What to do when you’re the only non-native speaker in a team

Have you ever been in a situation where you’re the only non-native speaker in a team or a meeting? I have! In many ways this experience helped me to grow and develop my language skills, but it wasn’t always easy being the only person who wasn’t communicating in their native language (I was working in a team of German speakers in which the language for communication was German).

Before I started this work, I thought all the difficulties would be language-related, but there were also lessons in terms of interpersonal skills and team dynamics. Some of it was just having a clear enough head to recognise my feelings and know how to channel them into something more positive when things didn’t go so well.

Here are some of the things that I learned and the advice that I would give to other people in a similar situation.

1. find a language mentor

The mentor doesn’t actually need to know that they are your mentor! It’s just good if you can identify one or two people in the team whose language skills are really good so that you can pay more attention to their writing and presentation style. I’m not talking about the content, but the way in which they get their ideas across. People who check their work before sending it off. People who can communicate clearly and who make it easy for other people to understand things.

When I was working in the German team, I was exposed to many different communication styles, and in order to improve my German, I chose a couple of people who I knew spoke their native language well. I didn’t copy phrases from their emails, but I did pay special attention to how they did things. After all, just because someone is a native speaker, it doesn’t mean that they speak their native language well.

Doing this helped me to develop my own writing and speaking skills.

2. talk to people before meetings so they are already on board

I found that building up relationships with people on a one-to-one basis always helped me. This is something I do generally, but particularly when I was the only one working in a language that wasn’t my own, it felt good to know that I had people who wanted me to do well – and that only works if they know who you are!

Also, if you’re new to a team, there may be things that aren’t spoken about in meetings, but people may tell you them on a one-to-one basis if they feel that they can trust you.

I prefer small groups to large meetings anyway, but I found that chatting through my ideas with one or two people first gave me the chance to express my thoughts in German in a real situation, prepare myself for any questions that may come up, and if it was a good idea, I knew that I had someone who would support me when I told everyone else about it. Not that they would take over, but they could also point out the advantages of putting the idea into practice, and explain why it would help them.

3. it’s not always you!

There was one team member who wrote the longest, most rambling emails I had ever seen. I read them several times, hoping to find some kind of clue as to what his main point was, and sometimes I couldn’t. I raised it with another member of the team – a native speaker – and she was just as confused as I was about what he actually wanted. He’d just dumped all of his thoughts into an email, with no structure or clarity!

Sometimes it can be easy to think that it’s your fault if you don’t understand something, particularly if it’s your second language, but sometimes things just aren’t clear and it has nothing to do with your language skills.

4. social situations can be the hardest things

The work that I was doing was mainly online, but we did arrange a couple of face-to-face meetings followed by social events so that people could get to know each other. Whilst I enjoyed meeting people in person, these times were much harder for me than working on the project, and this came as a shock to me. After all, having a chat to people over a meal and glass of wine shouldn’t be that difficult, should it?

But it was! Partly because speaking was initially one of my weaker skills (I much preferred writing), and partly because I had to keep track of the conversations around me in a noisy restaurant. The music and clatter of plates meant that I had to concentrate extra hard on what was being said. Even when I understood the words, there were some jokes that I didn’t understand because they were references to films, tv programmes, or characters that I didn’t know. Someone ordered a drink and I had no idea what it was because we don’t have that in England. If you don’t share the same cultural references as someone else because you didn’t grow up in the same country or you don’t watch the same tv programmes, there will be things that you don’t understand. So you can either sit there feeling left out, use the conversation as a chance to learn, or try to steer it on to something that everyone can talk about.

Out-of-work socialising can be hard, but it is a really good way to get to know people.

5. emails mean you can get your idea out without interruptions

I hate those meetings in which everyone talks at the same time – whether it’s in English or German. I find it really rude and in meetings that I chair, I don’t put up with it. But I wasn’t the chair of all the meetings and sometimes it was really hard to push through and get my voice heard. Email is a great way to get your thoughts out without anyone interrupting you! Of course this only works if people read your emails, but if they do, it’s a good way to set out your ideas and to know that you’ll hbe able to get to the end of what you wanted to share.

6. what you have to say is equally valid

It can be a struggle if you can’t find all the right words. Just because someone can put their views across clearly, it doesn’t mean that their idea is better than yours. Most of the time people were very kind and encouraging to me – that was, until I disagreed with something. I went from being the international colleague whose German was great, to the English person who obviously didn’t understand the discussion because it was in German. I did understand, I just didn’t agree. Rather than making me want to run away and hide, this made me even more determined to explain my reasoning. However I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t hard.

