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Being new in Germany (around ten months now), I am suffering from the language, and it is not that easy for me to keep the communication in German. Therefore sometimes I use English or even French when it’s possible, especially at work, in order to avoid any misunderstanding (I am working as a Software Engineer, which can be classified as ‘an English Work’).

At work, we can consider 99% of people to speak English (they are German, but almost all can talk English perfectly because of the work).

Sometimes, I counter ‘Linguistic discrimination’ from some of them, when they are explaining things in German instead of English, despite they know my problem with it. (They are able to explain in English and very well, and I saw it in alot of cases).

My questions

  • How to tell these kind of people to explain in English instead of German, without being rude?
  • How can I turn the conversation to English without facing racist answers?

Clarifications

  • I tried sometimes to discuss only in English and to ignore German, but they just did the same and they continue in German also.

  • I asked them sometimes in a nice way, if it is possible to change to English, but they just answered that we live in Germany and we should discuss then only in German.

  • Currently I am taking some courses in German to avoid this problem, but it will take time of course (I am not ignoring the importance of German in Germany).

  • There is no language requirement (German not required here).
  • I'm located in Karlsruhe (south western germany)
  • German is my fifth language, first being Arabic, second French,third English and fourth Italian.
  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – Catija Mar 7 '18 at 3:14

10 Answers 10

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Communicate as much as possible in the "company language".

I am German, live in Thailand, and for work I communicate almost 100% in English. The reason is most companies have a written or unwritten policy which language is used in the company - let's call it the company language (Maybe there is an official term for this, I don't know).

Recently a German started in an international hotel which I work for (one of my clients). And for work we talk and email in English. One of the reasons is that many of our emails are also read by people who don't speak German. The policy of that hotel is to communicate in English. Even the Thai employees of that company (in Thailand) email each other in English so that e.g. a foreign manager will be able to read and understand it all.

If I have a private lunch with that German manager and we are alone then we talk in German, at least most of the time. Sometimes one of us switches to English just out of habit.

Computer work is not English Work. Programming languages and lots of documentation is in English. But people who talk about projects with customers will normally talk in the native language of the customer.

When you talk about linguistic discrimination I understand that your coworkers get upset with you. They do you a favor when they talk to you mostly in English. They don't have to do that. But if you behave like it is your right that they have to talk in English and you insist on it, then don't be surprised that they are not willing to do you that favor all the time.

My advice: Try German as much as you can. Accept that in Germany the company language in most companies is German. And if you don't understand it, then ask nicely. Most people will try to help you out and speak English - if they see that you understand they are doing you a favor.

Edit: After reading lots of comments it seems that the OP thinks the "company language" is English, or should be English. In that case I suggest he should talk to the boss and let the boss clarify which language should be used in the company in general or maybe just for the specific project the OP works for. If the boss (maybe together with the team) decides English should be used then that's it. But if the boss decides that at least most of the communication in the company should be in German, then the OP should also accept that decision.

Edit 2: I think I made this already clear but to make it 100% clear: This is not about which language is better in general. It is up to the boss (or the manager in charge) in each company which language the employees should communicate in for work. This should obviously also be considered when they hire people.

And if it is not obvious, then the boss and employees should talk about this. If some employees think German is the company language and others think English is the company language, then this will obviously not work. Just ignoring what others say will also not work. Communicate with each other and the boss and find a solution and stick with it.

And all this is obviously only my personal opinion from my personal experience. I don't expect that everybody thinks this is "the" solution.

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – John Mar 2 '18 at 14:54
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This answer is more a frame challenge, since I focus more on talking German instead of get them to talk in English. While this is not what you ask, it will result in two things you want: your German improves and you are able to talk with your coworkers.

First of all I would avoid French, this is because I get from your description that they can talk English but not French. Talking French will only increase the problem you are already having. Even if you only do this with coworkers who are fluent in French, the other coworkers will feel left out.

Avoid at all costs to shine through that you don't think highly of them, from your comments I got "these people" which they probably picked up as well. This will only increase the resistance of talking in English when you don't understand a part.

Be clear and firm: "I'm not great in German as you guys already know, however I started some courses which will increase my ability to talk to you in German." I don't know if you discussed that you are taking classes, however this is important for them to know.

