I have colleagues in my workplace who are native speakers of languages other than the dominant one (English) and sometimes they use it between themselves even with respect to work matters (though not serious ones). In a meeting however I would not expect anyone to use languages other than English.

We have a fairly international make-up with people from all sorts of backgrounds (the canteen at lunch time is a fairly diverse mix of languages and people) and different languages are easily overheard, but I've wondered about it as I'm curious to get the perspective of people who only speak the language dominant in their workplace.

I'm also in a position of being a native speaker of a language other than the dominant one but being the only one who speaks it I've not really had a chance to use it at my workplace.

There have been no management directives on this and no one has ever made any fuss over it but I get the impression that we are an exception rather than the norm with respect to this matter.

Under what circumstances is it acceptable to use a different (natural) language with colleagues who speak it instead of the dominant one? Would people get reprimanded for doing this?

EDIT: There is a similar question on Workplace SE but I feel it is trying to address a specific problem, whereas mine is focused on how the issue in the title is perceived by other people in the workplace.

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    It would probably help if you could mention which geographical area you're in - there's more than one country where English is the dominant language, and I would imagine that the norms would vary between and within them.
    – Jenny D
    Commented Apr 28, 2014 at 9:49
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    My question is not meant to be country-specific (I imagine non-English countries also grapple with foreign languages) but in my case this refers to the UK.
    – Nobilis
    Commented Apr 28, 2014 at 9:57
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    I was in the same position as the OP - used to work in a department (in UK) with more overseas than British employees. There were at least 9 foreign languages spoken there on regular basis. No one made a fuss over it. I asked one of my native British colleagues whether this is annoying for him. The answer was no, as far as he doesn't feel deliberately isolated from the conversation. Commented Apr 28, 2014 at 10:31
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    When you're angry or need to discuss something private and all of the meeting rooms are full?
    – Jim G.
    Commented Apr 28, 2014 at 11:39
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    – gnat
    Commented Apr 28, 2014 at 11:51

3 Answers 3


I think the culture is not uniform here, and in fact, I live in the US and speak only English (or... I speak French and Kannada so badly that actually communicating is nearly impossible for me).

Here's a couple cases I've been a part of:

  • Extremely 1 language offices - for example, working in the US defense industry requires US citizenship for clearance reasons, and you will rarely hear a foreign language. When you do, it most likely means the person is having a private phone call with family.
  • Offices with a heavy mix - dominant language used for meetings, but intermingling and conversations exclusively in a natural language when the group shares a different language.
  • Work scenarios geared around a non-dominant culture, where several people speak the country's dominant language poorly enough that communication is basically bilingual if not tri-lingual. Believe it or not, I learn martial arts this way, with my teacher explaining things to me in English and to some of my sparring partners in Tamil. That is trust. Let me tell you.

The basic heuristics I would offer is:

  • Do whatever possible to keep the team a team. Part of work-team life is shared jokes and stories that are not strictly work related. When working together in a shared work space, and sharing time with a group that doesn't share a non-dominant language, keep even the joking and fun in the dominant language so everyone can share. If someone doesn't get a joke because of language barriers, it's OK to translate into a native language if such is possible (humor is not universally funny). One thing that brings a team together is bringing everyone into shared culture, so anything that can be shared across culture/language barriers is a win.

  • In groups where no one will be excluded - like at a lunch table, or in a one-on-one chat - it's OK to switch to a natural language if that's easier. Keep in mind if you are chatting away that others may avoid or exclude you because they don't want to interrupt what seems like a private conversation.

  • In the case where everyone is sharing in a cultural experience from a non-dominant culture, there's a lot more latitude for speaking in the language appropriate to the culture. People who don't share that culture's language are hopefully up for learning something new and being at a slight disadvantage. However, it's best to make sure that most people are getting most things most of the time, or those who are left out will find something else to do with their time.

  • Conversations on the phone are fair game for whatever language both parties speak well. Keep in mind, however, that the pitch, cadence and particularly volume of some languages can be jarring to speakers of other languages. It's worth it to be aware of the general impressions of your language and if you are told you are particularly loud, find a private place to talk.

Personally, as a dominant-only language speaker, I find it neat to work in an office where I hear several other languages spoken fluently - I like that we have a diverse workplace with lots of different kinds of thinkers around. I also like that I don't generally feel left out - I'm welcomed at any public area, and the native language speakers will stop and say hi, even if they have been chatting in their preferred language.


This is a simple respect issue that goes beyond the workplace. Speaking in a language other than the common language of the area is often considered a sign of disrespect by those around you that do not speak the language you are speaking. It draws attention to your conversation as the words you are speaking are not something we are used to hearing, and that triggers our brain to pay more attention. So when you are speaking in anything other than the common language can be very distracting. And since you are speaking in a language that is not understood by everyone it creates the perception that you are trying to exclude others from the conversation.

Some times where it is acceptable:

  • Explaining an obscure or misunderstood concept or term to a non native speaker, after letting the group why you are doing it. And switch back to the common language immediately.
  • When acting as an interpreter
  • In a private setting where everyone in the area can speak the language you are using
  • Communicating with a customer, prospective customer, or client in their preferred tongue
  • When your nearby colleagues have been consulted and the consensus is that it is not distracting everyone is amenable to the use of uncommon languages within the common work area.
  • I think you should add - 'When the conversation is off topic, eg in the break room'. People in my office speak Chinese to each other all the time, and it's perfectly acceptable.
    – geekrunner
    Commented Apr 29, 2014 at 4:01
  • @geekrunner - It is still disrespectful if you are in a common area that has a dominant common language if you use a language you know others around do not understand. It is not something that gets my hackles up though I know people who it does. I have had a few times when working at a Japanese company where someone mentions that a person in their group does not speak good english and would a them have a conversation in Japanese bother us. That is the proper way to show respect. It just is not as observed as commonly as it was 40 years ago. Commented Apr 29, 2014 at 13:53

I don't think there's any one universal norm here. It will vary depending on the country, by industry and by company. I've worked in places where many languages were spoken and in other places where people were given the stink-eye for speaking non-dominant languages. In my current job, I'm working with a very diverse set of people - the largest non-Swedish groups are Spanish and Arabic, and the people speaking those languages will sometimes use them when talking with others who also speak them. This is not discouraged.

The downside to using a non-dominant language for work matters is that it limits the people who might have useful input to those who understand the language. But if there is no management directive on this, you should assume that the management does not see this as a problem large enough to warrant interference.

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