I accepted my first job in a country other than my own being assured that English is enough for office communication. Although all my co-workers are proficient in English, they choose to speak their native language even in conversations that include me, only turning to English when they have a question for me or a task. This has taken a toll on my self-esteem as I feel left out and not a part of the team (the company itself is small).

I have spoken with my boss about this, and his solution was me learning the native language and telling my co-workers to speak in that language with me so that I could learn faster. I agreed to that and started practicing. Although the conversations were a bit awkward due to my lack of vocabulary I felt things were going well, until I started noticing the same patterns as above - when my co-workers would have a question or task to give me they would use English, saying it would be easier for us to communicate that way, then turning to their language to speak among themselves. I still can't understand conversations and need to constantly ask them what they are talking about, which makes me extremely uncomfortable.

All this makes me question my worth in the company and feel that everybody just talks with me because they want something from me. I'm concerned especially since it is of no cost to them to talk in English when I'm around. I have asked my boss if there are any complaints about me that could cause this behavior, but he said there are none.

I feel that quitting is the only solution, but I am scared by the possibility that this is just a normal office environment and I'm bound to find the same in any foreign company I will work at. Are there other solutions that I could speak to my boss about?

EDIT: Wow, thank you for all your replies. The consensus here is that I should learn the language before making any other decisions, so I will try to speak to my boss about accelerating this process, maybe taking some lessons in private until I'm able to understand what is spoken. This seems to be the main problem - although I can make simple sentences and they can understand me, their replies or conversations often leave me dumbfounded and I have to ask for clarifications.

Now for some clarifications:

  • I think that the difference between this question and the one marked as duplicate is that I have already taken the steps mentioned in the main reply but felt I was still facing the problem and unsure of how to proceed next.
  • Technically I can do my job only speaking in English, as all the tasks are communicated to me in that language. But not being able to interact with the others during meetings and presentations while them focusing solely on my tasks have really lowered my job satisfaction, morale and thus productivity.
  • The conversations I'm referring to are work-related. For example, some co-workers would ask for my opinion on some work thing, then discuss that among themselves in their native language, often at length (10-15 minutes) while sitting next to me, occasionally asking me other questions. I feel really uncomfortable as I have no idea what they're talking about and I can't do anything else other than stop working and stare at them until they're finished. I've tried asking them to speak in English in the beginning but now I'm too embarrassed to repeat this every time we have a 'meeting'.
  • I admit that I shouldn't downplay the effort of speaking a second language, but they are proficient in English, and have to be, as we are dealing with international clients. Before coming here I have researched how the locals would react when speaking English to them, and pretty much every online guide said that they often prefer to 'practice' it instead of speaking in their native language. I have found that this is certainly not the case, even in informal settings with plenty of other foreign speakers around.
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    Clarification: are these conversations they're having completely unrelated to you? In other words are you trying to involve yourself in idle workplace chatter in the local language? If so, interrupting those conversations and asking them to repeat themselves in English is likely to come across as strange. Whether colleagues will switch to an international language for these kinds of conversations depends on your relationship with them, their knowledge of and familiarity with the language and their acceptance of you as a real member rather than an outsider.
    – Lilienthal
    Commented Oct 21, 2015 at 10:46
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    But there is a cost to translate.
    – paparazzo
    Commented Oct 21, 2015 at 10:58
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    When your boss asked you to learn the other language, I would have politely made it clear that you were told you would not have to learn another language when offered the job and would not have taken the job if that were the case.
    – David K
    Commented Oct 21, 2015 at 12:19
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    I am often translating from German to English and vice versa. It has a definit cost: both mental cost as well as loss of expressiveness due to limited vocabulary. Are most co-workers of one language then? If that is the case, and English is not enforced as office language, learn the language. Show your co-workers that you respect them, even though you have been told that it will not be necessary to learn the language. If you try to learn it, others will be more willing to include you in the conversation, speaking English and helping you with the language. Commented Oct 21, 2015 at 13:59
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    Related (dupe?) workplace.stackexchange.com/q/20474/869
    – yoozer8
    Commented Oct 21, 2015 at 15:48

9 Answers 9


I'm concerned especially since it is of no cost to them to talk in English when I'm around.

