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I am aware of the following questions, but feel like they don't apply completely here because of the meeting issue (point 2 below):

Everyone at work except me speaks another language

How to deal with co-workers speaking in another language? [duplicate]

How can I get my colleagues to speak a language I understand?

A bit of background story: I moved to a country in Northern Europe about two years ago for my studies. I did not plan on staying here for long but the circumstances changed, so I am still here. I graduated from college less than a year ago and got a full time job after that. I did not apply for the job, but got heavily recommended by a former colleague of mine (Alex) that went back to working at the company where I am currently working. He worked with me before and knew I did not know the local language (let's call it Dothraki to avoid giving an exact location).

The company I am working for is quite small, less than 20 employees. All of them have Dothraki as a native language, but all of them also have a very good level of spoken and written English. Actually, most of the people in this country speak English. I tried to learn Dothraki for a while. I think I understand about 20 percent of the conversations. For some personal reasons (mostly mental health related) I stopped learning Dothraki and will not go back to learning it in the near future.

I very well understand that Dothraki will mainly be used for social interactions at the office, and I am very OK with that. I however accepted the position under the assumption that work matters would be discussed in English, which would only make sense because I don't know Dothraki. I work as a Software Developer if that makes any difference. I work in a nice company where the benefits are nice (which is actually the case in most private company in this country). The job is also interesting enough and due to the size of the company I can do a lot of different things and develop my skills.

For a while, things were alright. I was mainly working with Alex on a project. Since it was only the two of us working on it, all of those work conversations were held in English. But things started to change lately and are now impacting my work negatively.

  • It happens more and more often that I am trying to solve a bug or help out of coworker (per their request usually) and that we are both actively try to find where the problem comes from. Every single time this happens, a third person (not always the same one) comes in and asks about the bug in Dothraki. This causes both of my colleagues to start talking in Dothraki together about the bug and ignoring me completely. I usually try to say a few things in English for them to realize that I am still here, but they ignore it. After a few minutes I go back to my desk because I am feeling left out. Sometimes they informe me of what they figured out, but not always. This also makes me not be able to chime in with proposed solutions, even if the code that is discussed is the one I made.
  • I went to one meeting about my project and they decided to have it in English so I could understand and also give my opinion on the subject. The meeting was alright, with most of it in English. There were some discussion in Dothraki, but I just waited them out and they did not last more than about 5 minutes at a time. However, since that meeting, I have not been invited to participate in any meeting regarding the project I am working on. All the colleague on the same project and with the same level as me attend said meetings, and even some colleague not even working on the project.
  • Another colleague is going to join the project Alex and I work on in a matter of weeks. At some point, I worked with Alex and this other colleague on a side project and I was having those problems more often than before. I was under the assumption that work on this project will be done exclusively in English, but it does not seem to be the case.

They are nice people and probably not trying to be mean, but it is very hard on me and especially on my mental health. I ended up crying in the bathroom a few times because it was too difficult being put aside and ignored. I am anxious every day going to work and I think about it too often in my spare time.

I spoke to Alex about my concerns and he is under the impression that he speaks English almost all the time. He is often the one starting the conversation in Dothraki when there is a bug to be solved with me though (see first point).

In this country, it is very uncommon to be fired, I would not really mind it, as it is getting increasingly difficult for me to be here. Getting fired would allow me to get a bit of peace of mind to find another position in a more international company.

I am feeling guilty towards Alex about applying elsewhere, because we are only two on the project and it might put him in a difficult spot. I am just not sure what to do and I am wondering if this is normal behavior and I should have just expected things to go that way when accepting the job offer.

Would it be unethical to look for another position for only those reasons. What can I do while applying to try and make things better in my current position? I don't really know how to stand up for myself as I am more of the discrete non assertive type.

From comments moved to chat:

Moving to another country is not possible for me right now but I hope it will be in a few years.

Did you discuss this with your manager? If not, why not? If you did, what did she/he say? Or are you looking for a solution which bypasses your manager? -Abigail

I don't have a manager, we are in a flat structure and the only person above me is the CEO. So I did not talk to them about it, because it seems like escalading too much

"Getting fired would allow me to get a bit of peace of mind to find another position" - Why do you feel like you need to be fired in order to find another position somewhere else? -Brandin

because I feel a bit guilty about wanting to leave the company that offered me a job right after graduation. Also, if I am fired I would have a bit more time to find a position, whereas if I quit I will need to have a new job lined up. Yeah, I think I don't have a choice other than being more assertive

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    Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – user44108 Aug 7 at 15:36
  • From your description, it's one collegue that is speaking another language and impacting work.... – Danubian Sailor Aug 9 at 17:45
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    "For some personal reasons (mostly mental health related) I stopped learning Dothraki and will not go back to learning it in the near future. " Could you elaborate more on this? What kind of mental health issues could possibly come in the way of learning a new language? Why are you ruling out the possibility of one day learning this language? – user32882 Aug 10 at 14:13
  • @DanubianSailor they actually are all doing it. But since the dev team is small (6 people) I guess it seems like it's one. – Rose Aug 12 at 5:31
  • @user32882 I am not ruling out the possibility of one day learning it, but I will not do so in the near future. I don't want to elaborate too much but it is an issue that is triggered with by stress, and learning Dothraki is both stressful and bringing back very bad memories for me – Rose Aug 12 at 5:33

17 Answers 17

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Ahh, the issues when you leave your own country.

