Working where you don’t speak the language

I just got back from three weeks of work in Kosovo. Most of the people I worked with are native Albanian speakers, and a few others are Serbian speakers, though they all speak excellent English. In the past year, I’ve gotten increasingly comfortable working in situations where I don’t speak the dominant language. I’ve come up with a few basic principles.

1. Never ask people to speak English to one another. If I’m the only one in the meeting who doesn’t speak the local language, and everyone else dips into it, I let the conversation keep going without me. If the others want to solve whatever problem we’re working on without me, that’s just fine. Of course, after a while I might interject to get caught up.

2. Even if everyone speaks fluent English, and even if there’s no chance I’ll become fluent in the local language, I try to learn some basic phrases anyway. I really failed to live up to this principle on my recent trip, so I’m turning it up a notch in the future: I’m going to spend time each day studying the language. I’m making a public commitment to that right now, and you all can hold me accountable to it. Even if I’ll never use that language again, I want to learn more than “thank you” (“faleminderit” in Albanian, “hvala vam” in Serbian) or “good morning”.

3. When working through a translator, avoid focusing on the translator. This means “actively listening” to the person you’re speaking to, even if you don’t know what they’re saying until the translator catches you up. When it’s your turn to talk, speak in small chunks. I’m still a bit awkward at this, mostly because I’m an impatient and notoriously fast talker.

I’d be interested to hear thoughts from other people. Any other good principles to add?


For other language resources, I offer this: “My hovercraft is full of eels.

And if you wanted other cultural commentary on Kosovo, I give you the Pristina burger:

This is how you say "burger" in Pristina