≡ Menu

Me Hablan En Inglés

I attended a fabulous cookout this weekend that was hosted by a dear friend. Throughout the duration there were 8 – 10 people in attendance. One of these people is of Mexican origin but has lived in my northern state since childhood and freely admits that his English is much better than his Spanish. His girlfriend showed up late, but it was informal on the times so that was fine – people were coming and going over five or six hours. She is also of Mexican descent but was raised in a northern state. Both of them do speak Spanish at home with their parents, but speak English in their everyday lives and have no difficulty expressing themselves as they were educated in the English language.

My question is this, as no one besides these two people speak Spanish fluently (or at all for the most part), was it appropriate for them to trade commentary in Spanish while standing in the same room as five or six friends who are all limited to speaking English? I know one person tried to comment on it by saying that he spoke French if anyone wanted to chat, but they just laughed it off and every once in a while would have a brief conversation in front of us that no one else could understand. I feel that is the height of bad manners – it would be different if Spanish was their primary language and English was difficult – but this was a situation where it was clearly a choice to exclude the group from their conversation.

What should I do when this situation pops up again? Is there a gentle way to point out how offensive this is to the group as a whole? 0528-13

Speaking in another language that is unknown to everyone else or whispering together repeatedly while in the conversational arena that intentionally excludes others from participating  is rude.   Either they are conducting personal business that should have been dealt with at a more appropriate time and venue or they are having a running commentary about the food, the event, what others guests say or look like.

The gentle approach was taken and was ignored.  As a guest you have no further recourse other than to give the conspiratorial couple the proverbial cold shoulder.   If they want to verbally fence themselves off from other guests, you may assist in this endeavor by simply choosing to not engage them in any discussion.   As a host, you can pull one or both aside and privately suggest that if they have unfinished private business that necessitates them speaking between themselves in another language that perhaps they would be more comfortable tying up the loose ends in the privacy of the den.


Comments on this entry are closed.

  • keloe June 4, 2013, 2:40 am

    As a person who spends a lot of time in an international setting I must say it’s not so easy. I know people who use their own language as an opportunity to make nasty remarks out loud without being understood (this frequently backfires, actually, as there are similar words in different languages, or people who know a bit of both).
    On the other hand, it comes down to the language the particular to people usually communicate in.

    Your mind generally defaults to that. Even when I invited foreign guests into my home, my mother would default into Polish when speaking to me about something (e.g. “can you go and make more tea”), though she does speak English and doesn’t want to be rude. As a rule we don’t communicate in English between ourselves, so that’s what she defaults to.

    If these people communicate in Spanish normally, that’s what they will default to. If I run into a person of my nationality at an international gathering, it takes conscious effort not to switch to our native language at times, and I’m multi-lingual (meaning I speak three languages with equal fluency and can switch mid-sentence). You automatically speak your own language with your own people.

    I don’t know these people. Maybe they were actually purposefully exclusive, or maybe they just fall into their usual communication pattern without even realising it. If the latter, you must remember that it takes actual constant effort to _not_ fall into it, so they might lapse when they get distracted.

  • Mer June 4, 2013, 4:03 am

    I agree with admin here. Lengthy or repeated discussion where others cannot participate is bad manners. I think with friends everybody is understanding for short whispered/different language conversation. I’m thinking discussion like “Honey, we need to leave early enough so we have time to buy tampons from the store”.

    While with larger groups it’s natural that party divides into smaller discussion groups, I think it’s important that anybody is able to join these discussions if the topic is interesting. Private conversations are for private situations.

  • koolchicken June 4, 2013, 4:56 am

    My husband and I have a tendency to whisper to each other when out in a group. I have social difficulties amd need him to help me sometimes (example, finding out if a comment was sarcastic or serious) but we try to keep it to a minimum. When possible I wait until we’re on our own to ask questions because it is rude to hold private conversations while in a group.

    English is our only language, even if it weren’t I would never be so brazen as to use that skill to hold a private conversation so openly. It’s rude and isolating. I have known some who did not have English as a first language, and even had a friend who would routinely slip a Spanish word to two (or even while sentances) into conversations without realizing it. But I don’t think that’s what’s happening here. If they were guests in my house I might, if the oppertunity arose, ask them to please keep the conversations to the common language. But if it were not my home I would simply try to ignore their bad behavior.

  • AnaLuisa June 4, 2013, 6:04 am

    I disagree with Admin.

    Although it would definitely be more polite to speak the language everybody understands, I do not think the other guests would have the right to require them to do so.

    Any revindicative measures such as the proposed cold shoulder, or even assuming that they are speaking badly about the other guests and/or the food, would be clearly over the line for me. I would expect that if my hosts invite me and my partner, they have some trust in us and do not assume we will talk about them behind their backs (or, in this case, in a foreign language right in front of them).

  • josie June 4, 2013, 6:22 am

    We sometimes go to an Amish community to shop and they will do that also. Their English is fine, but then they talk to each other in their Pennsylvania Dutch. I often thought that was rude….glad to know it is.

