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I want this post gone. I shouldn’t have posted it to begin with and I’m not allowed to close it. This issue is a cultural phenomenon in Taiwan. It doesn’t belong in a western work culture discussion forum. I’m sorry for posting it. None of you have heard me speak Chinese yet you assume it’s bad. You’ve never heard my coworkers speak English yet you assume it’s better and therefore more efficient. Only one of the commenters seem to have spent time here. This is not Spain, Russia, or another western country. It’s different here.

Links below address the issue. Sorry, two are in Chinese.

https://udn.com/news/story/6895/4528035

https://www.researchgate.net/publication/313335683_I_won't_speak_our_language_with_you_English_privilege_English-speaking_foreigner_stereotype_and_language_ostracism_in_Taiwan

https://youtu.be/BwFtJuTazYA

14

I am a Russian speaker who ran into something similar:

This happens every so often. Often this is from how they relate to you in level of language , but not always. More often than not, when a relationship is formed in a language it is hard to change that language. So I speak Russian with all my friends at work, sometimes Ukrainian , but one day a French guy yelled at me sand said "We speak English here!". I mean he is correct , English is our business' official language.

I have noticed in the building of relationships, that you can with enough effort force a relationship into a certain language if you command the language well enough. I would speak enough Chinese until they start slipping into the language. Show you have a strong command of the language by perhaps telling a joke. Send them videos or jokes in Chinese or something and watch the replies.

Make sure your Chinese is on par and use it very well and it will gradually happen.

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    @AndrewSavinykh: Frankly, as a multilingual who enjoys improving their language skills by communicating with various foreign colleagues in various foreign languages throughout the workday (in software development, i.e. not a directly language-related job), I would consider such a restriction to produce a sufficiently toxic workplace environment to switch jobs rather immediately. – O. R. Mapper Jul 31 at 7:30
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    @O.R.Mapper: To be fair, speaking in a language that other employees cannot understand (in front of those employees) can also result in a toxic workspace. – Brian Jul 31 at 13:45
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    @O.R.Mapper thing is, if you don't speak the language, you can't know whether or not you're being deliberately excluded from important conversations for questionable reasons--maybe you're just talking about the movie you saw last night, maybe it's crucial work information--who knows? And in any language, frequently using a shared space to have conversations which others are not supposed to be part of can drive huge wedges between parts of an office. Not everybody will be equally close friends, but it's generally best if cliques at least try to be subtle if you want everybody to work together. – Tiercelet Jul 31 at 14:27
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    @Tiercelet: If they're whispering, or speaking in another room, I can't know whether or not I'm being deliberately excluded, either. "Don't use that language because I can't understand whether you're talking about me." would sound severely paranoid. And by "conversations", I was referring to work-related topics, such as stepping through some erroneous program code together, or looking at some existing applications to design a new feature. Unless every single employee gets their own one-person office, it seems like it's almost guaranteed that such conversations take place in "shared spaces". – O. R. Mapper Jul 31 at 14:44
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    @O.R.Mapper My point is that cliquishness creates toxicity, and having part of the team regularly excluded from functional and social conversations--by obviously leaving them out of conversations/workplace-social activities, by secret chat channels and email sub-lists, or yes, by a language barrier--is detrimental to team cohesion and morale. – Tiercelet Jul 31 at 15:54
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This reminds me of a time I was in France the morning after a company work's do and watched two of my colleagues converse in their own native language to each other as they were too hungover to speak in each others but somehow they could still translate what the other was saying to reply.

If your colleagues only speak to you in English, only reply to them in Mandarin. Keep doing this to show them over and over that you can speak the language and won't converse in English unless to a native English speaker who doesn't speak Mandarin.

