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A little bit of a back story; I work in an international company in Hong Kong where the main languages are Cantonese and English. Our team in HK is only 3 people (4 if you include one temporary person from another team), our main team is in Singapore and is about 15 people.

Ever since I joined, there has been a language issues, my 2 local colleagues are both from HK and they tend to speak Cantonese in the office. I've pointed out several times that I feel excluded and that I'm not able to help them with the problems they face at work if they don't communicate in English. I know that they're having a lot of problems, but they mostly communicate with the team in SG over Skype. I feel this is just a waste of time and it would be easier if they spoke to me.

I've had numerous meetings with them about this problem and have continued to ask them to try and use as much English as possible in the office. I've mentioned that I don't mind they speak Cantonese to discuss personal problems (since that's none of my business), but when it comes to anything related to the project, I would like them to use English since it will affect me. (English isn't my native language as well, but it's the only language we have in common)

Now we're over a year later and this problem still continues, I've brought it up to my manager who eventually discussed it with them. Since them things have taken a turn for the worst and now they hardly speak at the office. I've tried to discuss this with them, and they've pointed out that they don't appreciate me going to our manager with this. (Even though I've tried for over a year to bring it up in person).

Both of them have recently resigned from the company, I assume our team issues are a large cause of this, and I truly feel bad about it. They've mentioned they got tired of me complaining about this, but to me it was a fundamental problem within the team. There were a lot more issues within the company, but to me being in a small team and not being able to work together was one of the biggest issues here.

Since I will continue to work in this country for a while, I'm wondering how I should approach this problem in the future. Should I talk to them in person and make them understand my feelings? Or should I involve my manager straight away in this?

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    Welcome to The Workplace! Take a look at workplace.stackexchange.com/questions/20474/… as there are suggestions here that may be of use in future :) – Jane S Nov 20 '18 at 3:16
  • @JaneS Thanks for the link, most of the suggestions over there are asking them to use English, which I've tried for over a year. I understand they might feel more comfortable in their own language, but this should go both ways. I'm definitely not comfortable sitting in the office with people discussing my work in another language. – woutr_be Nov 20 '18 at 3:49
  • What really is the question, @woutr_be ? – Fattie Nov 20 '18 at 4:07
  • The question is whether the OP approached the situation correctly. – jcmack Nov 20 '18 at 5:50
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    They resigned already. No, they did not resign because of language issues; that was possibly just one small cited reason among other uncited reasons. – Brandin Nov 20 '18 at 6:50
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This isn't a language issue, it's either a trust issue or a dislike one.

They don't want to communicate with you either because they don't think you're helpful or they don't like you.

There is no other reason they would go on Skype and explain an issue in English to the Singapore people.

When in a situation where multiple languages are used you have to earn trust in your expertise. I work in several languages, most of the time I just tune out, because I know if there is anything that I should be involved with, they will switch to a common language and let me know. You don't expect everyone to conform to your expectations by default.

It's most constructive to recognise a problem for what it actually is, solutions for a different problem are a waste of time. So work on how you can earn the trust and respect of colleagues rather than how you can force them to do what you want.

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    You're absolutely right, there's definitely a dislike issue in our team. From my side it's because I don't think they're good engineers, there's a constant stream of mistakes and it has become obvious they can't be trusted to complete tasks. I'm sure they have their reasons to dislike me as well, but obviously I can't comment on this. I believe that this has gotten worse over time because of me constantly asking them to use English. I know that they're unhappy with this, but from my perspective I've only done so to improve our communication and effectiveness. – woutr_be Nov 20 '18 at 5:55
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    the main thing is you haven't had any issues even though they complained about you when resigning. If they were incompetent then they have plenty of reason to dislike you without anything else. – Kilisi Nov 20 '18 at 5:57
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    I guess the local culture is also part of it, it's not really in the culture to speak up, or bring problems to the attention of your manager. However I usually speak up about problems and try to resolve it. I know that this is a big reason for them to dislike me. But you're right before, this issue definitely runs deeper than the language issues, but I feel it's the cause of most of our trust issues. – woutr_be Nov 20 '18 at 6:04
  • All factors to be considered in the future – Kilisi Nov 20 '18 at 6:28
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Not being able to communicate with your colleague is a fundamental issue. You can't be expected to work effectively in team if you don't use the same spoken language.

I think what you have is correct in that you communicated the issue to your team member and asked them nicely to communicate with you in English. The colleagues ignored your request continue to communicate only with each other in Cantonese. At this point, management needs to step in and make a decision as to what language your office needed to use to communicate within the office.

I feel like you could have done more to reach some middle ground here. You live in HK so learning some Cantonese would benefit you greatly. I would ask your HK colleague to speak in a mixture of Cantonese and English and start you getting used to some of the lingo. But your colleagues should have been making more of an effort to make sure the whole team is able to communicate.