  • AS June 4, 2013, 7:04 am

    I was brought up in a multi-lingual country. I was always told that unless you are in a language class (where everyone should learn to speak the language even if they aren’t fluent in it), we should speak in a language that everyone knows, which was often English. I do consider constantly speaking in a different language around others rude. I could condone someone who is not too comfortable with English; but apparently that wasn’t the case with OP’s friends.

    I have a few very close Chinese & Taiwanese friends who make it a point to speak in English with each other when they are with us, even though they are not fluent in English.

  • KJ June 4, 2013, 7:12 am

    Here’s an idea…however it might be just as rude as their conversation. It’s what I would have been tempted to do though. I took Spanish in high school and college, so I would have been able to sort of follow the conversation, or at least pick up bits and pieces. I might have been tempted to listen intently and interject myself into the conversation, in a self-educating way, such as, “If my high school Spanish serves me, it sounds like you like the meatballs! Can you help me understand what the second sentence was?” And make it sound as if it’s a fun exercise you’re doing with yourself (which it very well could be…I love trying to interpret conversations in Spanish). Again, it’s quite possible this would be considered just as rude as the original conversation, but it might get the point across. Or, the whole group could get a Spanish lesson, depending how they take it.

  • Quentin R. June 4, 2013, 7:21 am

    While I concur that the situation can be used for dishonest purposes, I would not correlate the use of foreign languages directly with someone being rude, the same way a snickering, whispering conversation could.
    There are many people of various countries in my family – I guess we just have the travelling gene. What is more, my girlfriend has family all over the world from Sweden to China. We use English as a common language, and pretty much everyone speaks fluently. However, it happens to all of us to sometimes use different languages, and there can be a thousand reasons for that without any ill-conceived thought behind them! For instance, speaking about a family member who speaks language A will naturally make me use that language if I know it; sometimes a word comes more easily to mind in language B, no matter what your level of fluency in languages A, C or D are, etc.

    What I am saying is that while some people definitely use the language barrier as a coating for their rudeness (when I lived abroad, many times I have heard tourists complain in my mother tongue, thinking that nobody around could understand them), there are also psychological and cultural triggers which make bi- or plurilingual people switch languages, sometimes without them even noticing.

  • Lo June 4, 2013, 7:27 am

    This will come off as controversial probably, but this is one instance where I disagree with a lot of what etiquette dictates baesd on my own personal experiences.

    I’m fully aware that the situation described above is technically rude. However I think we should offer a lot of leniency to those who were raised with a language foreign to the land they live in, even if they are perfectly bilingual.

    At my American workplace, English is the language of business but I am one of the only people there who is not bilingual. Most of my coworkers were born in a foreign country and they all speak the same mother tongue. Personal matters are usually conducted in their native languages meaning I’m excluded from 90% of personal conversations. Of course whenever I’m involved in a conversation English is spoken. Often a kind soul will translate for me if we’re all having a meal together. Once I adapted to it I came to realize that this was something I didn’t need to take offense to because langauge is a personal and humanizing experience. They speak in their native language to forge a bond with one another and to express themselves in a way that English doesn’t quite cut it for. Being in the minority also gives me a healthy sense of proportion. My coworkers live their lives as a minority group in the US. When the situation is reversed they certainly don’t need to cater to my own comfort.

    The only time I would see this behavior as rude is if I was being deliberately excluded. If your two friends want to chat in Spanish, why should it bother you? Yes it’s nice to be able to join a conversation but as long as they aren’t talking about you or talking in Spanish to each other while you’re talking TO them, I don’t think it’s a big deal. There were other friends there you could talk to. It wasn’t just the three of you. All language are not created equal. English has a different “word map” than Spanish does. Spanish is better at expressing certain concepts. Spanish may be the language of their soul, so to speak.

    It is within your right to take offense to it, certainly. But I think it would be better to ignore it and assume the best of their intentions. And Spanish is beautiful, don’t you love to hear it spoken? I enjoy the sound, even if I don’t understand the words.

  • Chef Bob June 4, 2013, 7:41 am

    In my house, no matter what your native/primary language, you will speak English, unless you’re being translated by someone. That’s all there is to it, if you don’t speak English, bring someone who can translate. Other than that, leave your other language outside.

  • WildIrishRose June 4, 2013, 7:49 am

    Rude beyond belief. In my opinion, this ranks right up there with people texting during a social gathering. If you’re going to ignore everyone in the room, then go elsewhere and ignore us. Otherwise, either engage in conversation with people around you, or go home. And dish on the food, clothes, etc. later on in life, in whatever language you choose, but don’t do it RIGHT THERE at the party! People who do this seem always to adopt an air of superiority because they are privy to the “secrets” that not everyone can understand. Go home.

  • MollyMonster June 4, 2013, 8:13 am

    Yeah, I’m with the mod. In this instance it comes off as “Oooh, we’ve got a seeecret language!!!” and quite childish. As you said, it is one thing if the other language is your primary/default that it one thing. And if they had translated the comment after making it so everyone could participate, that would have been more polite.