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    This is what Astronauts and Cosmonauts do when speaking to each other on the ISS. The theory behind it is that because the person speaking will normally have a more limited vocabulary than the person listening; whatever they limit themselves to should still be understandable by the listener. – Dan Is Fiddling By Firelight Jul 30 at 16:37
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    I spent some time in Israel - my class mates spoke English to me for practice, while I spoke Hebrew to them for practice. – FreeMan Jul 30 at 18:16
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    This can work great among friends or in informal interaction with close colleagues, but don't try to force your way against anyone's will. If the boss explicitly tells you to speak English, then just do so! Insisting on Chinese in that situation would likely not end well. – TooTea Jul 31 at 12:13
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    I do this out of the office. I only speak Chinese when I'm out. My girlfriend and I only converse in Chinese (she doesn't want to or need to speak English anyway). If I start a conversation in Chinese at work and the person I'm speaking with uses English I just keep using Chinese because I feel it's no different than them randomly switching languages. But I never do this with my boss because honestly I don't want to look for another job right now if he fires me over it. – anon Jul 31 at 13:10
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I think it is incredibly rude to try to dictate how others communicate with you, provided they are not saying rude things. If they are communicating effectively with you, then they are doing nothing wrong. If you choose to speak in Chinese are communicating effectively, then you are doing nothing wrong.

I just can't deal with being prevented from speaking Chinese.

Is anyone actually preventing you from speaking Chinese? Have they said "Don't speak Chinese, speak English"? If not, speak how you want to speak and allow others to do the same.

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Preliminary reminder: Any question which begins with "how can I make someone else do a thing" is properly answered with 'you cannot.' You cannot control other people's decisions and actions. All you can do is understand motivations and try to change incentives.

Also, I'm assuming here that you're American (since that was your comparison) and that you're not ethnically Chinese (since that would make this behavior seem really weird to me--in my experience the usual response for an Overseas Chinese person would be to expect them to speak Chinese, rather than insisting on using English--but who knows, people are strange).

Bad Approach

Maybe you're fed up. If you really want to get in this kind of contest, well--your boss wants to speak English with you? Just go right ahead and speak English to your boss. Speak the fastest, most jargony, most slangy, most indistinctly pronounced English you can manage. Dare him to admit he doesn't understand you. Ideally when other people are watching--really embarrass that guy. Keep it up until he finally code-switches at you.

Will you change his mind? No. But will you earn his respect? Also no. In fact you'll probably earn his eternal resentment: he'll probably fire you, which he'll probably put down to your (not his) inability to communicate. Then your Alien Resident Certificate will terminate, you'll have to find another job, leave the country to reapply for another visa, wait a few months without work until it's all set up, and all of that. But won't it feel good to know nobody disrespects your Chinese skills and gets away with it?

Smart Approach

Okay, so we've rejected Bad Approach as shortsighted and unhelpful. Let's see if there's something more productive that you can do.

First, a mind-setting reminder. You weren't hired to be a software engineer. You were hired to help your boss achieve his deliverables and maximize your company's revenue. If you can do that solely by being an excellent software engineer, hey, 恭喜恭喜. If your boss feels that you can best maximize value for your employer by having a chat in English, have a chat in English. Is he doing this because of potentially reductive or disrespectful stereotypes of you as a (presumably) non-Taiwanese face in the company? Maybe yes, maybe no, who knows. Even in the US there are many people who would say to grin and bear it; and this is more hierarchical than typical American work culture. Your best route to success at your job is to deliver excellent value for your company in a way that is obvious and makes your boss look good. You would absolutely be wise to make sure that your complete competencies--the value you bring to the company as a developer, as well as your ability to integrate culturally with your team--are visible both to your boss and to people with more authority than him (in a non-challenging way, of course).

But at the end of the day you are a foreigner in a country which does not have the long history of immigration that the US does. You're going to encounter people who make assumptions about you or have expectations of you. Many of those will not be flattering. Many of them are not going to go away just because they're unfounded or because you correct them. Pointing out how unfounded they are--well, you tried this; you asked a question and you got your answer. Further action of the kind you've been taking is likely to be read as antagonism on your part--antagonism that will not be viewed as you being righteous and justified, but as you not understanding local cultural norms of showing deference to your supervisor. Think of it as Bad Approach 2.0.