I have experienced this situation many times when I first moved to the country I live in now. There are two local languages that are spoken...neither of them English. (I am now a multilingual, but English is my first and native language). I mastered (whatever that means) the main official language of the country, however I have ended up working for a company that the majority of the employees speak the other language....one I barely speak. Much in the same way, I ended up getting excluded in the beginning for a lot of things, as they all would speak their preferred local language.

Even though we all speak two other languages quite natively...well tough luck for me....I am now learning the other language so I can be part of the group.

Unfortunately the onus in my opinion is on the foreigner to do many things when they move to another country..and there are some things you have to realise to understand the situation. To generalise....the things I've learned since leaving my own country.

  1. Nobody cares you came to their country.
  2. Nobody cares you don't speak the language.
  3. Locals rarely will know if you can speak the language or how well and assume you can either speak natively, or not at all.
  4. Locals are always embarrassed to speak a language that isn't their native one
  5. It's more comfortable and very easy to fall back into speaking your native language, even if you can speak another very well.
  6. It's rare (in my experience) that any single employee is actually trying to exclude others because of language issues to single someone out and actively attack them this way (unless there's rivalry or beef). They likely feel they're helping you, by not forcing you speak a language you aren't a native of. (How often will I meet a new person, introduce ourselves in the local language, they hear my name and immediately switch to English, thinking they're helping me out)
  7. You're the one who came knowing you don't speak the local language
  8. The locals rarely even realise (as you've experienced) that they even switched.

As such there are things that are required of you to successfully integrate.

  1. I highly suggest learning the local language, even if it's only a portion and you think you sound like an idiot and talk like a baby. Your co-workers will appreciate it, and even likely be more willing to bring you along with work stuff, and even social stuff outside of the work place, increasing everyone's happiness.
  2. Your co-workers don't even know what they're doing. You have to remind them. Politely speak up and say something, "hey guys! I don't understand here...this is my code...I'm sure I can help with the intricacies..."

I admit this will take practice and courage. But they won't be offended. They did hire you after all knowing the issues.

Remember you're the one you left your country...not them, things are gonna be difficult, and until you speak up to them, remind them they aren't fulfilling the side of the deal that you were promised, or learn the language and integrate a bit, nothing is going to change. Why change for just one person who left their own country?

Good luck! Try not to take their actions personally, they probably think they're helping you, and often don't realise they switched. But really, it's on you to make the effort, not them.

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    As a person living and working away from my native country, I wholeheartedly endorse this answer. plus 1. However, I can communicate well in my second language, but that has taken a lot of work - if you want to progress you have to put the effort in... – Solar Mike Aug 7 at 9:36
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    +1 for "Nobody cares you came to their country." – Hamed Aug 7 at 10:01
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    Yes, you adapt to the country, not the other way around. Solid answer. Mostly it's just a shift in perception of the problem. If you're crying over it, you're not looking at it the right way. It's not something to cry over, millions of people cope with exactly the same issue. – Kilisi Aug 7 at 10:36
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    There's nothing wrong with crying over it really...I mean it is upsetting to be excluded from everything it took me a while to realise that I needed to make the effort not them...especially when ones perception of the situation was one where people would be welcoming and accepting of you, cause you're the one who isn't in the 'zone' and needs (should!) to be taken care of...Unfortunately it's just not the case.... – morbo Aug 7 at 10:41
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    "Locals are always embarrassed to speak a language that isn't their native one" This is absolutely not true for many countries. I've seen many people with bad control of the english language trying very hard to be helpful by speaking dutch. This is so culture dependent. I'm assuming most Scandinavian countries f/e would adapt, I'm from The Netherlands, extremely common we adapt. – Mathijs Aug 7 at 12:03
103

I'm afraid that you're trying to achieve two goals at the same time, that are contrary to each other.

  • To live and work in a country where the local language is different from your native language.
  • To not have to learn the local language.

I'm not going into whether your reasons for not learning the local language are valid or not. Even assuming they're 100% valid, you have two goals that are contradictory in their nature.

This can never work well. There is no good answer, and only half-solutions, as long as you aim for both at the same time.

Also keep in mind that the rights (or even just convenience) of one will rarely be placed above rights and convenience of many (or the whole company). Their right to speak their own language while in their own country will be considered by most people to take precedence.

You are, after all, in their country, and you're there of your own free will.

I myself am in a country (Canada) where the local language is not my native language, and before this country I was in another (in western Europe) in the same situation. In both cases, I had to speak or at least learn the language.

In fact in Europe it was in my employment contract that they will pay me less until I learned the local language to the level where I can take part in technical discussions. So I did.

Most people and most companies will not look favorably at someone who refuses to do so, even if he/she has valid reasons. They can, after all, find a number of other people who either already speak the language (even if it's not their native) or who are at least willing to learn. That you may have valid mental health reasons... will not be counted in your favor.