Unless they are very proficient in English, it most likely is a cost to them to speak in English. When talking in another language, most people think in their native language and only then think how to translate that to the other language. That has a mental cost. When your coworkers are helping you with some work related problem, it shouldn't be surprising that they revert to their native language when discussing the problem amongst themselves. They aren't leaving you out. They are helping you.

Learn the native language. Talk (perhaps haltingly) in that language to your taxicab driver, if that's your mode of transportation. Order food at a restaurant in that language. Watch a sports broadcast announced in that language. You are almost there when you can understand the sports announcer. Read some poetry in that language. You are there when you can read and understand that language's poetry without having to translate to your native language in your head.

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    +1 for the first recorded use of the word "poetry" on Workplace.SE. We need more of that! Commented Oct 21, 2015 at 15:17
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    @DawnPaladin The OP chose to work in another country - the OP will have to learn the language. It's pretty simple. It's unreasonable to expect the other employees to speak the OP's native language just because the OP doesn't want to invest the time to learn the language. The OP can either go back home or learn the language.
    – SnakeDoc
    Commented Oct 21, 2015 at 16:16
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    @SnakeDoc While I would agree in most cases, it seems that most of the issues here arise from the fact that the OP was guaranteed that they wouldn't need to learn the native language to work there. It's not reasonable to tell someone they don't need to learn the local language to work there and then tell them, after they move to another country, that they actually do need to learn the local language if they want to be able to do their job effectively.
    – reirab
    Commented Oct 21, 2015 at 16:34
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    @SnakeDoc Agreed! If the OP decides the job isn't worth learning a new language, then he should quit. I'm just drawing attention to the size of the investment; as a youth, I spent almost 10 years in Russia without ever attaining full fluency. (I'm not a great language learner.) Commented Oct 21, 2015 at 16:36
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    @reirab But it's clear the OP does not need to learn the native language to conduct business. It's simply they feel left out of team activities and discussions. To solve that, they're going to need to learn the native language. We have the same issue in the US with people coming from other countries and barely speaking English. It holds that individual back. If it's not work related, it's dealing with regular citizens - be it the land lord, grocery clerk, mailman, etc. To live in another country, you should expect to try to learn the native language.
    – SnakeDoc
    Commented Oct 21, 2015 at 17:05

Did you try talking to your colleagues? If not, then please do.

I used to have a similar problem(22 official languages in India :( ), and I politely asked them to talk to me in English, as I was unable to follow their language.

And they did understand and started talking to me in English. They do talk in Hindi amongst themselves sometimes, but it is a lot less than some time ago. So, don't get de-motivated about a minor problem and try to get the message forward to your colleagues. They'll definitely understand.

And your boss's advice is also a good one. Start learning the language. The faster, the better. You don't need to be fluent at the beginning. It should be just enough to understand your colleagues and speak back to them in a broken version of that language. They will definitely appreciate it, and would correct you when you go wrong.

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    This seems the best approach. Just remind your colleagues that you can't (yet) follow their conversation and ask them to speak English if the conversation is relevant to you. Unless they're truly being antagonistic it shouldn't take much more than a few reminders for it to become a habit for them.
    – Lilienthal
    Commented Oct 21, 2015 at 10:40
  • Learning the language is good in this context. 1) you know you're not excluded for personal reasons, 2) immersion is the fastest and most effective way to learn the language, and 3) (my favorite part) you are learning with a safety net -- people who will gladly help you in English when you get stuck. It sounds like a perfect (and free) opportunity.
    – donjuedo
    Commented Oct 21, 2015 at 14:43
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    This is a good answer. The only thing I would add is that, at least in the beginning, you don't necessarily need to always try to respond in your broken version of their native language. If you can understand what they're saying, especially for complex topics, it might be more effective to just respond to them in English until you get more fluency in their language. Of course, if you can respond to them in their language, great, but, since they understand English, you can always fall back on just responding in English if you understand what they're saying but don't know how to respond.
    – reirab
    Commented Oct 21, 2015 at 16:42

Take a language course or just purchase a bilingual dictionary, work on your vocab. Don't expect to learn a language just by listening to it. It takes a bit of effort. I wouldn't quit the job over this either, I've worked in a few places like this, I currently live in a country where I didn't know more than the rudiments before I arrived.

