Dear Margo: For the Benefit of Alzheimer’s Research

Margo Howard does her part in the fight against Alzheimer’s

For the Benefit of Alzheimer’s Research

To my readers: I have only helped a researcher once before. I am doing it again because this project has to do with Alzheimer’s disease — a destructive, sad and omnipresent misfortune. It is on the march and affecting increasing numbers of families. The information below will allow some of you to do something constructive, and it might offer an afflicted loved one the chance to feel that they are contributing something important and valuable. Have a look, and see whether your city offers the opportunity.

Dear Margo: Like millions of Americans, I am living through the painful process of watching my mother struggle with Alzheimer’s disease. This very difficult experience is one of the many reasons I am proud and grateful to be leading one of the largest studies ever on Alzheimer’s disease, with the hope of uncovering vital information that could change the course of this now incurable and fatal condition.

It is important for people to know that one of our greatest challenges with Alzheimer’s is not the disease itself. The biggest hurdle we face is finding enough study volunteers to allow the research to continue at the pace needed to be successful against this “silent epidemic.” Today, 5.3 million people suffer from this horrible disease, and, as many of your readers know all too well, we caregivers often feel helpless. But we can do something about it.

Together, we can make progress against Alzheimer’s. My colleagues and I across the country want to put an end to Alzheimer’s disease, but we can’t do it without volunteer partners in science. And that is where we are asking for your readers’ help. One way to get involved is to go to or call 1-800-438-4380 to volunteer. We are committed to finding a cure for Alzheimer’s disease, but we can’t do it without you. — Michael W. Weiner, M.D., Principal Investigator, Alzheimer’s Disease Neuroimaging Initiative (ADNI), University of California, San Francisco

When Language Is a Barrier

Dear Margo: My problem is not the most earth-shattering, but since I find myself on the opposite sides of the same etiquette rule, I would like to hear your response.
It often has been said by many people that it’s rude to point out that someone’s being rude. So what am I to do when a co-worker of mine, when seated with several people at lunch, continuously

speaks across the table to others in a language that is not spoken by me or some of the other people, or speaks in this language to others in front of me? And what am I to do if a dear friend, when entering a room, hears a few of us speaking a certain other language and interrupts mid-sentence without letting us finish with, “You are speaking this language again. Don’t speak it now!” I am at a loss as to how I am supposed to behave being caught at the opposite ends of rudeness. — Lost in Translation.

Dear Lost: You would probably feel better if you could be consistent when it comes to other languages. Regarding the co-worker addressing someone in their common language (not yours), the only excuse for this would be if that person did not speak English. If she does, then you might take the two of them aside and say it feels rude to the others. In the second instance you cite, I am wondering why you are doing what you dislike in others. The person who is admonishing you is simply acting on the feelings that you, yourself, have in the same situation. Bottom line: Using a foreign language is only acceptable in company if someone in the group does not speak English.

It is OK to point this out gently, and privately, to those who choose to go back and forth in two languages. — Margo, considerately

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Dear Margo is written by Margo Howard, Ann Landers’ daughter. All letters must be sent via e-mail to Due to a high volume of e-mail, not all letters will be answered.


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32 Responses so far.

  1. avatar percysowner says:

    I would also say that using a different language is acceptable if everyone in the group speaks it. If, when the coworker enters the room the people already in the room all speak the non-English language, they have not been being rude. It would be polite to switch to English when an English only speaker enters the room, but prior to that, I don’t see a problem.

  2. avatar Kate Olsen says:

    LW1 – This is a subject dear to my heart. Many people do not realize that this affects younger, middle aged persons also.  My Uncle was diagnosed in mid 40’s and passed away in early 50’s. Another uncle held on to his early 70’s.  There have been others in my family with this and other health problems that came on suddenly, without warning.  I have made arrangements to donate my body to science, due to many health problems and family history.  I sincerely hope that some good can come of research. 

    LW2 – It is never good etiquette to speak in another language unless one or more people present do not speak the language that the entire group speaks on a whole. And if that is the case, make it known so they do not feel bad.  I worked in an environment where many people did not speak English.  Myself and several others acted as interpreters because the non English speakers did not want anyone to feel disrespected.  In time, they learned English and our other co-workers learned Spanish.  What a boon to their resumes that they could now speak another language and no feelings hurt along the way. 