    Bottom line, they were rude.

  • Jana June 4, 2013, 8:35 am

    The OP doesn’t seem to indicate this was done to intentionally be exclusionary…but I agree with KJ. This is what I refer to as a ‘teachable moment’. I am generally fascinated by other languages, and would probably also be trying to figure out what they are saying, and would most likely ASK them about it. I never had a firm grasp on Spanish when I was in school (much better at French), so I would ask them about certain words or phrases I recognized or ask them how to say something else. I would only be annoyed if they THEN got offended that I was trying to figure out what they’re talking about. In this day and age, it’s not uncommon for native English speakers to be at least a little bilingual, so anyone else COULD have understood them and joined in. I have seen this happen before…2 people speaking in Spanish, and a 3rd person joins in, and the couple are pleasantly surprised and include them. I have also had customers at work begin speaking to me in German, just to see if I know any. I don’t, but I see it as a way of them getting to know me better, and not a personal affront.

  • Erin June 4, 2013, 8:36 am

    I’d let it go, myself. Would you have been trying to listen in on their conversation if they were speaking English? Especially if it was just an occasional, brief back and forth, which is how it sounds. What if they were discussing a minor but embarrassing issue that might affect how long they can stay at the party?

  • Lilli June 4, 2013, 8:41 am

    Actually I disagree with everyone saying that it’s rude. While the OP said that they speak English they have no way of knowing if that is the primary language spoken in their day to day life. They don’t live with them and have no way of knowing. In my household both Chinese and Russian are our 2 major languages. Everyone speaks English (though not everyone is bilingual in both Chinese & Russian) and when we conversate amongst ourselves, often times we DO end up slipping into our mother tongue as it is the language we are most comfortable using. So while people who don’t speak the language see it as “Oh my gosh how rude.” for people who speak another language it’s a reflex and as natural as breathing. Instead of berating these people for their choice in language it would have been so easy for someone to have engaged them in conversation with the group instead of making snarky side-comments about not speaking in English.


  • Allie June 4, 2013, 8:56 am

    Too bad no one spoke Spanish unbeknownst to them. Some fun can always be had with that. My husband knows a couple of Indian guys (East, not Native) who grew up in Hong Kong. They are fluent in Mandarin, as is his cousin, who grew up in Singapore. It is always so much fun to hear what the wait stafff is saying about us in restaurants and then to see their flabbergasted faces when they find out our companion speaks their language. Of course, this cuts both ways. My husband and his sister were trying to have a private conversation in a restaurant once. They started with Punjabi and it turned out the waitress spoke that so they switched to Malay and it turned out she spoke that to0, which was quite a coincidence as it’s not all that common. They gave up.

  • Heather June 4, 2013, 8:56 am

    I grew up as an American in France and my father had *very strict* rules about this for us kids. We were *never* to speak English at a French social gathering. It was a burden on us because the handful of other American kids in our social circle followed no such rule (even in our small French church where speaking English was very obvious) and would persist in speaking English even when we answered them in French, so we had to be the lonely upholders of decency. But even as kids we did understand it really was decency we were upholding.

    That’s at a social gathering with truly bilingual people, where it’s clear-cut. There are nuances, usually informed by necessity or by, as the OP referenced, the fact that someone speaks one language much better than the other. Even I, who am pretty bilingual (and was probably more so in the past) found myself reverting to English during a stressful physical job on a deadline, giving English orders to my bilingual assistant even though we were surrounded by French people. But that’s a different story.

  • LonelyHound June 4, 2013, 9:12 am

    I can see how if they were just having a general conversation about the weather or what movie to go to later this would not be rude. However, the context I got from reading OP’s letter was that they deliberately isolated themselves from the rest of the guests to the point where others were uncomfortable. Lo, said they should be fine and left alone as long as they are not talking about any one at the party, but no one at the party spoke Spanish so no one could know whether or not they were being criticized and that is rude.
    Someone pointed out that we know it would be rude for people to be giggling, whispering and pointing at other people or the person at the party who is always texting or on the phone is rude. The reason they are rude is because they are deliberately excluding people. Just like to people huddled together whispering the two people speaking Spanish only made themselves unapproachable in their own little bubble in a situation where people probably wanted to engage them and were obviously uncomfortable.
    My DH has an uncle who is a native Spanish speaker. His household speaks Spanish and he conducts all his business in Spanish. However, even though he knew my husband would understand him, he spoke English the entire time we visited him in his house because he knew I did not speak or understand Spanish. He even slowed down his English speaking so I could participate better in the conversation (I have a hearing defect and thick accents are hard for me to hear through). Everyone else understood Spanish. He spoke English to us because he was being polite to me and including me.

  • lolkay June 4, 2013, 9:17 am

    Sorry guys. I am American born, of British and Irish heritage. But I speak Japanese and Korean along with sign language. I tend to use those Japanese more at home and while with my best friend from Japan who lives with me and a two other roommates. They don’t care I speak Japanese in front of them as long as its not to them. Another roommate is totally fine speaking Hmong in front of us, we don’t care. The other roommate is English only but shrugs it off.

