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Ask HN: Should everyone speak English at a company?
12 points by EC1 on Mar 18, 2014 | hide | past | web | favorite | 26 comments
I want to ask what other peoples opinions on this are before I talk to someone.

I am working in a tiny conference room. There are 8 of us in here. 5 Indian that speak Hindi with each other 24/7, 2 Chinese that speak Chinese 99% of the time between each other, and then there's me. I feel so awkward just being here, everyone talking with each other like they're best friends.

Monday. Elevator. I ask my coworker how her weekend was. "Oh it was alright, just watched some TV, you?" I already know this is a bullshit response.

Her Indian coworker asks her how her weekend was, and then they just go off for like 2 hours between each other in full on Hindi.

Is the language the actual issue?

That is, how is this different than if one group of people constantly talks about what their fantasy football team is doing, and another constantly talk about celebrity gossip, and you care about neither sports nor celebrities?

The example you gave isn't mutually exclusive - "watched some TV" followed by two hours of discussion might be "watched the Indian equivalent of House of Cards over the weekend and now want to talk about it." You wouldn't have seen it, nor know the relevant political background to make sense of it. Would you spend several hours during work to coach a near stranger on US politics, in order to describe the TV show you just watched?

Speaking of which, how are they able to talk for 2 hours in a small room without distracting anyone else? You're likely exaggerating, but is your frustration that you're feeling lonely/isolated, that the room is too small for the number of people in it, or something else besides just that you don't speak Hindi or Chinese?

Getting HR to force everyone to speak English isn't really going to help anything.

Those are conversations I can potentially join in on and listen in on. I have no idea if these people are talking shit about me, and by result of them talking in their mother languages, they relate with one another more, giving me no chance to anything with them since I can't understand a word they are saying.

I'm not exaggerating, do not assume I am. These are my work conditions. They talk. All day, every day.

Right now I'm just some random team member cramped in a tiny room full of strangers for the next year, me, being the only one that doesn't share a common tongue with them besides English.

What a silly example, no I wouldn't coach them on my entire fucking culture to talk to them about a TV show. Giving a response like "Just watched some TV" means they want nothing more to do with you, because nobody ever "just watches some TV" during the weekend.

I highly doubt she sat there, for 3 fucking day, plastered to her goddamn screen.

It has now created a culture of one liners between me and them, like if I want to say something, the entire team stops talking, then waits for what I say, then resume their crap.

I'm requesting to be reassigned to a new project if they can't speak English, or I'm quitting on the spot. Working in a complete vacuum is the absolute worst, it's gotten to a point now where I am becoming a bother for simply interacting.

I said "exaggerating" because there are very few jobs where people can work in a small conference room and can chat for two hours straight while working, and not have that affect their work quality.

I did not mean to imply that all she did was watch TV. I'm saying that your example wasn't enough be meaningful to others not in your circumstances.

Billions of people around the world somehow manage to work in multi-lingual, multi-cultural environments, so requiring a mono-lingual work environment can't intrinsically and always be the best solution.

Based in what you've said, you don't even want your co-workers to spend 5% of their time speaking a non-English language, for concern they will be talking shit about you during that time.

If you've never worked in a place with few other English speakers, then I can see how that would especially bother you. I mostly ignore the Spanish, German or Arabic I hear, but then again I also grew up in a multilingual neighborhood of the US.

The key part when you talk to HR is the "working in a vacuum" aspect, and not specifically the language. Otherwise it's much easier to say that you're the one who's culturally intolerant.

More than language at times, it is usually cultural differences as well. You gave the example of elevator chit chat. I think it might have more to do with the fact that your Indian/Chinese co-worker might not have a lot of common things to talk about. For example, sports. A typical american likes american football or baseball at least knows enough about it talk to another american. Someone from another country may not relate to this at all unless they are actually following the sports (a lot of them do of course). So sometimes they are not sure what to say and hence go with the usual "weather" or "watched TV" chat.

Having said this, I personally think that it is rude to talk in a language in work settings that someone else does not understand even though you may not be talking to/about them. However, many times, the people doing this do not realize it is rude (again due to cultural differences). They will think "what the heck, I am talking in my mother tongue to someone else, why does he/she care". They do not realize that it might be making the other person uncomfortable.

P.S: I am an Indian who moved to the US many years ago.

No. Asking people to speak English only is racist.

Edit: here are some links from Wales:


Yes, but now I am a complete outsider to my team because they all decided to speak in their mother tongues. It is NOT racist. I'm quitting my job, or they will learn to speak English, because I can't work with a team that wants to have nothing to do with me because I'm not from their country.

The official tongue here, and the company, is English. When you're at WORK, speak it.

What country are you in?

Your responses seem unusually aggressive.

Edit: canada - the official languages are English and French. You would be unable to do anything if they were all speaking French.

