I'm working overseas and almost all of my colleagues speak another language (their native language). They talk to me in English regarding work-related stuff and everyone speaks English during meetings. So this is fine.

However, during lunch time or other personal conversations in the office, everyone almost speaks their native language and I feel excluded. Like, whenever we all go out for lunch, I would sit with them quietly while they all talk about something I don't understand.

Sometimes, they would change into English and that's only the time I can join in the conversation but after a while, they'll speak in their native language and I'll feel excluded again.

(Personally, if I am talking to someone who speaks my native language and someone joins in who doesn't speak it, I would automatically switch to English. I would feel very uncomfortable with someone sitting there not knowing what we are talking about.)

I'm not used to this set-up because in my previous work (in this same country), all my colleagues would speak English once they know that someone in the table cannot speak their native language. That way, I was able to make good friends in the office (who are friends outside the office too).

Most of my waking hours in a week are spent in the office and it's very frustrating to have no friends in the office where I spend 8 hours a day, 5x a week due to the language barrier. And even more frustrating because they all speak fluent English, just that it's not their preferred mode of speaking. Which I understand because it's not their native language.

My question is how do I deal with such an environment? Should I just consider the people in the office as just colleagues, start distancing myself (like maybe lunch on my own?), and give up on any hope of making personal friends there?

On one hand, I won't have friends in the office and I'm just there purely for work but on the other hand, my life would be easier if I remove any expectations of making friends. If I distance myself, then I won't feel intentionally excluded (although they may not intend it, that's how I feel). It's just a bullet I have to bite by working in a foreign country.

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    Do you plan to learn the native language? Do you plan to stay in the country for longer?
    – nvoigt
    Jun 5, 2016 at 16:21
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    It is their lunch break and it is easier to talk in your native language.
    – paparazzo
    Jun 5, 2016 at 16:24
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    I would make the effort to learn the local language. If you get to the point of understanding what is going on, but cannot construct sentences fast enough, reply in English. Often multi-lingual conversation works best if each participant talks in their first language. Jun 5, 2016 at 17:38
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    @nvoigt - Learn the native language. It doesn't matter how fluent you get. Jump in with both feet and let them help you. Let them know you're trying. Listen to a newscast for an hour a day in the local language, if possible. I was in Chile for a week and was able to understand about 35% of what was being said after a week. Your brain is more powerful than you think. Jun 5, 2016 at 17:41
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    You are in the perfect location to learn another language - being immersed in the environment. But I am confused a little. Your question is about your office situation, but how do you deal with surrounding culture when you are not at work?
    – Peter M
    Jun 5, 2016 at 20:55

2 Answers 2


A communication barrier in social settings is part of the reality of living in a country where you don't speak the language.

It is not realistic to expect colleagues to always speak English to accommodate you. Even if they know English well, they are surely much less comfortable using it in casual conversation than their native tongue. Speaking English may make the lunch break less comfortable and less relaxing for everyone else, and make it harder to express what they want to talk about.

If people do choose to speak English (as at your previous employer), that is great, but realize that they are making an exceptional effort to include you. It's not something you can expect all the time.

Ultimately, the only complete solution to this is learn the local language.

If you don't feel this is a realistic possibility, an alternative is to look elsewhere for social interaction.


I wonder how many languages speak the people who think that you should learn the local language. Because if you like travelling and living in different countries you will end up spending lots of time learning languages by that standard.

If you are considering learning the local language then the fact that they speak it is going to help you.

I lived in the Netherlands and I was the first foreigner to work in a Dutch team in two companies. I lived your situation. I tried to learn the language but it was very hard - and I was already busy learning polish because of my girlfriend. So it was not an option to just learn it.

Isolating yourself is an option if you are happy with that - eventually you might start talking to some people, and they might start liking you and trying to talk to you at lunch. You can always decide to stop isolating yourself when that happens. I always carried a book to lunch, which I read while everyone spoke the language I could not understand. When someone made an attempt to talk to me I would simply stop reading, put the book down and talk to them back.

The other option is to be the one engaging in conversations. You have people close to you - ask them something. Initiate the conversation. If you are having a fun conversation and laughing other people will want to stop their other-language conversations to join yours :)

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    First step to every good relationship in a company : Greeting all the team in the morning, ask for news, get a setup for a nice "let's start the day" conversation, and people will see you as a cool guy.
    – Gautier C
    Jun 6, 2016 at 9:29
  • @GautierC I always wanted to become a cool guy, thanks for the advice haha! But how your comments relates to my answer?
    – Mr Me
    Jun 6, 2016 at 9:50
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    if you become the cool guy => "If you are having a fun conversation and laughing other people will want to stop their other-language conversations to join yours ", that was more an addition to your answer than a real thinking on it.
    – Gautier C
    Jun 6, 2016 at 9:55
  • Generally you should learn the local language if you want to stay longer than one year (and are allowed to legally ^^). I have seen that not knowing/learning the local language can often mean company's wont hire, extend your contract or even fire you. (atleast in Europa it is common) Jun 8, 2016 at 10:59
  • @RaoulMensink That is simply not true. As a developer that knows English I can work in lots of countries in Europe not learning another language. Besides that learning a new language is an extreme effort that, although nice to do, I would hardly say you should.
    – Mr Me
    Jun 9, 2016 at 13:49

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