    We really don’t care which languages are used in front of us. If they are talking bad about us, ah well but we can’t assume that all the time. At work a lot of coworkers use Spanish in front of me but I’m cool with it, even though I cannot speak it at all.

    Its not a big deal, but that’s just how I feel. Sorry to respectfully disagree

  • acr June 4, 2013, 9:19 am

    So phenomenally rude. My cousin and her ex-husband have a child. The ex-husband’s family is from Colombia. We hosted a birthday party for the child…and the husband’s mother kept trying to draw the child into a Spanish conversation. She speaks English, so it wasn’t as if Spanish was the only way she could converse with her grandchild. It was just breath-takingly rude. My parents, whose home the party was in and who provided the food, etc, don’t speak spanish, and the child’s other grandparents dont’ speak spanish.

  • Cami June 4, 2013, 9:19 am

    That is so rude.

    My dh’s family has a number of bilingual speakers and often in social gatherings, they would spend the entire time talking amongst themselves in the non-English language. Isolating yourself from the group to have your own “party” is rude. It also makes people umcomfortable as they are wondering if the reason why a “secret” language is being used is to criticize others. In this case, my dh — who also speaks that language — confirmed that they were indeed using their second language to criticize others so the paranoia was entirely justified.

    We also saw this at Disney World last year in a country pavilion at Epcot. We ordered food and the workers beyond the counter were talking amongst themselves in their native language. My dd speaks that language and snapped at them in that language. She told us that they were mocking the customers and she told them to knock it off. They were shocked and aghast that someone understood the nasty comments they were making. We complained to Guest Relations on our way out.

  • badkitty June 4, 2013, 9:22 am

    They have both admitted that they find it more difficult to communicate adequately in Spanish, so “defaulting” to that language or otherwise lapsing into a “more comfortable” language doesn’t explain this: they are more comfortable with English. There is therefore no reason for them to speak Spanish unless they wanted to be sure that what they said was not understood.

    They were reminded, subtly, that other guests could not follow their comments and were uncomfortable with it; they chose to ignore this fact and continue the behavior.

    So, why are you at a party if you want to have a private conversation? Why are you saying something in front of people if you don’t want them to understand? That’s rude. Continuing to do something after you’ve been reminded that it’s rude is also rude. These people were being rude, period.

  • sweetonsno June 4, 2013, 9:40 am

    Hmm. This is one of those interesting situations where I think it is mostly gray.

    If the conversation is supposed to be round-table, with everyone in the group fully included at all times, then the rudeness is there. However, it is not because of the other language, it is because they are ignoring the group to have their own private conversation.

    However, if this is an informal situation, where there are a handful of smaller conversational bubbles, and the two of them want to switch to their native language when they are talking to one another, I don’t necessarily think they are being rude.

  • MichelleP June 4, 2013, 9:42 am

    Agree with admin, they are rude. This was brought up in a former post, and several people disagreed with me that they were rude. If you can speak English easily and are around people who are speaking it, it needs to be English.

    I worked at a restaurant eons ago with two women who would speak German to each other right around others. They both spoke perfect English; I didn’t even know one of them was German until she told me. Being 18, I knew it was rude but didn’t know how to express it. Once they were having an obviously heated discussion in German in front of me, and after one of them walked off the other turned to me and said, “She is so rude!” I responded, “I have no idea what she said, so I don’t know.”

    It’s just impolite, bottom line.

  • Tricia June 4, 2013, 9:43 am

    In my life this is a constant struggle, unfortunately. I fully agree with the admin. When the parties involved fluently speak the language of others at the party, but choose to speak another language to exclude others from conversation – it is absolutely, inherently, no-question-about-it RUDE.

    My boyfriend’s family is from another country. He has a large family and they all immigrated here over 15 years ago. They all have jobs which require that they speak fluent English and they speak it well. At home with each other, however, they always revert to their native tongue. That is completely understandable EXCEPT in the case that you have a visitor in your home (mostly, ME) that is trying to get to know your family and only speaks a few basic phrases of their native tongue (i.e. How are you? Thank you. Where’s the bathroom? etc). How does it make me feel to be excluded from 90% of the conversation that happens in your home when I am there to actively participate? Well, I’ll tell you – it makes me feel awful, unimportant, ignored. It makes me question their manners, the type of people they are and if this is a family I want to marry into.

    I cannot FATHOM having guests in my home and behaving that way. I understand it is easy to “slip into” your mother tongue when you are with your family in your space, but you can conciously decide to include the person in the conversation. You could remind your family members, “We have a guest that doesn’t speak our language, let’s speak in English so that she can participate in the conversation, please”.

    Unfortunately for those that participate in this type of rude behaviour, it is difficult for the person put in that situation to do anything without making the situation very uncomfortable or without appearing rude as well. It’s a challenge to say to someone in a nice way that you request that they speak in YOUR language so that you can understand what is coming out of their mouth. I mean, ultimately it is their choice. A considerate person would not ever put someone in that position to have to say anything to begin with.

