When is it rude to speak a language that at least one person who can hear cannot understand? My family and friends generally are of the opinion this is rude behavior but I noticed with some new roommates and some answers to my previous questions some people do not have the same opinion?

I have a couple roommates from Poland that often speak a different language that other people can't understand. They do this in the common areas, even when other people are near them. I was very surprised to see that the Polish roommates invite over guests who can't speak Polish and speak it in front of them. To me this is very rude because it's excluding someone you invited. This has happened on multiple occasions and it's not a brief thing but lasts for minutes.

Is it cultural? Do some people not consider this rude? Obviously there's varying degrees but to me it certainly crosses the line when you invite a guest and in front of them speak a language they don't understand and the guest is left just sitting there awkwardly. I'm very curious how they interpret the situation and wonder if there's a way I can ask them what they're thinking?

I know it's difficult to learn a language, but one thing that makes this different from what I've experienced in the past is that they go straight into the other language where other people tend to try in English and then use their native language after having too much difficulty in English. To put simply it seems they don't even try English, though they speak it well when they do.

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    This is quite too broad / opinion-based or even unclear IMO. Just an example: I once met Dutch people in Florida. They invited me to visit them. I later went to The Netherlands. Dad, daughter and son spoke very good English (as many Dutch do). Mom barely understood a few words (English isn't my mother tongue either). See the problem? We had to mix both English and Dutch. Speaking English in front of Mom wasn't rude at all, neither were them talking / explaining to Mom in Dutch. Is it only about roommates? Can you narrow down please?
    – OldPadawan
    May 6, 2018 at 11:50
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    @OldPadawan I think the situation you describe is different.
    – user16097
    May 6, 2018 at 12:18
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    Yes but you don't describe a clear situation here, and it's quite broad to me (at least). If you could give us a question precisely describing the situation and the goal, it'd make it easier for us :)
    – OldPadawan
    May 6, 2018 at 12:21
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    @RichardU but those were the rules for your house. Other houses might have different rules and understandings. May 6, 2018 at 22:12
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    @bighouse Do you have any relation with the guests who don't speak Polish yourself? Otherwise it sounds like you're itching to fix someone else's problem without being sure that it's a problem for them. Or is this about you not understanding what your Polish roommates are saying to each other? May 8, 2018 at 10:12

2 Answers 2


This is very cultural. I am in a bilingual relationship (I am English, my husband is not) and we have family members and friends right across the spectrum of understanding (including people who only understand one of the two languages and can't understand eachother).

I find it generally it depends on who is part of what conversation and where they are. For example, my husband will automatically speak to his dad in their mother tongue, completely without noticing, and even when other people are around. This is totally automatic.

My husband will speak to his dad in their mother tongue if:
- everyone in the room can understand.
- other people in the room can't understand but aren't paying attention (talking to other people about other things).

However, if someone joins their group or comes within hearing range and is not doing something else/pays attention to participate, they will switch languages.

The general rule is that if someone is part of the conversation 'group' (not part of another conversation, etc), then switch languages if they don't understand. The most commonly understood language is best.

It is rude to continue speaking when another person is in the group and doesn't understand, unless it's inevitable (ie two people don't have a language in common) in which case it's a bit more complicated and you need someone to interpret for one of them.

Note: this answer does assume that everyone's languages are clear-cut (ie: everyone knows what everyone else can/can't speak) which is fairly expected if you have a foreigner visiting who obviously doesn't speak the local language. That said, it becomes way more blurry if (1) some people only understand the language partially or have an intermediate understanding or (2) people don't know who understands what language. I've been in situations where people assume I understand more than I really do and that may come across as rude when they just don't know. In those cases I make a point to ask what words mean so they understand that I'm not catching everything.


Perhaps, someone with experience in polish culture could offer more insight into polish etiquette.

Nevertheless, you did ask something more concrete, universal and to the point.

there's a way I can ask them what they're thinking?

Yes you can. I wouldn't phrase it as "can I know what are you thinking?" of course, but anyone with some english fluency can say:

What was that all about?

Don't forget the smile and a relaxed attitude. And you can prefix that statement with any other word that will suit the situation: Guys, Hey man, Dude, Excuse me Mr. Shlomowitz.

You can even remark the fact they took too long talking in a language only they understand in an innocent manner by prefixing a 'so' with a long ellipsis.

So... guys, what was that all about?

They need to notice what other people feel when they get carried away in order for them to adjust their behavior if they desire to adjust, if they don't, then that's a different thing, but to answer your question, yes, you can and you should ask, otherwise you are indeed being alienated like you already suspect.