  3. avatar Tara Kneitz says:

    LW2 – It may be rudeness on both sides. But you know what? Sometimes neither language feels “foreign”, and we don’t even notice we’ve been doing it. At events where mixed languages are used, such as trade shows, I have often found myself speaking to a “laguage 1 speaking” co-worker after a “language 2 speaking” visitor has already left(!) in language 2. The blank look on his face is the clue that he understood nothing of what I had just been saying. <g> I don’t intend to be rude, my excuse is simply being a bit featherbrained in such moments. A gentle reminder gets us all back on track.

    • avatar Lila says:

      Ha, Tara, YES, sometimes one does lose track of what language one is speaking, unbelievable as that may seem!

      I once was driving in a remote area of Panama and a car coming the other way on the dirt road flagged me down. The driver asked for directions, I gave them, then we were both on our way. After a few minutes, I started to wonder… and asked my passenger, “What language was that guy speaking?” “English.” “What language was I speaking?” “Spanish.” Each of us unthinkingly spoke the language we thought the other needed, and apparently didn’t notice! Weird.

  4. avatar Cindy Marek says:

    L #2: Beats me. Just go with what’s appropriate and polite to you in each situation? I’m monolingual. However, 18 years ago most of my coworkers were bilingual (Spanish). I reside near the US/Mexico border. They were polite about it, including asking me if I were bothered when they spoke Spanish amongst themselves; they were concerned that I might be wondering if they were talking about me. I said no, didn’t bother me at all. In fact, I was glad they did speak Spanish amongst themselves! My work requires listening to physicians’ dictation in earphones; not being able to understand what my coworkers were saying made it easier to focus on the doctor.

  5. avatar martina says:

    My husband, who’s native language is Russian, has done this to me often.  I get a kick out of it.

    With my parents coming from Germany and the husband from Latvia and basically from living in the US amongst many languages, I have no problem with others speaking another language as long as I’m not considered to be a part of their group and I’m not being excluded from participating in the conversation because I don’t speak their language.  Sometimes it’s easier to express what you want to say in your native language but if you have a good command of the group’s language you should be sticking with that.  People also need to be careful about what they in their native language because you never know who is going to understand the language they are speaking.  I’ve overheard a few choice things spoken in German by people not realizing there were people around who understood them.

    As for the woman walking in on the group speaking their native language, she should really give them the opportunity to switch back to the language she understands.

  6. avatar Chris Glass` says:

    I’ve lived overseas and in bi-lingual areas so it is natural when people speak their native tongue. Many people do it without realizing that they have because the first language is the one they think in. I’ve been called down for it without realizing that I had lapsed when living overseas. I took the correction as intended – a reminder that I had slipped. It was easy to do because I spoke English at home.

  7. avatar LostInTranslation says:

    LW2 here. It is interesting to see everyone’s perspective on this issue, because to me this issue is largely about the rules of etiquette. In case of my co-worker it would be rude of me to tell her she is being rude, and in case of my friend, I suppose she is trying to tell us she thinks we are being rude, but I can’t be rude in return.

    And just to clarify further: I have no problem switching languages based on the situation, and I never speak my native language in the company of people who don’t understand it. But in case of my co-worker, it’s not her native language, but she even speaks across the lunch table to other non-native speakers of the language. And in case of my friend, she does not give us any time to finish a sentence and switch to English, but she has no problem speaking her native language in front of us with her husband.

    I guess the only thing I can do in these situations is do my best to be polite and take the rest with a smile.

    • avatar Lucy Henry says:

      “And in case of my friend, she does not give us any time to finish a sentence and switch to English, but she has no problem speaking her native language in front of us with her husband.”

      You might point that out matter-of-factly next time she interrupts you. 

    • avatar wendykh says:

      ok non-native speakers speaking in a foreign language to one another IS totally rude and not appropriate.

  8. avatar Debbie Ciaravino says:

    LW #2, I’m sure I”ll get a lot of negative remarks about this, but here it goes….

    Being capable of speaking many languages does not mean you should and it is rude in both situations. If you live in the United States of America where the official language is still English, that is what you should speak. Yes, this is a free country and you are welcome to speak any language you want in private. But, in public, English is the universally accepted language.

