Deciphering British English — 3 thoughts from a Brit working abroad

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1. Items rarely make sense when then literally

It wasn’t until moving to Berlin that I realised many British idioms can be quite confusing to non-native speakers. Phrases such as “throwing the baby out with the bath water” or “raining cats and dogs can cause a lot of confusion”. The literal implications of the sayings are very different form the message we are trying to get across. Brits would think nothing of these sayings in their own environment but when talking about a “silver bullet solution” in a meeting your message is quickly lost. The focus for others shifts from the point you’re attempting to make to understanding the words that you used. Native speakers should be aware of when they are using idioms and this should only be in an appropriate situation — a workshop or business review is not it. Far from clarifying your meaning or intent — idioms actually convolute it.

2. British Politeness will hinder more than help

Both idioms and British politeness carry a different meaning to what is being said. However, idioms are a component of colour in our language and are normally identifiable (although they may not be understood). British politeness, however, often makes literal sense but masks the true message. The Telegraph wrote a piece on a translation table explaining the true meaning of what Brits say when they’re being polite.

3. Assumptions & Abilities

One of the things that I did most commonly when I first arrived at HelloFresh is made assumptions about others’ language abilities. Because my colleagues work and write English so well it is easy to forget that it often is not their native language. Their proficiency with English is significantly better than my own abilities with foreign languages. Simple things such as typing ‘tyty’ (Thank you, Thank you) on Slack or the idioms listed above can stump someone proficient in English if they’ve not come across them before. The difficulty I faced initially is not that my colleagues are poor at English — quite the opposite — they are very good. Most native speakers will adjust their style (sentence length and structure or word complexity) for someone that is visibly new to the language. However, when talking to a proficient but non-native speaker it is easy skip over the considerations mentioned above.

In Conclusion.

It is a difficult balance between ensuring what you say is clear and not removing too much of the character of the language. When learning Russian we were taught to use models and sentence templates that we could tweak as we needed. The models were grammatically correct and we could be understood but when talking to native Russian speakers they did find them a little unnatural to listen to. I don’t want to deprive other learners of the uniqueness of English (as I wouldn’t want to be deprived of the nuances of theirs!) but in a business environment clarity should always reign supreme.

Reference — Idioms use:

  • Throwing the baby out with the bath water — When something good is eliminated when trying to get rid of something bad.
  • Raining cats and dogs — Raining very heavily
  • Silver bullet — A simple solution for a difficult problem

Written by

Product Lead at @DeliveryHeroCom. Formerly @HelloFresh, @BBC, @Atos. Passion for product, business &tech. I like helping people solve problems. Berlin

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