About our common language

Hello @reeflings,

During the presentations to recruit new people I jokingly say that we chose to speak English together because we thought it was better to speak bad English rather than very bad French. However, more than perfectionism, to me this is about creating a level playing field: if the big majority of us speaks a foreign language we create more openness because it is a bit challenging for everybody, which brings us all to the same level.

So when we went for a drink after the site visit in Jette I felt a bit unsettled when the conversation had completely switched to French. There were at least six non-native speakers around the table, and yet it seemed self-evident that we were all speaking French. To be clear: it’s not that I have anything against French (or very bad French :sweat_smile:), it’s just that the openness that we get by all speaking English is really important to me.

For me this openness goes completely out of the door when people start speaking a different language (other than French) in a space where we are all together. As someone who very easily gets sensory overload in spaces with a lot of people together, I often end up sitting aside and observing what’s going on (which I don’t mind by the way). This way I’ve seen it happen several times, at presentations, after plenaries or at the Christmas party: when people start speaking their own language it’s not just like creating a little closed-off island that nobody else will enter, it also seems contagious: the more people do it, the more other people will also do it, and in the end there is nothing but little groups speaking their own language, with much less interaction than what you would otherwise see.

Just to be clear: I’m all for using our own language when we don’t find the right words in English, or when we are having a private conversation. When we are in a shared space however, I would like to make this small request whether we could please stick to English. It takes a little more effort for most of us, but to me it creates an openness that is really dear to me.


Thanks for reminding us of this issue :slight_smile:

It was indeed raised a while back in plenary, and as there was no consensus, we decided to add it to @reef-governance backlog… where it has been sitting for a while now!
We are long overdue a meeting, so now that the pressure has gone down somewhat, I’ll create a poll to find a date. And we can pick it up there, see how we want to approach it, before going back to the group.

I hear your concern and need, and we need to make sure we take it into account, but I think a wider offline discussion will do us good, as the group was very divided over this issue last time…

Works for you?


I remember one or two people maybe grumbled a little, but in my memory it was not a big issue. And even if it was, I would really like it if consent or consensus would work the other way around: we stick to the initial agreements (which we introduce as “non-negotiables” when we recruit new people) until there has been a group decision to change something. Just informally opting out does not really work for me.

This is true, and is the reason why we stick to one common language when working on building The Reef. However, as we grow closer, it is normal to grow closer to some than to others, and to form, if not islands, clusters of denser social interaction. So our values of openness and minimizing the power imbalances implicit in choosing any language may find themselves in a tension with the natural develpment of same-language friendships.

I am all for a discussion, if its need is felt. I would, however, recommend resisting approaching it from a normative perspective. We already have a clear rule, that all The Reef’s meetings and documents are to be in (bad) English. I am not hearing anyone wanting to rediscuss it. Outside of the group’s working environment, I recommend upholding our values rather than making more rules. The latter are difficult to enforce, anyway. The problematic part of Lie’s story is not that people were not respecting our past agreements (I am sure they would claim that this particular situation was not covered by those agreements), it is that some of the non-French speakers might have found themselves at the margins of the discussion.


Hence my kind request (see above): when we are in a shared space, can we please speak English to maintain the openness that we aspire to in our founding document?

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Lie, that’s a rule. The value equivalent would be: can we agree that speaking English is more inclusive, and, knowing that, let people make their own choices?

A request is something that someone can say “no” to, so yes, I think my request is “openness is dearly important to me, would you be willing to make English the default language when we are in a shared space?”

You were not there in Jette. In a conflict-avoidant group, if a minority of native French speakers starts speaking French, then French it is going to be. If that’s a choice that the group wants to make that’s fine with me, but then I would like to have a discussion first instead of just letting it slip.

In my memory, we had a proper round, and there was enough people doing more than a grumble that we decided this needed to be discussed further. So I think we need to stick to the decision we made as a group at the time and open the discussion. I would have prefered to do it offline, but here is what I personally think.

The way I see it, we have stated English as our common language and made a commitment to working in English, and nobody is questioning that. But at the same time in our core document and presentation, we insist on the fact that we are not just a bunch of expat and that we “speak een mix van toutes les langues del mundo”, and that we try and be inclusive to people who may not speak english so well. So I don’t see why we couldn’t do exactly that, and accept that we will have a fluid mix of things.
I actually don’t think that speaking English at all cost will always be the most inclusive thing to do, as some people’s English might not allow them to express themselves as well as they would like, and would actually prevent them from making meaningful connections sometimes.

To me the specific situation you are refering to, falls under that category, and some people at the french-speaking end of the table would have had more trouble participating in the discussion in english, and de facto being excluded. So to me it was perfectly acceptable, and actually more inclusive, that one half of the table spoke french. And if somebody who wasn’t comfortable in French had actually been at that end, I’m sure everybody would have spontaneously switched to English, and not just let them sit there.

Also, a side note that when we open up to the neighbourhood, English won’t be the most inclusive language to speak…

Finally, I agree with Alberto that we shouldn’t be overly prescriptive, especially on something that is not “working methods”, and that we should stick to our core agreement of “values before rules”.
We could trust that people will adapt to each situation in the most inclusive and caring way (if we want to have a rule, I would say this would be it…). We need to commit ourselves to being attentive to others, and as a default, that might be speaking in english, but that doesn’t necessarily equates speaking english always. We might need gentle reminders regularly, but I don’t think a single rule is the best way to achieving our values in this case.