This will make a huge difference to how your colleagues treat you.

You don't have to be anywhere near fluent. Just enough to make things more congenial for yourself. If you make no effort to learn the language you will be left out more and more. Most people are happy to see someone learn their language and even help them. My policy is crack jokes in the vernacular whenever possible, and even the lamest jokes are well received, for their novelty value if nothing else. And best policy of all, never, ever lose your smile and get frustrated.

Learn useful phrases... "I have no idea what you're on about."...

My advice would be to soldier on cheerfully, don't be shy to shrug a lot, get your colleagues involved by asking them the meanings of words now and again, learn about a new mindset and culture and enjoy your work. Because in my experience this is normal for foreigners.

There is another viewpoint that is also successful and actually common in some countries. I learnt the language of the country I'm in because I like to socialise with the people here and English isn't my first language in any case. But there are many foreigners who have been here for decades, one guy I'm thinking about has been here more than 30 years, who never bothered to learn the language and never will, although their kids are fluent.

You can function successfully in an office environment with bilingual people. You won't have the same sort of relationship with them, but many countries have English speaking groups, clubs and even websites where expats gather and do whatever it is they do. And their social needs are met outside of the workplace.

I think it doesn't impact on their self-esteem because (no offence intended) they look at themselves as different, or they just don't care since they have everything they need and enough self confidence to shrug it off. And they have their little tight knit communities for support.

The OP might find it helpful to locate other people from his country who have been there for a while to get some first hand advice and make some friends.

  • "This will make a huge difference to how your colleagues treat you." Agreed. People respect it when you're willing to take the time to learn their language. It shows them you think they're worth it. Commented Oct 21, 2015 at 16:40

There are a lot of good answers here but I'll add my own because I was in a very similar situation.

My colleagues were all Russian and spoke their language in the office. We were also a very small team. It was brought up that I too should learn Russian, because some members couldn't speak English all that well. It seemed easier to bring the mountain to Mohammed in this case, despite being located in the UK, and English being my second language also.

I learned to embrace this. Eventually I started to tune them out and be able to concentrate in what I was doing. When you understand a language, your brain automatically devotes a portion of it to parsing whatever reaches your ears.

That said, I learned enough Russian to ask what they're talking about (by the sound of it, a lot less than what you learned in the language of your torment). When a joke was made, it was enough to smile and look at someone expectantly, or even ask shto? If a joke wasn't being made, I didn't care what they were talking about one bit. I had my own stuff to do and they had theirs.

You might try to establish some rapport with those members you feel closer, maybe go for a pint after work. Keep the circle small (2-3 people and you) so they'll be forced to speak English. Other than that, you can't really expect them all to change their habit to accommodate you, as you've already learned.


I worked in several countries in Europe, and it is always the same. So get use to it, and do not take it personally. And off course, try your best to learn the language.

The only workplaces, where people will speak english, are where the foregneirs are majority.

The bad side in such places is that you will be crippled in your efforts to learn the language. But if you do not care...


People working in Switzerland for international companies with English as official office language often have the same problem.

Usually, they ask for language classes co-financed by the employer.

They will then learn proper German, while people will talk Swiss German (quite a difference), but as they show the effort, people will start talking to them in both proper German as well as English.

Always remember that you decided to work in that country, and that not learning the language - even if not required by the employer - can be viewed as an offense by native people. Especially if large numbers of foreign workers come into the country and seem to steal workplaces from natives.

Of course, speaking English for a non-native speaker is an effort due to less expressiveness because of lack of vocabulary and mental cost due to constant translation.

I would say that apart from countries with many different languages that are not clearly geographically separated this will be true wherever you work. In Switzerland, the language areas are clearly separated (by mountain ranges mainly), and we usually learn one of the other national languages in school, yet speak English with each other often.

