I work in a small company in a country where the national language is English, and the majority of developers only speak English, recently three developers were teamed up to work on a feature, two of those developers share a first language that is not English (A, B), the other only speaks English (C).

Developer A worked on the API whilst developers B and C worked on the app. During the development of the feature, developers A and B had extensive technical discussions in their native language, only switching back to English to ask questions to other developers.

In our office it is common that other developers listen in to technical discussions and offer input on certain decisions that are being made, this quite often finds pitfalls in ideas before they get anywhere near implementation and saves quite a lot of time.

Developer C has expressed that he found working on the feature especially hard as he quite often did not find out about choices that had been made, until after they had been implemented and had no opportunity to shape these choices.

What I am asking is that is it appropriate to enforce that all technical discussions be carried out in the national language.

This is not the same as the one it has been marked a duplicate of, as it would be unreasonable for all employees to learn the languages of only some of the staff.

  • I am none of those developers.
    – sirdigby
    Commented Dec 24, 2015 at 14:58
  • Just remember they "think" in their native language. With that said, they have to work twice as hard to translate from their language to English, which may be harder to do.
    – Dan
    Commented Dec 24, 2015 at 16:55
  • Is there a stipulation in a contract or handbook that "the language of the workplace is X and all work related discussions will be in X"? I have had this in paperwork previously
    – user43744
    Commented Dec 24, 2015 at 18:28
  • In the absence of any other information though, I think it's reasonable to ask that all technical discussion be carried out in the "main" language of the workplace (if consistent with the "main" language of where the workplace is, especially) for the benefit of mutual understanding. There's no "racist" etc intent in that if that's what you fear
    – user43744
    Commented Dec 24, 2015 at 18:38
  • 1
    Voted to close as unclear: you need to clarify your position in the company, whether you have authority over A, B and C; and whether this is a "done thing" that you just need to announce or whether you're asking if it's reasonable.
    – Lilienthal
    Commented Dec 25, 2015 at 23:37

4 Answers 4


Insisting that these developers speak only English may cause resentment and other hurt feelings, even if you limit the restriction to technical discussions. Thus I'd recommend avoiding that path.

However, you can point out that they are causing problems for the third developer (C). As such, he should be involved in all decisions that affect him in the future. Tell them that if they don't involve him, they will have to re-work the API so that it doesn't create such a problem for him, and then back that up if necessary. If they have to re-do their work once or twice, they'll probably decide that communicating in English with the other developer is the best course. If they don't, their annual reviews - and any pay increases that might result - are likely to suffer, so they will have incentive to communicate with him in the language he understands.

  • 9
    This attacks the real problem, failure to communicate with C. It does not matter if A and B talk in their own language to exchange information about the interfaces, but they should not be making decisions without involving C. Commented Dec 24, 2015 at 15:23
  • 3
    "Cutting out" an involved colleague (linguistically or otherwise) is a potential issue between those people and HR... What would it be like if language wasn't a problem but A and B discussed things over Facebook chat (or whatever) without the involvement of C for example?
    – user43744
    Commented Dec 24, 2015 at 18:54
  • It may be that they only feel comfortable communicating with people like themselves which is also a problem. You need to discuss with them why they felt it was a good idea to exclude the other developer. (who knows, there may be another side to this story as well) If they really only feel comfortable with others of the same nationality, you need to split them up so that they have to work with natives of the country they are in and not just the country they are from.
    – HLGEM
    Commented Dec 24, 2015 at 19:12
  • I would not worry too much about causing A and B resentment and other hurt feelings. After all, that is exactly what they did to C. They can't have it both ways.
    – Mohair
    Commented Dec 24, 2015 at 19:51
  • 1
    Leaving 1 teammate on a team of 3 out of technical discussions is good for smooth workplace? B and C worked on the app. C was excluded from discussions about the API. Make them fix what C was left out of is good for smooth operations - that is school yard.
    – paparazzo
    Commented Dec 24, 2015 at 21:23

In every job that I ever had, good communication skills were either silently expected or explicitly required. Intentionally talking in a language that a coworker doesn't understand is the ultimate communication failure.

And intentionally excluding a coworker from communication comes very close to bullying. Imagine I often talk to one colleague, and everytime you come within hearing distance we both fall silent until you leave. That would make anyone feel very, very uncomfortable.

I was asked how this answers the question. I thought that would be obvious. Is it reasonable to ask coworkers not to commit absolute failures in communications, and to restrain from borderline bullying? YES.

  • @GreenMatt You have a (different) answer. We see it. Let it go. Some people including me see the value in this answer.
    – paparazzo
    Commented Dec 25, 2015 at 0:00
  • @Frisbee: I would never make comments on another answer just to build up my own. Unfortunately, and ironically, it seems you and I have been unable communicate effectively in the comments to the answers to this question. FYI, In the interest of reducing animosity and cleaning the site, I've deleted my earlier comments about this answer and in the exchange we had on my answer.
    – GreenMatt
    Commented Dec 25, 2015 at 5:34

This has nothing to do with what language has been used, and everything to do with the fact that developer C has been excluded from important discussion. This could have happened because A and B used IM, or email, or just waited until C wasn't around.

Relying on having developers listen on random discussions around them while trying to work on their own projects is pretty poor, too.

You need more formal communication and methods of cultivating comments.


Well, whatever the politics, people are going to take the least resistance path.

In other words, you can attack the problem directly, but poor results are likely. OTOH, if you begin to put them on situations where they have less technical things in common, the problem should disappear by itself.

I realize it's not easy to do, especially now. But at the first opportunity, use the old "divide" tactics to prevent this from happening again. If their work is no more directly linked, they'll switch to spanish only for work-irrelevent elements. Which shall not be a problem; in my book.

  • 2
    Why do you mention Spanish as the other language? I don't see anything in the question about any language other than English.
    – GreenMatt
    Commented Dec 24, 2015 at 14:40
  • @GreenMatt So not Spanish. I think we can substitute native language.
    – paparazzo
    Commented Dec 24, 2015 at 21:27
  • 1
    I don't think it's really fair to say "attacking the problem directory" will lead to "poor results" when you haven't even described what attacking the problem directly is, and I certainly don't think "passive aggressive social manipulation" leads to "good results."
    – user42272
    Commented Dec 24, 2015 at 22:26

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