I mention this because, as an American who once strongly considered immigration to Taiwan myself, it was really important for me to realize that American acceptance of immigration (recent tide of nativism aside) is actually really unusual. The idea of cultural assimilation, especially, is really unusual. Pretty much every political perspective in the US assumes that at least some subset of people can come to America and "become American." That is not the case for other countries. It is entirely possible that in the future you will have lived in Taiwan for over half your life and you still won't be 'assimilated' or automatically accepted as 'Taiwanese'. Part of which will include people assuming you should speak English. This just has to be part of your calculus as you decide whether to continue permanent residence there.

You only get what you give

Mindset adjustment aside, you still find the current situation intolerable, and while I do think you need to reframe your perspective a bit, I don't want to dismiss the distress that you feel.

You might have more success changing behavior if you view this less as forcing your boss/that subset of your coworkers to change their behavior, and more on giving your boss specifically whatever it is he wants. One way forward (if it hasn't been compromised by going to HR) might be to try to talk with your boss more, in English. Initiate conversations--perhaps even outside of main work hours--where you know your purpose for engaging is to give him a chance to practice (or show off, whatever it is) his English skills. It's not really fair that you should have to do extra, but welcome to the immigrant experience. If you are going out of your way to accommodate him and give him free practice sessions/face/whatever he's looking for, it may be this will help him be more accepting of you the rest of the time, such that you can gradually move to using more Chinese in other of your interactions.

You might also be able to use Chinese more in workplace social events. Especially humor--if you know that what you're saying is funny--spend some time researching Chinese wordplay. (But I don't think at this point that the issue is them thinking you don't speak Chinese.)

Maybe your written interactions with him can include more code switching or saying things in both languages--you could even explicitly frame this as trying to improve your Chinese in order to have better communication with your colleagues (surely you know humility is the culturally valued approach here). Treat him like the expert (which, well, he is) and (occasionally) ask intelligent questions that emphasize his superior knowledge. Don't insist that he speak Chinese with you; treat it as a sometimes thing that he can do that's very helpful to you at low cost to him, so he can feel magnanimous. Will he eventually switch 100% of the time? Probably not. But you'll have a better and more successful relationship with him, while helping to emphasize one of the more unique skills you bring to this workplace.

Of course, it's also possible that it will become clear through this that he's speaking to you in English because his English is better than your Chinese. Who knows. If that's the case, well, you've learned something else--maybe not what you wanted to learn, but something useful anyway. But if you approach this as someone who's humbly looking to improve, you'll probably see a lot more response than by making demands or going to HR.

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    I'm a little confused about your response. I always speak English with my boss. I don't do anything weird, rude, or out of the ordinary. He knows how I feel about it but I don't ask him to speak Chinese with me. "but as you not understanding local cultural norms of showing deference to your supervisor" - None of this is happening... I don't "show deference" to my supervisor. I'm super friendly and respectful to him. – anon Jul 31 at 13:16
  • The attitude in your original post--including that you went to HR about it--suggested that you were being very non-cooperative with your boss about the whole thing. I'm glad (for your employment relationship) that was not the case, and (per your edits) that you were able to listen to what I was telling you when it came from a local, even if you didn't like hearing it from me. – Tiercelet Jul 31 at 14:00
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There is a possibility they simply want to practise (or show off!) their English. You may be the only English speaker around that they can use as a sounding board. You want to learn and use their language - they want to learn and use your language.

I always believe in asking non-confrontationally. If there is someone you get on well with, you can simply ask, "I notice that when I'm around, everyone starts speaking English. Why do you think they do this?" That way you may actually find out the true answer! It could be that they are being polite, or that they want to improve their English or of course they don't understand you well. It could be something you haven't thought of.

However there is a subtle way to bring them around. It is a technique from NLP (neuro-linguistic-programming). I can't go into the whole thing here but basically you take on a more interested and animated approach when someone speaks in your preferred language,and have a subtly lower tone of body-language when they don't. This takes a little practise, so start with a very subtle difference. Even if you later make the difference greater, it's surprising how people will not notice what you are doing.

If you want to know more, you might like to Google "NLP, building rapport"


Note

The above recommendation is not a promotional plug for NLP, which is non-proprietary and international and has a lot of free material online.

