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I joined a team in London not too long ago and at that time the boss was English, so English was the language always spoken at work. However, the boss recently left and now all my remaining co-workers feel that it is easier to communicate in French.

However, I don't speak French and feel excluded from the team. The only time they switch to English is when it is a topic concerning myself.

I have pointed out previously that I would like everyone to speak English if it's not a personal conversation, and at that time it was agreed that English would be what we would all speak if it's about business.

While this was briefly the case, it has now reverted back to French being the lingua franca of our team (no pun intended). I like the team otherwise and enjoy the work, but it worries me that I might miss out on important developments in the team, or just miss opportunities to contribute.

How can I resolve the situation politely? I am unlikely to be able to find time to start learning French.

  • 6
    This could be a perfect opportunity to learn idiomatic French by immersion – keshlam Apr 5 '16 at 20:53
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    If the team is in London then I would say English is is fair. – paparazzo Apr 5 '16 at 21:12
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    I know this will sound drastic but it is perfect time to learn French, and on the down-low, not letting coworkers know you start to understand them at the beginning. Some evening classes will give you the general grammar rules for the language. And since you are immersed in French all day long, and have the command of English Language, in no time you will be developing your understanding skills. I wish I worked for some place like that. When I worked for Canadian Embassy way back in the past, I started taking classes and was starting to get the hang of things, except masculine and femine words – MelBurslan Apr 5 '16 at 21:41
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    London is often quoted as being France's 5/6th largest city @Joe. It's almost certainly an exaggeration, but I can't find the voter turnout data to corroborate properly. – Ben Apr 5 '16 at 22:35
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    Lots of people are in this situation, no need for it to impact on their work. I work with teams in many languages, and when I first came here I didn't speak the vernacular. Any communications addressed to me, oral or written were in English. I missed out on some of the 'chit chat' but that doesn't matter much. – Kilisi Apr 5 '16 at 22:37
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When you're spoken to they will always speak in English, this is common enough (although uncommon in that you're in the UK and they're speaking French).

At the end of the day this doesn't have to impact on your work, I live in a country where they all speak the vernacular, I know the language now, but didn't when I started. And I work with teams in other languages including French. Lots of people are in your situation.

There is nothing wrong with politely asking them to speak English if they forget or if you need clarification.

It's also an opportunity to do something useful for yourself. When I first came here I didn't speak the language, I'm fluent now though. But, and this is the thing, most people from overseas never learn beyond a few words even those here for decades and married to locals. So I always speak English and overhear a LOT of stuff that is useful to me because they don't realise I understand everything they're saying. It's quite amusing to listen to some of the things they say to foreigners secure in the knowledge that the foreigner doesn't have a clue. It has been very useful for me anyway in many facets of life.

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    Since you're on good terms with your colleagues, this will be a GREAT opportunity to start learning French. It really means a lot if you show effort to adapt to someone else's comfort zone. – Nelson Apr 6 '16 at 4:49
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    not everyone has the aptitude or the desire to learn another language and it's not really necessary, but yes, it's always good to learn something new, never know when it may come in handy. – Kilisi Apr 6 '16 at 21:32
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You are fighting an uphill battle. Speaking a native language is so much easier that getting them to change is fighting a most basic human impulse. You are in a bilingual workplace; people are going to speak the dominant language. I'm not saying it's impossible, but your options are to either remind them constantly and become the office nag, or start learning French.

However, what you consider an aggravation may in fact be a great opportunity to learn a second language, the more so because you have people to practice with. Many people learn a second language, but quickly become rusty because they lack practice. But you are thrust into a situation every day where you have ample opportunity to practice.

An easy way to begin learning a conversational language is to start watching TV in that language. At first with subtitles, but over time without. Also, language learning software can be helpful since you have people to practice against. If you are a white-collar / professional, you can probably make the case for spending 15 minutes of work time per day learning the dominant language. Tell you boss it will have a dramatic impact on your ability to work with your coworkers and bring value to the business.

Finally, you may find that if you make an effort, your coworkers will reciprocate. It is always endearing to people when outsiders make an effort to learn their language and culture. If you make a little effort to engage them in their language, they may meet you halfway and engage with you in yours.

  • @Marion: No idea. It appears they are very similar -- perhaps great minds work alike? I had not seen yours. I used to work with a guy named Miguel from Mexico who told me he learned English entirely by watching TV. And I used to live in a non-English-speaking country, where I spoke English to my American friends at every opportunity simply because it was so nice to speak my home-language. Finally, I have observed from visiting Canada that French-Canadians are much more warm toward English speakers if they make a token effort to speak their language first. That's what motivated my answer. – MealyPotatoes Apr 11 '16 at 3:27
  • What a coincidence then! :) – Marion Apr 11 '16 at 21:33
  • I agree with all the points @MealyPotatoes made here. In a situation like this, you can swim against the current or decide to go with the flow. To survive and be successful, you need to bring patience and grace to work with you each day. French is not that hard to learn for an English speaker -- English is roughly 30% rooted in the Romance (Latin) languages. With some effort you can be relatively able to understand in a year or two. Bottom line, You are not going to single-handedly change the company's culture. If you don't want to adapt, you should consider finding another job. – bearvarine Aug 14 '17 at 19:58
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The other members of your team are comfortable conversing in French which is why they chose to use it when talking amongst themselves. They are not trying to exclude you; French is their comfort zone and people like to stay within their comfort zones if possible. In the same way, English is your comfort zone and you prefer using English to converse.

Have you considered trying to incorporate activities in your extracurricular activities to learn a new language? This combines activities you already do with learning French to better communicate with your co-workers in a place they are comfortable.

  • For example, my favorite way to improve my listening comprehension and vocabulary in a new language is to find a TV show or movie and watch it in the foreign language with my native language as subtitles. This helps pair the words I hear with the words I read.
  • Another way is to ask your coworkers if they could teach you a little French when you have downtime at work. This builds a relationship between you and your coworker and gives you a different way to connect with them outside of group events and discussions.

Why do I ask if you can find a way to learn French? It shows you are willing to bridge the communication gap. When you ask politely if your coworkers can please use English because your French language skills are not yet on par with the conversation, they will be more understanding and sympathetic to your situation because you are trying. People are more willing to assist or agree to a request when they see the other party is reaching out to them on their terms rather than issuing a proposal.

@Kilisi also makes a good point, this is an excellent time to start learning French yourself. As our world becomes more diverse, a second language, even at a novice level, is a great tool to have professionally.

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