For one of my previous jobs, I worked on a project with the Taiwan branch of my company while I was working in the United States. Between offices we were expected to communicate in English, while in your home office, you could use the official or most common language of the country you're in to communicate. Even though I speak Chinese too, I still communicated with my colleague in Taiwan in English, because non-Chinese speakers attended our meetings. My Chinese colleagues definitely felt more comfortable communicating in Chinese, but used English so the non-Chinese speakers could understand. The point here is that even though it was harder to do so, we spoke in English so everyone could participate. I felt like your former colleagues could have done the same.

  • Picking up Cantonese would've definitely helped, and while going out for lunch, I usually try to order in Cantonese. But it's a very difficult language to master, so being fluent in an professional environment would be fairly difficult. But I agree it's something I should've worked on. I also understand they might be more comfortable in Cantonese, and that's fine. I've always told them I won't force them to use English, but they need to be reasonable and include the entire team. – woutr_be Nov 20 '18 at 3:59
  • @jcmack I am European and gifted with languages. But tonal languages defeat me. I have enough trouble with my vowels in French :-) Cantonese has a whopping nine tones. I had a good friend who was a native Mandarin speaker (only 4 tones), who had enormous difficulty with Cantonese. If you aren't born to tones, it can be extremely difficult to master a tonal language (although I have known Europeans who could). Japanese, OTOH, with no tonality, was quite simple to pick up. – Mawg says reinstate Monica Nov 20 '18 at 8:26
  • If you are unsure of the difficulty, try the Mandarin "ma ma ma ma ma", which can be translated as mother bothers the horse by scolding it ;-) – Mawg says reinstate Monica Nov 20 '18 at 8:27
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Welcome new user.

You've explained that the facts seem to be

  • the policy IS to have work in English

  • you DID (at first) ask them to speak English when they did not

  • they DID get annoyed at this

  • you DID eventually give up on asking them

  • management did NOT enforce the policy effectively

So:

"At first I've tried to interrupt them and ask them to explain in English [...] eventually I stopped doing it."

Let's say the project had to be done in c#. You see someone using Java. You tell them "Use c#." This happens every day. What do you do? You don't stop telling them.

Every single time you have to ask, just ask.

"for almost a year I've addressed this to my colleagues directly, it came to the point where I was ready to resign over this. Hence why I brought it up with my manager, it was more a "last resort" type of thing. I don't think I was in the wrong with doing so after a year."

Yes, for sure. You might mention to your manager that "the other guys get annoyed when I ask them to repeat in English".

But your actual question seems to be "Or should I involve my manager straight away in this?"

The answer is no, just ask each time.

But if you don't like a policy, or a policy is not being enforced, there's nothing you can do about it, other than ultimately leave.

  • Thanks for your comment, appreciate the suggestions. At first I've tried to interrupt them and ask them to explain in English, I got the sense that they were rather annoyed by it. I'm not the most outgoing person as well, so for me it was really difficult to keep this up, eventually I stopped doing it. It's actually a policy to use English in the workplace, but it's incredibly difficult to enforce. My direct manager is totally with me and has backed me up with this. But seeing he's not in the office with us, he can't enforce this as well. – woutr_be Nov 20 '18 at 3:44
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    Also the "don't talk to your manager" and "never complain" doesn't sit right with me, for almost a year I've addressed this to my colleagues directly, it came to the point where I was ready to resign over this. Hence why I brought it up with my manager, it was more a "last resort" type of thing. I don't think I was in the wrong with doing so after a year. There were moment where I felt I was just being excluded by them on purpose, and that's something I feel needs to be addressed. – woutr_be Nov 20 '18 at 3:47
  • After a year, sure! It sounds like it all worked out fine? – Fattie Nov 20 '18 at 3:52
  • Could it be your fundamental problem is this: "I got the sense that they were rather annoyed by it." Unfortunately, you just have to ignore that. Who cares if they are annoyed? – Fattie Nov 20 '18 at 3:53
  • Well, both of them have resigned, so it probably didn't work out that great. I care if they're annoyed, because it has caused them to not speak to me much anymore. It has divided the team even more, and I'm essentially on my own right now. – woutr_be Nov 20 '18 at 4:00
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Your behaviour was in line with professional etiquette.

You need to be addressed in a language that you understand whenever your superiors inform you about your tasks and feedback to your work.
Any conversation with coworkers about your work or your impact on theirs or requirements / comments you have regarding theirs needs to be communicated the same way.

Anything that doesn't concern you directly can be kept in whatever language others deem appropriate or comfortable for them.

In meetings usually the majorities' or company standard language is used.
If you don't properly speak that, you need to let the company know beforehand and if they still hire you, they will make sure that you get all the information in your language that you need to fulfill your responsibilities.
If that doesn't happen it is your OBLIGATION to inform your superiors and management about this.

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