Imagine that you are in an international business meeting - a form of torture that we discussed in detail last time - and none of the participants has English as their mother tongue. Before the official part of the meeting starts, you overhear one colleague, Peter, talking to another, Luisa. This is what Peter says:
"Luisa, this organization is really going to the birds. My department does the tiger's share of the work but the production department always takes the credit. Yesterday, they really took the cake: the big sausage at production presented my best idea as if it were her own. I think she does this because she lacks self-confidence. I'm sure that's where the dog lies buried. Anyway, I was as sick as an elephant. And to round off my miserable day, when I was walking home it started raining dogs and cats and I got soaked to the skin. The day really was for the cat."
OK, OK, I know: nobody would really talk like this (at least, I hope they wouldn't). But play along with my little game for a moment. How would you answer these three questions about the comments that you overheard?
My guess is that you answered "no" to the first two questions, which is correct. I would also guess that you understood reasonably well what Peter wanted to say, even if you were unsure about one or two words or phrases.
There are two interesting things about Peter's comments. First, they contain a lot of idiomatic language, by which we mean groups of words that cannot be easily understood by knowing the meanings of the individual words. Second, much of Peter's idiomatic language is used "wrongly", when judged by the standards of, well, standard English. Yet, we basically understand what he's saying.
Don't be excessive with idioms
So what is going on here? It seems that it doesn't really matter internationally whether we use English "correctly". Well, yes and no. (Unfortunately, English doesn't have the single words "yo" or "nes" to express the German concept of jein.)
The name of this column, "Nobody's Perfect", is meant to encourage you to use your English without fear of making mistakes. You don't have to sound like a native speaker of English to be an effective international communicator. On the other hand, idiomatic language can be dangerous for two reasons:
1) Although native speakers do use a lot of idiomatic language, Peter's excessive use of idioms sounds very strange indeed. In fact, it is probably the result of trying too hard to sound like a native speaker.
2) It is easy to make small but significant mistakes when using idioms. In many cases the result is merely slightly comical, or even charming. But, at worst, these mistakes can make it difficult for others to really understand what you are saying.
So let's look more closely at what Peter said and the various mistakes he made:
As we can see, idiomatic language is a minefield, to use an idiom that is the same in English and German. For this reason, the current fashion in English teaching is to move away from teaching such colourful expressions, some of which are also culturally loaded, such as ballpark figure (grobe Schätzung) or to come out of left field (aus dem heiteren Himmel kommen), which both come from baseball.
On the other hand, language learners love idioms, and idiomatic language is very common in business, for example in expressions such as the bottom line, which can mean both "the profit of a company" (literally the bottom line in the accounts) and "the most important point" (das Entscheidende).
Idiomatic language, as Business Spotlight author Almut Köster has discovered in her academic research, is also often used when trying to find solutions to problems at work. Here's an example: "So what we'll do is, let's you and me sit down together, and try and wrack our brains ". Here, sit down together simply means "have a meeting", and wrack our brains means "think hard" (sich den Kopf zerbrechen).
So, here's my three-point plan for how to deal with idiomatic language in English (or any other foreign language):
If you follow this advice, you should be able to avoid getting into hot water at work (in Teufels Küche kommen).
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