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I'm working in an office where neither French (my native language) nor English (a language I speak pretty nicely) is used as the default language. English is supposed to be used, since we are an international company, but our office is composed almost entirely of locals, so they primarily use the local language (which I do not speak).

My colleagues usually address me in English, but it happens a lot that I start a conversation with one of my colleagues and when another colleague enters the conversation it ends in their local language. This applies to both business-related conversations and personal converstions.

How can I, without sounding impolite, make them understand they should speak English?

Edit

I've just tested the "speak in english and they will switch back" it was a total failure like the one you see only in bad comedy.

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What is the goal of your reacting to the coworkers? Are you looking for a way to request them to discuss in English? –  enderland Mar 12 at 15:00
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@enderland I don't want them to speak in English full time, but at least I Think it's not being crazy to ask that a conversation you start and you are part of should finish in english –  Kiwy Mar 12 at 15:01
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Is it possible for you to learn the local language? (This would understandably take you several months at the very least.) –  Kevin Mar 12 at 23:11
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Who are those locals? Where are you working? –  Lukasz Mar 14 at 14:07
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Kiwy: Some of the Flemish have an active resistance to French, which might play a serious role in your problem. The fact you speak decent English might be irrelevant, as only their locale is acceptable to some of them politically. Behind are financial explanations, such as "we don't want to pay for the French-speaking poor Belgium regions, but we do want the French-speaking rich Brussels". Your situation seems particular. –  Kheldar Mar 14 at 14:50
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8 Answers 8

up vote 33 down vote accepted

Assuming this is a conversation for business purposes, then you need to be in on it. And long-term you should be getting everyone to talk in a language you can understand when you are involved.

Keeping it simple is probably the best bet. Whenever a conversation you are involved with switches language, simply say "I'm sorry I don't understand [that language] could you speak English please?". You may need to do this several times before they get the message, but if they are trying to cooperate they should eventually.

What you may notice is that sometimes if you ask a question in English of a group of people, there may be a brief conversation in not-English followed by the 'result' being translated back to you. This is especially likely if not everyone in the conversation is fluent in English. However you want to avoid this as much as possible, as it creates an 'us and them' approach. Try to persuade them to use English all the time. If it persists, talk to one of your colleagues who does have fluent English and ask them why the conversation keeps switching. Point out that it puts you at a real disadvantage. If the cause is that there are people whose English really isn't up to it, you may have to put up with someone translating for you.

If this persists over weeks, despite your asking to switch to English (and if it's not because of English deficiency) you might need to have a gentle word with management.

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I have a different opinion than DjClayworth in some points: making all conversations in a language that is different from the native language of the country where the office is located is against the law here. I would also consider this very unwelcoming for those who do not know this other language. But I do agree with DjClayworth about Keeping it simple. Sometimes, we're make a mass over so simple things, like this, asking someone to speak again in a different language. It is no trouble at all, and if it's about business, you gotta be in it. –  Hugo Rocha Mar 12 at 17:32
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Well, you are working in a foreign country and you don't understand the language. Did you consider taking a language course? Or even better, are you taking a language course? In many places in Europe, there are plenty of immigrants and therefore plenty of cheap language courses (just checked: Where I used to live, a 15 week course 45 x 3 hours German for Beginners costs €380). That's what I would expect anyone to do.

If not, consider what kind of attitude you are showing these people. Being able just to demonstrate that you are trying might be very helpful. If you don't bother to put in any effort, why would people put in effort to talk to you in English? In addition, English spoken by native French speakers can be hard to understand for native English speakers, and more than hard for non-native English speakers.

I'd like to add that the whole thing is very culture dependent, so I don't quite understand why you are not mentioning the language. I'm quite sure that something that would be good advice in Germany would be useless or might get you into trouble in Italy or Japan and vice versa.

