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Old 30th June 2020, 02:28 AM   #1
3point14
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People speaking other languages

Why do people get so upset when others are conversing in a language they don't understand? I don't get it.

It's not just the 'go back to Mexico' ****-knuckles. I work in a pretty multi-lingual environment and some people get upset about two of my colleagues talking in their native tongue.

I quite like listening to languages I don't understand. If it's a language close to home I can play the 'what can I pick out of this that I understand game', if it's a language from further away the phonemes are interesting.

Why does it concern/worry(/intimidate?) some people?
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Old 30th June 2020, 02:59 AM   #2
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Originally Posted by 3point14 View Post
Why does it concern/worry(/intimidate?) some people?
My guess would be some or all of the following:
  • Maybe they're talking about me - how rude
  • They're demonstrating a skill I lack - I feel inadequate and/or jealous
  • They're showing off - how rude
  • They're deliberately demonstrating that they're part of some "other" group - how rude and exclusive of them
  • They're a clear demonstration that the monochromatic, homogeneous world I grew up in is changing - I'm uncomfortable with change

I'm very lucky. My main client has English as their corporate language and the group I deal most regularly with are the Germans in the head office. I understand and speak enough German to get by so I'm covered both ways.
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Old 30th June 2020, 03:10 AM   #3
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Originally Posted by 3point14 View Post
Why do people get so upset when others are conversing in a language they don't understand? I don't get it.
I just try to identify the language.
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Old 30th June 2020, 03:32 AM   #4
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I always found it strange, too. One of favorite things when I lived in various cities in the US was hearing sometimes 5 or more languages on every block. Hell, even in my tiny town in Guatemala we have a local Mayan language, Spanish, English, a few Japanese who live here, a few Italians, a few Dutch and a few Germans. That's at least 7 languages. And it is beautiful.
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Old 30th June 2020, 04:35 AM   #5
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My half brothers and sister were raised in France, so all three were bilingual. The younger brother and my sister were very close, and, to keep my mother from knowing what they were up to, would speak french to each other. This worked well for them unless dad was home. Of course, I wasn't around for this as I hadn't been born yet, but it was relayed to me by both brother and sister, and mom, later on. She really hated when they did it.
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Old 30th June 2020, 04:41 AM   #6
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Because they are racist and are looking for opportunities to positively identify targets of their racism. While all descendants of non-white immigrants are the enemy, those closest to the first generation are the most hated. Speaking a foreign language indicates a proximity to non-WASP roots.

In the hierarchy of racism, non-assimilated foreign peoples are the most contemptible.
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Old 30th June 2020, 05:59 AM   #7
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I used to do reading assistance for kids in 2nd grade, the majority of which were Somali. When we'd be in the workroom and a couple of them started talking to each other in their native language, I knew it was always about me.

Once I made an educated guess and interrupted them by saying "You're talking about my nose, aren't you?" Their cute little jaws hit the floor.
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Old 30th June 2020, 06:15 AM   #8
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Originally Posted by 3point14 View Post
I quite like listening to languages I don't understand. If it's a language close to home I can play the 'what can I pick out of this that I understand game', if it's a language from further away the phonemes are interesting.
So do I.

I'm a little disappointed when I walk into a room where colleagues are having work conversations in a foreign language and they switch to English to be polite. Whatever they're talking about is usually less interesting than trying to figure out what they're talking about.
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Old 30th June 2020, 06:25 AM   #9
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I did some reading on other forums when this question popped up. Here is the most charitable case I was able to piece together.

Social norms involved developed around a monolingual culture. What is and is not appropriate to say to a friend while in company developed around that. Speaking a foreign language in this setting bypasses the vehicle that regulates this behavior. It is regarded as rude to sidestep social norms enforcement.
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Old 30th June 2020, 07:08 AM   #10
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Originally Posted by BobTheCoward View Post
I did some reading on other forums when this question popped up. Here is the most charitable case I was able to piece together.

Social norms involved developed around a monolingual culture. What is and is not appropriate to say to a friend while in company developed around that. Speaking a foreign language in this setting bypasses the vehicle that regulates this behavior. It is regarded as rude to sidestep social norms enforcement.
It's probably important to distinguish between this and when racists intrude on total strangers speaking a foreign language.

I would agree it's a bit rude to speak a language in a group that excludes some members, especially if conversation was previously proceeding in a shared language and involved everyone. That being said, speaking a 2nd language is often mentally taxing, and I don't begrudge people who would rather relax into their native tongue.

It's quite another when these racists intrude on strangers having a private conversation in a foreign language.
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Old 30th June 2020, 07:09 AM   #11
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In my office, I sometimes feel like the odd man out because I don't speak Marathi, but it doesn't bother me.

