English at international events — be patient

Last year I reported the basics of a kick-off meeting for a European research project. At some point I hinted at a post on the English spoken there. Here it goes.

Should you need to face an audience in English at an important international event, you’d prepare thoroughly what to say. However, the way you say it is so important that proper content can sound silly in the wrong words. Here are some common mistakes committed last year.

Or we 'pretend' to [photo: Tom Blunt]

Or we ‘pretend’ to [photo: Tom Blunt]

It’s not weird to hear sentences like ‘We pretend this platform to be universal’. And it’s not that those researchers are planning to fool the scientific community; it’s that pretend is a false friend for a word that in Romance languages means intend. They genuinely wanted that platform to be universal.

The problem with these words is that the speaker doesn’t know they’re not what they seem. To avoid misunderstandings don’t just guess words but check them. If, on the contrary, you’re an English speaker, prepare for next time and try to learn what they mean when they mean something else.

There will also be literal translations from other languages expressions and structures such as ‘Let’s go to continuous’ instead of ‘Let’s continue’, or ‘Can we stay with your presentation?’ instead of ‘Can we keep [a copy of] your presentation?’. These examples come from Spanish and the second one was written in a form.

Literal translations can be hard or even impossible to understand. If you’re on the receiving end, there’s not much you can do. If you’re the source of the message, check and double-check expressions that are likely to be repeated. Pay special attention to text on paper—even hire a professional. Once it’s printed, it’s there for the whole event.

Finally, although a native accent is not required, you should prepare the key words. Report, research, deputy, deliverable or develop will be pronounced differently even by the same person. Look them up in a dictionary for the right pronunciation or warn your colleagues they’re saying it wrongly.

To sum up, don’t take any chances. Choose your words carefully as you do with clothes, for both are your image and can help or destroy you. On the other side, be patient if you’re an English speaker. After all, everyone is making an effort.

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