Lost in Translation

idioms are confusing imageby Linda Dunlop 

Hitting the glass ceiling, climbing the corporate ladder, addressing the elephant in the room. I never thought much about idioms until I started teaching Business English to international students. The puzzled looks on my students’ faces said it all: What is an elephant doing in the office and why are you speaking to it?

My work as an ESL teacher and Wavelength facilitator has opened my eyes to the challenges many workers face when their first language is not English. Business documents that are packed with culturally specific idioms and jargon can be confusing—to both our global readers and to our increasingly diverse teams at home.

Put yourself in your readers’ shoes and try these strategies to ensure that everyone—both native and non-native English speakers—can understand and act on your message.

Embrace simplicity

Nobody should have to consult a dictionary to get the gist of what you’re saying. Why say ‘conceptualize’ when you can say ‘think’ or ‘hypothesize’ when you can say ‘guess’? When you use plain language—one of the core principles of business writing—you are making your documents accessible to everyone. To further check for comprehension, review the length of your sentences. Can you break up your ideas into two or three sentences? Then do it. Non-fluent readers find clarity in shorter words and short, simple sentences.

Celebrate verbs

From day one, ESL students learn about verbs—those action words that are the lifeblood of language. While learners memorize list after list of commonly used verbs, we don’t do them any favors when our business writing constantly defaults to nouns or noun phrases. Replace development with develop, commitment with commit and solution with solve. Be concrete! When you turn abstract nouns into active verbs, you help all readers easily make sense of your documents. For example:

Before: This new software will provide assistance in budget management and enable our discovery of a solution.

After: This new software will help manage our budget and solve our issues.

Favor simple verb tenses

Did you know there are 12 verb tenses in English? Yet verb tenses don’t even exist in some languages—Chinese for example. Make it easy on your readers and default as often as possible to three basic tenses: simple past, simple present and future: I worked, I work, I will work. Leave the future perfect continuous tense—I will have been working—to the academics and grammarians.

Avoid negativity

In some cultures, negative language is considered insulting. The Japanese, for example, rarely say ‘no’ directly and will go out of their way to express themselves more diplomatically. Maintain a positive tone in your writing and avoid negative constructions, such as double negatives. When you say that you “cannot recommend this person highly enough,” your meaning—that you wholeheartedly support hiring this person—will be lost on some readers.

Connect your ideas

International readers love transitional phrases. Also called bridging words or connectors, these devices provide essential clues about the writer’s intended meaning. Are you building an argument? Use connectors: first, next, in addition, furthermore, etc. Are you comparing two concepts? Spell it out with phrases such as in contrast, on the contrary, on the other hand, etc.

While these cues may sometimes seem like overkill to native English speakers, they can provide a lifeline for people who struggle with fluency.

Consider your layout

I’ve seen the looks of despair on the faces of my ESL students when they face a particularly daunting piece of text. Huge swaths of wall-to-wall words can be intimidating! Use document design to help readers understand the flow of your ideas. Replace dense blocks of text with plenty of white space between paragraphs and sections. Add headings to flag key concepts and use lists to present complex data in an accessible format.

Proofread your grammar

Here’s a secret about English language learners: With heavy grammar instruction as part of their path to fluency, they often know the rules better than you do! The last thing you want to do is confuse or mislead them with your mistakes. Always review your documents before you hit send to avoid embarrassing errors that can erode your credibility.

Bottom line: practice empathy. Imagine you are one of the billion-plus people who use English as a second language in your day-to-day life. Follow these best practices and write with your readers’ needs in mind. Everyone will appreciate your clarity.

Interested in more? Visit our Professional Business Writing course page to learn how we can help.

 

 

4 Comments
  1. Very insightful post. Much good instruction in applying the “golden rule” in consideration of others. Thanks and blessings 🙂

    • Thanks for weighing in, Andrew. Writing with your readers in mind is a great “golden rule” in business. We appreciate your feedback.

  2. Very helpful tips. Reminds of many years ago when I just started to work for a company where I was the only new immigrant (ESL!) on the project team, and all I heard every day in business talks were idioms, multiple idioms in one sentence. Needless to say, I was confused. However, I did learn something from the following email by my then boss:
    ” Team, when we are at a perfect storm like this, don’t let (xxx) off the hook yet. Instead of reinventing the wheel, we might as well piggyback their idea and this way we won’t have to go back to the drawing board all the time… well except I have to bite the bullet and swallow my ego” I was totally bombarded with this chain of idioms. Still laughing to this day when thinking about it. Embrace simplicity!

    • What a great story, Julie! Thanks for sharing it with us. I had a good chuckle over that endless stream of confusing idioms.

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