In other countries, there are unifying languages apart from English that most natives would speak as their first foreign language. That then would be the natural choice for you to learn.


I concur with David's answer. I have family in a foreign country and yes sometimes I feel left out when they talk in their native language. Key thing to remember is the cost: they think in their native language but has to take time to translate it to English. With that said, think in their perspective: they have to re-think how to say what they are thinking. That adds stress for them as well.

With that said, I think it's a fine time to learn their language. It sounds fun. I'm surprised you got this job in a foreign country but you're not willing or as willing to learn their language and expect them to only speak English to you.


being assured that English is enough for office communication ... his solution was me learning the native language and telling my co-workers to speak in that language with me

There was obviously a serious disconnect between the person who recruited you and the person you're working for -- the job they're asking you to do is not the job that you were offered. It's not that unusual for the recruiter not to properly understand what really happens in the office.

The important thing for you to take on is that the problem isn't your colleagues. They're not excluding you out of spite, they're just using the most effective language they have, because they work less well in English. It wasn't their idea to tell you English would be fine. Don't feel badly about them. The problem is the dodgy information given to you while you were being recruited. This may well be incompetence rather than malice, but either way your employer has sold you a pup and all you can do is try to recover.

The job they offered you doesn't really exist, since there's no appetite to make English the working language of the office, so forget about that. You have to ask yourself whether you want to do the job that does exist. If you don't want to do the job that exists, then you're going to have to quit, and the only remaining question is whether you can take legal action over your time and opportunity this employer has (intentionally or otherwise) wasted. I'd guess that most likely you can't, especially since it's a real struggle bringing a legal case in a language you don't know, but you might as well check with your union or lawyer. If the employer has established a pattern of doing this then you might be in luck and not end up too much out of pocket.

On the other hand, if you do want to do the job that actually exists then you can press on, and hopefully the employer will be keen to help you learn the language since it benefits both of you. Perhaps you can persuade them to send you to a language school for a day a week or something, since their solemn promise to you was not delivered.

Lesson to learn, I think, is that if someone assures you that you don't need to know the main office language in order to work there, then best case they are wrong. They might be lying in order to deceive you into a commitment that you can't easily back out of once you discover the truth.

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    If an employers says that someone doesn't need to know the language to work at a place that might simply mean that the language isn't required for what the employer pays the employee to do. That doesn't mean that he's lying. Obviously no employer has an interest in hiring someone for a job that he can't do due to language barriers.
    – Christian
    Commented Oct 21, 2015 at 21:36
  • @Christian: I don't think the first of the two options you offer applies here, since generally speaking in a meeting everyone is expected to be able to understand what's being said. The questioner only understands remarks directed specifically to him. He might be doing a large proportion of the job, but if there wasn't something missing then he and his boss wouldn't need "a solution". I entirely agree that it doesn't mean the recruiter was lying, and my answer says that a mistake is likely. But it's possible the recruiter was lying. People have done worse. Commented Oct 21, 2015 at 22:35
  • If it was a lie, the the intent wasn't to put someone into the job who can't do it. Rather, it would be to recruit an otherwise-good candidate who is concerned about the need to learn the language, and therefore might not take the job. Allay the concerns until the questioner's cost to back out is higher than it is at the interview stage, then force the questioner to do exactly what he was concerned about if he wants to keep the job. Almost everyone is recommending to learn the language (as am I, if he wants the job), so clearly it would have been in the employer's interest to set that up. Commented Oct 21, 2015 at 22:40

An off-the-wall suggestion (I've never heard of it before and have no experience with it): ask whether it's OK for you to record the meeting, so that you can review the recording with someone else later. For example you could hire a person to teach language X to you: and have your lessons consist of reviewing the meetings you recorded at work (to ensure you understand them, and to identify the vocabulary used in meetings so that you can learn that).

Discuss with your boss who should pay this person (you can probably afford to pay that someone privately yourself, it might be only an hour or two per week of their time for a few months), and who should hire this person (your company/manager might want to be their employer, or might want assign an existing company employee to that job, since the contents of the recorded meeting will presumably be company secrets).

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