27

Last week I was deputed to my office headquarter. In the beginning everything was fine, but after a few weeks some of my co-workers started having conversations in local regional language during meetings and the team discussion.

This is really irritating and even my immediate boss joined them and I was like "O wow, now what is going here?". Are they discussing about me or don't they agree with me?.

How do I handle this and ask them to speak in English so that everyone understands?

Is this unprofessional behaviour of my co-workers?

  • 7
    What's the 'official' language for this office, and is this different to the local language being spoken by these co-workers? – user44108 Aug 8 '17 at 6:27
  • 3
    I deleted my answer as Lilienthal said the same thing as me, just an awful lot better. – user44108 Aug 8 '17 at 8:35
  • 8
    @Pete If it is of any relevance, in India, there is usually no "the" local language, because a team will usually have people from various parts of the country. There is certainly an "official" local language, but it is not at all unusual for teams to have 6 or more "local" languages that could be in use at a time. – Masked Man Aug 8 '17 at 9:30
  • 1
    The linked question ("How can I get my colleagues to speak a language I understand?") is closely related, but I think this question is more specific and focused, asking about ways to steer a conversation back to the company language in the moment, without ruffling feathers. The linked question seems more about the general problem and ways to address the big picture. [Disclaimer: I've submitted an answer on this question] – Lilienthal Aug 8 '17 at 9:39
  • 3
    India tag should be added as this is a problem all over India . – Nitish Aug 8 '17 at 11:57
42

How to handle this and ask them to speak in English so that everyone understands?

Say a variation of any of the following:

  • I'm sorry, could we return to [company language]?

  • Sorry to interrupt but I'm afraid you've lost me here, could you repeat that in [company language]?

  • I didn't catch that, could we stick to [company language]?

As long as you remain matter-of-fact and just gently steer the conversation back to the company language no one should think less of you for doing so. Most decent coworkers will also eventually get the hint and stop switching to the local language in the first place.

People with great interpersonal skills can inject some levity here with half-joking responses like "Ah, I caught [word in local language] but I'm not sure we're talking about [unrelated topic linked to that word]." But that takes some skill and charisma to pull off. It's not something I could or would do.

Is this unprofessional behaviour of my co-workers?

Yes, though it's not that uncommon, particularly in certain (company) cultures. It happens more often with junior people and with colleagues who aren't very well versed in the company language. When they're struggling to translate something it's often easier to switch to the local language to explain to their peers. Sometimes that can be appropriate but then they should tell you that they're switching to [local language], keep the discussion short, and summarise what was discussed after the conversation returns to the company language. But in most companies or departments that have an international staff, employees at all levels are typically expected to be able to converse in the company language.

That said, if it happens rarely it's often not worth making a big deal of. But if the conversation often moves to the local language while you're there you should address that with your manager or whoever is running those meetings or that team. You'd say something like:

I've noticed that we often switch to the local language in meetings and as you know I don't speak [local language] at all, which makes it impossible for me to follow the conversation. Can we make sure that in future meetings we stick to [company language]? I realise that it's sometimes more convenient to switch but when extended conversations are held in a language I don't speak I completely lose track of the discussion.

Not that this only really applies to team meetings and discussions that are work-related and that actually involve you. If this happens during idle office chatter that is still a problem, but you would address it differently. You'd also focus on first making sure that it doesn't happen in work discussions first before trying to force changes during social chat.