  • Mer June 4, 2013, 9:46 am

    Many people have commented about defaulting to language. While it might or might not be true, if you do that repeatedly even after someone have (jokingly) pointed that out, you are past of accidental defaulting. And I would think that polite person, after defaulting to speak other than the “common language” in given group, would react with something like “oh sorry, I was just saying that this steak is so good, you know, sometimes you don’t even know what language you are speaking!”

    But I think this falls into wider category of polite discussions in company. For example, if you and your friend are only people in company who know anything about basketball, it IS rude to continuously discuss about that topic with your friend and exclude rest of the company. Or to talk lengthly about people you two only know. If you are in company, you are responsible for everybody’s wellbeing and enjoyment.

  • Hel June 4, 2013, 9:57 am

    As most people have said, as the language they speak at home and it’s a quick one or two sentence without thinking, ie if you suddenly remember something “Oh did you put the cat out before we left? you did, fine” then I think it’s ok. Not being rude or deliberate. But to carry on an entire conversation in front of everyone is really bad. I like KJs idea about turning it into a lesson for everyone as a subtle way of getting a point across. If that doesn’t work though, situations like this is where Irish comes in usefull. It sounds like pretty much nothing else and is impossible to guess mostly. So if people want to chat rudely in a language other than English, which everyone has in the group and thus excluding the majority, then go ahead. I’ll blather away in front of you to whoever will understand me to see how you feel. Probably not the nicest reaction I know but if it works…

  • Cat June 4, 2013, 9:57 am

    I didn’t mind it when friends did this until I heard them mention my name and then laugh. Whatever is being said in any language, keep it within the bounds of good manners.

  • Politrix June 4, 2013, 10:06 am

    ¡Estaba pensando la misma cosa! (Translation:”I was thinking the exact same thing!”)
    I, too, am multilingual… and careful reading of the OP clearly indicates that they were being rude. Spanish was NOT their primary language, both parties freely admitted that they were more fluent in English than in Spanish. And they were NOT conducting business at work, they were at a social gathering where people are expected to — well, socialize. If we’re imagining the worst case (and, IMHO, the most likely) scenario, the two guests exclusively speaking Spanish (and, as a result, isolating themselves from the rest of the guests) were being — well, exclusive and isolating. If we’re being charitable here, the two guests were speaking Spanish simply because they enjoy speaking it, and should have absolutely no problem with a less proficient speaker injecting themselves into the conversation so they can learn/practice a new language.
    My in-laws speak Chinese, and while they often converse among themselves when it comes to important family matters, they ALWAYS take time to explain words and phrases to me when they have a moment. As a result, I’ve come to learn a lot of their beautiful language, and appreciate how hard it is to learn a foreign tongue… and I realize how important it is to (ahem) make an effort when I’m surrounded by people who speak a different language, and participate in the conversation.
    If the two guests wanted to talk among themselves alone, they should have stayed home.

  • mgolaw June 4, 2013, 10:15 am

    While I believe that the guests in this particular situation were rude, I do agree with a couple other posts that said that often switching languages is somewhat unintentional. My grandma emigrated from Hungary in the 50’s and is completely fluent in both Hungarian and English. However, when she’s talking to my mom or aunt or sometimes me, she will often fall back into Hungarian mid-way through a sentence and not realize it. Usually they answer in English and she realizes she switched languages and will go back to talking in English. This usually ends up being a humorous moment for any guests that happen to be floating around, because they can pick up the gist of the conversation. But they never talk in it intentionally to exclude people.

  • MsDani313 June 4, 2013, 10:37 am

    I do not think it is rude. Your language, vocabulary and tone will all change depending on with whom you are speaking. When speaking with friends I default to speaking very fast because we can all understand each other and its the norm for our part of the country. When speaking with my boyfriend I slow my speech down as he was raised in a different part of the country. When we are all out together there are times where I have to remind myself to slow down to include him because he will zone out. My father speaks very fast and mumbles but because I have been around him all of my life I have no trouble understanding him although sometimes other family members do and I act as his translator. While all of my family is usually speaking English we sometimes have a hard time understanding each other. I do not intentionally keep my boyfriend out of my conversations but sometimes I forget and default to speaking fast.

  • Mamamia June 4, 2013, 10:38 am

    Speaking in another language, especially in the US, where we have many people of different origins and ethnic backgrounds in not rude.

    Most of the time, when I see posts like this where there is background (sometimes quite a lot) that is NOT at all relevant to the story (what we ate, what time it started, who was late, who was related to whom, who was there, who said what, etc.) it is an indication that the OP sees and feels way more into a situation than actually exists. It’s not a bad trait, but one that has to be taken into consideration in these stories where we are deciding if something is rude or not. Very sensitive people are often times offended at supposed rudeness where none is intended at all.

