Too many languages


Alice and her friends answer questions that you don’t want to ask your preceptor, peer, or colleagues regarding your career in science. Send your questions to Alice’s attention via .

Dear Alice,

“I already spoke my mind, so I don’t want to complain again. What can I do?” —Lang

I recently joined a lab that just relocated from Germany to the United States. My mentor and the German group that followed him are very nice and fun to be around. But they speak their native language most of the time—unintentionally I’m sure. I kept quiet for a couple of weeks, thinking they would soon get used to conversing in English, but things got worse instead. 

I already spoke my mind, so I don’t want to complain again. What can I do? 

Thank you.

—Lang

Dear Lang,

Language problems in the laboratory are common. The decision about what language should be used in the lab needs to come from the leader of the group. Your mentor or group leader may not be paying enough attention to this, so mention it again during a private conversation. It may help to invite a fellow lab mate to join you. Let your mentor know that you enjoy the work and the group camaraderie, but you and other members of the lab who are non-native German speakers feel left out when discussions are held in German. Make it clear that the success of the social dynamic in the lab depends on making all of its members feel included and part of a common effort. Have this talk soon so that German does not become entrenched.

Other laboratories have successfully negotiated similar situations. Often a compromise is made where English is required for all scientific discussions and presentations, whether formal or informal, while another language is permitted in social and personal interactions. This works when only a few people in the lab have another language preference, but it is not ideal when a language cohort is large enough to exclude others socially.

It may take a little persistence, but polite reminders will likely do the trick.

Good luck,

—Alice

Feeling stuck

Educating outside the classroom