I think sometimes people worry that the people are speaking in their native tongue in order to say things that they don't want others to understand. Occasionally, that's true. We had a German branch at one company I worked with, with frequent conference calls. If the conversation got too technical, they would sometimes have a side conversation in German. They were quite embarrassed one day when, after one of those side conversations, our newest engineer on the team responded to them in German. It turns out that not everything they had said in their side conversation was actually technical.
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Old 30th June 2020, 07:17 AM   #12
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Originally Posted by chrispy View Post
I always found it strange, too. One of favorite things when I lived in various cities in the US was hearing sometimes 5 or more languages on every block. Hell, even in my tiny town in Guatemala we have a local Mayan language, Spanish, English, a few Japanese who live here, a few Italians, a few Dutch and a few Germans. That's at least 7 languages. And it is beautiful.
When I was a Peace Corps volunteer, I knew of six different indigenous languages in use in the local bazaar town (I could speak the most common one, a few of the other volunteers could recognize a few words in one or two others). Plus three languages indigenous to the adjacent nation (we were about six km from the border) were spoken widely in town. Plus English. And none of that includes the languages use by tourists or other people just passing through. In many nations, the use of so many languages is viewed as a source of pride.

Here in the burbs of Denver, I hear a mishmash of languages while out on my dog walk, although I can't always identify them. Spanish, of course, and also Nepali. Some that sound like Chinese, although I certainly can't tell Mandarin from Cantonese, nor from Vietnamese nor any of the other languages from southeast Asia (I see quite a few Laotian and Cambodian name tags on people who work at the various stores around that require name tags). Also some neighbors who speak a Slavic-sounding language, maybe Polish or Russian. One neighbor I know talks to her dog in Mongolian. Of course a fair bit of German in my house.

Originally Posted by Meadmaker View Post
....
I think sometimes people worry that the people are speaking in their native tongue in order to say things that they don't want others to understand. Occasionally, that's true. We had a German branch at one company I worked with, with frequent conference calls. If the conversation got too technical, they would sometimes have a side conversation in German. They were quite embarrassed one day when, after one of those side conversations, our newest engineer on the team responded to them in German. It turns out that not everything they had said in their side conversation was actually technical.
Going back to the Peace Corps again. I served in Nepal. Lots of Nepali people spoke English and could eavesdrop. Very occasionally, if we wanted to say something without risk of local people understanding, we would use Spanish. Assuming both Americans present spoke some Spanish, of course.

Last edited by crescent; 30th June 2020 at 07:53 AM. Reason: numerous typos due to posting before second cup of coffee
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Old 30th June 2020, 07:20 AM   #13
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delete, double post
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Old 30th June 2020, 07:38 AM   #14
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The only time it every annoys me is I have one site I provide IT supports where there's two nurses who speak in rapid-fire "Spanglish" swapping back and forth between Spanish and English almost at random, sometimes to the point they are doing it mid-sentence. It's just too much grinding of the mental gears.
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Old 30th June 2020, 07:52 AM   #15
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Chiming in that it is odd to a lot of people to hear another language spoken in the States, except by perceived tourists. So it is seen as the equivalent of passing notes back and forth, deliberately excluding others from understanding the content.

For my part, I love it, although I'm told I don't have a very good ear for inflection.
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Old 30th June 2020, 07:53 AM   #16
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I can't hear what they are talking about. Maybe they were talking about something interesting and I'm not able to passively listen in on their conversation.
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Old 30th June 2020, 08:12 AM   #17
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Many of my friends growing up lived in Spanish speaking households. When I was visiting, their families always made an effort to speak English in my presence- and those who could not would often remain unnaturally silent.

I noted this to a friend who informed me that their families considered it to be rude to speak Spanish while I was a guest in their home, and did not speak it. That kind of blew my mind, as it was a type of courtesy I had never considered.
As I became a fixture in their homes during my teens and twenties, they seemingly became more at ease with me, and I picked up a little Spanish along the way.

That attempt to put me at ease in their homes by not speaking left an impression on me though, I was touched by it, as it was not something I would have ever considered were the roles reversed.

Now I work at a company owned by a Polish immigrant, that does at least half of its business with the Russian, Ukranian, and Polish speaking residents of Northeast Philly (of which there are a great many)
My Russian and Polish speaking coworkers do not exhibit the same sense of what is and is not "rude". It does not bother me, well it does a little when I must wait for them to finish having a conversation regarding a project in Polish- then translate it to me in order to ask for my input- but I don't think of that as rude, just inefficient and annoying.