  • Amy June 4, 2013, 10:41 am

    When I was at school I had a French teacher who was French. There were also a few assistant teachers who were french. The assistant sat at the back of the classroom, the teacher would tell a student that she wanted them to work with the assistant, the teacher and the student would go to the back of the classroom and the teacher would talk to the assistant about the student in french. I didn’t like it when this happened, but I didn’t like knowing anyone was talking about me at that time so at the time I didn’t realise it was rude until I mentioned it in a conversation with my Mum and her friend shortly after I had left the school and they said it was rude. This was at a secondary school, (I’m British) the students were teenagers.

  • Kate June 4, 2013, 10:45 am

    I am interested by the fact that those who don’t agree with the Admin are the ones who don’t seem to have read the post well. The couple speaking in Spanish DID NOT grow up in a foreign country, they grew up in America, they only speak Spanish at home with their families, and one even says that their Spanish is LESS NATURAL than their English.

    This is clearly not a case of comfort or ability to express oneself. The OP says this went on throughout the party.

  • Kate June 4, 2013, 10:50 am

    I also find it interesting how many commenters who are multilingual assume that the other partygoers were rude or hateful. An interesting point of view that I think says more about the person who expresses it than anything else. Perhaps the other partygoers were hurt, or upset. I think I would be upset if I invited people to a party, what sounds like a very small party with a total of 8 – 10 people at any given time, not a rager, and they chose not to speak to me or join the rest of the group. Assuming of course that my assumption about the couple separating themselves from the rest of the party is correct, something only the OP can tell us.

  • Rod June 4, 2013, 11:04 am

    I don’t think the situation is as clear cut. Were they engaging in extended, excluding conversation? Or were they just having a small chat in Spanish and other people, for whatever reason, were circling around them?

    Sitting on a table, where everyone is socializing and deliberately ignoring others and speaking in a minority language? Yeah, probably rude.

    Standing in the same room? In an informal setting ( “coming and going for hours”as stipulated by OM) – well, maybe they wanted to have a conversation in Spanish. I am hispanic, and very much a minority in my town. But enough Spanish speakers pop out and many want to practice (when not their native language) or simply catch up with someone of the same language.

    In contrast, I speak very little French but a significant amount of my social circle uses it as a first language. The common language is English, but when the majority of people are francophones they revert to French as main language. I can catch some of it. And you know what? It is a bit exclusive, but to a certain extent its natural. Other guests, when trying to be inclusive, look at me and state what was said in English to promote participation . And yeah, the host has certain responsibilities here, but the issue is in the setting: is this a sit down meal? Or a large yard BBQ where groups and conversation form and flow freely?

    Maybe respect that these guests had a bit of talking to do, for a while, and then they would reintegrate to the party group as a whole? Or do you guys use timers in parties to make sure you interact with everyone the exact same amount?

  • Kate June 4, 2013, 11:04 am

    To lolkay, I wanted to say that it might be fine for you and your friends, but the reason why it is considered rude is that it is exclusionary. It is impossible to connect with or communicate with someone who is speaking in a language you don’t understand. What if two friends were talking about how much they loved paleontology, and a third friend also loved this subject? That is a bond of friendship that could not happen. There is no way for her it understand that they are talking about paleontology or join in the conversation if they are speaking in a different language in front of her. Not unless she constantly asks what they are talking about.

    Also I think a lot of posters think, as I do, that if you aren’t saying something you would be ashamed to do in public, why the need to hide it? Except for a very few conversations, anything said privately can be said publicly. And if you need to say a lot in private, that you would be ashamed to say in public, you shouldn’t be in the public in the first place! You can talk at home, right now you are at a party and you need to be polite.

  • WildIrishRose June 4, 2013, 11:08 am

    A little off the subject here, but probably the funniest experience I ever had involving language was several years ago while visiting my husband’s aunt and uncle. My parents-in-law were there as well. DH’s aunt is from Ecuador, and both she and Uncle are multilingual (English, Spanish, French). Aunt’s sister and BIL were also visiting from Venezuela; they both spoke Spanish and French, but no English (and they also spoke Portuguese). I speak French. DH and his parents are limited to English. We settled on French for general conversation, with Aunt, Uncle, and me translating into English for DH and his parents. It was fun and we all picked up a little something in other languages, but my favorite part was when my FIL thought that if he spoke LOUDER to Aunt’s sister and BIL, they would understand. 🙂

  • Misty June 4, 2013, 11:08 am

    One of my friends comes from a large Greek family. Sometimes, when I go out with her and her sisters, I’ll find myself sitting there twiddling my thumbs while everyone around me speaks Greek. I don’t want to be rude by demanding they stop, and I also don’t want to sit there staring off into the distance while everyone talks around me. I finally hit upon the solution of acting like I was part of the conversation all along. Obviously, since I couldn’t understand what they were saying, I had to make up what I thought they were talking about. 🙂

    “What was that? You wanted the body put in the trunk of YOUR car? I thought you said your DAD’S car!”


    “No, no, no, the invasion is supposed to happen TUESDAY, Wednesday is the Tupperware party!”

    I’ve only done it once or twice and they always get a huge laugh out of it before reverting to English so I can actually, legitimately, speak with them.

