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I am in the UK dating someone from a different country who has a lot friends here from her own country. Friends are good of course, but they all speak a language I don't understand and I find it awkward to be around when they are all having conversations.

Is it rude of them, given they all speak English, to continue speaking a language I don't understand? And would it be rude of me to ask them to speak English?

How should I best approach this situation?

For clarity I don't have any real worries about what they are saying, but I have insecurity and feel like I am being talked about (even strangers talking in the streets make me think they are talking about me), and I feel excluded by not understanding the conversations.

I am also trying to learn the language, but can't even introduce myself in it yet so 'just learn it' isn't a useful option.

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This is difficult. First, consider this:

For centuries, people thought that words were just labels for objects, and that different languages merely attached different strings of sounds to things—or, more accurately, to concepts. Now it was suggested that the world might be perceived differently by people speaking different languages. Or, more radically, that people could only perceive aspects of the world for which their languages have words. Source

Neither you asking them to speak in English or them continuing to speak in their native language is rude.

I'm Dutch, living in Netherlands, with an English fiancé. Netherlands is #1 on EF EPI in 2019, which means that on average Dutch people speak English very well. Consider my fiancé in your position, me in your date's position and other Dutch people we interact with to be in your date's friends' position.

My fiancé and I are okay talking English to each other. I speak it quite well, around a B2 level, perhaps C1. Dutch people we encounter speak English with varying degrees of proficiency, but nearly all of them can converse in English and are happy to do so. After reading this, speaking English all the time shouldn't be a problem, right? Wrong.

Language allows us to communicate, to get a message across. Language is also related to culture and perception. I recommend reading the article linked above. Even with my level of mastery over the English language, I cannot always convey the message I want to my fiancé. There are occasional misunderstandings. While in a 1-on-1 conversation those misunderstandings get resolved quickly, it is much more difficult to get them resolved in a group setting, especially if there are varying levels of proficiency. It is simply easier for them to communicate in their language. Some topics can only be discussed in one language even, because the other language lacks the words for the phenomenon.

There's only one thing that will help you in the long term: learn their language. It has the bonus of learning more of your date's culture as well.

That won't help you now though - learning a language takes time and dedication. For now, you can try asking if they will speak in English. They might or might not. They might fall back into speaking their native language after a bit. Don't think them rude for it and don't think yourself rude for asking. If it is a small group, maybe of 2-3 people, consider asking again. Or perhaps you can initiate a sub-conversation in English with a smaller group?

If you wish to ask them to speak your language, phrase it as a request for a kindness on their part, not as something they should do because it is "the language of the country". That would xenophobic and rude. Instead, focus on hospitality and kindness.

Once your language skills pick up and you can follow conversations better, the feeling of being excluded will go away. My fiancé reported similar feelings, which went away as his grasp of the language increased. Perhaps a course in confidence can help you now.

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  • Love this answer! Bonus points if you can get the sub-conversation in English about learning their language. Even short term this has a lot of positive effects to be included. You're showing interest in their culture, you're learning (slowly) to understand them, it's one of the friendliest way to remind them you cannot participate in their conversation in their native tongue and it can cause great laughs when you accidentally use swearwords in the language! – Imus Dec 17 '19 at 10:35
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Let's say English is your native tongue, you live in Italy. Imagine you are sitting at a table with a few friends visiting from the UK. An (only) Italian-speaking friend of yours arrives and takes a sit at your table.
Are you suddenly going to speak Italian with your friends?
Are all your friends going to do so too, assuming they can all speak Italian to some (possibly low) degree?

Is it rude of them, given they all speak (Italian), to continue speaking a language (your friend) doesn't understand?

No. It might not be very social (towards this friend) but it's pretty natural. Finding the right balance between a natural discussion and a social setting is not straightforward and everyone will solve it in a slightly different way.

Would it be rude of me to ask them to speak English?

I think it won't be physically or socially possible to ask all of them to switch at once and for all. But telling the one next to you something like:

Hey, I'd love to participate in the discussion but I don't speak (their tongue), it that ok if we speak English together?

is definitely ok and should work... until the next one jumps into the discussion back in their native tongue!

By the way, this is not limited to the tongue, the same happens with common experiences and life episodes.
When we visit my partner's good old friends, discussions often revolve around that wild summer they spent together in the woods, this annoying teacher back then in high school or this one club they went to every other weekend. I don't know anything about those so I'll just sit there and listen or wait for an opportunity to divert the discussion back to a common topic. In your case, look around you and pick something to create a common point:

Had you ever been here before? Can you suggest something good to eat?
Is that not the new smartphone of my-favourite-brand? How is it?
How long have you known this-person-I-date? Did you guys go to school together?

If this starts getting tiresome for you or for them, I suggest you let your date meet with their friends alone from time to time. You can't force them and you shouldn't force yourself.

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  • The thing here is that I would immediately switch to Italian and make sure my friends did too, but I always go out of my way to make people comfortable and have been told not to expect that back, so I never know what to really be able to expect in return. – SeriousBri Dec 13 '19 at 9:54
  • Beware that many people don't have the faculty to "immediately switch" and some get very uncomfortable when "going out of their way". I understood this better only after spending several years abroad without speaking my native tongue at all. After some time, it can be really relieving to do and get what you have been used to since your youngest age. – theSameTime Dec 13 '19 at 20:47
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The first thing I want to clear here is, even if they all can speak English it doesn't mean they always have to. I can speak English fine but my mother tongue is Hindi and when I want to talk freely I prefer Hindi as long as possible. So the same can be applied for your date and date's friends.

I am also dating a person who speaks a different primary language then I and our common language is English. Also, friends prefer to talk in their own language more. How it worked for me is telling my partner clear-cut and my partner takes care of it. Even I got close to one of a female friend and she also does take care that I don't feel uncomfortable.

See telling a whole group to talk in English can come out bad but telling your date to take care of it will be a better option here. As for people who speak multiple languages, they usually reply in the same language you initiate conversation in. So if your date tries to talk more in English with friends then they might also reply in English.

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    Can you explain what this part means please " it worked for me is telling my partner clear-cut and my partner takes care of it"? I don't understand if you are suggesting telling my partner I am uncomfortable and asking her to speak to her friends for me, or something else. – SeriousBri Dec 13 '19 at 9:10
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    @SeriousBri I told my partner that I don't like if he talk to some other language with his friends which I don't udnerstand and he understood it – Gauche Dec 13 '19 at 9:16
  • I don't think that this is helpful, because telling your partner that you don't like it when they speak a language you don't understand when with friends doesn't help the situation, but makes it worse: the group of friends will continue to speak the language they're comfortable with, but now your partner will have to choose between making you uncomfortable or making their friends uncomfortable, and spend the whole time feeling uncomfortable themselves – Aaron F Jan 7 at 22:06

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