Say What? Edition 3: Thoughts From Switzerland

A collection of random, linguistically-related thoughts that popped into my head while in Switzerland five weeks ago.


Going abroad makes you realize that your language skills aren’t nearly as good as they should be. How did I used to be fluent in German but a few weeks ago I couldn’t even understand what the Swiss shopkeepers said when I walked in the door? Swiss German is quite distinct from Hochdeutsch, but still, I feel I should have been a little more competent. Continue reading →

Sympathy for English Language Learners

A while back I was reviewing some comments my editor had made on an e-learning script I wrote at my full time job. The phrase in question was building block skills and whether to hyphenate. Without a hyphen, the phrase could be interpreted as someone was building block skills, whatever those might be, but in reality, context would make clear to anyone taking the course that we were talking about building block skills. However, my editor and I share a common background dealing with documentation intended for translation, which means that we aim for total clarity in language no matter what might be obvious to 99.99 percent of our audience. When what you are writing is going to be translated into 20+ languages, or possibly not translated at all but read in English by people with very low English proficiency, there is no room for ambiguity. Although the content we work on now is overwhelmingly limited to a native English-speaking audience, old habits die hard.

This building-block skills discussion reminded about just how confusing English can be to non-native speakers. A roommate I had in Russia once said that there are two kinds of languages: those that are easy to start using right away but almost impossible to perfect and those that take forever just to be able to say the simplest things correctly but allow you to become fluent quickly after you master the extensive fundamentals. While Russian is the latter, English is absolutely the former. Continue reading →