Are English-Only Speakers Squeezed Out?

In the past week I heard two stories about Americans who felt that they were squeezed out of a conversation. I think there is a solution.  Learning a language in both instances could ease tensions and foster empathy.

My friend’s coworker, Amy,* notices that she doesn’t get invited to meetings. This worker collaborates with their office in Israel. She noticed that the Israel office, unfortunately, started scheduling meetings at times when she could not be present. They wanted to hold the meeting in Hebrew, and she doesn’t speak Hebrew. This seemed passive-aggressive. She wants to collaborate with her Israeli colleagues, but they stubbornly insist of excluding her by conducting meetings only in Hebrew and avoiding discussing in English.

One friend, Ahmad,* often does work in China. He enjoys going to China and he likes Chinese people. He finds he has a lot in common with them. Because of putting in time with communicating with non-native English speakers, he has a handle on how to adjust his communication style to fit with the situation.

On occasion he feels marginalized. When he is the only non-Chinese speaker at a meeting, the meeting will lapse into Chinese, and someone will translate the gist of the conversation for him. He knows, though, that he is missing nuances and content that could be valuable for him. Why would they speak Chinese around him when they could just as easily speak in English? Were they trying to push him out of the conversation?

Let me take the Israeli and Chinese point of view for a second. I don’t think the problem is an incompatibility between Americans and Chinese or Israeli people.  Speaking a language is hard, even if one wants to order a croissant after studying French for four years. Understanding the response is even harder. Trying results in painful feelings of inferiority. So experiences the Chinese- and Hebrew-speaker at meetings held in English. Granted, ordering a croissant in English may be easy for them, but collaborating on a project, offering ideas in a positive, nuanced way can easily make them feel stupid when it comes out weird or they can’t fully understand the response of their American counterparts.

These Chinese and Israelis likely are not giving Amy and Ahmad the cold shoulder. They may just be anxious or tired. By learning some Chinese or Hebrew and feeling their pain, Amy and Ahmad would display a desire to sympathize with their colleagues.  The Americans could sympathize with their colleagues’ need to switch out of English, if only to let their brains rest, or to express to each other what they’re really trying to say. The more we English-speakers try to learn others’ language, the more they see us open ourselves to their struggles through sympathy.

Have you felt shut out of a meeting?  Have you managed to make your way back in by learning a language?

* Names have been changed.

11 thoughts on “Are English-Only Speakers Squeezed Out?

  1. Not really. When I first went to Chile I had a firm foothold in Spanish but adjusting to native speed took me a while. It took me a month or two to get to the point to where I was never totally lost in conversations and another year before I could participate as an equal (using nuanced language correctly like jokes and proverbs). Before that there was never a time when I really needed to collaborate with non-English speakers.


    1. Thanks, Ryan. Were you working in Chile? Native speed is tricky. I think that’s why non-native English speakers get exhausted having meetings in English. What did you do to get to native speed? Were you deliberate at improving, or did you just progress over time?


      1. I was a missionary in Chile from 2000 to 2002. I was very deliberate at improving. I purposefully avoided English, wrote and read daily in Spanish, referenced several grammars while writing, and spent most of my day interacting with native speakers.


      2. That sounds great! How did you find the native speakers you interacted with? How did they react to your practicing Spanish on them? Were they impatient? nurturing? both?


      3. Speaking Spanish was necessary for me to function as a missionary. Even though it is an unpaid position there is a ton of work involved. I collaborated a lot with local church leaders. I did a lot of teaching as well. I was shocked when I was asked to teach a class my first Sunday there to a group of adult Chilean men. It was rough. I was also involved in missionary trainings, either being trained or training myself. It was all done in Spanish.

        No one really saw me as “practicing Spanish on them” because Spanish was the mode of communication. They were quite patient though, I will give them that, almost to a fault. Every now and again I would realize that I had been saying something wrong for quite a while. All in all it was a wonderful experience and where I got bitten by the language bug.


      4. Unfortunately, life is such that trying to maintain two foreign languages while firming up a third is all I can manage. My German has been conversational for six months to a year now and I want to get it to relative fluency (FSI 3/European B1 or B2 level). I spend half an hour to an hour a day reading and writing in German and talk to natives whenever I can. I have other languages on my hit list though and I would love to get to them. I hope that a few things will change by the end of this year and that I will be able to take up Mandarin again or perhaps another language.


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