In fact, while it will probably not be said outright, it will most likely be counted against you - after all, it will make you look like a psychologically fragile person, who will fall apart under any pressure; and no one wants such an employee.

Again, this is not from a perspective of a psychologist/psychiatrist, or from your perspective. I'm just saying how it will be most likely perceived by an average company and an average manager.

At some point you will probably have to choose, either your mental health or your job, because the issues at work, due to a different language, will by themselves affect your mental health unless they're fixed.

EDIT: One more point which I feel is important enough to add. Most people and most companies will be sympathetic to you, and will have understanding for issues and imperfections in your skill with their language as long as they see that you're seriously trying to do your best to learn it and as long as there is a noticeable improvement over time.

It is at the point when they see that you're not even trying seriously to learn it, that you will lose that - they will not feel sympathetic toward you any more, and instead, their feelings will start going in... a negative direction.

In other words, they will accept you as you are if they see that you're actually working on improving yourself; they will not accept you as you are if it means that you will stay like that forever. This holds true in many other aspects of life as well.

I understand that learning it might be difficult, but that's what it is; we cannot change the world.

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    Your bullet points are spot on! I am actually from Canada (kudos to learning the language in both of your experiences). I have also worked in China in a rather technical position, and while my employer was kind enough to find someone to help translate my reports (thank God for grad-students) I still had to present them and clarify them in Mandarin. And speaking from personal experiences...if you want to succeed in a foreign country (or even region) you must learn or at least try to learn the language. Your colleagues will appreciate it, your boss will and eventually so will you. GOOD LUCK! – Crosbonaught Aug 7 at 14:58
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    In heavily multinational companies - where you join a team of 10 people, and find out that they're from 8 different countries - it will work. However, the attitude of being willing to learn the local language and customs will still take you much farther than the one of not being willing to learn it. – Dragan Juric Aug 7 at 17:35
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    @MartinBonner, I think your example combines three special cases. English is (rightly or wrongly) much more common than most other languages, especially in business. It seems to be especially so in Germany and surrounding areas. And, as you say, especially in big urban centres. (As a Brit who can speak almost nothing but English, it embarrasses me how well most Germans seem to be able to speak my language!) – gidds Aug 7 at 20:34
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    This seems like an X-Y problem. The question is about how to deal with not speaking the local language, but I suspect the real issue is about how to learn the local language — which means how to address the personal reasons that are stopping Rose from doing so. Obviously, we can't discuss those without any info, but I wonder whether with sufficient help and support, they might turn out to be tractable after all. It wouldn't be easy, of course, but it might lead to a much better situation both at work and elsewhere. – gidds Aug 7 at 20:41
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    Totally agree here. Whether or not they know English, it is not their primary language. You're asking the entire office to be uncomfortable, so that you can speak your native tongue. That's simply unreasonable. If you can't or won't learn their language, then you must either accept the circumstances as they are or seek alternate employment (though the situation will likely remain the same unless you move to a country that natively speaks English). – Chris Pratt Aug 8 at 16:44
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I also work in a place where Dothraki is spoken. At first, I was very excited to learn the language but, after being made aware that many Dothrakians believe in a Dothrakia for Dothrakians(DFD), my enthusiasm died out completely.

The company I work for is not Dothrakian and our contracts EXPLICITLY cover that fact that English is the official language (due to the company having offices all over the world). Still, there are meetings conducted exclusively in Dothrakian, mainly due to the DFD ideology covered before. However when the higher management come from King's Landing, everyone is quite happy to switch to English and the DFD aspect is suspended temporarily because they're xenophobes but not flat out stupid :D

Here's a small list of things I do during Dothrakian meetings:

  • doodle
  • write down Dothrakian words to run in Google translate later
  • fantasize about moving to King's Landing

I'm pretty sure this answer will be downvoted to oblivion but as someone who's in a similar position to yours, I can't help but sympathise with you personally. If you believe that your Dothrakians are not acting out of malice like mine, I would strongly suggest you have some patience and keep turning out excellent work. Stay strong!

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    You should get points for the presentation if nothing else. :) – monocell Aug 8 at 8:11
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    When does someone point out that Dothrakian is from a fictitious show? – Julie in Austin Aug 8 at 20:34
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    What happens when you encounter a server issue, the Dothrakian's solve the issue by working it out with each other in Dothrakian, leaving you out of the loop about the solution. Then you encounter that issue again a month later, and Missandei is on holiday and can't translate for you. Now you have to solve that issue again from scratch when you had the opportunity to learn from the previous solution, but couldn't because nobody wanted to explain in English for you. – Fodder Aug 9 at 2:16
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    @JulieinAustin You are currently on a live internet connection and you can type Dothrakian into Google. Personally I think it's a shame that the OP mentioned moving to Nothern Europe rather than Essos. – Mr Lister Aug 9 at 6:42
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    While I like the humorous tone of this answer, I don't see how this answers the question, apart from "go doodle in meetings". Could you edit to clarify how this answers the question, and what options you see for OP to try? – sleske Aug 9 at 7:19
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The only time it is unethical to leave a job is if you made a promise to stay for a length of time and the party you made that promise to has kept all of their promises to you but you leave early.

