I have a co-worker who has trouble with English so more often than not what he says is not what exactly he means.

This happens in business talks as well leading to work going the wrong direction and stuff, I ask him to clarify and realise he meant something else altogether.

Apart from wastage of time, asking him to clarify frequently to make sure I'm not working in the wrong direction leads to me being seen as the weaker link who doesn't understand anything in the first attempt.

Also, he's a more senior member than I, so I can't really complain about the communication barrier. It'd make a bad impression on the higher-ups that a newbie is complaining about their veteran.

What would be an appropriate approach here?

  • 7
    As your post had to be edited, you can see that many people have issues with English, it's not an easy language, so please bear that in mind. One of the easiest ways to remove the language barrier is to use pictures. The saying goes, a picture can tell a thousand words. Is it possible you can use pictures in your communication with them?
    – Draken
    Commented Apr 11, 2017 at 6:52
  • 23
    UML diagrams, user case scenarios, flow graphs, code review with the code in front of you. There are several tools that will help prevent this kind of confusion. Pictures can come in many forms
    – Draken
    Commented Apr 11, 2017 at 7:30
  • 11
    After he explains you need to say " So you want me to... " and explain how you understood it.. If you didn't understand it, you will not be able to explain it and he will see it and explain it again
    – kemis
    Commented Apr 11, 2017 at 8:29
  • 82
    When I was in the Navy there was a simple rule: when you receive an order, you repeat it back so that the person giving the order hears what you understood while there's still time to correct/redirect. I still do this with my wife: when she says "Would you like to go out to the barn and see what the goats are doing?" I repeat back, "So - you want me to check on the new goat kid in the nursery, make sure she's on her feet, make sure she's drinking, and that her mother isn't showing signs of post-partum distress?", to which my wife will respond, "Yes, please". Communication - ain't it great? :-) Commented Apr 11, 2017 at 12:28
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    @BobJarvis - I think you should put that as an answer. It's an excellent method to help avoid the issue the OP is looking for help on. I do the same thing, learned it in the same place as you, and it helps tremendously. Except with my mother, she hates it. So I make sure to do it more often than needed with her :)
    – Taegost
    Commented Apr 11, 2017 at 12:35

5 Answers 5


Apart from wastage of time, asking him to clarify frequently to make sure I'm not working in the wrong direction leads to me being seen as the weaker link who doesn't understand anything in the first attempt.

No, if you don't understand, ask for clarification, it's not being a weak link, it's being professional. As time passes you'll probably understand quicker after you learn your colleagues way of talking, but just keep clarifying whenever necessary.

  • 57
    This. If asking for clarification makes people think you are weak, you are in a dysfunctional environment. Imagine how many of the assignments you get are wrong because your boss is afraid to ask for clarification from his boss.
    – Erik
    Commented Apr 11, 2017 at 7:59
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    Correct. Just saying yes and ending up doing the completely wrong this makes you a weak link. If someone comments on you asking things a lot, just tell them you wish to do your job right.
    – Summer
    Commented Apr 11, 2017 at 11:36
  • 2
    Paraphrase the instructions to make sure you are communicating clearly.
    – David
    Commented Apr 11, 2017 at 13:30
  • 3
    @David This is the best way to handle it from my experience. I deal with a lot of non-native English speakers and this technique absolutely helps without embarrassing anyone involved.
    – thanby
    Commented Apr 11, 2017 at 16:04
  • "not understanding" is different from MISunderstanding. It sounds to me like the questioner's co-worker frequently makes people think he wants something he doesn't, rather than making people not know what he wants.
    – Beanluc
    Commented Apr 11, 2017 at 17:14

What would be an appropriate approach here?

Ask for clarification only when necessary.

Don't try to clean up his English when you can otherwise understand him or when it isn't really important. Save it for those times when clarity is really essential.

Over time, you'll get used to his phrasing and you'll understand what he means more often.

