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I live in a large shared house. I had to move out of my old home on short notice and as such my new one isn't really a good fit but I'm trying to make the best of it until I leave. The house is rented out by a company that has the business model of renting to 'international people' (e.g. people on working visas and international students). This is totally illegal as it's discrimination against locals, but that's not the point of this question.

I live with 10 other people (more if you count their boy/girlfriends who sometimes stay over). Many aren't good with English but the ones who are still don't seem to speak it. There are subgroups, a few from France who speak French, a few from Hungary who speak Hungarian etc.

I didn't think it would bother me but I do feel uncomfortable when I'm in the same room and people have huge conversations right in front of me in a different language. And sometimes they're listening to music on the radio in a different language, or Skyping in a different language too. This is in shared areas like the kitchen where I'm forced to be around them.

After giving it some thought, one of the reasons I don't feel comfortable with this is because if I want to say something to them, I'm not sure if it's an appropriate time to interrupt (for example I wouldn't want to interrupt when they're disusing e.g. going to a funeral).

How can I politely ask them to speak in English, or at least try to? I'm really ok if they sometimes speak in another language but if we're all sitting at the same table and they're having a lengthy conversation in another language that's when I feel uncomfortable. I notice that people from Czech Republic do this the most even though their English is quite fluent (is it a cultural thing like it's considered 'low class to speak English'?). Should I ask them individually or should I leave a note or send a message by text? What words should I use? I was thinking something like.

Hey, when you're around me do you think we can stick with English if it's not inconvenient?

Also whenever someone walks into a room with other people in it, everyone says "hello" in English to each individual person and then everyone switches back to their own language. I find this annoying as if we're not going to say anything more than "hello" then we may as well not say "hello". Is there a way I can politely suggest this?

I only speak English, but the country we live in is dominantly English and that is the official language. All roommates speak some English and it's the only common language. I can't overemphasize that things feel uncomfortable and there's a bit of a culture clash (for example I share the bathroom with someone who stands out side the door waiting for it to become empty, but that's a question for another time ;) )

I want to make clear I'm not trying to be prejudiced and realize it's hard to speak a new language. But I think everyone would get along better if we communicated more. Responding to one comment "But asking them to speak English as default won't win you friendship points, that is certain" consider the opposite: we're not on friendly terms now as no one speaks to each other.

If they already are speaking another language when I enter the room, I get that. I find it more rude when I'm speaking to someone and someone else enters the room and they switch to speaking a language I don't understand.

Sometimes when I am trying to have a conversation with them they switch back to a language I don't understand and have a private conversation in the middle. Also I sometimes get the impression what they're saying does involve me, like wondering if I'm using the oven or pointing at the table I'm sitting at.

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I was in your situation when I was in Erasmus in France. I used to hang out with this large group of Spanish people. They were all very nice, easy-going, open, and almost all of them spoke an excellent French and a high-level English. They liked the non-Spanish-speaking people a lot (that is, an English guy, a French one, an Italian and me, Italian as well), we got along very well and when speaking with them one-on-one we could talk about everything. Despite that, when we were all together, they would end up speaking Spanish at full speed. You just can't help talking in your mother tongue if you're in a group of 15+ people from your country plus two or three guys from random countries.

When I wanted to join their discussions, I asked somebody what was that about, and if I got an answer such as "I'm saying X and Juan is saying Y instead" I would tell loudly Juan "Juan! Why do you think Y?", making everybody notice that I wanted to take part to the conversation. Another approach I used is to stay close to them, nod intently when somebody else nodded, protest when somebody protested, intervene with the words I knew in that language ("Exacto!") etc, so that it looked like I was actively participating to the conversation even if everybody knew I didn't understand a word. They would soon start laughing and switched to English or French instead.

In the end, except for the English guy, we ended up learning Spanish. The Spanish guys were the kindest and the more encouraging teachers. Not only that: since we were making efforts to communicate with them, they were keener to step from Spanish to another common language or to mix the two/three of them.

So, to sum up:

  • You won't be able to make them stop speaking their mother tongue. You're not even entitled to ask it "officially" (see the note below), so don't do it.

  • On the other hand, if you want to join the conversation, don't be afraid of interrupting them. They know that you can't speak their language, they will be glad to meet your needs.

  • ...but, if you don't want to join them, just let them be.

Regarding sharing the table for the meals:

It's not really nice to speak only to some people at the same table, even more so if you don't even share the same language. This creates a barrier, which can be intentional (they want to talk about their own business) or not (they don't speak English fluently / they are too tired or lazy to do it). I think this can be overcome by initiating conversations that can engage all the people at the table. As soon as you and the other people sit down, start talking by taking interest in them. Ask them what they're eating, what they did during the day etc, just small talk. Offer them some of your food to taste. In short, be extra nice and open to chat even if they just spent two hours discussing in Hungarian. When there is a culture clash, extra patience and niceness is required in order not to misunderstand and/or misjudge other people's behaviours.