It's totally unreasonable for you to expect your co-workers to never speak their native language around you. I recall reading an account by a guy who moved to Japan and started working lowly factory jobs. Japan is notorious for being slow to accept outsiders yet this guy rose in the ranks to be a high level executive. He did it by learning the language and customs. Then he was seen as one of them and accepted. There could be higher places you could go professionally if you learn more.

I know you said it's hard to learn the language but I think you have a golden opportunity to learn it. If i'm in your shoes I'd ask my co-workers to talk to me in their native tongue as much as possible. If I don't get what they're saying I'd ask for help. Eventually you will just learn.

As far as you complaining about them not speaking English to higher ups. Don't be that guy who complains about how 99% of your co-workers do things. It's usually not a good move because every worker is replaceable and it's easier to replace one than the 99%. Always be polite and friendly about any request you make to co-workers regarding this.

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I worked for a Belgium company for 6 years in the UK, but with frequent travel. All the staff were multi-national and spoke various languages, the primary one being French.

There were times when discussions were held in the staffs native language as I believe it was often easier for them to quickly convey their points with each other and then revert back in English to others. I never took this personally, I can speak German but I would much rather speak in English my native language than use German unless I am forced to, as I am much more comfortable thinking and speaking in English.

I can agree it's strange to have discussions on bugs without including you in the conversation, it's highly likely they are not really thinking about what they are doing, they may also have the impression that you understand more of their language than you do.

The best approach in this type of situation is to schedule a meeting with your direct manager and calmly explain how you feel and explain what steps you think could be taken by the company to improve the environment for you. I'm sure they'll respond rationally and come up with a solution, sometimes a lot of workplace issues are caused by others not knowing or understanding how their actions effect others. Try that as a starting point and if it really doesn't change then it may be time to look elsewhere.

Unfortunately, no matter how much of the country speaks English it's still a non-native English speaking country and you really should make as much effort as possible to learn the language. In the UK it is expected you speak fluent English in any job here, we English are quite lucky in some respects as we can get away with minimal language skills in other countries.

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    @Rose I also don't think talking to management is necessary here, I think it probably do more harm than good. I think, you need to jump into the conversation which involves you but it's not English and ask them to switch, so you can take part too. After a few time doing this, they'll remember. Don't be shy, stand up for yourself. – Hamed Aug 7 at 7:36
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    I would just be honest and nice about it with your colleagues, I'm sure just discussing your concerns will highlight to them to be more considerate when discussing issues that involve you. If you don't have a direct manager who normally assigns you work, perhaps raise it with that person if you're not comfortable raising with the team? Nothing bad can come out of discussing things in a rational manner. – Clare Aug 7 at 7:39
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    @Rose I understand your feelings and concerns, but I'm confident that they are not doing it on purpose, and as others mentioned, they probably think you understand most of their conversation, since you are not asking anything. Asking for clarification is something very normal in companies, why you think it's rude? Don't you need to know the details to be able to solve the company's problem? Just ask them, calm and nicely, if they ignored you, it's rude of them and you probably need to reconsider if you want to work with such ignorant people. – Hamed Aug 7 at 7:43
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    @Rose What they consider rude is probably very far from what you consider rude. Reminding them to speak English in order to not exclude you won't be perceived as rude. I'd expect them to apologize because they were being rude. – Roland Aug 7 at 7:45
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    I'm a Brazilian working in the Netherlands and while most of the people speak pretty good English (even if THEY don't think it is good English, as long as I can understand them, it is good enough for me), a lot of the "less skilled" workers don't feel all that comfortable having an entire conversation in English and they often revert to Dutch. I make them all aware that I will miss about 90% of what they say upfront and ask for a quick summary ("So... what was all that about?") of what they discussed at the end. Now they're mostly used to doing it when they realize they went back to Dutch. – Juliana Karasawa Souza Aug 7 at 8:15
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There is no ethical problem with you looking for another job - any position that is making you cry is not a good fit and a reason to move on. You can help Alex by making the transition as smooth as possible (documenting what you have been doing, being available to answer a few questions after you've left etc) but if another person is coming onto the project anyway this may be a good time. However, you also need to consider if any new company you move to is going to want to speak English all the time for you, or if you will just face the same situation again with less support.

While you are at your current company, it may be easier for you to speak up if you change your perspective on what is happening. You say you have already spoken to Alex and he thinks he is usually talking English for you - so he is willing to do so. When he lapses into Dothraki you can comment on it to him - don't think of it as being assertive, think of it as being helpful to him by letting him know. If the situation was reversed and English was the company language, you would need to remind him if he started speaking Dothraki - well, within your project and between the two of you, that is the case - the project talk needs to be in English. Once you get used to reminding him and have found the ways to say it that you are comfortable with, then you can start using those with other colleagues too.

7

The environment you are describing is very similar to where i work, i.e. Software company, Most people speak Dothraki but one or two do not. I'm not sure if it's the same country or not (Sweden in my case), but if it is, or if it's a place with similar characteristics there are a few things that might be helpful to know from the perspective of one of the Dothraki speakers.

