I am in a country where English is not the native language. I have some proficiency in that language but none of the team members know this since I have always communicated with them in English.

Recently, I have been struggling with certain tasks. During a lunch, my advisor was talking about my progress to his colleagues in their native language, and how I was unable to get some basic facts correct. What he said is technically true but I feel insecure to be exposed like that and humiliated that he is willing to talk about me behind my back.

The idea of responding in their native language came across my mind, but confrontation is too scary to me.

  • 7
    Did he talk about "one of my students" or did he mention you by name? Do you know the other professors, is there a chance that they are discussing how to best help you? Where they laughing about you or did your professor sound like asking for advice on how to best teach and coach you? – Dirk May 2 '19 at 15:17
  • 19
    Your advisor needs to be aware that having a second (third or fourth) language is no guarantee of privacy... – Solar Mike May 2 '19 at 15:57
  • 12
    What is your question here? How to be treated with more respect? Or to just have them stop talking "behind your back" when you are present? Because the latter is a simple problem to solve. – A Simple Algorithm May 2 '19 at 17:19
  • 9
    what do you want to happen? – aaaaa says reinstate Monica May 2 '19 at 19:42
  • Best if you speak to him about it in private. You don't want to get angry then and there as it will make you look really bad. – Tom May 3 '19 at 3:54

Without knowing more about what was actually said, or the tone of it, I would dismiss it as your advisor concerned about how best to advise you. I think these sorts of conversations are relatively common when a prof, especially an inexperienced one, has a problem helping a student that s/he can't resolve.

Unless you think they were joking about you or implying you weren't adequate to the task, you should probably just forget it. But discussing your troubles with colleagues can be a valid way for the professor to actually find the best way to be of assistance.

There are worse interpretations, of course, but don't assume the worst unless it is really necessary.

I've had students, actually, who missed some essential things in their early education. They can be hard to advise since there isn't time for them to go back and fill in those gaps. It is an important problem.

  • 3
    I personally avoid giving someone the "benefit of the doubt", especially when the student/advisor relationship is so important, and instead prefer to keep a neutral position and just observe until I have enough data to be sure of the situation. I would at least make it known that you understand some of the native language. – Andrew Bate May 2 '19 at 17:16
  • 18
    @AndrewBate I think what you're saying is what "benefit of the doubt" is generally intended to mean. Edit: to be clear, I realize this obviously varies by usage trends that we've been exposed to in our lives, and I presume you felt the need to comment as you did because in your life experience the phrase seems to be used differently often enough - I'm just reporting my understanding of what the phrase means (and also am asserting what I think is most useful for the phrase to mean, in as far as we can course-correct language through out own usage). – mtraceur May 2 '19 at 19:23
  • 1
    @mtraceur I do agree with what you have written. To clarify, in my comment I've taken "benefit of the doubt" to mean that the default assumption is to believe that a person’s intentions are honest, correct or justified, and not to assume malice even when there is uncertainty but the contrary has not been proven. IMO, giving this "benefit of the doubt" is pretty unwise in real life, and you are better off remaining neutral (i.e. not making assumptions either way about intentions) and appropriately cautious until you know. – Andrew Bate May 2 '19 at 21:46
  • @Andrew, so you are saying something like .. ~"if you hear something that you perceive as potentially negative towards you, set your attitude to remain neutral until you have more facts to know better. Nuetral, meaning that do not ascribe undue assumption of positivity/correctness/etc to what you've heard, nor undue negativity/wrongdoing/etc, until you know better".... . Does that sound right? "Neutral" the way I see you using it, means kind of being a passive disconnected observer. Is that about correct? – Dennis May 3 '19 at 14:45
  • 1
    @Dennis Yes, your summary does accurately describe my opinion on it. I'm always quite surprised how few people seem to follow that approach. – Andrew Bate May 4 '19 at 20:25

Before trying to determine the best course of action, see if you can identify a goal. It's difficult to see what this would be from outside the situation (as is evident by the other answers and comments) -- that is, hard to tell whether the professor is sincerely seeking guidance, or having a laugh at you with colleagues, or somewhere in between...or something else entirely.

I imagine the goal would be to coax your advisor into giving you better advice or guidance, and perhaps communicating more openly with you about his concerns and his goals for you. If that's the case, I'm not sure that embarrassing him by surprising him in the moment with the information that you can understand him will help.

You would probably do better to cultivate him as an ally. This might mean, for instance, telling him in private that you can understand him and overheard some of what he said, and ask him to comment. By doing this in private you show him some respect and give him an opportunity to redirect his approach into something more respectful toward you.


As a second-generation immigrant whose facility in my family's native language is very limited, I can relate to this frustration. In those circumstances, it is very easy to try and latch onto what little you understand and make assumptions. Can you be sure that they are talking about you, and that they are really as derogatory as you think they are being?

To be honest, the best solution is to become fluent in the native language (obviously, this will not happen overnight, but, with practice, it should be possible, assuming you live in the country concerned). Unless you are on a very-short-term contract or only on campus occasionally (e.g.: because the institution is a 2nd/3rd/4th/nth affiliation with very limited duties), you really should make an effort to become fluent in the official language of the country where you are working. It is not right to expect everybody else to speak your language.


Since you always communicate with your colleagues in English, I'm assuming that "some proficiency" in their language is simply not enough to carry daily life in this language. Having experienced that, I'd be very careful with assumptions, just as others have said, the tone and soem specifics of how he was discussing it can make a lot of difference.

Responding to people in a language they assume you don't speak is also something to be careful of. In principle, people will find ways of talking behind your back if they mean to. You should prefer to have access to these discussions rather than not to have it, but should should be mature to deal with them. That being said, you should occasionally demonstrate that you know a few bits of the language, as pretending to understand absolutely nothing might be seen as a lie. Don't enter a discussion in a foreign language if you won't be able to hold your ground through the whole discussion (which might become a heated one).

Furthermore, if your advisor notices that you have gaps in your education that you need to fill, it is part of his role to communicate this to you, and either provide references your could study on your own or (if these gaps are not that relevant) he should make peace with you having small difficulties here and there.

That being said, think to yourself if this might actually be a matter of "repertory questions", i.e. I can always pick obscure details about a subject you think you are good at and start asking you questions with no previous warning. For people inexperienced in the field, our conversation will make you look like you are not knowledgeable in a subject you actually know a lot about. People sometimes do this deliberately, but also unintentionally, if the asker believes the details to be relevant. The point is, talk to your advisor on whether he thinks those matters he was discussing were relevant or not.

  • 1
    wasting a trump card on retaliation +1 – Mazura May 3 '19 at 4:00

I agree with Buffy that it'd be best to assume your advisor was simply seeking advice from a colleague about dealing with your gaps in education. If I were you, I'd go talk to him in private in his office, and ask him how you could overcome those gaps, what advice he could give you of where to start. Then his perception of you could be more out in the open, and he could have a chance to make up any misjudgement by being concretely helpful, while allowing you to demonstrate a willingness to improve. This would set you off on a better advisor/advisee relationship I think.

It would also have the helpful side effect of reminding him that most people start by understanding a language way, way before they're able to express themselves adequately in it.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.