Accept the fact that the culture in that company is to talk in German. While this is probably not what you want to hear, changing something like this in a company is really hard and probably not going to work. Talk in German as far as your knowlegde reaches and fill it in with English. This first will be a mix of a bit of German and a lot of English, however this will gradually improve your skill in German.

Interrupt them in German. While this could sound counterintuitive, when you interrupt them in German it is likely they are more willing to explain it in English if you say you don't understand some part. When you interrupt them in German, also try to explain in German, this will increase the acceptence of your coworkers.

As suggested by LinuxBanket in the comments. It is very likely that when they see you struggle with talking in German that they will switch to English by themself and/or help you talk in German. This is because everyone likes it when you try and take affort to learn their language. Don't be afraid to fail or say something that is gramatically incorrect.

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – John Mar 9 '18 at 3:51
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You can try to:

  • Listen to their explanation in German
  • Rephrase it in English "Tell me if I got it correctly, so you're saying that..."

If they ask why you do this, you can give the following reasons, which are all true:

  • You want to practice the language. If your English rephrasing is wrong, and you misunderstood what they said, you'd expect them to correct you so you can get better at German.
  • You don't want to force them to switch to English (you're in Germany after all) but still want to ensure the information is communicated without error and without spending too much time.

It's very important that the language barrier doesn't result in a misunderstanding which would turn into a costly mistake, or losing time on the job doing something different from what you actually had to do, and it is in your interest to make sure this doesn't happen, as you would most likely be the one getting the blame. It is preferable to spend an extra minute making sure everything was communicated properly. If your colleagues care about work quality, they should agree about that!

Showing you're making an effort with German should help convince them to give you a break without having to actually ask for it, or sounding demanding or entitled. I would frame this as you doing your job and solving a communication problem by using a compromise that doesn't step too much on any toes.

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – HDE 226868 Mar 16 '18 at 14:15
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This is a business problem, not an interpersonal one.

I asked them sometimes in a nice way, if it is possible to change to English, but they just answered that we live in Germany and we should discuss then only in German.

If this does not match the business attitude (employees expected to work in English) then the native-speakers are at fault.

If this matches the business attitude (working language is German) then there has been some mis-communication at the point you were hired (as skymningen suggests) about your language abilities, which puts you in an uncomfortable situation.

In either case I'd recommend you talk to your manager to voice your concerns that you are struggling with the language. Hopefully staff will be formally asked to use a more comfortable language or you'll get some language training.

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I've been in your position in Belgium.

My mother tongue is Spanish. I'm fluent in English but when I arrived to Belgium (French speaking part), my knowledge of French was very basic. I started to take courses at the local university but being proficient in a language takes time, as you already know.

I work in a company where everyone speaks French and for them sometimes it's an effort to talk in English because they don't practice it very often. What I did was to tell my coworkers to help me improve my use of French and correct me when I said something wrong. They encouraged me to learn the language, they listened to me and they had the patience to wait for my low speed phrases. Afterwards, they would correct one or two words in the phrase (not in a intrusive way, just a comment on the fly to keep the flow of the conversation). When I write important emails/documents in French, I ask someone to correct it before send it.

Outside work, I read the news in French, I listened to radio in French. I read books in french. I went to French/English exchange events. It took me almost a year to be fluent. Hope this helps you.

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    Vital part of this: Be single. If you had had a Spanish speaking partner at home, it would have taken a lot longer. – Martin Bonner supports Monica Mar 2 '18 at 6:49
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    Nowadays you can do an online course (e.g. Babbel, Duolingo) and work at it every day. If you are determined and learn every day you learn really fast. – RedSonja Mar 2 '18 at 8:55
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Let them know you are indeed trying to adapt and learn German but that you are still a beginner.

As for "we live in Germany and we should discuss then only in German", ok but is it worth not being able to communicate with a member of the team. I understand what they are trying to say, but that will not make the team move forward if they "leave you behind". Tell them that this kind of behaviour is parasitic and will only slow down the team.

This might be a bit harsh, but it is the truth. You should sugar coat this as much as possible by insisting on the fact that you are taking lessons, but it takes time to learn (especially German).

