ESL Tips & Traps

In the stream of holiday mail an email from an old friend of mine stood out with its unusual greeting: “Hell Nick!” The missing “o” reminded me of many written and oral blunders I generated over the years and probably continue to without even knowing.

I arrived in the states in ‘91 with practically no knowledge of English. By the mid 90s my English skills progressed a bit; I also moved up from a back office developer to more managerial / client facing roles, so the demand on the skills quadrupled. Thanks to language tapes and a lot of time behind a steering wheel I eventually made it into the “fluent” zone. At least that’s what I thought. One day I was in a discussion with a client in a face-to-face meeting. At some point my good friend and colleague Lindsay Soergel called a quick break, she took me aside and said: “Listen Nick – it’s not “Grand Poopoo” but “Grand Poobah”. What you just did is that you called the CEO of the company Big S@#%”. Later that day over a few drinks we came up with a term “nixymoron” as a combination of “Nick” and “oxymoron”.

From that point on my team took twisted pleasure in collecting and reminding me about my idiomatic expression skills, the list of nixymorons was growing and included marvels such as:

That doesn’t fit, like square pigs in round holes!
You are such a Mister Smart Panties!
I am stuck now between the rock and a hard on!
I have been fool-time employed for over a year now.
I can’t stand him having those pissy fits.
Linda, I think this is really up your valley.
We need to rump up this customer fast!

While this is still far from saying at an exclusive black tie party “Up your bottoms!” instead of “Bottoms up!” (attributed to Mr. Michael Gorbachev) I think I could still put myself in one league with Ms. Malaprop…

Anyway, the reason for this post was to suggest a few tips on communication for those of us for whom English is a second language and still WIP. Just a few high points:

  • Turn your spell checker permanently on, use grammar checker as well. That will help you to eliminate some of the most embarrassing communication blunders. I recommend using MS Word as your email editor in Outlook, enabling spellcheckers on your browsers, using similar tools on mobile devices. It won’t help you with word confusion and you might occasionally call Brian “Brain” though.
  • Stay away from idiomatic expressions unless you’ve seen them in a written form and clearly understood what they mean and the connotation they deliver.  Take for example one of my gaffes – calling an exclusive fund raising party a “hash-hash affair”.  Or here is a classic example you might want to consider: there is a somewhat rare expression “The Hand That Rocks The Cradle” that praises motherhood as the preeminent force for change in the world. It was coined by William Ross Wallace, an American 19th century poet. This expression was used as a title of a movie and a few songs. With a certain stretch this expression could be used in a reference to a mother. There is also a story of a Japanese American businessman who was apparently in love with using idiomatic expressions and titled an obituary for his mother in a major newspaper “The Hand That Rocks The Cradle Kicked The Bucket”.
  • Don’t try to translate your native language expressions into English. For some reason that’s very popular among those with mastery in their mother tongue. Believe me that “to kill two rabbits with one shot” is not at all better than “to kill two birds with one stone”. More so, phrases like “Did you just fall off the Moon?”, “Stop hanging noodles on my ears!”, “You have no face!” (these are literal translations of common Russian idioms) are not likely to reach your audience.
  • Stay away from lingo, teen talk, etc. “Dude, Dis doc is totally da bomb! It’s so fresh my mamma could hang wid it…” is not the way to say “Nick, This is a very well written document. Everything is crystal clear and easy to understand.” even if you are native speaker. Coming from an offshore PM that looks completely ridiculous and instead of breaking the ice (what might could have been an intention) it may break your relationships.
  • Be extremely careful with the humor. Humor is one of the most powerful elements of communications and in good hands can achieve a lot. However that is a tricky weapon which is likely to backfire if mishandled. Shooting oneself in a foot while operating that weapon in cross-cultural environment is quite likely. Same as idiomatic expressions jokes, pans, and anecdotes do not translate well. I am not saying that you should stay away from humor, just saying, be very careful unless you enjoy listening to crickets chirping.

While many of us from ESL community greatly expand the boundaries of what could be done with appropriate misuse of English the problem applies even to native speakers. That’s why you might want to look at Commonly Misused Words and Phrases or more comprehensive List of commonly misused words from Wikipedia.

And let me finish the post with a (de) motivational quote Even if you do learn to speak correct English, whom are you going to speak it to? – Clarence Darrow

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