  • Ashley June 4, 2013, 11:14 am

    I actually don’t mind when this happens usually, because I take it as a learning experience. I’ve picked up bits of quite a few different languages this way. But I can see how it would be rude if they were intentionally isolating themselves

  • NostalgicGal June 4, 2013, 11:15 am

    I grew up with one language as my heritage, one is my ‘birth country’ language (English), I grew up next to a country border and that country is bilingual so I learned that language, I learned another for religious studies… and now I’m moving from being able to read a FIFTH to writing, speaking, and fluency. Where I live now there is a strong presence of this particular language; and as much as I learned the ‘across the border’ language as a child; I am learning yet another one. Do not talk to me about how you are entitled to speak another language… this is the USofA (where I live) and I DO expect to use English. If I cross a border into another country where English is NOT their language, I fully expect to HAVE TO use “their” language and not have or expect anyone to accommodate me.

    In that regard… at home my father especially was prone to lapsing into a few words mixed IN CONTEXT of our heritage language, or even a few sentences, and NOT realize he was doing it. In that case, one can forgive. His ‘accent’ was almost non existent, you could understand him with no problem, he was fluent in English.

    In a social setting, if your host speaks X, and most of those attending speaks X and are using X, you as guest should stick to X. If X isn’t your primary language and you are there with others that are of the same, a few words or sentences sporadically used I’d definitely forgive. Rattling on at length in Y is rude.

    So is using Y when everyone else uses X, and speaking a lot more rapidly to prevent someone else that might understand some of Y from understanding. That is seriously rude.

    It was indicated in this case that the two speakers spoke English as their primary and the other language as secondary and were not as fluent. In this case it will be a rudeness to continually use the other language. I can understand a few sentences about ‘when is your doc apt for (ailment) next week, so I can get time off to take you’ that crop up being a legit if you don’t want to share highly personal but MUST sort it… but stick to the main language being used if you can.

    I wouldn’t do a cold shoulder snub of them at the time if it was rare and a few short bits… but I would try to talk to them afterwards, politely, about it.

  • Stacey Frith-Smith June 4, 2013, 11:36 am

    I think that somewhere beyond the question of whether the two in OP’s story were rude is the reality that we cannot control the actions of other adults and we should not (often) attempt to do so. The use of other languages besides English is a nuanced transaction and so much depends upon context. Not a single one of us is capable of securing to ourselves the certainty on any given day that we are not being mocked or noticed in an unflattering way, even in English. In like fashion, not a single one of us is able to secure to ourselves full knowledge of the content of conversations swirling around us in our native languages whether in speech or text. Since that is the case- it would be prudent to omit the monumental efforts often brought to bear to correct those who engage in this provocative behavior. The commentator who remarked that some trust should be extended to those deemed worthy of an invitation to your home has a valid point. If the situation makes me uncomfortable- it is really simpler for me to avoid it than to correct it when it comes to the behavior of other adults (don’t dine, shop, socialize or voluntarily engage where you are made to feel excluded). The caveat, however, is that it’s often the perception of potential harm that raises the hackles- which seems a monumental waste of energy. Finally, if you are in the minority in a social setting (private home- language other than English/ class- language other than English/ work collaborative- language other than English… you should not expect that your personal comfort will supercede that of everyone else in the context. It might be incumbent upon you to use compensatory social strategies in order to engage. (Learn the language, ask for a translation if needed, steer the conversation back to the topic or language you are comfortable with/in if it can be done gracefully.) Thank you for some patience with this long commentary!

  • girl_with_all_the_yarn June 4, 2013, 11:41 am

    I think that we’re forgetting something here: They might have needed to have a quick, personal discussion that required privacy. Also, since we weren’t there we have no concept of how long this took, body language, speech intonation… there are several missing variables.

    We’re giving people too much credit. Most humans are not intentionally ill-mannered or mean. Some are, but most of us have perfectly good reasons to do what we do.

    Hypothetically, say the girlfriend just got an urgent text saying “Oh, hey, so the bossman might fire you tomorrow” during the party. I’ll give her the benefit of the doubt and say she took a peek at her phone while she was in the bathroom. Now, she really needs to get the boyfriend home so they can discuss this, but she’s trying to make as little an impact as possible on the party. The boyfriend doesn’t want to leave. A conversation in English can make for some lovely gossip later, but a conversation no one else understands will possibly make people think there’s some type of sudden personal issue that needs addressing and please don’t eavesdrop thankyouverymuch.

    Perhaps she’s feeling sick and doesn’t want to disturb the other guests. She could suddenly remember that the babysitter needs to leave in thirty minutes. There could be a hundred and one emergencies that she doesn’t want to accidentally broadcast that might necessitate speaking in Spanish.

    I choose to err on the side of giving someone the benefit of the doubt here.

    Now, if they’re snickering and standing there talking for hours like that, yeah, that’s pretty rude.

  • Ruby June 4, 2013, 11:44 am

    Chef Bob, wow!

