Your Guide to Surviving a Bilingual Workplace


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Learning a new language can be a great way to help make yourself more employable, at home and abroad. With more people travelling abroad for work, the amount of workplaces where multiple languages can be heard is also increasing. Many employers even offer language courses to help people settle. Navigating your way around a bilingual workplace can be challenging even for those who are fluent, but can also provide language learners with plenty of valuable resources. Here are some tips to help you get started.

Listen and Observe

This may sound obvious but at the beginning it can help a lot to let your ears do most of the work. More often than not there will be an official workplace language and one or more secondary, ‘staff-room’, languages. Finding out how your colleagues use and favour each language will help make the difference between joining in a conversation and disrupting its flow.

Another useful trick is to make a note of your daily routine. Start with the basics: what are you doing and when? This will give you a good framework to build upon. Try to aim first for being able to understand and relay your immediate tasks and needs. It’s much more useful to be able to tell your boss what you are doing or to ask a colleague for help than it is attempting to go into a lengthy monologue detailing your theories on whoever it is who keeps finishing all the milk before you can have your morning coffee every single time.  

Lots of workplaces have some form of common room where employees can take their breaks and drink a (milk-less) coffee while exchanging scandalous gossip about you-know-who in HR. You can take advantage of these water-cooler moments by practising your small-talk. These interactions are often short and repetitive, allowing you to get used to hearing and saying many variations on basic key phrases. This language learning Judo can help turn a tedious moment into a productive one.


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Take Notes

The sight of a new employee furiously scribbling away onto a notepad will often draw a nod of wry approval from employers but this habit is also great for learning a second language at work. Writing down new words when you learn them can help cement them into your vocabulary as well as associating them with their situation.

A small notebook is also useful for jotting down unfamiliar words you hear during a meeting so that you can go back and look them up later when without interrupting the speaker. It won’t be long until you have a mini-dictionary full of words you associate with work and the kind of things you do there. Regardless of how often you use this personal lexicon as a reference tool, the habit of using it can help create and strengthen language connections in your head.


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Use Your Commute

While often exciting at first, especially in a new country, your commute to and from work can soon turn into a dreary and dreaded routine. Packed subways and delayed buses become a bit more bearable when you use this time to help develop your language skills. Listening to podcasts or music in your target language can help you get ‘in the zone’ before starting your bilingual workday, even if you don’t take everything in. Ease yourself into your new day and new language with simple reading like magazines, comics and even tweets. Using your commute this way helps kick-start your second language without requiring your full attention, plus you can wow your new colleagues with your inexplicable knowledge of local celebrity gossip.

While these are not the only things you can do to help settle in to a bilingual workplace, they will help you on your way. Knowing which languages you can use with who, and when, is vital but ultimately your colleagues are invaluable language learning resources. Having authentic scenarios, repeated daily with plenty of native speakers to ask for help is something lots of people pay for the privilege of having so take advantage of this added bonus and get speaking! Just be careful which language you gossip in.