I would suggest to avoid the "passive-agressive" way of answering in English to a German discussion. Try speaking German as much as you can, even if it might not be correct. That way, they will not be able to tell you that you do not even try.

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German dev here, trying my best to answer your question.

How to tell these kind of people to explain in English instead of German, without being rude?

Some answers mentioned rephrasing what you understood. This is good advice! If you start with some german you are also showing effort in fitting in. Try something like

Verzeihung, wenn ich richtig verstanden habe, geht es darum:

Which roughly translates to "Excuse me, if I got things right the issue is:"

And then proceed in english.

Entschuldigung, ich konnte nicht allem folgen. Würden Sie bitte die wichtigen Punkte in Englisch wiederholen?

"Sorry, I couldn't catch up. Would you repeat the the bullet points in english, please?"

How can I turn the conversation to English without facing racist answers?

If there is no policy enforcing english as a company language your colleagues are doing you a favour when they switch from german. Best way to achieve this without causing friction is having them turn to english instead of you actively pushing them to it. By maintaining a good relationship with them they are more likely to include you in their discussions. What you can do to achieve this:

  1. Try using german as much as possible, even if it's just little phrases. Most people are happy when they see you trying to fit in and will return the favour. A single "Guten Morgen" (good morning), "Na, wie geht's? / Na, alles klar?" (How you doin') now and then should help getting things started.

  2. If you cannot get everyones approval, try having good (and strong) relations with few colleagues you are closely working with. If they are smart, they will switch the conversation for you and others will follow.

  3. HR / Manager is the Ultima Ratio. Things are most likely going downhill from here, your colleagues might change their behaviour on the surface but there is risk of you isolating yourself for calling them out.

    Edit: In addition to 2. don't try implying to these friends that you want them to fight your battles, as unwanted group dynamics could arise from this. Be nice and keep a low profile in this regard.

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I joined this community because the answer with the highest upvotes is wrong. I understand there is no universal right or wrong here, but here is an argument from a business/economic perspective that makes the suggestion to learn and speak the local community language professionally a shot in a foot.

Computer work is not English Work

this is pretty much wrong. If you work in software engineering and speak any language other than English, you have a handicap, often times tremendous, and sometimes fatal to your career and paycheck.

However, everyone wants to believe Computer work is not English Work.

Dig deeper:

Everyone wants to believe their language is not inferior to English language

Hence the problem. They dislike you because you have an advantage over them and this advantage is not perceived to be due to your efforts, but due to luck: societies that speak English have accumulated overwhelmingly greater economic power and you were born into one.

Your best course of action:

  1. Stick to people who treat you well, want to learn from you, and catch up with you. Ideally someone who will also teach you something that is worth your time learning.
  2. Minimize your interactions with people who dislike you and drag you down.

Nothing more you can do. Do not try to convince those who dislike you speaking English of anything, it's a waste of time.

A personal detour: I often get hateful treatment for speaking English, then I tell them that English is not my first language, not the second either. Then they get depressed and I feel like I would rather have them dislike me a bit than make them deeply sad inside. Still I speak English regardless of their attitude because my paycheck, skills, and career depend on it. I've been in this situation many time myself for many years and got dragged down a lot by adapting to local languages despite its economic inefficiencies. And oh boy I paid for it...


I might be turning this answer into too long to read, but I have to clarify a few important criteria here.

Even though the apparent issue in question is interpersonal relationship, it is greater than that. It is about money and a lot of it. About pay inequality, about one language giving more opportunities than the other to the worker, to their family, their children, adding up over the lifetime.

If you communicate in a language that is inferior in that particular business, you will suffer opportunity cost. Less pay in the long run, that is. Focus on mastering another language instead of doing something else. Instead of just learning basics of it and spending your time mastering new or superior technologies in the language of the community they were created in (English for software that is).

The line is not easy to see when comparing English to German or Japanese for example. Compare it to a language of any low income country and the point will become much clearer. The pay discount for speaking a low income country language will be huge.

Language is not a race that people cannot change. It is something that can be learned but at a great cost.

There is no absolute right/wrong when it comes to personal preferences, but it is wrong from economic perspective for somebody to drag down a more productive colleague over their sense of unfairness.