    If I traveled to your native country, I would be expected to speak your language. If I don’t speak your language, then I would expect to have an interpreter that could translate for me. As your follow up post states, if the people at lunch are speaking a different language in public and it is not their native tongue or English, then they are doing it specifically to be rude and it is acceptable to tell them. Something along the lines of “I think it’s great that you want to practice your _____ (insert language), but those of us who don’t speak it would like to participate in the conversation as well. English only while we are all together please.”
    Another option would be to start speaking in your native tounge and talk over the people at lunch. When they stop talking to listen to you, simply say “I’m sorry, was that rude? Perhaps we can all speak English so we can all engage in conversation together and I won’t be forced to talk to myself.”

    On final thought, the group at lunch could be doing it on purpose to illustrate how rude it is when you do it as well. Which one started first? Did you get called out at work before or after you noticed the people at lunch doing it?

    • avatar LostInTranslation says:

      Debbie, as I mentioned before, I never speak my native language in front of the people who don’t understand it, and this includes the lunch situation at work. So the co-worker in question is being rude, but perhaps she is trying to show off that she can speak the language that is not her native tongue, her native language being English.

      • avatar martina says:

        Well that really is rude and you’re right, she probably is showing off that she can speak that language.  How does the person she is speaking to respond?  If it was me, I’d probably respond in the language that everyone else was speaking.  Have you ever asked her why she does it or do you not have the kind of relationship to do that?  Anyway, it’s rude for people to talk across conversations in any language. 

        • avatar LostInTranslation says:

          I have asked other people not to speak to her in the other language when all of us are present, but I am reluctant to talk to her directly. She has an explosive personality, and it’s better to avoid conflict in the office. People do respond to her in the other language, but I try to stir the conversation away from them so that others don’t feel uncomfortable.

    • avatar wendykh says:

      OMG not only are you rude and paranoid you’re also ignorant. The US does NOT have an official language!

      • avatar April says:

        Thank you.

        I only speak one language (English), but it still bothers me when somebody else starts up with the mentality of, “This is America! Speak American!”

  9. avatar R Scott says:

    I typed a whole comment in Portuguese and WOW wouldn’t post it. I bet they thought I was sneaking in dirty words (I was) and opted not to chance it. Too bad. It was a good comment. Oh well.

  10. avatar Mjit RaindancerStahl says:

    I’m going to side with the unpopular side of Letter #2.

    If I’m having a conversation with Mack in NotEnglish, and Jane Monolinguist walks in the room, I don’t feel Jane has any business demanding that Mack and I switch to English just because she walked into the room. Jane’s demand is not only rude, it’s nosy, and the equivalent of demanding that one be included in what might be a private conversation.

    I frequently have customers who speak their native language among themselves. I don’t expect them to speak English just because I’m there — I don’t need to know what the Mrs wants Son to do when they get home, or what the Mr thinks of Mother-in-law.

    In the group dinner situation, I concede that is another matter. Personally, I would resort to confused puppy-dog eyes at every incomprehensible phrase, and the gentle “I’m sorry, what did you say?” Again, I feel openly demanding a language shift is rude, but only in tone, not in function.

    • avatar April says:

      Jane’s demand is not only rude, it’s nosy, and the equivalent of demanding that one be included in what might be a private conversation.

      Great minds think alike, Mjit!

      I think we can all agree that it would be rude if “Jane” walks in, sees me quietly talking to “Mack,” and declares, “Talk louder! I can’t hear what you’re saying!” The concept isn’t much different just because the barrier is a language.

      Now, if I started ignoring Jane because it’s easier to talk to Mack in our language, that’s a whole other matter, but that doesn’t seem to be the LW’s situation.

  11. avatar Belinda Joy says:

    I agree with Margo. One should only use a foreign language in mixed company if someone in the group doesn’t speak english, it is just  plain rude.  It drives me crazy when I am out and about and hear people speaking in a foreign language and then English.

  12. avatar wendykh says:

    I am so sick of American unilingualism. It is NOT rude to speak another language. It is rude to think everything should be catered to your unilingualism. I am American by birth and moved to Montreal 15 years ago. I have been in a room where 7 other languages were being spoken at once. I have never, since moving here, been in a room where less than two were being spoken, even if it was between me and my children. I am not going to speak in a language you understand if I am speaking to my children or to someone with whom we generally speak in another language. It’s utter nonsense and silliness the way Americans are so bloody paranoid whenever it’s not in their precious English. GET OVER IT.