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I don't think this is very good advice. The asker said at the company the expectation is that people speak English at the work place, so I don't see why they need to be learning to be at a professional level with the local language. –  myyk Mar 13 at 16:29
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@myyk It's a practical answer that (a) doesn't require Being That Guy (if Management cracks the whip on English, everyone's gonna know it's him), and (b) may even help him if they see he's trying to meet them halfway. And learning a new language is never a bad investment. –  Allen Gould Mar 13 at 16:32
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The time to learn a new language with enough proficiency to keep up with spoken technical language is prohibitive. Keep in mind that if people are switching to their own language they will likely be speaking informally and dropping colloquialisms, slang, etc into their speech. That's why the company has an expectation that the team speak in English. –  Chris Schiffhauer Mar 13 at 18:15
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+1 for last paragraph. –  Allen Zhang Mar 13 at 23:10
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@DJClayworth, no, the OP clearly stated that he believed that company expects the English to be used also in internal unofficial or half-official communication only because company is international. –  Lukasz Mar 14 at 18:54
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I personally would probably tap the first one who speaks in the other language on the shoulder and say something like, "Can you please translate for me?"

Usually people only need a gentle reminder that you are not understanding what they are saying.

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I try this, but it's definitely not a permanent solution as I'm obliged to do it each time I speak with my colleagues –  Kiwy Mar 12 at 15:16
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I disagree with this. You want people to be talking English, not having to have someone translating for you. A translation will put you behind the conversation. You'll be hearing it but not participating. –  DJClayworth Mar 12 at 16:06
    
Perseverance @Kiwy, you must difference when your colleagues are not realizing that you don't understand them, and when do they on purpose –  greuze Mar 12 at 16:08
    
@greuze problem is at the debinning they were careful about this but now I'm here for 6 months and they tend to speak less and less english... –  Kiwy Mar 12 at 16:11
    
The transalating comment is to gently remind them that you didn't understand what they just said. –  HLGEM Mar 12 at 23:46
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There has to be a compromise situation available.

Sure, it is an international company, and sure, your English is good. But, this is human nature.

Communication will always revert to the most efficient mechanism available. You have allowed your colleagues to establish the local language as the most efficient mechanism. For you, it is not.

You have choices. You need to be part of the communication (or you may as well quit). So, if you find a way to make the local language inefficient:

  • insist that one of the people (preferably the most senior, busy person) translate everything for you... in what he considers the most inefficient way (an e-mail?)
  • question and challenge those mails to ensure you have an accurate understanding of what was said.
  • essentially make it not-worth-while to do things twice....

then, the conversation will likely stay in English.

But, even this is inefficient, and not likely to make you friends. The real solution will be to compromise, and to start learning the local language as well. Then everyone will be running at peak efficiency. This will likely be best for your career anyway, and it will win you friends, and influence people.

The problem is what happens during the transition times, as you learn the language, and as they adapt to the slower process as they teach you.

If you make it clear that you are trying to learn the local language, then it is my experience that you will be given a lot more concessions, and you will all end up winning.

If you try to enforce regulations, it will just slow everything down, and irritate people.... company policies be damned.

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well I had considered to learn this language in the first place, but in fact they are so focused on speaking their local language (and this problem is proper to my team only) and it's not an easy one to learn for me, that I simply decide to quit in the next weeks, because I can't stand my teams attitude anymore. –  Kiwy Mar 13 at 8:15
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There are a couple of sides to this, firstly is why have they switched languages? This could be because of a number of reasons:

  • They're more comfortable speaking in their native language
  • They don't feel you need to understand what they're saying
  • They're trying to shut you out of the conversation

You've not mentioned that you feel uncomfortable working in that environment, only that it's sometimes difficult. If you do feel your colleagues are deliberately trying to shut you out then that's another issue and broadens the scope somewhat.

The difficulty you have here is that you don't know what you're missing out on, for all your know the topic may have switched onto last night's football game or your colleagues' kids. They may not be aware that you're feeling like this simply because they're chatting rather than discussing work.

In my opinion there are two routes need to pursue, firstly it's absolutely essential that you spend some time learning the local language. This isn't just so you can join in these conversations, it's to show a willingness to engage and and effort on your part - after all why should they bother to speak a foreign language if you're not? English may be the company standard but it's a very well received gesture if you make the effort for them. In addition by speaking to them in their language it makes them very aware of your language skills and will make them consider them a lot more in general conversation. You don't have to be fluent - start with "Good Morning" and "Thanks".

