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Business English Syllabus of Errors

Germans and their classic error pattern in Business English: A compact lesson in how to be friendly – not perfect.

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Generell gilt für Business Englisch: Forget perfect, be friendly! Quelle: Paul-Friedrich von Bargen

Psst! Got a minute? I’d like to save you a lifetime of mediocre English communication: When is a mistake not a mistake? When you’re not making it.

You see, mistakes are what you commit, but more significant are the things you omit. I’ve heard a lot of odd English in Germany, like “You are not okay by me”. Or “Get into the other room”. Or “Sign the cheque on the backside”. Ahem. Or “There are no spectators on my nose”. Aha. Actually, the guy’s nose was fairly big.

But my point is this: these mistakes are just perfectly literal translations in the main. They’re not mistakes so much as good German disguised as English. So Munich Airport displays German adverbial blindness when it tells you to “Fly colourful”. Or Deutsche Bahn does a tasty literal translation when you are informed “In a few minutes we shall arrive Munich”.

Linguists call this L1 (or first language) interference. This is the source of practically all your sins of commission, but not the root of intercultural failure. Your sins of omission are mostly responsible for that.

In the next five minutes I’d like to tackle both these sources of personal embarrassment and interpersonal disappointment. To do so I am extracting two key concepts from the fields of linguistics and intercultural communication.

Key concepts: facework and context

The first is facework, a concept developed by Erving Goffman in the Sixties and related to the work you do to maintain your contact’s face. Important: I said to maintain the other guy’s face – not your own.

The second key concept is context, as developed by another American by thename of Edward Hall in the Seventies. Context here means relationship, everything that surrounds the text of business communication. Savvy, gentle WirtschaftsWochers?

Face can be positive or negative. Positive facework demonstrates involvement with others. Negative facework signals respect for other people’s freedom. So small talk is an expression of positive facework, just as an indirect subjunctive request is an expression of negative facework.

Context can be high or low. High context cultures, such as Asian or Latin American, are big on personal relationship. Low context cultures, such as Scandinavia and the German language area, are big on professional competence. With a rudimentary grasp of these two communication principles, we can structure and solve your personal syllabus of English errors.

Let’s start with those venial sins of commission – the misusage and abusage from literal mistranslation to downright Denglish. First off the list here are the phonological oddities, the verbal tics that keep you saying ‘sendwich’ for sandwich and ‘willage’ for village. ‘Cesh’ for cash and ‘wideo’ for video, these phonetic phenomena are the acne of English language production – unlikely to completely ruin your chances with the girls but decidedly off-putting nevertheless.

Slightly up the ladder on your syllabus of errors come the solecisms or grammatical mistakes – ‘catched’ for ‘caught’ and ‘splitted’ for ‘split’. Here is your greatest single source of active mistake making – in the tricky, fidgety mechanisms of the English tense system. Saying ‘have gone’ for ‘went’, ‘will call’ for ‘going to call’ and ‘am working’ for ‘work’ are classic error patterns which are hard to eradicate.

Tip: the English Present Perfect is an update tense for news which is important to your listener. The straight ‘will’ future is spontaneous and anything but planned. The English continuous tenses are temporary rather than permanent in nature.

  • Syllabus of Errors
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