  • 8
    +1 for a complete and strong answer. +1 for the very polite and professional way of interrupting and nicely getting people back on track. +1 for the non work-related last paragraph advice. wait ! you can only UV once ?! :) – OldPadawan Aug 8 '17 at 8:22
  • 6
    "If this happens during idle office chatter"? Uh? What's wrong with people talking between themselves in whatever language they want to while chatting next to the coffee machine? – graywolf Aug 8 '17 at 13:04
  • 2
    @Paladin It's excluding people who don't speak the language. It's fine if you are alone or the other one clearly is deep in his work, but it's antisocial if you're standing all in the kitchen and then you start a discussion that excludes the one guy who cannot follow. Sure, there are always some groups of people from the same area, but if you want to explicitly socialize with your local peers it's nice if you do that in dedicated activities, like a "Russian lunch table"(example) where everyone is invited who wants to learn Russian, too, but it's clear that Russian is the language to be spoken. – Frank Hopkins Aug 8 '17 at 13:50
  • 4
    @Paladin It depends. I have been in workplaces where social and casual conversations happened almost exclusively in a language I didn’t speak. It makes for a very unpleasant work environment—and that directly affected the company’s available talent pool, because if you did not speak that language, you likely wouldn’t like working there and so the company could only retain a rather small minority of the population that spoke this language. That’s an extreme, but it shows how there can be things wrong with even non-work conversations being in a foreign language. – KRyan Aug 8 '17 at 14:26
  • 3
    @Paladin It can be problematic if it results in colleagues who don't speak the team's language being ostracised, similar to what happened to the OP in this question. While an answer on that question is correct in stating that in most companies you can't expect a team who share a language to always speak English, when you hire employees that don't speak the language the team should make an effort to be inclusionary. And that means having some or even all social conversations in a shared language. – Lilienthal Aug 8 '17 at 14:52
4

There are 2-3 things you can try. First is that you discuss this with your boss in person. Try to point out that you are not a native speaker and miss out on what is being discussed. It also makes you feel not a part of the group. I have seen this issue many times. Usually people don't realize that they have a non native language speaker in between them. They will go to informal language because some people are not very comfortable with English or because they are not discussing something related to business, i.e. the conversation has gone informal to weekend plans or leg pulling. It is rare for people to talk about you in their native language in front of you, but it may happen sometimes. Second, try to visibly note down some words which are spoken and ask their meaning later on with their boss. The boss will then sensitize the people. They will also become conscious that you will do follow up on the words spoken, so they cannot speak about you in the meetings.

As suggested in other answer, please feel free to point out "English Please!!" so that the conversation can come back to English.

There is no quick fix to this, except for the chair to gently steer back the conversation to English. Constantly asking people to translate what they said would make them realize they have a non native speaker and will help them getting used to talk in English only. Hope this helps!!

  • 1
    thanks, yes "the conversation has gone informal to weekend plans or leg pulling" - that's exactly what's happening with me. – Narender Parmar Aug 8 '17 at 8:41
  • 2
    While I agree with this answer I can advice for the long term solution: learn the local language. – jean Aug 8 '17 at 12:40
  • @jean - o wow this seems a nice solution, that will add a new feature in my cap too. I m so bird head - I didn't get this earlier "Learn the local language" :) – Narender Parmar Aug 9 '17 at 4:48
  • 1
    @NarenderParmar While my comment sounds obvious you can be surprised how many people are resistant to learn a new language. Rishi Answer is a good one but is a temporary solution because while you don't go with the stream you ill be the rock in the middle of the river – jean Aug 9 '17 at 13:58
2

No one feels completely comfortable when they are in a meeting where conversations are happening that they cannot understand -- whether it be a side or the main conversation. Sometimes however, it is necessary.

Some people may not feel fully comfortable using the company standard language. This is especially frequent in USA where people from all over the world work and collaborate together. English is difficult to learn well for many foreign born people, and it is not uncommon for there to be quiet side conversations in other languages where people try to help each other understand and participate in the dialog.

Ways to help everyone in this situation is to acknowledge the difficulty in a helpful and friendly way, ask presenters to speak a bit slower and more clearly, and avoid jargon and unnecessarily complex words and phrases. Language learners should be allowed to ask questions and have someone present quietly and quickly explain what was said in their own language if necessary.

In the event you are a visitor and/or not conversant in the company language, you will have to politely endure listening to many conversations that you cannot understand until they are translated for you. In this case, you just need to learn patience and bring an attitude of grace to the forefront.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.