    People in my home can speak whatever makes them comfortable. My husband speaks Spanish, and I speak Japanese and American Sign Language. Why is English the end-all and be-all of languages?

    Live a little, relax a little.

  • Ruby June 4, 2013, 11:47 am

    Also, why expect the Amish to switch to English when that is not their native or home language? I travel very frequently to Lancaster, and I even hit the Amish yard sales in their private property. Tey xan speak whatever they want – I appreciate the opportunity to view their culture.

  • Amber June 4, 2013, 11:49 am

    As someone married to an immigrant, I know what’s going on here – they’re sliding in and out of the two languages they use to communicate with at home when communicating with each other. It’s done automatically, without conscious thought, just as we speak English without thinking about the fact that we’re speaking English. I’ve had my husband and my brother-in-law start in English, slip into Russian without ANY thought, then turn to me and start speaking Russian without even realizing that was what they were speaking. Usually it’s my blank look that eventually clues them in.

    This is an actual nurological fact – when you’re fluent (TRULY fluent, as in you can think and dream in both languages), your brain won’t be differentiating between the languages. Language is an abstract means to communicate/understand your surroundings, and the brain doesn’t care which one it’s using so long as the message is coming through. If this couple is used to language hopping with each other, I bet they don’t even realize what they’re doing. They can be “pulled aside”, but frankly that sounds like an aggressive move for something that is accidental and hardly a slight.

    I’d recommend just pointing out when they drop into Spanish by saying “sorry, I didn’t catch that. You guys keep dropping into Spanish, fyi.” If they’re lapsing in an out without thought, they’ll apologize and try to listen to the words they’re saying. If these people are trying to exclude you from their conversation rather than just lapsing, they’ll give you the complete brush-off. (That joke, btw, was pretty passive-aggressive. A direct comment would have been better.)

    FINALLY finally, I’ve been to many a party, and at every party featuring couples, sometimes a couple has a quick back-and-forth while still within a group. These back-and-forths rarely include others, are fast establishers or in-jokes or whatever, and the couple pops back into group-mode when it’s finished. I bet most people don’t even notice them when they’re in the main language of the other guests. I’m not surprised that this couple did the same thing while lapsing. It’s part of being a couple – you get so comfortable with each other that even in a group you’re linked.

  • Kitten June 4, 2013, 12:36 pm

    My mom is also an unintentional language switcher. She was born in Japan. She moved to Korea when she was six. She has lived here in the States most of her life and speaks English mostly now. She frequently and accidentally switches between languages without meaning to. She will speak Korean to my children and husband who do not know a word of it. She will speak in English to her sister who doesn’t understand it at all. She will change languages from sentence to sentence and I am frequently the only person who fully understands her. You can remind her every conversation but if she becomes excited while talking it happens. Also topics can force her to switch languages. Family she speaks about in Korean, technology in English.

    If these people were raised in a family that spoke one language it might be that affectionate conversations, they might switch to their family’s primary language by default. Even though I speak only English for 99% of my day and life, I will default to singing and cuddling and complimenting my children in Korean since that is how I was raised.

  • whatever June 4, 2013, 12:42 pm

    acr: It’s rude for a grandmother to try to get her grandchild to practice her native tongue? She’s doing the kid a favor if she’s teaching the kid to be bilingual. I’ve met a few families where different people are assigned different languages to speak to the children, so that the children can learn all of them but not be confused about which language is which. (For example, one family I know had the dad speak only English and the mom speak only Czech; another had the parents speak English and the grandmother speak only Chinese; another had the dad speak only French, the mom speak only English, and the nanny speak only Spanish.) In none of these cases did all the adults know all the languages, but it’s easy to pick up the meaning of the kind of simple language you use to speak to children, and they agreed that it was worth it to teach the kids different languages and to connect them to all their cultural heritages.

  • White Lotus June 4, 2013, 12:47 pm

    My family’s native language is not English, though my sibs and I were born in the USA. We spoke Elsewherian at home and took supplemental classes and spent school vacations with extended family so we would be sure to learn the language and culture. My children did the same, but we speak both languages at home, and use the language of any guest if we know it, or of the hosts when out. My parents are fluent in English. My husband speaks fluent, but not native fluent, Elsweherian. I translate colloquial language and slang for my husband. We of course speak English around non-Elsewherian speakers like my husband’s family. Confronted with unfamiliar English (slang, mostly) my parents or relatives might whisper to me or my sibs in Elsewherian to get a translation. But that is as far as we go. To use a non-majority language as a secret code and not translate strikes me as rude. When I was a child, it was my responsibility to translate for my friends if my parents were (generally) too steamed to say it in English or when speaking with a relative or friend who had no or very limited English. To do otherwise strikes me as rude.

  • Kate June 4, 2013, 12:57 pm

    I work in a tourist community, and our local grocery store gets a lot of foreign workers in the summer. They used to talk to one another in their own language, and it really did sound like they were talking about us. So many people complained that the owners told them they had to speak in English anytime they were in the front of the store. I don’t know if they were talking about us, but it certainly sounded like they were.