The level of English in sweden is in general quite good, but it's very common that swedes overestimate their level of English proficiency. The result being that a workplace that currently have no need to use English believe it won't be an issue to take on a non-swedish speaking employee but after the fact finds that they have a very hard time expressing themselves. This is hard for you to do anything about now, but if you end up looking for a new job keep this in mind and make sure they actually do speak English there, not just imagine themselves to be capable.

What language you end up speaking is not always a very deliberate choice. You might start of with English, but as soon as you get a bit excited, or something is hard to explain it's very easy to slip back into whatever you are most comfortable with. Even more so if there are mostly native speakers around you. It's also a bit awkward to respond in English when you are asked a question in Swedish. So if A and B are speaking English to each other and C comes in and asks A a question in Swedish it's hard for A to answer back in English. Same if A and B are speaking English and A needs to ask C a quick question but A and C are both most comfortable in Swedish. To keep everything in English for B's sake is a conscious and ongoing effort. The takeaway here is that that assuming that your colleagues really are nice and well meaning it's fine to interrupt as soon as they switch to Dothraki and ask to have the conversation in English. You will probably have to do this a lot, especially in the beginning, but it really is necessary and helpful even if you feel like you are being annoying.

Sometimes it's also hard to know what language someone prefers. I've been criticized (By different individuals) both for using English when they where trying to learn swedish, and for being excluding by not using English. Be sure you are explicit with this as well.

Edit: There used to be a comment to the OP suggesting that trying to speak in poor Dothraki would prompt people to switch to English. That was seriously excellent advice, and I'm sad to see the comment removed. I have a non native swedish speaking friend who, when snarkily asked by a sales clerk to speak swedish needed to point out that she was actually speaking swedish all along and the sales clerk was the one who immediately switched to English. (Sorry about the lack of proper attribution of the comment but my memory isn't that good and the advice deserves to be written down somewhere.)

Good luck.

  • "The level of English in sweden [sic] is in general quite good". It's hard to get much better according to the English Proficiency Index, even beating a few countries where English is an official language. – pipe Aug 10 at 13:05
5

You say that you have given up on learning Dothrackian because of mental health issues. But do you think that crying in the bathroom over feeling excluded is not a mental health issue? Is the pain you might feel while learning the language really so much worse than what you're feeling now?

Also, you have a job, presumably you could afford a bit of mental health help to try to detangle which of these scenarios might be easiest to improve. If you have to hire someone in an English-speaking country to talk to you over video, that's also possible.

4

Let's summarize a few key takeaways:

  • He (Alex) worked with me before and knew I did not know the local language (let's call it Dothraki)
  • The company I am working for is quite small, less than 20 employees.
  • All of them have Dothraki as a native language
  • All of them also have a very good level of spoken and written English.
  • I however accepted the position under the assumption that work matters would be discussed in English
  • I very well understand that Dothraki will mainly be used for social interactions at the office

What has not been covered in question or the responses thus far is, was it ever formally established English, not Dothraki was the language of the workplace, either in the offer of employment, in any HR / workplace conduct policies? Was the lack of Dothraki fluency formally established with the hiring manager or HR during the hiring process?

It would seem may be an unfortunate gap in the offer / employment agreement.

(Context:) I work for a large Corporation, based in an officially bi-lingual country (English + another), with offices around around the world and significant domestic workforces there. The company has a formal policy the language of work shall be English - in every location, for the purposes of work. To comply with language laws, all corporate communications, including Legal, HR, job postings, and many procedures are in both official languages. While language does not seem to be a problem in overseas offices, it is very common to hear work matters discussed in languages other than English in the "home country", due to the significant number of temporary foreign workers hired by sub-contractors for specific projects or as happens, tams referring colleagues of a common background to join. When this becomes an issue, we request Management speak to the other contractor management and remind them of the working conditions. I have had the same experience at other firms, so this is not a unique problem. People inherently will speak with what they are most comfortable with. Occasionally conversations switch fluidly between two languages, one for the technical, one for the debate! The matter is usually promptly rectified after a reminder (from Mgmt or HR, not the individual) and only surfaces when another cohort onboards.

If there was no documented language of work and the lack of proficiency was not formally acknowledged in the hiring process, then it is appropriate to bring the matter to HR and / or manager's attention. This should be an open discussion to air your concerns about either the lack of policy, lack of policy enforcement, the lack of formal acknowledgement of your language skills in the hiring process or whatever then concerns may be.

All this could be more challenging in a small, tight-knit workplace.

Some other takeaways:

  • They are nice people and probably not trying to be mean (probably true)
  • I spoke to Alex about my concerns and he is under the impression that he speaks English almost all the time (probably his impression)
  • I ended up crying in the bathroom a few times because it was too difficult being put aside and ignored (unfortunate)
  • I stopped learning Dothraki and will not go back to learning it in the near future (might be an issue)
  • In this country, it is very uncommon to be fired, I would not really mind it (you probably will mind it)
  • it is getting increasingly difficult for me to be here (might feel that way)
  • Getting fired would allow me to get a bit of peace of mind to find another position in a more international company (not necessarily)

Your well-being should also be the company's concern. Stressed and unwell employees (for whatever reason) impact them as well. It is not up to Alex to speak on your behalf to management. As with anything one does, Alex may simply not be aware he is speaking Dothraki that much, but that's not the point.

