Tounge Tied: Is it ok to have a conversation in another language in the presence of friends?

by epi on February 19, 2014

Q: Quite a few of my friends and I often start talking in our native language (which is not English), when we meet each other—even in social settings. Can it be construed as bad manners if others present within earshot or within the group cannot understand our conversation?  Is it okay if my spouse talks to me in our native language in the presence of our friends?

 

A: You are correct.  It is impolite for two people to speak in a language that the third person doesn’t understand.  Doing so excludes the third person from the conversation.  If you and your spouse want to speak in your native language and your friends don’t speak the language, the two of you should excuse yourselves and speak to each other privately.

{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

Lisa Marie Lindenschmidt February 19, 2014 at 8:31 am

I’ve been thinking about this and I am not sure I agree. The assumption here is that everyone present should be involved in every conversation and that’s just not true. Who determines the “appropriate” crowd language? Of course, if everyone is to be involved in the conversation, it’s obvious that the mutual language be used. I just don’t think this is a big deal. I could never put this in the “rude” category unless these people were purposely trying to exclude others.

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polite punk February 19, 2014 at 2:40 pm

I agree with Lisa Marie. I have several groups of friends who when we hang out delve into conversations in their native languages. I don’t speak the languages and the conversations don’t often last long as they often return to English fairly quickly. I never feel left out or excluded.

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Jody February 19, 2014 at 4:00 pm

I think it depends on the setting. If there are a number of people in the room and people are chatting in small groups, I see no rudeness in you and your friends talking in your own language; if somebody comes up to join you or you invite somebody over it would be polite to switch to a common language. If you’re sitting at a small table with only a few people (including yourselves) it would be polite to stick to the common language.

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Lily February 20, 2014 at 8:14 am

I agree with the original answer. I find it impolite and inconsiderate when people speak in a language not understood by a member of that group (note: not about others within earshot). I understand, though, if some of them struggle in the “common language” (that probably is their second or third language) and need to ask another to translate their responses. I, too, speak other languages and if someone (not knowing the language) joins the conversation, I immediately revert to the common language (in this case, English).

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noah February 24, 2014 at 4:07 pm

It really depends on the situation. Say you are in another country where English was not generally spoken and you don’t speak the language. You’re invited to a party where some people speak English and some don’t . At some point, you walk up to your friend who invited you and they are having a foreign-language conversation. There is (1) nothing wrong with those folks continuing the conversation, even though it excludes you; and (2) nothing wrong with your friend speaking to you in English, even if the rest of the folks don’t speak English and it excludes them.

Etiquette and courtesy require context. The answer here was right in many contexts, but not nearly all of them.

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Zouzou March 11, 2014 at 11:44 am

I’m a member of a 3 generation immigrant family scattered all over the world. We were taught to never leave out anyone from a conversation by speaking our native language in a country other than our home country. It’s impolite and akin to exclude someone. My trilingual family now lives in Quebec, where the question of the language in social conversations is even more tricky than anywhere else I’ve lived. I added a new rule for my sons to follow in order to show consideration to both English and French speaking people they might meet: Answer in the language the person addresses you. And if you’re the first to speak, when in doubt about the preference of the person you’re addressing, ask them which language they prefer to be addressed in.

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