In today’s growing trend to embrace multiculturalism, one of the biggest concerns – and difficulties – is language barriers. Many people have, at one point or another, been encouraged to learn a second language, but there’s a big difference between classroom conversant and fluency.
It is not rude to answer in another language if you know that the other person also understands that language and you explain why you gave the answer in that language.
For a better idea of when practicing multilingual skills is rude, and when it’s not, keep reading.
Is It Rude to Reply in Another Language?
Many people consider speaking in a language other than the one you’re addressed in to be rude. Others consider holding a conversation in any language other than a shared one to be impolite at best.
However, there are exceptions to both these rules, particularly the rules of courtesy regarding answering a question.
What Are the Exceptions?
A few examples of exceptions are:
- Someone addresses you in a language you don’t know.
- Someone addresses you in a language you do know, but not well enough to reply.
- Someone addresses you in your language but is clearly more comfortable speaking in a different language, and it is one you know.
- Someone asks you to identify something in a language they are attempting to learn.
- You ask for clarification in a language you are learning, and they are conversant in it.
- Both of you are speaking a shared language, but potentially different dialects.
- One party is using a special assistance language, such as Sign Language.
- Demonstrating a linguistic example of a shared passion.
All of these are situations you might encounter.
Addressed in an Unfamiliar Language
No matter how good your linguistic skills are, odds are, there’s at least one language you don’t know. And in today’s world of long-distance travel and melting pot cultures, there’s a good chance you’ll encounter an unfamiliar language at some point.
When that happens, you have two choices: Find a common ground, or demonstrate you don’t know the language in a straightforward manner.
Find Common Ground
Here’s an example of how an attempt at meeting in the middle might look:
Speaker: Ah, Guten Tag! Sprechen Sie Deutsch? (German greeting)
You: Ah…no. I’m afraid not. Do you speak English?
Speaker: Nein. Ich spreche Deutsch und Spanisch…
You: Ah! Hablas Espanol?
It might seem a bit far-fetched, but geographically, Germany is closer to Spain, and stranger things have happened.
Demonstrate a Lack of Knowledge
If you’re not sure what to say, or how to respond there’s always a good, old-fashioned, “sorry, I don’t understand”.
Speaker: Disculpe! Necesito una bebida!
You: I’m sorry, I don’t understand.
Speaker: Necesito una bebida.
You: I’m sorry, I don’t speak Spanish.
Speaker: No hablas espanol?
You: I’m sorry, but no.
Addressing Known but Non-Conversant
Sometimes, it’s not a matter of not knowing the language, it’s a matter of not knowing it well enough to convey your meaning. Typically, this is one of the most frustrating positions to be in.
Nonetheless, all you can do is try your best to convey your meaning.
In this case, you might find yourself in a conversation like this:
Speaker: Quiero una bebida.
You: Que quiere usted?
Speaker: Que tienes?
You: Tengo agua, cafe, tea…y…(say you forgot the word for juice or milk)…lo siento…
Speaker: Y que?
You: I also have juice or milk.
Speaker: No hablo ingles…
You: I have juice or milk…lo siento…no se como dice…
Arguably a very frustrating position for both parties, but it can’t really be considered rude…you just don’t know – or remember – that word yet!
Addressing in Their Own Language
If you’re bilingual or multilingual, you may have been asked to assist someone struggling to cross the language barrier. And if you’re comfortable crossing it instead, you might have a conversation like this:
Speaker: Excuse me…I need…ah…(falters, looking for word)…ah…leche?
You: Ah! Quieres leche? Grande o pequeno? Y blanco o chocolate?
Speaker: Hablas espanol?
In this case, you’re helping make them more comfortable, which isn’t rude – it’s courteous.
Helping Someone Learn
It’s not uncommon for people to struggle with learning a new language. If someone you meet is attempting to learn a language you know well, they might ask you to explain something, and you’ll get a conversation like this:
Speaker: Do you speak Spanish?
You: Si, hablo espanol (not rude, demonstrates knowledge)
Speaker: Do you know how to say, ‘I want to read that please’?
You: Sure. ‘Yo quiero leer eso, por favor.’
Speaker: Can you repeat that?
You: Yo…quiero…leer…eso…por favor. (slower with stronger enunciation)
Learning from Someone
When learning a new language, it can be helpful to practice, especially to get the nuances down.
Essentially, you and the speaker in the previous conversation would switch roles.
In this case, you aren’t being rude, and neither are they. It’s simply a part of the learning process.
These days, there’s a growing level of slang, and cobbled-together lingual mixes that can make even two native English speakers confused.
- The difference between Texas drawl and northern mountain speech patterns.
- British or ‘Queens’ English versus Americanized English.
- Street slang versus classroom English.
You might feel like you’re speaking a different language if you run into a dialect that’s much different from yours. However, sticking to your own dialect (language), is generally less rude than trying to mimic a speech style you don’t know.
Special Needs Linguistics
Many individuals with hearing or speech problems communicate in Sign Language. Or, failing that, hand gestures and pantomime are designed to convey the message.
This can be tough to decipher if you’re not well-versed in sign language, but it isn’t impossible.
You: How can I help you?
Other Person: ‘Hand sign for I can’t hear/speak‘
You: I’m sorry.
Other Person: ‘repeats hand sign with exaggerated gestures’
You: ‘Picks up phone or paper and types/writes out the question’
In this case, neither of you is being rude. There are just some unique obstacles in communication.
Ancient languages, ‘dead’ languages, and fantasy languages are becoming more and more widespread. Klingon for example. Irish Gaelic is another.
- If one of your passions is Star Trek, you might speak with a fellow enthusiast in Klingon.
- If you’re into Game of Thrones, you might offer a greeting in High Valyrian.
- If you have an interest in Ireland, you might learn Irish greetings.
None of these are really rude, though you might startle some people. They’re expressions of your identity and interests.
However, unless you’re among the like-minded, you may want to switch back to something more commonly shared after a phrase or two.
While it’s best to try and communicate in a common language when you can, there are sometimes extenuating circumstances. The language barrier is a real issue, even for the best multilinguist.
In short…answering in another language is only rude if it’s meant as a hindrance to communication, rather than an honest attempt.
Sophie Hammond is a journalist, psychologist, and freelance speechwriter for people in politics and business. She lives on the edge of the Rocky Mountains with her dog and a lifetime supply of books. When she’s not writing, she can be found wandering through nature or journaling at a coffee shop.