I hope I am being clear and also I don’t come accross as harsh or anything like that (let’s remember online conversations distorts expression somewhat).


I don’t think you are being harsh. On the contrary, I am grateful you are sharing your views, and I look forward to talking about this IRL.

On the whole I think the issue is much smaller than it looks like, and I think we are much more aligned than it may seem. I think the situation in Jette was probably not a representative one, in that I can imagine that the intention was indeed to accommodate the people around the table who are less comfortable in English.

That said I am feeling very sad, anxious and alone. That is nobody’s fault of course, but it will help me to get rid of these feelings by explaining what things look like from where I am standing.

The reason why I have such strong feelings - even if it’s not fully rational - is that to me this is about holding on to our initial agreements, and that I am concerned that these will slowly slip away.

Just for the sake of clarity, here’s a copy of the text that we have in the Blueprint (p. 22) (publicly accessible link):

Why did you choose English as the common language?

We chose English because this is the language that we use among us. Most of us do speak some French or Dutch, but it doesn’t come easy to all of us. By choosing a language that is non-native for most people in Brussels, we figure we will level the playing field.

To reduce the risk of misunderstandings, frustration and even loss of the feeling of self-worth. The Reef’s Working methods document includes a section on languages that includes a number of measures and intentions related to languages:

When we recruit new Reeflings we will strive to compose a group such that there are no majority language groups.

We commit to paying attention to people who are non-native speakers (of any language) and explain and translate words that are not understood in a non-patronising way.

When we meet up / are in the same room we commit to switching to English so that people who don’t speak the language that is being spoken can join in (exception: truly private conversations). If possible we tell others what the conversation is/was about.

We encourage all Reeflings to learn the basics (“hello, how are you, my name is X”) in French and in Dutch . This will be helpful to communicate with children and with Reeflings who are a bit more vulnerable.

In the document on Working Documents (slide 9) (publicly accessible link), this is what it says, since day 1:

So as I said above, I feel sad and anxious because I worry that initial agreements will not be upheld.

The argument that several people disagreed at the meeting where we discussed this, doesn’t hold for me, 1) because it was mostly people with close to no notion of our working methods (and/or who are no longer with us), and 2) because “I don’t like it” is not a valid objection. I was therefore quite annoyed at that meeting, at others and mostly at myself. Being conflict-avoidant I did not respond or ask for a second round (which I should have), but the “oh it seems like not everybody agrees, so let’s re-discuss this” just doesn’t do it for me.

On top of that I also worry that if we let this slip, there will be more and more fragmentation and barriers to mingling. When a group of people starts speaking German in the middle of the living room at the Christmas party, not a single person will be entering that discussion. If then another group starts speaking Spanish and another one starts speaking Dutch (as I have seen it happening at another moment - for the recond, being part of the Dutch speaking group myself), you could see that the few people in the room who couldn’t join any of these conversations looked quite lost and lonely.

I take it that this is true for the few people in our midst for whom this was the case, and I am all for accommodating as much as possible. I would like to be heard though about my own experience about being as inclusive as possible when it comes to the language we speak.

I am personally relatively fluent in in French: I did my Master’s degree in French and after that I ended up with French speaking colleagues for almost 10 years, which meant that I discussed my (often very technical) files in French on a daily basis. In spite of being relatively fluent though, even after all those years, it honestly feels as comfortable as dancing in a straightjacket: I struggle a lot and I feel like I can’t fully be myself.

When I look around in The Reef at the non-native speakers - with all due respect - I see many people who are much less fluent than me. In my view many people’s vocabulary is limited, speech is much less fluent and nuanced, and the ability to make jokes is close to zero. What is worse to me is that I also see much less of people’s personality when they are speaking French, and to me this is quite frustrating: I want to dance with them as equals (even if we all dance a bit clumsily), and in French that is just not possible.

As I sum it up in the presentation to new people: chosing is losing. Whichever language you choose to speak in Brussels, some people will just lose out on ease and expression.

This is where I think we are much more aligned than it looks like. It seems like I didn’t manage to express myself very well, and that the situation in Jette was not the best example, but what I was trying to do is exactly that, namely putting in a request to be more mindful about this. I’m ok with having it as a value, it doesn’t need to be a rule. To me it means a lot though, for the sake of openness, to use English as the default, with the possibility for adjusting in the moment when there is a need.

I fully agree on this, and I think this is a very unfortunate cost of our choice of English as our common language. This is also why in the Blueprint there is an invitation to everybody to learn to say hello, goodbye and thank you in French and in Dutch. I have no ambition to ever bring that up though, this is for everybody to make a choice.

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Hey :slight_smile:
Thanks for sharing this.
I want to take the time to take it in and write a response, so I’m not gonna do that right now, but it’s not that I’m ignoring it!

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Hello, just catching up on this thread and sorry in advance for adding questions:) In essence I also believe this warrrants a discussion IRL so we get to a common understanding. Where I am lost at this point: English is the common working language (language used when building the Reef), so we use it in all our plenaries, seminars etc. and here the Blueprint and working methods are indeed very clear. But does that extend to interactions outside of building the Reef, importantly for the time after we have moved into the Reef? Reading the non-negotiables on page 4 of the Blueprint always gave me the impression that English would be the “lingua franca” next to other languages, but I also see that there is room for interpretation and perhaps even disagreement, hence a discussion may be fruitful.