Eavesdropping on Foreign Language Conversations

I didn’t really do it on purpose. I was just sitting in the restaurant eating, when the table behind me started up a conversation in some sort version of Spanish.

It was a rather entertaining conversation, then it dawned on me. I’m eavesdropping. :smack:

I then started to think about it, and whenever I hear conversations in a foreign language, I try to listen in, even though it’s none of my business.

It appears to only be foreign languages that I try to listen to, but that could be confirmation bias.

Does anyone else have problems with that?

Ahh, the definition of eavesdropping. Going through effort to pick up on a conversation just out of earshot? Or forced to endure a conversation within your reasonable area of hearing? The first is obvious; don’t go through the effort. But your ears don’t have a shut-off switch for people next to you.

Which brings us to the next definition, entertaining. Why? Why on earth should it be MY responsibility to avoid hearing a conversation that triggers my interest? Obviously, the people doing the speaking aren’t worried about it, or they’d carry it on more discreetly. (Or they’re idiots, which is still their problem.)

But you mentioned it being spoken in a foreign language, which naturally piques your interest, on the very basis that it sounds different but you understand it. I’ve been exposed to several languages and can converse in a few of them. And if I encounter someone speaking near me in their own language, it’s pretty natural. Funny, but in US/Mexico border states, it seems that no white person should be able to understand Spanish, and they’re surprised when you know what they’re saying. I’ve not encountered such reactions with the Cubans in Miami or the Puerto Ricans in NYC. Although I have to admit, the Spanish used along the border is more difficult to understand, like the English used in downtown Detroit.

I always like to guess what language it is. And I like listening to foreign languages. So yes, I do this. I can only understand if it’s French, though. Then I justify the eavesdropping to myself as “working on listening comprehension.”

On sort of the same topic, comprehending an overheard conversation was the last piece of Spanish to click into place for me. Long after I could comprehend one hundred percent of what was said to me in direct conversation, overheard conversation remained completely opaque. Maybe it’s just my own personal brain quirk, but I always receive people’s tales of, “Oh, they were talking about some inappropriate topic and they didn’t know I understood them, hahaha!” with a heavy grain of salt, especially if I know the teller is not a native speaker.

The fun part is listening in on foreign-language conversations that the speakers know perfectly well you can hear, but don’t think you can understand. Once I was on a bus right next to three Italian teenage boys (I was somewhere in my mid-twenties). I speak Italian, but I don’t look like I would. They were loudly discussing my hotness level, in detail (they eventually concluded that I was fairly hot, but would be hotter if I were taller, and that I should really grow my hair). When the bus got to my stop I caught one kid’s eye and said, in Italian, ‘You’re not exactly hot yourselves, sweetie, but you might improve once you’re out of nappies.’ Then I got off the bus before they could come up with an answer.

Now I catch myself listening in on any foreign-language conversation I can understand, just in case the same kind of thing happens again.

ETA: Hee, I just read the last sentence of Pyper’s post above me and realised he/she won’t believe me :-D. I was actually very fluent in conversational Italian, so it’s not as odd as it sounds.

I was once surrounded, while having my luncheon pint in a pub close to the British Museum, by four Belgian ladies who had a very vivid conversation changing language from French to Dutch to French to Dutch every other sentence. It was very hard to keep up with them.

Occasionally I’ll hear a word or two in Brazilian Portuguese and then I’ll spend the rest of the time I’m there straining to hear every word. I don’t know why it seems so interesting to hear common chitchat in another language.

Once in a rare while, I’ll hear people saying things that normally aren’t spoken in public places at normal volume, and then I’ll listen all the more so.
No Brazilian thinks that the tall skinny gringo sitting in the next booth could possibly understand them.

The challenge for me is that it is so difficult to understand words spoken at the threshold of hearing when they aren’t in your native language. I see this all the time in the reverse direction—I’ll be driving with the radio low and my wife will comment on how it is impossible to hear a thing on the radio, at which point I realize that our required minimum volume for understanding English differs greatly.

Throw in the fact that most conversations between a bunch of teenagers or twenty-somethings will be idiomatic, slurred together, and full of words you never heard of.

My French is better than my (common law) sister-in-law’s husband’s family thinks it is. That makes for fun times when we go visiting.

(For the record, my boyfriend’s family is awesome and nice. His sister’s in-laws have some ideas about the Anglais) Last time they were saying “Well we won’t speak English because she is here” when the boyfriend said something to me in French and I answered him. They were a lot nicer after.

My dad understands Finn, growing up in a Finn speaking household but has a Scottish surname and looks Scots. He had a lot of fun as a work place inspector when the people in the logging camps would be speaking Finn amongst themselves and he would call them on what they said.