Bottom line, I think it is a matter of the culture of the listener as to whether they find it rude or not.
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Old 30th June 2020, 08:38 AM   #18
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Originally Posted by Arcade22 View Post
I can't hear what they are talking about. Maybe they were talking about something interesting and I'm not able to passively listen in on their conversation.
Contrast that with the English-speaking cell phone users who use the speaker phone even when their hands are not otherwise engaged.
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Old 30th June 2020, 08:40 AM   #19
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Originally Posted by JoeMorgue View Post
The only time it every annoys me is I have one site I provide IT supports where there's two nurses who speak in rapid-fire "Spanglish" swapping back and forth between Spanish and English almost at random, sometimes to the point they are doing it mid-sentence. It's just too much grinding of the mental gears.
That is something my multilingual wife does - i have regularly heard her use Chinese, Malay and English in the same sentence with her friends (and even me, when she think I know the words; I often don’t). Hell she probably throws Hokkien and Cantonese in from time to time.

This is something I used to hear about in Wales. English people would say ‘they were speaking English before I walked into the pub, but then they switched to Welsh so I couldn’t understand them’. To which one could reasonably ask how do you know they were speaking English before you entered, how did they know you were English and not Welsh, and why would they want to hide their in-pub conversation from you anyway?

Simple paranoia.
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Old 30th June 2020, 09:07 AM   #20
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When I worked at one RCMP detachment we had one half of a pair of twins from rural Newfoundland. The other twin was stationed relatively close so they could chat on the radio when it was not busy as this was before all transmissions were recorded. They spoke English to each other - we think - but we couldn't understand a word they said when they reverted back to their native Newfoundlander accents. Great guys and a lot of fun!
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Old 30th June 2020, 09:08 AM   #21
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I wish more people around me spoke in languages I don't know, would save me accidentally wasting brain cells on stuff that's not my business.

At work once (cubicle farm) I was compelled to listen to a particularly dim lady explain, over and over, to her equally dim friend the Pixar movie Cars in the following manner: "They're cars, but they're also like people, except they're cars." "What?" "They're cars." "But people? In the cars?" "No, the people are cars." It went on for only about forty minutes but it felt like much, much longer. Both people were sitting in front of internet-connected computers and could have simply googled the movie for images.

The next day eight people brought in over-the-ear headphones.
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Old 30th June 2020, 09:24 AM   #22
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Originally Posted by TragicMonkey View Post
At work once (cubicle farm) I was compelled to listen to a particularly dim lady explain, over and over, to her equally dim friend the Pixar movie Cars in the following manner: "They're cars, but they're also like people, except they're cars." "What?" "They're cars." "But people? In the cars?" "No, the people are cars."
Good grief, have these people never heard of Thomas the Tank Engine?

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Old 30th June 2020, 09:33 AM   #23
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When I pick up a nuisance sales call, I can often manage to get through to a live huckster (dial 1, that usually works), and then open up on them with the beginning of Beowulf. Hey, it's English. They generally last until "Theodkynningen thrum gefrunnon!" before disconnecting.

No, I'm not a nice person, not at all.
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Old 30th June 2020, 10:02 AM   #24
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Originally Posted by 3point14 View Post
Why do people get so upset when others are conversing in a language they don't understand? I don't get it.

It's not just the 'go back to Mexico' ****-knuckles. I work in a pretty multi-lingual environment and some people get upset about two of my colleagues talking in their native tongue.
Sometimes is is the 'go back to Mexico' ****-knuckles. Some other reasons:

- They're not being inclusive of others in the vicinity.
- They may be talking about someone or saying something not nice. Including, but not limited to speaking about the person who is getting angry. I have witnessed this one several times.
- The lack of understanding causes anxiety which leads to anger.

I work in very multicultural environments most of the time and rarely see people getting angry at others speaking their native languages.
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Old 30th June 2020, 10:10 AM   #25
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Surely it depends on context. Strangers having a private conversation in another language is different than two people you know sitting at a table with you, conversing literally over your head.
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Old 30th June 2020, 10:42 AM   #26
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One of the best reasons to learn any language is so you can hear the **** people say when they think you don't understand. That's why I learned English when I was a kid. I was this close to learning Finnish instead, but then I was like, naw, I bet these anglophone ************* are talking about me. And they were.
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Old 30th June 2020, 10:44 AM   #27
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Originally Posted by mumblethrax View Post
One of the best reasons to learn any language is so you can hear the **** people say when they think you don't understand. That's why I learned English when I was a kid. I was this close to learning Finnish instead, but then I was like, naw, I bet these anglophone ************* are talking about me. And they were.
That's actually sort of the elephant in the room for me.

Like if we take who routinely people who speak in a language not understable by the general "public" around them and like who them hook them up to a polygraph or inject with truth serum wrap them in Wonder Woman's Lasso or whatever and straight up ask them "So be honest... how often do you talk **** about people because they can't understand you?" I don't think it would be a statistically insignificant amount of people.
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Old 30th June 2020, 10:47 AM   #28
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Originally Posted by JoeMorgue View Post
That's actually sort of the elephant in the room for me.