  • 3
    Dang it, somehow missed this answer before posting mine (now deleted). Yes, I had this exact situation come up with a very senior collegue from SE Asia once. You had to learn his "English". That takes effort on your part, and practice talking with him. You do get better at it.
    – T.E.D.
    Commented Apr 11, 2017 at 14:48
  • Communication is a bi-directional two way transmit & receive process. They're as responsible to making what they say clear as you are to understanding it. We have to culturally evolve past kowtowing to dominance hierarchies when someone is being unclear or even sometimes they don't really know what they want or what they're saying. On the flip side, it's just as important working towards understanding and clarifying. We should all strive to be patient and understanding with one another when there are language barriers involved.
    – TrinitronX
    Commented May 9, 2019 at 21:38

I believe there is nothing wrong in asking "what do you mean by..." if the topic is really unclear. Also concluding their ideas by "if I understood you correctly, you mean..." or "just for my understanding, ...". To avoid fuss refrain from making statements like "I don't understand what you mean", rather ask open questions instead giving the other party the possibility to share their thoughts.

In the beginning it may seem as it is you, who has problems with understanding your colleague, but as the times go, they will develop the ways of communication leading to the situation that you don't need to ask additional questions.

Anyway, it is not something that will happen immediately, it will be a process. Have patience, act proactively. Good luck!

  • This is a good approach to learning and communication in general. Make sure you rephrase what the other person said so they can know that you understood them, and if you didn't, then they can correct you. It'll also help you commit things to memory better.
    – 2rs2ts
    Commented Apr 11, 2017 at 22:05

It sounds like you are saying that you have trouble understanding directions from this senior person, and you are concerned that this lack of understanding could make you look bad. You're likely correct.

  • It isn't your job to correct his English, continuing to do that may be bad for your career.
  • Doing the wrong work (or the work wrong) is also bad for your career.

Your goal is understanding the instructions.

You should repeat back what you hear from him to make sure the directions are clear in both of your minds. This is not the same as asking him to clarify (though they are similar).

If you think that he misspoke when he said, "Do X but be careful of Y." You can repeat it back in the corrected form as "You want me to do Z and be careful of Y. Did I understand you?"

Bob Jarvis has a good example; it is in a comment to your question.

How you do this is important. In other words, where is your 'heart' in the exchange?

Did you noticed that I didn't mention his flaws in my opening paragraph?

Your sole purpose (only desired outcome) in this exchange is to make sure you understand his instructions. You don't do this to point out his weak English, and you don't do it to point out his mistake. Let me be clear: this not an opportunity to make yourself look good in any way.

As you work together, you will grow to understand how he communicates and this will make things easier for you.

Depending on how this goes, it may be good for you to email him your understanding. Many ESL people are better with written than spoken English.

Whatever part of this is his problem, if any, can be addressed by people more senior than him. This advice is for you - because you asked.

  • ESL = English as a Second Language, for those who are ESL. :)
    – FreeMan
    Commented Apr 12, 2017 at 15:00

Some excellent advice has already been given as how to deal with the situation professionally, but you are also still two individual human beings who would like to enjoy their jobs as much as they can.

While your day-to-day job is in English, it probably doesn't revolve around that language. It's merely a tool/skill to get the work done. What other tools and skills do you use at work? For me, this includes things like technical knowledge, writing skills (reports, documentation), caring for co-workers, being on time, etc. We can't all be good at every single tool or skill we need at work. My company switched from a non-English language I do not know to English when they hired me. My English skills are close to native, and theirs aren't. They are, however, technically skilled, caring, and happy to take some time to make sure things go well. This means that we take the language barrier for what it is: one of many tools some co-workers haven't mastered (yet), and we are patient with those co-workers just as we are patient with co-workers who lack some of the more job-specific (technical) skills.

None of this works if you can't actually communicate with your co-worker, but I believe the previous comments will aid in achieving that.

Good luck, and enjoy your work with someone from a different culture :)

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