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I work for an international company. We all communicate in English although for most of us English isn't our native language. As far as I know we are all expected to speak English to work at the company.

There's this HR business partner I have to cooperate with, who I simply don't understand and who apparently doesn't understand me. She's assigned to my team, I can't simply chose not to cooperate with her.

I devote plenty of time to decode her written English. She uses English words but it reads like English translated via an online translator - the words make sense, I can't understand the sentences.

I first thought she simply doesn't devote enough attention to her emails, but when I asked her to connect via Skype it became clear her English skills are very limited. She didn't understand most of my questions and tried guessing. She was wrong with most of her guesses. I tried repeating questions several times and rephrasing but it didn't help either. I would think her English is about A2-B1 level, not more than that.

All the other people I've met at the company speak fluent English. I communicate in English with most of my colleagues, including my managers. I haven't experienced any problems with being understood/ understanding others before. I normally try to rephrase things a lot during discussions anyway in order to make sure we are on the same page and not just assume so. But the situation with this colleague is different. She simply lacks the necessary English skills.

What should I do given that I'm new and don't want to cause problems, but any cooperation with her is very difficult?

I don't speak her native language.

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    @gnat, obviously it doesn't. The thread you linked focuses on dealing with people's accents. Not understanding other people's accents and dealing with someone who doesn't speak your company's official language are very different situations. Also, that the solutions proposed in the linked threat - rephrasing, exposure - won't work in my case, which is evident given what I wrote in the opening post. – BigMadAndy May 23 at 21:45
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    Is there anyone who speaks both English and her native language? – DaveG May 23 at 21:49
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    Have you spoken with your manager/boss about it? – Tymoteusz Paul May 23 at 22:38
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    @TymoteuszPaul. No, I'm a manager and my manager expects me to work self-sufficiently. That's much too minor to bother him with. I was actually thinking about talking to her manager instead but I'm searching for alternatives to escalating. – BigMadAndy May 23 at 22:42
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I would avoid asking their colleagues to translate it. That would be rude.

I would also avoid translating it yourself. If the translation is poor, they cannot get help from their local colleagues. It is far better to stick to a single language.

If you have a HR business partner who cannot communicate with your team, that is a fundamental issue. Surely other HR Business Partners are available? If you can't raise this with your boss, you should raise it with the HR Business Partner if possible. Give them a chance to flag it to their boss, and they lose less face. Then you can raise it with their boss if the issue does not get resolved.

If you need to continue working with this person, things you can do:

  • As much as possible, use written communication
  • Use simple English, not English that utilises an inordinate degree of complexity for no alternative reason other than to attempt demonstrate a point (for instance)
  • Keep sentences short. Avoid conjunctions.
  • Use lists because they:
    • Clearly separate different items
    • Make it easier to translate
    • Are less daunting compared to walls of text
  • Avoid sarcasm and humour

It also helps to appreciate that they are probably feeling even more under pressure to communicate than you.

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If you cannot get her reassigned, must stick with her then perhaps you need to change your routine to put up with it assuming she has good attitude and committed to the job task.

How about just ask her type in her own language and than you translate to English from google translate? All the phone and verbal communication is useless because it will add frustration of not understanding as well as subject to error and mistake that both you can get in trouble. I think honest conversation to start by saying "I need technology to help me understand you" is much needed. As long as she can can communicate well in her native in writing, any translation app can convey it properly.

If this is purely business NOT a social reason, it would not make a difference to use google translate or similar App. If it is that much trouble, I see there is something else is going on you need to sort it out.

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    I have found GTranslate to be worse than useless with technical information - works fine for kids cartoons but when the field is technical many common words have particular technical meanings... – Solar Mike May 24 at 5:06
  • I would avoid translating myself. That can only confuse matters. Give them the original, and they can try a few different translators if the first one gives them something unclear. – Gregory Currie May 24 at 6:20
  • @Solar Mike deepl translator is pretty good with technical terms, though only few languages are supported. – Lehue May 25 at 8:06
  • @Lehue I used a passage from stress and structures talking in very technical terms of buckling of columns... Input clear, output total cr*p... but given the terms in use not surprising really as even some engineers struggle. – Solar Mike May 25 at 8:21
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I speak English as a second language so I can totally understand the situation you two are in. Chances are that the lady is not very comfortable with communicating in English either. Being required to work as a team but not able communicate to teammates is very painful.

I trained a new recruit who could not speak English fluently, but her hiring manager required her to be able to do so. Unfortunately, I tried my best to teach and correct her English during the training, but she could not pick up quickly enough (and I understood it wasn't easy). My firm asked her to leave in the end.

I would definitely advise you to talk to her manager. A responsible manager should know if anyone under him/her is assigned to a unsuitable position. Perhaps she can work much more effectively in a different function. Of course, it may hurt her feelings, but I see no reason for you to suffer if you've done your best to work with her.

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