You should not be talking this personally; isolating the concerns (crying in the bathroom) will not help address the problem. Getting fired will not help, especially if the reason given was "refused to learn Dothraki".

Speak to HR and Management, openly and without blame, acknowledging the challenge and looking for a solution. The outcome may include a reminder employees are to communicate in English at work or a formal language policy introduced. It may involve a plan for you learning Dothraki; perhaps they may reimburse you for language lessons. Perhaps it involves agreeing to part ways on a positive footing, a letter of recommendation, termination cause that still entitles you to unemployment benefits (here you are not entitled if terminated for cause), maybe even assistance in finding similar employment elsewhere.

Most importantly, as a recent graduate, your takeaway should be a lesson learnt. The hiring process is a two-way street. You should be asking questions to see they are a good employer fit for you as well as the other way. Always air any questions arising from the hiring process and ensure any responses and conditions are detailed in the offer of employment, contract or covered by HR policies.

  • 1
    +1 for the advice on checking the language policies / possibility for language lessons upfront. "Under the assumption that work matters will be discussed in English" is a very dangerous assumption to make, and there is also the matter of UNTIL WHEN the work matters will be discussed in English. If there is a possibility for being reimbursed for language lessons (or have them paid by the company) that's a signal sent that is expected to learn the local language and you should reach a certain level of fluency by the time your reimbursement stops. – Juliana Karasawa Souza Aug 9 at 8:02
4

Before I answer I want to summarize your issue.

Problem

  • You work with Dothraki who speak in their local language and make you feel excluded

Possible solutions

  • Learn Dothraki
  • Find a job in an international company where everyone speaks English

What not to expect as a solution

  • Your colleagues to stop talking in Dothraki

I live in a country in North Europe where Dothraki is spoken as well. I come from another country and Dothraki is not my first language. I also came here to study and then stayed. While I actively tried to learn the local language and I now work in a Dothraki environment (all my colleagues are Dothraki) I will not suggest that you need to learn the local language as well.

For my answer I assume that at the international companies in the country where you live everyone speaks English. This is the case in my country of residence, where only English is spoken in international companies and few Dothraki choose to work there. If this is the case then you really have to search for a new job in an international environment given the fact that for personal reasons you don't want to learn the language. It's perfectly fine not wanting to learn it as far as there are other options for you.

I have faced the same issue but I decided to learn Dothraki to solve it. That was only because I liked Dothraki and didn't have a reason that prevented me to do so. However, many of my foreign friends in this country work in international companies and they don't speak a word of Dothraki. So I know that there are countries where you can survive without speaking the local language and without facing the trouble of not understanding other people at work.

Searching for a new job is not disrespectful to Alex; I'm sure he also wants you to be happy at your workplace. I don't think the situation will change. Don't overthink about it. If you feel like this is not fair for Alex, let him know about the issue: while you love the job and working with him, this might not be the best place for you. You don't owe the company nor him to stay with them forever. And stop thinking that they did you a favor for hiring you because it's not the case. They gained from you as much as you gained from them.

Start applying to international companies while you are still working there, no need to hope getting fired to change workplace. I'm sure the Dothraki are used to change working environments regularly and they will not feel bad for your decision.

  • Great summary in the beginning. That's really the crux of the issue, condensed into four bullet points. – sleske Aug 9 at 7:20
  • Only nitpick: I think it is still advisable to learn the local language, even if you do not need it at your job, even if it's only to be able to socialize with people. But I like learning languages... – sleske Aug 9 at 7:22
  • Sleske I agree that it's advisable, but I also understand that people are not machines that can perform every logical task. Sometimes living in another country, working full-time, not having your family nearby etc etc can be really overwhelming and while you have the mental capacity, you don't have the psychological strength to devote to one more task. If she says that at the moment learning the language is not a solution, I respect this choice even if learning Dothraki worked really well for me. – nka Aug 12 at 7:50
4

I agree with most of the other answers to some degree. However, I still feel I should sum up:

  1. As others have said, your colleagues are most likely not actively trying to be mean, or to give you the feeling of exclusion.
  2. It is so easy to inadvertedly fall back into one's native language when trying to focus on some issue; just a matter of mental resources if you will: Trying to solve a problem and speaking a foreign language at the same time is more difficult than doing one after the other. After all, most people are trying to get their job done (which is what they're paid for), and if this goes quicker, better or easier in one language than the other they tend to use the one they're familiar with. As a SW developer you have most likely experienced that you prefer a certain, familiar programming language to solve a task over trying to find and learn a language that could possibly be better suited.
  3. The issues you're experiencing are quite natural and you will find them in most other companies just as well. My impression is that you are lucky in working at your current company because it sounds like they are basically very kind, patient and open.