I once sat on a plane (Japan to US flight) next to a Japanese guy, obviously a high school teacher supervising a number of boys who were sitting in front and behind. He made some comment in Japanese about being lucky because he was sitting next to a blondish foreign young lady. Then he went to the bathroom, during which I mentioned to the kids in Japanese “Interesting teacher you’ve got” or similar. The whole rest of the flight we were all waiting to see if they guy would make any more comments that he could be embarrassed about later.

Another time I was in a store in New York and a lady told her kid to put a toy back and he said he didn’t know where the right bin was, so I said, “Oh, it’s over here,” and she thanked me and said, “That was funny, it’s like you could understand Japanese!” and I wasn’t sure what to say because I hadn’t registered that she was speaking in Japanese and I suddenly felt like I had been eavesdropping. Not that she was speaking a foreign language with the intent to keep her conversation private, but she was certainly assuming a privacy she didn’t actually have since out of three non-Asians surrounding her, it was a good bet none of them spoke her language.

On the other hand when I’m shopping in a Japanese grocery or eating at a ramen shop here in NYC I don’t feel like a snoop listening to others’ conversations because they expect they are being overheard and understood by people all around them.

Years ago in a crowded piano bar in NYC, I was sitting alone (friend didn’t show up) and listening to the music and very close next to me was a young German couple. The girlfriend/wife was full of nasty comments about what people were wearing, and making snide comments about the club and the music, Her husband/boyfriend was having a better time but I could tell it was annoying him that all she was doing was bitch about the place.
As my friend was obviously not going to show up, I decided to leave - but before leaving, I turned to the woman and said in German, “If you really don’t like it here, you should leave - and by the way, your outfit is nothing special either.”
The woman went ten shades of red, but the guy burst out laughing.

She obviously thought nobody in the US spoke German and felt she could just rag on the place. I think she learned that is not always the case. If she hadn’t been speaking so loudly, or so nasty, I would never had said anything - but she was annoying me as well.

Speaking of languages (not eavesdropping, as the topic is about), my first time to Taiwan, I learned that the common introductory expression (How are you?) is Nee How Ma?
And then a year later, I was in Beijing, and that’s what I said when I was introduced to my host. He looked at me puzzled and asked, “What do you mean, how is my horse?” The proper expression is simply, Nee How? From what I was able to determine, Ma means question mark, which is like asking, “How are you <question>?” What that has to do with a horse, I still don’t know.

Thank you for bringing up this example! I have mentioned it a few times and people look at me like I am crazy.
I knew a girl from Taiwan who was giving me Chinese lessons at my university. She told me that if you said “Nee How Ma?” with the final tone going up, it meant how are you. But if you said it with the final tone (“ma”) going down, it meant “How is your donkey?”
I never forgot that, but when I mention it to people who speak Chinese, they claim it is not true. Your example proves there is some element of truth to what I remember her telling me. Maybe it is a Taiwanese dialect or something?

In Mandarin Chinese, the “ma” that forms an interogative has no tone and goes at the end of a sentence. The other four tones (high, rising, falling, falling/rising) make “ma” an entirely different word according to the tone you use. No Chinese person should be confused by “ni hao ma?” though no matter how much you botch the tone.

In NYC you can never be sure nobody around you speaks the language, especially a major one like German. I know someone who speaks fluent Irish (from growing up and going to 12 years of immersive gaelscoil in Ireland) and he estimated at least 6 times a year he would overhear people speaking Irish in bars or on the subway on the assumption that nobody around them would understand.

I was out one night in NYC with a bunch of friends in college, many of us first-gen local NYC kids of immigrant parents, and we did a survey of who spoke what non-English languages at home growing up. You might not have known to look at us or hear us talking to each other, but collectively the eight of us could have eavesdropped on conversations in Spanish, three dialects of Chinese (Mandarin, Cantonese and Taiwanese), Latvian, Hungarian, Italian, Greek or Russian… And reasonably high probability of listening in on casual French or German conversations too from school classes. (Unfortunately, my 4 years of Classical Latin probably wouldn’t come in all that useful.)

Ha, yep, it’s its main use as a language.

Living in Japan this is sorta my daily routine. I did take it upon myself once to inform a housewife out in her yard with her son that I am not a ‘creepy, scary foreigner that you should stay away from’ but actually an assistant teacher at her kid’s school. Instances like that are fortunately rare.

Correct, depending on the tone, ‘ma’ can mean the interogative particle, a horse, mother, hemp, and a few other things. Given the context, however, I don’t see how can anyone be confused.

Yeah, same boat, although we’re not really eavesdropping, just listening to what’s being said around us.

Many foreigners in Japan would question what you experienced - saying maybe there is something wrong with you, perhaps you actually do look like a scary dangerous person, or perhaps that housewife was just a kook and not representative of most people. Thus it can be explained away. But I think most of the foreigners in Japan who make such excuses are not very observant of their surroundings.

Anyway, it’s fun to listen into conversations that people think you don’t understand. Viva la games.