    • avatar Lym BO says:

      Yes, but whomever the speaker is conversing with understands them. I don’t take issue with small groups speaking other languages at all, but if you are all seated at a table for a family meal then the language everyone knows should be spoken. Long ago, I was seated at dinner with my in-laws, I leaned over & started whispering to someone. I then stopped and said, “Oh, I’m sorry. Was that rude? Now you know how I feel when you speak a language I don’t understand.” The family members my age totally got it, the parents didn’t. Nor will they EVER. Either that or they get it but choose to disrespect me. (more below). I’m just glad we moved away. I tolerate it now because it’s only a few days. If I still lived there I wouldn’t.

      • avatar April says:

        Wow, Lym. That was pretty rude of you.

        Maybe I see things differently because my parents were immigrants. It probably colors my view to know that, when they came here, people tried to find excuses to treat them differently, and that they – like many other immigrants – felt the need to crush a part of their heritage and culture so they could “fit in” and not feel as much discrimination as they would for speaking “that ching-chong language of yers.”

        Good for the family members your age getting it (or pretending to because they were afraid of making waves). They were probably lucky enough to not have to know what it’s like to give up a part of themselves to survive. They certainly didn’t know what it was like to have some outsider further chastise them for who they were because it’s easier to say, “You need to conform to me and my inability to speak multiple languages!” then meet halfway and learn a bit of whatever they’re speaking.

  13. avatar Lym BO says:

    Can someone please send this to my multi-lingual in-laws?! They think it is perfectly acceptable to go on & on in their native language when we visit-even after being asked no to do so. I don’t care if they aren’t talking to me. If I am in the room then English should be spoken. My children & I don’t speak their language. They do it at the dinner table knowing very well I/they don’t speak it. Of course, they wish my small children & I would learn it, but it would only by useful 7 days a year. I think they somehow believe exposing them to it is beneficial. Passing on culture, beliefs & values can be done without the language. I believe it certainly doesn’t promote a family atmosphere, but rather I think it causes the children to feel alienated, excluded & different. My spouse agreed long ago it would be useless for us to learn it. Not to mention it is a rare language that cannot even be found on Rosetta Stone, etc. Learning a second language is a great thing, but my children will learn ones that are valuable in life, not just to a small group of people they see infrequently. Their choice to speak another language when we are in the room is one of the many reasons we moved 1000 miles away from them. I find it one of the rudest & exclusionary things ever.

  14. avatar Lym BO says:

    I do love the argument that aside from the English, every immigrant group that has moved to the US over the past 600 years has adopted English. Why is it these days Spanish is being catered to in business? I understand it from a business sense. I don’t understand it from a historical stance. When forced out of necessity, people adapt & adopt. When in Rome, … When I travel abroad I expect no one to speak English. When they do it’s a relief, but it also makes the trip less authentic.

    • avatar April says:

      It’s because the U.S. doesn’t have an official language and there’s a rise in Spanish speaking people as prejudice lessens and there is less pressure to “assimilate” (a fancy term for “give up what you are and homogenize”).

  15. avatar Diana Danh says:

    Funny story, I was married to a cantonese man and living in Hong Kong with him, we went to dinner with his family a lot. I’d been there for about 6 months, picking up the language. One night his sister asked her boyfriend a question in cantonese and it was about me. I knew exactly what she’d asked him (if he though I was fat) and I answered her in cantonese that yes, I am very fat! (What western woman isn’t by their standard!) The whole family had to pick their jaws up off the dinner table and a round of akward laughter I started went around. Just because YOU think someone is stupid doesn’t mean they are. 🙂 Always learn new things.

  16. avatar April says:

    LW#2: I would be annoyed if I was talking to a co-worker and she suddenly ignored me to speak to another co-worker in their mutual native language. That’s rude. Do you know what else is rude? Butting into other people’s conversations.

    If two people are having a conversation and it’s not work related, what does it have to do with us? Why do so many people feel as if they have a right to join in, or at least have the option to do so?