You can read the last point as: Right now, it's not as bad as it looks. Many other companies will be worse for you. So the choice you have to make is: Do you want to adapt to the country, its people, culture and language to be able to work at your current company or most others, or do you want to keep searching for a job/company in that country which will support (and possibly perpetuate) your state as an "exception", i.e. an employee who only speaks english, a foreigner, a transient maybe.

I know this may sound harsh, and I understand that you don't feel like you actually have the choice to adapt right now. But the point really is positive: You have the chance to keep working at your current position and start adapting at your own pace; the company and colleagues seem to be supportive of that.

Finally, my practical advice for now is: Don't be frustrated or angry because people just forget to speak your language. Keep reminding them kindly that you would like to understand what's being talked about when they don't return to your language after a short burst of heated discussion in Dothraki by themselves. Just make sure you don't come across as reproachful or aggressive when you remind them. You can also take a humorous approach if/when you like ("Uh-um, could someone please tell the alien in the office what's going on?") And be patient. You will have to remind them over and over again until your and their language meet at some point in the future.

The other advice is to start adapting right now. Try and learn the local language. Do it at your own pace. No need to rush through it in a crash course. Just continuously improve your understanding bit by bit. Stop watching TV in your native language or english and start to watch Dothraki programmes.

3

You say this is about northern Europe. Unfortunately there are big differences in English skills between different countries in Europe. I'm from one of the Nordic countries, and have worked in another one. This answer assumes that you are working in one of the Nordic countries Denmark, Norway or Sweden. If that isn't the case I don't know if this answer is relevant or not.

The first thing you need to know is that everyone have learned English from a young age. They are able to communicate in English, although it might not be a perfect.

I think two things are happening:

  1. They don't think about using English. I've worked with a lot of non-scandinavians, and we talked English. But it's easy to forget that I should talk English, especially in a group. I've never experienced that people don't want to communicate in English, but when you are in a meeting with 5 Dothraki people and one that doesn't talk Dothraki it's easy to slip up. A gentle reminder should do wonders. And another a couple of minutes later when they slip up again. When I slip up I want someone to remind me, how would I be able to improve otherwise?
  2. They aren't normally talking English. Most people use it pretty seldom, mostly on vacations. And when you don't use a language it's a strain to use it. In your native language you just have to decide what to say. But when you aren't used to a language you have to translate everything, then make sounds that you aren't used to in order to talk. They might also get nervous of making mistakes. And it will only be worse if they actually make a mistake. What you need to do is to build confidence in your colleagues. It could be as easy as talking to people outside of meetings, just chit chat. If they get nervous you could say something like "your English is way better than my Dothraki." By talking with you they get to know you while they use English in a situation that aren't frightening.

Don't worry, as long as you are nice people won't mind that you remind them. And they will get better at remembering it as well, and even remind each other.

2

You're in a tough situation, and based on over decade of expirience on my part it won't get any better. In every international team I've worked on, the moment there were even two people speaking the same language, they would always start speaking in that language. It would not matter how "multinational" company was, everyone prefers speaking their native language.

You seem to be suffering from the isolation, I'm afraid to say, but the best course for you would definitelly be to resume learning Dothraki. If you're afraid of social interactions/judgement you can use from self-learnign books, youtube, television. However I'd strongly recommend lookign fro a local discussion / learners group, where you can chat and get better at speaking the language.

If that absolutelly won't happen due to stress/mental issues, I'm afraid you need to go back to your home country.

You don't need to quit your job though, ask if they would consider allowing you to work remotely from your home country, while flying in monthly or bi-monthly to keep in touch with a team.

If they are not open to that option - then that means they don't really need you that much, and you should not be guilty about leaving them.

Win-Win.

1

I feel so identified with the author of this post. But well I haven't cried in the bathroom yet. I moved to northern Belgium for a job. I only speak English and will begin learning Dutch very soon (classes begin next year). My coworkers speak perfect English, but since I'm the only one speaking English in the office, they don't give a damn.

-My first month I tried very much to make small talk with all of them specially at lunch time. They always switched to Dutch after a few words in English. They never asked on my first day where do I come from, whats my last name, why did I move to Belgium any kind of small talk. I was just invisible. They also dont invite me to their main meetings bc they are all in Dutch.

My conclussions are:

-Not everyone has a "world citizen, cosmopolitan" mindset. They might speak English but they like their local language. They don't care to speak English or to practise it. They don't care to know new people of different origins. They are ok with their group of friends and acquaintances. Even if its a new person at the office, they dont mind.

-I dont come from Europe and people here are more individualistic. Speaking very harshly and in general, they dont know who their neighbors are, they only care for their surrounding and not the person next to them. They dont want to be your friend. They dont like small talk. Unless they, on purpose, go to some place to socialize, like a bar, sports, or afterwork event. But not at the office.

-This may sound like an excuse, but some people are xenophobic. The region where Im established, to my surprise, is full of xenophobia. Locals are kind of fed up with any kind of inmigrants. My office is an industrial compound located outside the city, so people here are not "city" people. Small town people are sadly more closed minded and less friendly to foreigners, at least here.

