinki says:

    I’ve found my paranoia (they’re speaking about me) to be very useful as it has forced me to spend time to learn languages of countries I’ve been living in. (This worked better in the old days when almost everyone living in a country spoke only one language.)

    Then there was the bit about people changing language when you enter. Finland has two main (there’s also Lappish) official languages – Finnish and Swedish. These days Swedish-speaking Finns tend to immediately switch conversations to Finnish whenever a Finnish-speaking (by far the majority) Finn enters the room. Some Swedish-speaking Finns however also complain that they can no longer get service in Helsinki in Swedish and some Finnish-speaking Finns complain that even though they want to speak Swedish, the Swedish-speaking Finns never let them but switch immediately to Finnish.

    As you can see there’s a lot of inconsequentional behaviour here.

    [Sidenote: most Swedish-speaking Finns live in (majority) Finnish-speaking areas and thus also speak fluent Finnish. Finnish-speaking Finns learn Swedish at school but many don’t speak it fluently.]

  20. Wendy House says:

    I’ve found that generally talking Jibberish bypasses the whole social etiquette problem thingy. It does cause problems getting the right order in a restaurant or asking for directions when you’ve lost your car, or the car park you think you’ve put it in.

  21. Jerry Pisk says:

    Speaking of fast foods (but the kitchen staff in regular restaurants is not any better, you just don’t see it) – I’d much rather have someone translate my order into words the cooks understand, that way they are much more likely to get it right as opposed to having to take it in English where I can check it but they don’t know what’s going on.

    And being able to speak few languages as well, I really do not have a problem with people using ones I do not understand. I don’t get the reasons why it even might be considered rude, does it mean I’m not allowed to use my body language in front of blind people? Or when some people are not looking? If it gets the job done go ahead and use whatever language you need to.

    Oh and as for talking about you – if you forced them to use language you can understand they’d just say it later, when you’re not around. You gain absolutely nothing by being able to understand. If it’s something they want you to know they’ll share, if not they won’t, no matter what language they speak.

  22. AndyC says:

    The only time it bothers me is after a few too many pints on a Friday evening. It can be a little disconcerting when it seems like you might have lost the ability to understand words. ;)

  23. Max Nokhrin says:

    In my family, we speak a mixture of 3. However, it is normal for us to switch over exclusively to ones that others speak that are near us. This kind of happened instinctively – there was never any rule made or anything – for us it’s just common sense. However, if the conversation is between me and someone who speaks something besides English, and no one else in involved (even indirectly), I have no problem speaking another language. I would find it annoying if in a group meeting someone spoke something that I didn’t understand, but I wouldn’t get too angry about it and just ask what they said.

    In Response to Mike Walsh: Living in Paris, it’s really hard to learn French in some arrondisements, because the French immediately switch over to English. Once, I ordered something in French and everything was fine until a friend of mine walked by who didn’t really speak French, so I said "hi" and so on in English. The man preparing the order looked up and said "I speak English". I replied that "Oui, mais je voudrais practiquer francais un peu, aussi" (Yes, but I’d like to practice French, too). He thought about this for a bit and agreed that it was a fair point. I’m still not sure why did said that (I’m not annoyed either, though). The arrondisemet is pretty much fully bilingual, so he shouldn’t have been surprised. Maybe he was annoyed that I spoke non-French when he was indirectly involved?

  24. The problem is that as several people of commented, they’ll switch into another language to avoid being understood. If they are avoiding being understood, one might ask why. I’m not usually personally bothered by people carrying on a conversation in another language, but I can understand why some people might be worried.

  25. I’ll bet your friend is just paranoid because he uses his language to talk about other people when he doesn’t want them to understand. That is why he is so paranoid that you are talking about him in the other language.

  26. C++ guy says:

    I think your friend has a sense of humor ;-)

  27. Les C. says:

    An odd scenario. Perhaps your friend indeed does have a sense of humour.

    I grew up in a household where my dad spoke a different language to his friends, and it seemed totally normal to me.

    Greek speaking friends of mine have no hesitation in dropping in and out of Greek.

    OTOH I have Vietnamese-born friends my age who are very nervous about speaking Vietnamese when there are non speakers around and have rebuked others for doing that.

    A true minefield.

    Incidentially, on the Japanese language, it is true that it has few swear words. Instead, you do it with the grammar.

    For example, in the example "you are an idiot", the rudest bit is "you" and the put-down would be engineered by selecting the correct version/conjugation of "are"…confused yet?

  28. Mathias Ricken says:

    I’m usually lazy — quite often, just sticking with the language spoken by the majority is the easiest. If I feel I can convey something faster in another language, I try to follow up with a quick summary so everyone understands: "Du musst einfach nur den Nippel durch die Lasche ziehen — Just do it that way." (I wonder if Raymond understands that ;)

  29. JDM says:

    I have found that, usually, if someone is talking about another… they will do it in such a way that the person they are talking about KNOWS what was said; otherwise, really, what is the point?

  30. Zonk says:

    I live in Germany. My home town is close to Munich (the city of Oktoberfest-fame) and has some nice old buildings in the town center (that means older than the colonization of America, so they are not really that old). Nevertheless, we get some tourists. I usually try to talk to the American ones, because English is the only language that I know (besides German) and I see this as a free opportunity to train my language skills. Most of them are very happy to find someone who speaks their language. (Very few Germans have a solid grasp of English, although theoretically everybody learns it as school.) But there was one couple who were deeply offended by the fact that people around them spoke German… gasp!… in Germany. I told them that we do this all the time just to piss off any American s that might by chance be around. I guess Mr. and Mrs. Intelligent were on a quest to prove correct every stereotype about Americans that anyone in Europe might have.

    ((PS: Most American tourists are very nice. What’s particularly amusing is their fascination when they hear about the age of German buildings, cities, churches or breweries. Of course, the traditions of Native Americans are even older. That’s what I consider much more interesting than European beer. Oh my.))

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