This leads me onto my second point, it's much easier to ask what they said because your language skills are still improving than it is to ask because they're doing something wrong. Consider these two phrasings:

  • I'm sorry, can you repeat that for me in English?
  • I'm sorry, my X is still not great. I'm afraid I've lost you!

The second shows clearly that you're trying to talk to them but that you need some help.

I strongly feel that you making the effort will endear you much more to your colleges than going to a manager and asking language rules being enforced!

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At first the problem is your false expectations. You've agreed to be expat, which means you count with not being able to use your native language at work, etc. You assume, that only because the company is international, the same would be expected from local workers.

It isn't so. The official language of the company may be English, which means that official communication will be in English, and reasonable level of fluency in English will be required by recruiting (which doesn't imply fluency compared to mother language).

Your collegues are communicating unoficially, because they are talking between themselves, and not on official meetings. If they would use the language you don't know and are not expected to know (Flemish) in communication including you (for example, speaking about requirements in project, work to be done) it would be something other. But the fact that you are sitting in the same office doesn't mean, that any communication that happens within that office has something to do with you. They may be talking about specific problems they had, and their fluency in English may be not enough to discuss them freely in that language.

Forbidding of using of any language, especially the language of given country, is no go, and doing so could be a serious violation of labour law, as well as citizen rights! Don't even try to go that way!

The problem is primarily structural, because you are working for international company, and you were right to expect you will be working with many foreigners, but instead you've landed in the office where you are the only foreigner, what's worse with poor knowledge of local language. What can you do is to talk with management about that problem. You can argue that it's counterproductive if you have to work with people, with which you can't communicate freely, because you aren't good enough in Flemish, and they are not fluent enough in English.

For sure it can be reorganized so, that you will be placed in team, where there are enough foreigners, so that the communication will automatically happen in English, and the "locals" speaking Flemish would be only an exception.

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What about a "Sorry?"

In most cases, your colleagues won't realize that you are not understanding them, so telling them something in English will make them to switch to English again.

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If their English isn't fluent "Sorry?" may not be understood in the way you want it to be. –  DJClayworth Mar 12 at 16:05
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Ok @DJClayworth, then "Sorry, I don't understand" :) I meant to take their attention interrumpting them (in English) –  greuze Mar 12 at 16:11
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"telling them something in English will make them to switch to English again" Is that something you know from experience, or have done/seen some research on? As it stands somebody else could say the opposite in their answer rendering both useless. Would you mind elaborating? –  CMW Mar 12 at 16:17
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@CMW: From personal experience, a non-native speaker joining the conversation switches the conversation to English, and it may take for 15 minutes after he leaves to switch back! The difference, I know, is the setting: at these companies, management didn't need to explain that English was the company language, it was a given. –  MSalters Mar 13 at 21:24
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@MSalters That actually what I'm used to, too. But it's clearly the opposite of what the OP asked about. –  CMW Mar 13 at 21:26
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You can't control their behavior, only yours -- you should excuse yourself from the conversation and leave. If they have switched to a language you do not speak, you are no longer part of the conversation. If this is deliberate, excusing yourself is a nice, clear cut, end to your participation. If it is inadvertent, this will let them know they have to restart and switch languages.

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The trouble with this is that it makes it seems as if you are not interested. That's probably not the message you mean to send (and it's a bit passive-aggressive, frankly) –  DJClayworth Mar 12 at 15:49
    
He doesn't know if he's interested in the conversation or not. It could be setting up a time to watch paint dry, or a sure fire scheme to get rich, or about the best time to meet to discuss their current project. Which is why I think the only message he should be sending is that he is out of the conversation. He knows that is true, and he can convey that in a polite way. –  jmoreno Mar 12 at 16:22
    
He was interested up to the point where it changed languages. It would be unwise to assume that it wasn't on an interesting subject after that. –  DJClayworth Mar 12 at 17:42
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