-People like the one mentioned above like it when you learn their language. They feel you are interested in their culture. If you say "I dont want to learn this language" they feel you are looking over your shoulder. That their language is useless, and this can be an insult. If you want them to be interested in you, show also some interest in their culture, language, etc. This can make a big change.

-Don't give up. Theres nothing bad with you. Just try to learn the local language, but if you feel left apart they might be assholes anyway. Quit and find a more friendly environment. Who cares what you promised. Sit with the person you report to and be very explicit about what happens. Don't be ashamed. In northern europe they worry a lot about how the employee feels, so no one will say you are complaining for something stupid.

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  • As a native French speaking Belgian, I am really sad my home country is treating you like that. You are raising some really valid points. I actually ended up finding another job in a really more international company where I feel so much less left out :) – Rose yesterday
0

Since this is a European country then the company quite likely has a duty to accommodate your limited language skills. When they hired you they knew what your ability level was, and that they would need to hold conversations in English to involve you. Not doing so is disadvantaging you, e.g. by not having you in those meetings if that is indeed the cause.

However, it also depends on what you said when you joined them. If you were at the time learning the local language and suggested you would eventually become fluent, or they made it clear that they expected you to continue your studies, then they have a valid reason for not doing more to accommodate you.

Companies with people from various places are not uncommon in Europe, and usually they agree to speak English as the common language for all work-related stuff, and even social stuff so that people can be included. If this is a small company and you are the only non-native-speaker, you may need to talk to your boss about the issue and decide between you if the company wants to make speaking English a policy, or perhaps provide you with some training in the local language during work time (assuming that would be okay with your mental health issue).

0

Why don't you simply focus on learning the native language?

Go on Duolingo, do a course, get help from your friends and colleagues.

Really, if you're going to live in a foreign country for 12 months or more, you should make an effort to learn the native language.

It will open a lot of doors, will help you socially and professionally, and not least - it shows a little bit of respect to the country you are living in.

  • 4
    OP has already said why they don't learn the language. "mental health" reasons for not doing so may seem vague, but just pushing them to do it doesn't seem likely to help. – Dragonel Aug 8 at 17:26
  • @Dragonel well it helps in a way that it shows that the premise and expectation might be wrong. Even the employee might have expected while hiring that only a minimum adjustment to English will happen and eventually they have to learn the language. Especially for social integration reasons. – eckes Aug 9 at 8:05
  • @Dragonel it can be normal to feel a little angst when moving to a foreign country - I've done it several times myself. Things will usually get better if you make efforts to fit in. – vikingsteve Aug 9 at 8:51
0

Others have already pointed out that living and working in a country whose language you don't learn doesn't work out in the long run.

As you state mental health problems as the cause of your inability to go on learning Dothraki, I suggest to speak with your mental health expert/therapist about this.
The more so, as mental health usually gets worse rather than better if you are isolated or your social interactions are stressful (which seems to be the case as you ask this question). You may be in a vicious cycle here if not being able to learn Dothraki limits your ability to interact meaningfully, thus adding stress and further deteriorating your mental health, thus further hindering your learning of Dothraki.

Given this, also consider telling your colleagues (and/or CEO) that you have (mental) health issues and they have the consequence that you are basically unable to learn/speak Dothraki (for now) and that thus, you need their help in that they speak English. As others have pointed out, people usually don't like it if someone refuses to learn the local language (refusing has a connotation of not liking/not approving of their cultural identity - which is plain rude). Being unable to learn due to health reasons is usually considered on a totally different thing, though.
Also, such a situation can just as well arise with physical rather than mental health being the underlying problem (the health issue itself/medication/treatment/side effects can easily sap all one's strength so nothing is left for learning the language) - so, if you are not comfortable saying it's a mental health issue, just health issue will do.


Most language courses I've been in took the rather frustrating school/textbook approach of focusing very much on grammar. This can be very exhausting and also frustrating if your daily routine leaves you so exhausted that you cannot meaningfully complete what the teacher considers sensible homework/excercises and in consequence fall behind with the course. In particular, if you are taking evening lectures after a full day's work in a foreign country (foreign as in you're not at home in that culture means that even "only" living there will be more exhausting than living in a culture where you are at home and everything just works as expected - and this can kick in already with cultures that are on the global scale still very similar to your own)
I consider this completely normal and even the expected outcome for anyone without mental health issues but a mentally demanding day job and/or rather different cultural background.

The exception to this experience I'd like to share with you is that I once was in a language course where the teacher asked at the beginning for our motivation and it turned out that all of us just wanted to be able to "survive speaking with hands and feet" for short/medium term stays - noone thought about getting, say, business proficient or being able to study that language. Also, we were all studying full time totally unrelated subjects. In consequence, we got a slow paced course that was almost exclusively about vocabulary and training speaking/listening everyday conversations. (The teacher repeated our sentences with correct grammar, and then so did we, and once in a while she would explain a bit of grammar, but nothing like the grammar drills you usually meet)
If you think that such an approach may allow you to very slowly approach Dothraki it would be worth while asking around (Dothraki-as-foreign-language department at university, adult education center, local Peterson institute) whether something like this is available - or whether they can help you find a teacher that is willing to work with you this way.

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