The the solution is just to avoid such interaction, keep your pay secret from your local colleagues if you can and do not make it obvious that you can accomplish as much or more with less effort speaking just English. I would recommend reading The fair wage-effort hypothesis and unemployment paper by Janet Yellen, former FED chair. It is a pay-effort issue at its core and you should treat it as such with all the seriousness it demands.

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    ... the answer with the highest upvotes is wrong... Really?! Or is it just different from what you think? Why would @Edgar be wrong and you be right? Could you please elaborate with the pros and cons? – OldPadawan Mar 2 '18 at 7:30
  • This is the best answer here and I completely agree. @OldPadawan not the answerer but are you seriously saying that the 'default language' for IT work (computer work) isn't english? – Steffen Winkler Mar 2 '18 at 8:56
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    @SteffenWinkler : not at all. I worked in the US and with english-speaking people (native or not). In IT, english is often mandatory. But, IMHO, one should explain why her/his solution is the best, and not pointing out someone's else without solid arguments. Not more, not less. – OldPadawan Mar 2 '18 at 9:00
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    "If you communicate in a language that is inferior in that particular business, you will suffer opportunity cost." That is why you have to master the language of the customer. He describes his domain specific problems in his language. That is mostly the local language extended by technical terms that might (!) be English. You seem to assume that software development takes place in a void of its own. – Leonidas Mar 2 '18 at 9:45
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    Communicating domain knowledge is not localization. While communicating domain knowledge using a translator might save the OP the opportunity cost it adds to the development costs, as we are NOT speaking about a German company outsourcing but a German company hiring a non-native speaker into an obviously mostly German team, which is most probably handling a lot of German customers, the single market being strong here. – Leonidas Mar 2 '18 at 10:28
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Here I can see 2 possibilities:

  • Those coworkers are pushing you (or maybe trying to motivate you), to learn the language, and then speed up the German learning.
  • They are exercising or practicing a type of racism (I am facing this problem also sometimes in Germany).

So for the first problem, you should understand the help they want to give to you (even if it is not in a nice way), and you should try also to discuss this point with them when they are not already explaining something to you (for example in the time of the break).

The second problem is a complete different subject, and there the question is How to deal with people practicing a kind of racism. Here are my suggestions:

  • Remain calm.
  • Consider them as learners (remember that they might be less enlightened and tolerant than you are)
  • Don't waste your energy and focus on more important points (tell them you didn't understand and if it is possible to clarify some points).

Also you have to speed up in your language learning.

0

(1) How to tell these kind of people to explain in English instead of German, without being rude?

(2) How can I turn the conversation to English without facing unkind responses?

Play dumb. I speak a limited German, developed through having children with a German. My spouse is a terrible teacher and at some point I gave up on mastering German grammar, but my pronunciation is misleadingly good. With strangers I make a point of speaking slowing and simply, so they won't overestimate my level and ability to understand them. Using eye contact and gestures helps.

Negotiate. Example from a one-on-one conversation initiated by me:

Ich spreche ein Bisschen Deutsch. (I speak a little bit of German.)

[Big pause at this point, to allow the person to jump in and offer to speak English. If not:]

Sprechen Sie Englisch? (Do you speak English?)

Check for understanding, first in German and then in English. Example:

Ich habe ein Bisschen verstanden. (I understood a little bit.) Du meinst vielleicht, man soll warten bis das Chef entscheidet? Are you saying, one must wait until the supervisor decides?

Rinse and repeat as many times as necessary -- this will be painful but it will be painful for both parties!

Get the topic in group discussions. I learned this from a Coping Skills for the Hearing Impaired class. Best of all is if a language buddy feeds you the topics as they change during a group conversation, but if you're on your own:

Entschuldigung. Was ist das Theme nun? Ist das etwas von Weltmeisterschaft? Welcher spieler meinst du, bitte? (Excuse me. What's the topic now? Is it the World Cup? Which player are you talking about, please?)

If someone helps you out, make sure to nod and say thank you.

Codeswitch, accidentally on purpose. Example:

Dieser Drucker ist down? (This printer is down?) Do we know when it will be back up?

Control the flow of the conversation by asking a question. Example:

Was ist dein lieblings Restaurant? (What's your favorite restaurant?)

This has the side benefit, you get the person talking about himself, which tends to go over well.

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