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?

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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

 

8 thoughts on “Working where you don’t speak the language

  1. For local language learning resources, have a look at the Peace Corps country pages. I know for Senegal they have free resources online for all the local languages: http://www.pcsenegal.org/language.html I’m guessing it might be the same for other countries too.

    And a tip for girls in particular – if you find you’re getting harassed by men, ask someone for some suitably insulting local phrases you can use. Often there is a particular phrase or two you can use to ‘shame’ a man, for example if he grabs your arm and won’t let go.

  2. Dave, these are good ones. I would add “Choose your translators carefully (when you have a choice) and in any case make time to talk with them one on one as much as you can. As translation often involves choices, you want to provide the translators with the background and context they need to make the word and concept choices that best fit the situation.”

  3. Good choice with no. 2 … from my experience you also need to pick a definite time slot when you’ll do this every day. Before breakfast is the one that works for me, if it’s any later than other things tend to take over.

  4. I recently did some work in Madagascar and was worried because my French is close to useless. My lack of language turned out to be a real asset – there was no tinge of French colonial domination about me, the poor people I was working with were free to speak in their most comfortable language (Malagasy), and it shifted the power differential as I was the vulnerable one who needed (language) assistance. As a result I formed more equal relationships and heard more truth about people’s lives, challenges and hopes.

  5. cool blog, and interesting post. having traveled extensively, and only with working knowledge of four languages, i’ve often found the best way to begin to work in a place where you don’t know the language is to simply go to a small market and make friends with the person behind the counter. usually that person is there all the time, doesn’t speak english, and you begin to learn day by day useful phrases and vocabulary. i also agree with you when you explain “active listening”: it’s the only way to properly imitate and train the ear for active speaking, plus it gives clues about the speaker’s attitude, mannerisms, and hints about what s/he may be saying. my friend kanchan directed me to this blog. i’m thankful to her, and keep up the good work!

  6. I am having trouble with the same thing living in Saudi Arabia. I have had meetings that go on for a long time and the only language spoken is Arabic. I have told my boss at the company that if they wish to have the meetings in only Arabic then there is no need for me to be there. Someone in the meeting can take notes and translate late on in English. I am at a disadvantage because I am unable to reply to questions in the moment and so cannot make meaningful contributions to conversations. It can be frustrating at times.

    But patience is essential and like you said learning key phrases in order to communicate with others in their own language.

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