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    ""There is a possibility they simply want to practise (or show off!) their English. You may be the only English speaker around that they can use as a sounding board." I find this approach very arrogant. More likely, OP's command of their language isn't good enough, and they don't want to waste time. They aren't being paid to be his language teacher either. – BrtH Jul 31 at 12:22
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    @BrtH - Your opinion is yours. I shall keep my opinion of you to myself. You say, "More likely, OP's command of their language isn't good enough, and they don't want to waste time. They aren't being paid to be his language teacher either." your lack of logic here is surprising. Are you saying that a Chinese worker coming to UK or US should expect his co-workers to speak Chinese - "because they aren't his language teacher?" – chasly - supports Monica Jul 31 at 13:00
  • @BrtH My Chinese is good enough... and I'm also not being paid to be their English teacher. This is a stalemate. – anon Jul 31 at 13:17
  • I'll check out "building rapport". Thanks. I'm always looking for information. As for your response, I'm not the only English speaker. There are five people who speak fluent English, three of them are Taiwanese but spent significant time in America or grew up there but everyone speaks Chinese to them at all times. – anon Jul 31 at 13:19
  • @ You also need to know how to break rapport, for it to work in this situation. Build rapport every time you hear Chinese and break it a little when you hear English. Make the difference subtle though when breaking rapport as it can come across as plain rude if you do it obviously. For explanation try searching for break rapport - Note, this exercise could be fascinating because by practising this you will begin to pick the more subtle signs that people of the local culture unconsciously use to indicate interest or lack thereof. – chasly - supports Monica Aug 1 at 9:51
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TL;DR: Accent, confidence, and word choice can greatly influence which language is used to respond. Also, there may be a corporate expectation of communication in English.

Personal experience: As a non-native Spanish speaker, on days when my accent sounds convincing native speakers tend to respond in Spanish (as my wife who is a native Spanish speaker can attest to). Conversely, when the gringo accent comes out, I'm almost guaranteed to get responses in English. Same thing with stuttering or looking for a word. Also, a similar thing happens when an idea is expressed using non-native phrases; even with correct grammar and a convincing accent, if the phrase is clearly a direct translation from a different language, the other participant will naturally gravitate to the language where that phrase is found.

You can use that to your advantage: In anticipation of a specific conversation, ask a friend or coworker to help you improve your accent (and choice of words) as a personal favor. If you start a conversation strong, you have a better chance of continuing it in that language. Record a local native speaker and later record your voice. Look for the nuance that you might be missing.

Assuming your coworkers are not trying to insult you, they probably want to communicate as effectively as possible. If they feel that something might be lost (whether it's actually the case or not) it only makes sense that they would subconsciously chose a language to reduce the chance of miscommunication. @LUser's insight is spot on with regard to "command of the language" and using jokes to show a depth of understanding. That can help change how they feel about your ability to communicate in Chinese.

Additionally, you may want to find out from one of your coworkers whether the company (or managers) expects fluency and have some amount of daily communication in English. When I worked in Spain, everyone in the office was expected to be fluent in English and use it where possible, since it was considered the language of that company. It was an unwritten rule, but very much encouraged/pushed. Some coworkers felt compelled to always speak to me in English. Others were relieved when they found out I could speak Spanish, and we never spoke a word of English.

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Everyone is hired for their IT knowledge

I wasn't hired to teach English. I was hired to be a software engineer.

You were hired to do your job, they were hired to do theirs. No one was hired to teach languages to anyone.
If you mess up your job due to language differences and having them speak Chinese it will be their fault and they know that. Try speaking Chinese with them in unofficial situations (coffee break, lunch etc.) and help them out when they are searching for expressions in English. Eventually you will have situations and people who will be eager to switch to Chinese with you.

Source: Almost three years experience as an application engineer in a foreign country, my language of work is English.
P.S. Written communication should be kept in English anyway, you don't know who will have to work with it someday.

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  • But their English is often worse than my Chinese... Chinese is more effective. – anon Aug 4 at 0:03
  • @jsonp That is not your problem, it's the problem of the manager who hired them to work in English. Without knowing Taiwanese culture my guess would be that they are more bureaucratic than what you are used to. – user3819867 Aug 4 at 11:41

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