We’ve all heard the phrase “lost in translation”. It was even the title of a 2003 movie starring Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson. Anybody who has had to interact with people who do not speak their own language as natives is familiar with how subtle meaning can easily get lost.
When you first start learning a second language, you tend to be literal, because you use your mother tongue as a reference point. But after you develop a degree of fluency, and you start to think in your new language (and even dream in it!) you switch over to automatic pilot. This is the point at which you no longer have to search for words and they just flow from you as if you’d been speaking them all your life. For most day-to-day activities, that’s fine. But if you’re talking about something you don’t often discuss, or you have to deal with a subject that requires nuance, it’s easy to use phrasing incorrectly, and expressions that make no sense in your second language can easily slip through.
Once I was talking with a Finn about buying cars, and he mentioned that a lot of smoke had been coming out of the “exhaustion pipe” of a second-hand sedan he’d gone to inspect. My ex-girlfriend used to ask me if I wanted “crashed potatoes” with my pork chops and that sometimes I made her “go to bananas”. So far so good – a fluent or native speaker can guess the meanings of those (in case you didn’t, they are “exhaust pipe”, “mashed potatoes”, and “go bananas” respectively). But when my work colleague invited me out for “an evening of male bondage”, I had to clarify what he meant. Turned out he just wanted a beer and a chat! The term “male bonding” had eluded him that day, so his brain picked a phrase that was close. We had a good laugh about it.
You might think that it’s easy for me to make fun of people speaking English as a second language, and you’d be right. Because English is so widespread, garbled examples are common, and there are even books and websites devoted to such things. Unfortunately, the ubiquity of English has made some native speakers arrogant, with the attitude that English is somehow superior to other languages, so they don’t even bother to try to learn any others. But this is lazy and ignorant. Not only does learning another language aid communication and understanding, but research shows that because it multiplies the number of neural connections in the brain, it reduces the risk of dementia.
I should be absolutely clear that everyone learning languages has the same problems. But it’s nothing to worry about. Making mistakes is the main way you learn, and if you can have a few laughs along the way, it makes the learning process less stressful and you might even be more likely to remember what you did wrong.
Here are a few from my own experience of using Finnish. The word for “salmon” is “lohi” and the word for “snake” is “käärme”. But a “lohikäärme” is not a salmon snake; it’s a dragon. The first time I went into a shop and asked where the eggs were, the sales assistant started chuckling. The word “munat” is slang for testicles. You have to add the type of eggs at the start – “kananmunat” (chicken eggs), or “suklaamunat” (chocolate eggs) – to prevent the anatomical reference.
When I told my (same) ex-girlfriend what I wanted for Christmas, I used the literal translation “Minä haluan sitä huonosti” – “I want it badly”. Unfortunately, in Finnish, that means the exact opposite of what I meant. I should have used the word “kovasti”, or “hardly”. But that didn’t come readily to mind because in English, to do something “hardly” means you don’t really care about it at all! Needless to say, neither of us got the presents we wanted that year.
Despite all this, don’t let the fear of making a mistake in your second language stop you from talking or writing. They’re going to happen from time to time, and as I’ve tried to demonstrate here, they can sometimes be amusing. Funny errors are perfectly OK when you’re just having a chat or writing a casual email.
But when you’re making an important speech, get somebody to check your script. Even if you don’t stick exactly to the script, at least be clear in how to phrase the main points. And when you’re making a web page, or writing a brochure that will be printed on paper, be particularly careful. These are your calling cards. Mistakes in these contexts can also be funny, but too many errors could undermine your professional credibility and a serious misunderstanding might turn your clients, business partners, or other interested parties away.
If you are not a native speaker, but need to use a lot of English (or any other non-native language) in your business, I recommend that you get a native speaker to check your text as often as possible. If you can find someone to join your team, so much the better – you can consult them anytime. But if that’s not feasible, then use a professional, native-speaking proofreader. Your business success might depend on it.
These language issues make a lot of people crazy, so please feel free to “go to bananas”. Or any other fresh fruit. It will be a welcome break.