You say there are two groups. One group speaks "Chinese" and the other group speaks "Hindi". So one group doesn't know what the other group is saying. You (rather paranoically) say that they may be talking shit about you. That's true, but the Indians may be talking shit about the Chinese and the Chinese may be talking shit about the Indians.

Either way, it completely divides our team and that is not right.

> I'm quitting my job, or they will learn to speak English

From your description of events, they clearly already know how to speak English. They choose not to include you in their personal social interactions, in part by not speaking English (but, you know, people can still do that even if they speak your language.)

> The official tongue here, and the company, is English.

Is it? If "here" is the US, it doesn't have an official language. I wouldn't be surprised if the company didn't either -- most don't.

> When you're at WORK, speak it.

If they are violating workplace policies by their non-English interactions, your best recourse is probably to the people responsible for enforcing those policies rather than HN. If they aren't violating any workplace policies, and they speak English to the extent necessary to effectively do their jobs, I'm not sure you have a legitimate grounds for complaint. Certainly, not for entitled demands.

Everyone should speak the same language. That language does not necessarily have to be English.

I can see that it can be lonely for you. However, I do not see that your coworkers are doing anything wrong.

As an Indian, this is a topic of conversation even inside India. For example, the place I worked for in Bangalore had people who spoke to each other in Hindi, another bunch that spoke Tamil, Telugu, etc. When there was a common need, of course they spoke in English or Hindi (when everyone understands it). But to each other, people speak in their vernacular.

For someone to whom English is a second language, it doesn't come naturally to converse all the time in English - they probably think in their vernacular and translate it into English all the time they talk to you. Asking them to converse among themselves in English just so the lone English could understand their Shah Rukh Khan gossip is unrealistic.

Use your work situation as an opportunity to learn some Hindi and Mandarin.

Great plan. And useful if you later on move job. You have another useful skill.

I'm surprised the Indians were speaking Hindi to each other; India is linguistically very diverse and two random Indians running into each other (without knowing where each other is from) would probably speak English, often even within India.

I work in an English-speaking office that is 95% Chinese (and I'm the only non-Chinese on my team), my Chinese is marginal but I make it a point to interject English into conversations even if I have the slightest idea about what is being discussed. But otherwise, I'm used to it.

You can argue that given how English is the default language of programming it makes sense to stick to it when discussing programming-related things. That applies to sciences too to a lesser degree. Anyways - first I'd suggest to get close to these people. If they really like you they'll have a good reason to speak English (-;


I work for one company and we're a multi-language team. If needed, we all speak in english. No one complained. Actually meetings start depending the main actor, if he/she an english speaker, then we all start to talk in english. Actually we speak in spanish, catalan, english and italian.

Yes. I definitely think everyone should speak the official language local country while at work. That's English for US and Mandarin Chinese if you're in China.

I think speaking different languages at work can create a us vs them atmosphere that's not good for a healthy work environment.

The US doesn't have an official local language. Some states do. For example, Hawaiian is an official language of Hawaii.

Also, several states are de facto bilingual.

And then there's South Africa, with 11 official languages.

So I don't think your views are really all that generally applicable.

Yet it is the defacto language. It is the language you need to speak if you wish to be successful (in general, of course there are outliers.) regardless, that's not really the point. It is difficult for a team to function properly if they're not speaking the same language. I know I wouldn't like it if my entire team spoke something other than English most of the time. I would feel like an outsider.

The point is the poster wrote "the official language", which is flawed logic that reveals more of the poster's lack of knowledge in how the world works than gives any meaningful advice. (The first two of the three words in that quote don't apply.)

What you describe is a different scenario. For example, one of my clients was a company in Sweden. Almost no Swedes were in the team. The de facto language for the team was English, even though Sweden's official language is Swedish. The poster's logic would insist that everyone speak Swedish (or one of Sweden's minority languages), even though everyone knew English. While you would say that's fine.

I've also worked for an Austrian company where nearly everyone spoke German most of the time. (Not all of the time; unlike the main thread, I did have chit-chat and work-related conversations. But coffee breaks and lunch were mostly in German.) Okay, I was the outsider. I'm also the outsider when people talk about bands, movies, and sports, since I know so very little about those topics compared to most. That's life?

Agreed, grandfather was wrong to say "official language" (not really "flawed logic", just wrong.) It's just being pedantic though; I knew what he was getting at.

The defacto common language of India is actually English, however.

> I definitely think everyone should speak the official language local country while at work.

What about an American company in China? There is a good reason why English is the business language in our office; also, many foreign employees don't speak Chinese but do speak English even though its not their first language. If you want to be international, I think English is pretty mandatory.

IF they can AND are polite AND wish to include English speakers. Don't sweat it, learn Hindi fast if you really want your head filling with TV trivia etc etc etc etc etc etc

Not necessarily English, but at least the same language.

I think it will harm the team cohesion otherwise.

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