7. get practice outside of work

I say this again and again to my students, but it’s so true. Whether it’s activities with people who have nothing to do with your team, or it’s a friendship that develops out of the team, don’t get all your practice in when everyone is watching. Go shopping, go to the cinema, have coffee, talk on Skype – whatever you want to do, but build up your confidence away from the big meeting room! You’ll be amazed what a few hours speaking the other language in a setting in which you feel comfortable can do for your confidence!

8. people probably will be nice as long as things are going well

Overall my experience was a positive one. When I did receive racial abuse, and it was only once, it was from service users, not my team, and my team stood behind me and the other non-Germans. I had challenged racist comments in one of the forums, and so the comments were turned on me as well. Bullies don’t like to be challenged!

It annoyed me more than it upset me, but it served as a reminder that this is often the first thing people will go for if they want to verbally attack you. If I’d been German too, no doubt they would have found something else to use against me – my appearance/love of dogs/lack of children – who knows! And to be honest, who cares! Haters and trolls will do their thing unless someone stops them, but if you are in the minority because of your race or native language, it is something that people may choose to use against you if they don’t like what you’re doing, and it’s good to be prepared for that, and to know that you’re working in an environment where that won’t be tolerated.

9. people forget how much effort it takes – especially if they are monolingual

Only someone who knows a second language knows the frustrations involved when you can’t think of how to say something, or you spend a bit longer on deciding in which order to put the words together. Only someone else who has been there can really know how tired you feel after you’ve operated using another language all day! Most people that I worked with did understand this, but it didn’t surprise me that one guy who didn’t, and who made fun of my being quiet, could only speak one language. There’s not much you can do about this unless you feel like pointing it out, but at the end of the day, you are the lucky one because you have access to two languages! So remember that, even if you don’t feel very lucky!

10. sometimes people just don’t listen – or read

Sometimes people have an idea about what you’re going to say, and they read or hear only these things, not what you actually said. I’ve been given 2 coffees when I ordered 3 (because the 3rd person hadn’t arrived). I’ve told someone the same thing in three different ways before they understood. I’ve been asked for information that was already clearly stated in the email that I’d just sent. But people do exactly the same things to native speakers – the problem in these cases wasn’t my German, but the fact that people didn’t read or listen carefully.

11. Proofreading

You will really annoy your colleagues if you ask them to proofread everything for you, but a couple of times, I asked people to read through something before I sent it out. This was either because it would be seen by a lot of people, and I didn’t want simple language errors to detract from the message, or because I was addressing a sensitive issue and I wanted to make sure the tone of the email was ok. There’s nothing wrong with asking for help once in a while! Even if it’s to say “yes that’s fine” – it gives you peace of mind.

12. You don’t always have to contribute

I remember a conversation about finance – which was fine – but then it developed into a conversation about German banks. I had nothing to contribute, because I didn’t know anything about that. That was fine. I could have done my own research, but people already had some information. There will be times when you have nothing to add, whether that’s because the topic is outside of your skill set, or because you don’t know about the market/customs/best city to hold an event in a particular country. That’s ok – you can offer your opinion, but you don’t have to feel under pressure to know something about everything. There will be other areas in which you can take the lead.

How about you?

What have your experiences been like in terms of being the only non-native speaker on a team? Let me know in the comments.

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Kirsty working with students


7 Comments on “What to do when you’re the only non-native speaker in a team”

  1. This is always me here in France. When I still didn’t speak very well, I had almost a translator–it was hilarious, she would repeat everything to me…slowly. After a few months I didn’t need that kind of help anymore. And I also tend to make my suggestions in writing once before I bring them up in meetings–it helps people to better understand what I’m talking about. I don’t think it’s just because of my French. I’m more confident in writing!

  2. This is some really good advice! I can’t imagine how daunting it must have felt being in these situations.

  3. Thanks for sharing your ideas on this and that’s great that you don’t need the translator any more! I think that giving people something in writing also gives them the chance to look over it in their own time, and some people are more comfortable with that.

  4. To Kappu Education – thanks, working on that project was never boring! It’s got easier for me now and I use German every day at work, but those initial stressful situations taught me a lot about languages and myself. I made some friends too!

  5. This is great advice! It must be so hard and frustrating to be in that situation x

  6. It was definitely frustrating at times, but it did get easier and there were some really nice people there too! This is my business blog, but if you like beauty and lifestyle posts, you might like my other one too over at wwww.unseen-beauty.com X

  7. Tanja says:

    I really liked this article. I’ve never been in such a situation when I was working – but nevertheless I liked reading this article. Thank you very much, Kirsty.


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