I am a white American, but I have learned Spanish as a second language. Sometimes, I will end up in an enclosed area (perhaps a waiting room or an elevator), and the only people there are me and a group of two or more Hispanic people who are talking to each other in Spanish.

Of course, I don't pay any more attention to their conversation than I would to a conversation in English that I wasn't part of; in fact, I understand less of it, because I still have to pay fairly close attention to understand Spanish. However, I inevitably do understand some parts of it.

Since I'm not Hispanic, people might assume that I don't know Spanish, and think that they have more privacy than they really do. My concern is that they might talk to each other about sensitive topics that they wouldn't want a stranger hearing about, assuming that I won't understand what they are saying.

How can I politely indicate that I know Spanish, so I do understand parts of their conversation? Should I even do that?

Simply saying something like "¡Hola! Yo hablo español" ("Hello! I speak Spanish") might be awkward, as it could sound like I'm saying that I found something they said offensive, when that's not true at all.

I could also just say "¡Hola! ¿Cómo están ustedes?" ("Hello! How are you?"), but it seems rude to interrupt a group's conversation to ask how they are doing.

Is there a better way to indicate that I speak Spanish?

  • 3
    Whilst the percentage does vary state to state, over 40 million americans speak spanish - is there a particular reason to believe others would think spanish is a "private" language, or that its your place to inform people what languages you speak? Jan 17 at 9:41

3 Answers 3


One of my children is fluent in Mandarin while not looking as though he might be. This has resulted in multiple situations where he thought someone was talking to him and has responded, to tremendous surprise. Eg on a bus, the person next to him, heads down going through a backpack, "want a bottle of water?" and he politely said "no thankyou" and it turned out they were talking to a companion on the other side of him, a little conversation in Mandarin and some seat swapping to put the companions together, all good.

When he doesn't accidentally think they're talking to him, he completely ignores it, including controlling his facial expressions. He has more than once been surprised by the very personal conversations people have in public when they think no-one understands. But telling them he understands them (has been understanding them all this time) is only going to embarrass and upset them. Reading his book or playing on his phone gives them their illusion of privacy, and since he doesn't care about the things he's learning, there is no real loss of privacy. This wouldn't apply for a coworker or someone else you might see again, of course.

Finally, there are times when the things he understood were about him and directed at him by someone who didn't know he could understand. The landlord who berated an agent for bringing a white person (she used a slur) to look at an apartment, for example. On that occasion he replied to the landlord, something like "I'm not like most of them" and she freaked out saying that a [slur] who could understand her was even worse and throwing them both off the property. From that he learned that discretion may not improve situations, but at least it doesn't worsen them.


One upon time on a London bus, one guy spoke on the phone too loudly in his language. When he finished his conversation I decided to speak with him and started speaking in his language - he appeared scared. So, you will never know how people will react to you, when they think that nobody understands them.

Imagine that you come to Mexico or Spain as a tourist and start saying to everyone "¡Hola! Yo hablo español" to prevent their private conversations in your presen - it really will be awkward and it shows that you grew-up in a monolingual environment and have worries about things which not bother at all people who grow-up in multilingual environment.

Sometimes we have to communicate with strangers by using short phrases like “excuse me”, “sorry”, “may I ask you…” and so on. In such situations you may use Spanish language and it will be natural and appropriate rather than the direct and reasonless "¡Hola! Yo hablo español".

If some people have private conversation in your presence thinking that you do not understand them – it’s their problem not yours. Use it as apossibility to improve your knowledge of Spanish language.


A solution that may be adapted to the more introverted is simply to react non-verbally. Usually when people talk about a sensitive topic out loud they will check their surroundings. If you are reacting non-verbally (think facial expressions like surprise, nodding, stink-face etc.) they'll know. Here's a scene in Rick and Morty in which squirrels realize Morty can understand them simply based on his non-verbal reactions: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ojZVpb0cVkE

A solution adapted to a more extraverted/social person is simply to verbally comment or react to what is said, ideally in a humoristic manner if you're able to do that.

For your specific elevator situation, and other similar "close quarter" situation, it can be customary to say "hello" and nodding, it's just considered polite. You may simply say "holà" instead.

  • 1
    This is a beautiful contribution. Jan 30 at 17:17

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