Like if we take who routinely people who speak in a language not understable by the general "public" around them and like who them hook them up to a polygraph or inject with truth serum wrap them in Wonder Woman's Lasso or whatever and straight up ask them "So be honest... how often do you talk **** about people because they can't understand you?" I don't think it would be a statistically insignificant amount of people.
Which is why it's so funny when people do understand the language people assume they didn't. Apparently this hits tourists in both directions sometimes, leading to some funny stories on a certain website that's currently being "cancelled" for reasons discussed elsewhere.

I don't see the point in worrying about that, anyway. Even if everyone only spoke the same one language it won't stop people talking about you, they'll just have to wait until you're out of earshot, or do it via text instead. What people want to say will get said, somehow.
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Old 30th June 2020, 10:48 AM   #29
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Depending on the situation, I find it is rude to exclude someone from a conversation that they could be a part of, especially if they clearly want to be.
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Old 30th June 2020, 11:26 AM   #30
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I think its rude to exclude people from a conversation they should not be excluded from. I've married into bilingual families twice, and in both cases (except for accidental lapses) they've tended to be polite in public conversation either speaking English or providing translated asides. In my current situation I can pick up a good percentage of the Spanish but can't speak it and am not shy about asking for clarification so conversations tend to be bilingual too.

I think it's different when people are having a private conversation. If they are having a private conversation in a foreign language it's none of anyone else's business what they're saying. If they're making snide comments in code, tough. It's no different from whispering or referring to some private joke. If you don't want to hear it, butt out. We don't live in a school room where some teacher can force every whisper to be shared with the class. You may have learned everything you think important in kindergarten, but we're not there now.
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Old 30th June 2020, 11:55 AM   #31
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Originally Posted by TragicMonkey View Post
Surely it depends on context. Strangers having a private conversation in another language is different than two people you know sitting at a table with you, conversing literally over your head.
Sure but by and large this isn't what happens. Every time I've seen someone object to people "not speaking English", the foreign-language conversants are people the complainer has randomly encountered in public and isn't personally associated with.
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Old Yesterday, 09:48 AM   #32
The Don
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Originally Posted by gypsyjackson View Post
That is something my multilingual wife does - i have regularly heard her use Chinese, Malay and English in the same sentence with her friends (and even me, when she think I know the words; I often don’t). Hell she probably throws Hokkien and Cantonese in from time to time.

This is something I used to hear about in Wales. English people would say ‘they were speaking English before I walked into the pub, but then they switched to Welsh so I couldn’t understand them’. To which one could reasonably ask how do you know they were speaking English before you entered, how did they know you were English and not Welsh, and why would they want to hide their in-pub conversation from you anyway?

Simple paranoia.
Some people can hear conversations outside the room in which they're taking place, particularly if a door or window is open - quite common in pubs in warm weather.

As to why people might switch, perhaps to make incomers feel uncomfortable and unwelcome. I've been in pubs in remote parts of the Oop North where strangers, especially those with "posh" accents are treated with suspicion and hostility. It's not beyond reason IMO that people in some parts of Wales may behave similarly, especially if they think those incomers buyin holiday homes are pricing locals out of the market resulting in the slow death of communities.

YMMV
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Old Yesterday, 09:55 AM   #33
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Originally Posted by Belz... View Post
I just try to identify the language.
It's fun. Korean and Japanese sound similar to me, but clearly distinguishable.

What I struggle with is Russian versus Portuguese-Portuguese. I'm fluent in Portuguese, but Brazilian Portuguese sounds very different form Portuguese Portuguese. The Iberian dialect is almost indistinguishable to me from Russian.
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Old Yesterday, 10:01 AM   #34
3point14
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Originally Posted by The Don View Post
Some people can hear conversations outside the room in which they're taking place, particularly if a door or window is open - quite common in pubs in warm weather.

As to why people might switch, perhaps to make incomers feel uncomfortable and unwelcome. I've been in pubs in remote parts of the Oop North where strangers, especially those with "posh" accents are treated with suspicion and hostility. It's not beyond reason IMO that people in some parts of Wales may behave similarly, especially if they think those incomers buyin holiday homes are pricing locals out of the market resulting in the slow death of communities.

YMMV

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Old Yesterday, 02:52 PM   #35
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Originally Posted by JoeMorgue View Post
The only time it every annoys me is I have one site I provide IT supports where there's two nurses who speak in rapid-fire "Spanglish" swapping back and forth between Spanish and English almost at random, sometimes to the point they are doing it mid-sentence. It's just too much grinding of the mental gears.
If they are talking to you or expecting you to understand and you don’t speak Spanish then of course it is the same problem as when someone speaks to you in a language you don’t understand.

If, on the other hand, they are taking to each other then their code-switching is a perfectly normal part of their communication. That’s how bilinguals talk!
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