Confused Communication: Crossing a language barrier

by epi on February 16, 2012

Q: Through downsizing, attrition, and layoffs, I’m the only English-speaking person left on my team.  My two remaining co-workers are naturalized citizens.  They both have a wealth of experience and seem to do a terrific job.  The problem is, they now constantly speak in their native tongue.  When they do address me, it’s in broken English, resulting in frequent misunderstandings and mistakes.  Can you offer some advice?

A: The simple answer is, when at work, all employees should speak in a language that everyone can understand.  In your situation, you could try asking your co-workers to speak English when they’re with you.  Another option is to approach your supervisor or HR office to explain the situation.  Your company is responsible for establishing a policy about which language is to be used for business conversation and communication in the workplace. Don’t complain.  Instead, focus on the need to build good communication between team members.  You might also request a meeting with you, your fellow team members, and management to clarify the company’s language policy.  Two recommendations you can offer: 1) Everyone speaks a language that all can understand — English, and 2) Action items are put in writing in English so that all workers are clear about them.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Allyce February 17, 2012 at 3:35 pm

As a veteran Foreign Language educator (2 FL + English), I believe that I can speak with some authority on this subject. I have always taught as much of the target cultures as possible, since this helps us understand the people whose language is being learned.

When I have visited, studied in, escorted groups to other countries, everyone has been expected to speak the national language(s). If we are not able to speak the local language, we have needed to humble & apologetically ask for assistance in English. This gesture is usually accepted with kindness, and people are happy to help. Since it has overtaken French as the global language, many people at least understand English.

When people visit America, they need to learn to speak English for restaurants, hotels, tourist areas. If they choose to stay in the USA, they need to become very proficient in English and use it in public, especially in the workplace.

This is why America has historically been called “the melting pot”. In the past, immigrants have worked to adapt to our culture. To be successful in the US, people from other countries need to continue this tradition, rather than expect us to adapt to their language and customs.


Stephen February 21, 2012 at 4:45 am

Another idea might be to start to learn their language or even hire a translator or maybe have them write down important passages via paper, e-mail, etc and use Yahoo or Babblefish to translate it.


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