Be the person they want to respect and speak to. After all, why would they switch language for "the silent and gloomy guy that doesn't talk either way"?

So the underlying message here is not "hey you, speak my language because I don't understand your language", but "hey let's all speak English so that we can all exchange our ideas about [soccer/grandmas/penguins]".


A small note. I've been both on the giving and the receiving end of this behaviour, so I can give you some insight on it and help you step in their shoes a bit.

Speaking another language is tiring as hell. Words are different, the syntax is different, the pronounciation is tricky. Forget about understanding puns, let alone making them. You will need to paraphrase every complex thoughts and they will inevitably sound shallower than they were supposed to be.

I only speak English, but the country we live in is dominantly English and that is the official language.

So what? In that moment, the kitchen is predominantly French-speaking, or Hungarian-speaking, or whatever. Those are people that spent their whole day making efforts just to communicate the most menial things and now they're finally at home. Let them relax. Also, it feels very unnatural to speak another language with somebody from your home country, especially if the reason not to do it is that there's another guy sitting on the sofa or passing by to take some salt.

Sometimes they're listening to music on the radio in a different language, or Skyping in a different language too.

Why should listening to music in their language be a bad thing? Music is often called "the universal language" for a reason, it is enjoyable even if you don't understand the words. (Which, incidentally, is exactly the condition of every non-English speaking country.)

Regarding Skyping in another language... I'm afraid I don't get it. Do you want them to speak with their mother from Toulouse or the Balaton lake in English?

When you meet them, please consider these things. Forgive them if they speak a language you don't understand: they face more or less the same situation all the time.

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    @bighouse I concede it's not the nicest thing to speak another language when sitting at the same table - I'll update my answer. However, when you just happen to share a room, why would they switch to your language while speaking? Just because you might want to join their conversation? You're not attending the same event together. You're at home exactly as they are, and it's their moment to relax. Now if you try to join them and they keep speaking their language and ignoring you, that would be different, but I think that just sharing the same room is not enough. – LinuxBlanket Mar 31 '18 at 12:33
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    @bighouse Since people all say "hello" when someone enters the room, it might be a chance for you to break in and start a new conversation/topic (e.g. "Is anyone interested in ordering pizza/going to the park/grabbing a beer/watching [movie]?"). LinuxBlanket's suggestions of how to break into a conversation are good but may take more courage than if people are already engaged with you by greeting you. – cactus_pardner Mar 31 '18 at 20:57
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    @bighouse I've heard that - mostly from people who couldn't speak another language (and hence had never been on the other side) and were afraid of missing something or being laughed about. And while it's rude to actively exclude people who visibly try to join a conversation, it's just self-centered to expect non-native speakers to adjust their conversations to your preferences just because you're in the room. A bit like expecting all conversations about football to end and switch to tennis when you enter the room because you only like tennis... – AllTheKingsHorses Apr 1 '18 at 18:02
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    Good point. After giving it further thought, I realize it's not so much when I come into a room and people are already speaking a different language, but if I'm speaking to someone and someone else comes in and the switch to a language I don't understand, I find that uncomfortable. – bighouse Apr 1 '18 at 19:15
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    +1 This answer made me reminisce about my erasmus time. Good times! It is indeed not very polite, to speak a language, one person can not understand, while sitting together for dinner or something. Still, you can change that best, by being nice and by trying to befriend them. You have the valuable opportunity to get to know other cultures/languages first-hand. – Sip Apr 27 '18 at 8:43
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I have been in that exact situation years ago. 38 different nationalities at the same time, at least 30 different languages. Rooms of 2 or 4. Shared dining-room and break room. English was the official language, with customers and between employees. While at work, no problem.

How did we manage to talk/share outside of work?

Well, actually, I (we) found out that, while eveybody was minding his own personal business (like talking to friends, calling family, watching movies, reading...), the mother tongue was the one. And we never ever bothered to interrupt, because, as you mentioned: I'm not sure if it's an appropriate time to interrupt.

When we were sharing something, we used to speak English, of course, because otherwise, no one could understand the other party :)

What I (think I) understood was that using your own language was a fence you chose to put between you and others. For wathever reason. I respected that, and never asked. Because anytime people would come to you or want you to come to them, they would use English. So, yes, sometimes, you'll feel like left alone, yes...

How to get roommates to speak same language?

According to my 4.5 years experience in that situation, I'd say: you can't... Unless they want to :)

What I did, like many others, was simply to be nice, while working, and after work. This way, you let people know who you are, how you behave, what you like or don't like. If they enjoy you being around, you'll see that they enjoy talking to you too, share with you, and that English is not a problem anymore :) So, give them a chance to know you.

This way, I discovered: American, Indian, Indonesian, South-American, Polish, Jamaican cultures.

You want them to speak the same language? Don't try to enforce any policy or rule. Be nice, and it starts at work, while working together as a team, a team that may sometimes be extended outside of work. But you have to acknowledge that, outside of work, people like to have time for themselves. And relax, and mind their own business. Hence, the fence...


never trust the French :) (see link below)

As pointed out by LinuxBlanket in their answer and OP (there's a bit of a culture clash), with it comes to gather people together in the same room, there are some cultural differences to take into account, and mixing up all these differences can be difficult. I'd like to share this National Stereotypes For Foreigners because it's not only funny, but can be helpful too, even if not totally related to the question, it may help understand why, sometimes, it's not so easy.

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As a foreigner myself, I can say that it is truly very awkward to converse in English wothy Hungarian friends and this is often the reason we don't invite other nationals over (and trust me, I'm not the antisocial one, it just is this way). Speaking fluently does not equal expressing yourself with ease and enjoyment. If they speak their language they are fully aware you can join and maybe don't mind it. It's their right. If you'd like to join, tell them something interesting and maybe they involve you in the discussion and swap to English. But asking them to speak English as default won't win you friendship points, that is certain.

  • "But asking them to speak English as default won't win you friendship points, that is certain." not being able to speak to them at all is worse – bighouse Mar 31 '18 at 11:40
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First, you will never be able to force them to speak in English and it will be extremely impolite to ask them to speak in English when they are having a private conversation. The way it looks you are not even their friend yet, so do no push anything. If you still want to interact with them, you should wait for the moment when they start laughing at something and ask in a good mood "Come on guys, at least this joke you have to translate to me..." this way you will be just entering in the fun part of the conversation and (maybe) start a friendship, before you all are friends is very unlikely from them to speak in their native language when they are next to you.

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First of all, what you have to keep in mind is that you can not force anyone to speak a language just because you don't understand theirs. They are completely free to talk the language they want or the language they feel the most comfortable with.

As an Erasmus student I have been in your same situation and it's something that usually happens. Based on my experience I can just say that the closer you get to them, the easier will be to make them talk in a common language but I can understand that it is difficult to you to reach this point if they don't have common talks in English. And, as someone already said, just keep in mind how difficult is to think and express yourself all the day long. If not, give it a try, you'll end up exhausted!

Following with the topic, if you are not even interested in having a conversation but just bothered by the fact they talk in a language you don't understand then you should just let them be. Probably you think they are talking bullshit about you or about something else and they want to hide it from you, but most likely is not like this. The majority of the times they are talking about normal things so you shouldn't worry if they are talking about you. This said, I am not saying you feel this way but it could be a possible explanation of your feeling towards them speaking different languages.

Asking them directly to change their language just because you don't understand is not really polite. Instead what you could do is tell them how you feel about it e.g. lonely and you don't feel like interrupting them to participate as you don't know if it's appropiate to enter the conversation of not. I am sure they will understand and if even it may take a time they will end up changing so you can feel included.

If you would like to talk to them and be friends with then you can make an effort and try to learn different words from their languages they will highly appreciated and try to teach you new ones and therefore change automatically their language as they will see you have interested in being with friends and talking to them. It can be difficult but you just need to learn some bad words or funny things and you'll touch them.

Besides, they will probably be aware of the effort it took you so they won't mind to make the effort to talk in English if you want to take part in the conversation.

You'll be surprised how much people change when instead of trying to make them change their language you try to learn theirs!

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So many people wrote that it is awkward/difficult/tiring etc to speak English with people of yur own mother language. I strongly disagree. I believe that if you have the intention to be inclusive you don't care about those difficulties or they are simply no there.

I have worked together in a team with 5 people of my own language and with one person who did not speak this language. So when this person was around everyone automatically switched into English and I can tell you that it did not feel awkward at all. This was also the case when we met socially. It was natural, we did not even notice that we spoke English.

Based on this experience I find it rude if people speak their own language in situations you mentioned. If they would inform me that speaking in English is difficult for them or if they would just talk with me about it, this would be no problem at all.

So coming back to your question: If your roommates don't have the mindset of inclusiveness they will likely not change their behaviour. In our international world we all should adopt the mindset to switch to a language that all persons present can understand.

  • In the question it was mentioned that many of the people don't have a good English level, whereas you seem to possess it. Also, of course it would be rude to exclude a coworker or to choose to go out with them and then speaking in an incomprehensible language. A home setting is quite different from what you mentioned, honestly. – LinuxBlanket Sep 8 '18 at 22:49

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