All posts by Sarah Silva

Sarah Silva on a unicycle

Getting the Balance Right

For some undefined reason, I always wanted to ride the unicycle. It was one of those dreams that persisted over the years but I never did anything about. Because what was the purpose of it? Things came to a head a couple of years ago and I started searching for local unicycle or circus clubs to try my luck and put that childhood dream to bed.

Having found no clubs, I got a beginner unicycle and took to the wheel, whereupon I learnt two things: It was crazy hard to stay upright, even gripping on to a wall for dear life and it was going to take way longer than I thought to learn. If you’ve ever tried balancing on one wheel, you’ll know the struggle.

It’s not just balance and core stability I’ve learnt, unicycling has taught me a few things that apply to many areas of life.

What I discovered:

  1. The most unlikely people shared how they used to unicycle or that they have one in their garage gathering dust.
  2. Some people want to climb Everest and prove themselves in a more extreme physical way. For others, we get unicycles (mid-life crisis?)
  3. Consistent practice and forming a habit is the key to getting past those times when you want to throw that wheel through a window and give up because it’s Just. Too. Hard. I did give up for nearly a year and then my stubborn streak won through. By committing to 5 minutes a day even if I make zero progress, I’ll often spend much longer and am getting better, quicker.
  4. Tips from others are gold.

Pop a short video into a unicycle group on social media and you’ll get great advice: Your leg should be nearly straight, raise your seat, look up and ahead. A throwaway comment from someone further ahead than you can help you make instant improvement. Other people want you to succeed. Which brings me to…

  1. Everybody wants to see my progress. More unicycling! they cry. It’s something different, unexpected, light-hearted fun. I once used a compilation video of me essentially falling over a lot to start a presentation (it was relevant, honestly). The resulting round of applause had the event organiser poking his head through the door to see what was going on 5 mins in. 

It also broke the ice and provided a great talking point. Colleagues volunteered information about their own lives that made me remember them afterwards – An English lady who took up the violin to play in an Irish folk group in Finland, that’s intriguing.

We live in a world that encourages us to set goals, justify our decisions, get ever more productive. Sometimes you don’t need a specific reason to do something, you can just do it because. If you insist on reasons I can tell you I do a desk-based job and it’s important to do physical exercise. That when you’re concentrating hard enough to stay upright and balance, you can’t think about anything else and so it switches your brain off – there’s no time to worry about global pandemics, deadlines and family.

Where can you share this information?

I don’t use Xing enough, but I like that you can list your interests on your profile. It makes everyone more human and relatable than reading about a manager at company x who has the same corporate skills as everyone else in the industry.

It’s not the only place you can show your interesting side. You could introduce your team on your website with fun facts about them, highlight an aspect of your company that gets people talking, or take a look at your most popular articles and posts for inspiration. Anything that gives you and your company some personality and makes you more memorable.


And if you’d like a profile that presents you to your international audience in the best possible light, send an email to [email protected] with the subject line: Make me memorable.

Sarah riding a unicycle
Striking the right balance

 

Export services not language

Language is business. It’s not just a tool for businesses to communicate with each other. Languages export and import words.

We’re very generous with the English language and frequently allow our words to spread across the world and infiltrate any language that we come into contact with. I suspect it’s mainly to do with American culture, Hollywood and the language of technology but I’ll play my part.

I remember my French teacher saying ahead of a French oral exam, if you’re absolutely stuck and can’t think of the word, try the English word with a French accent. There’s a chance you’ll get it right (A friend then tried “grape” which unfortunately is “raisin” in French but it was worth a try.) Can you see where English tourists that gesticulate and speak louder to be understood get their arrogance from? I bet non-native speakers learning English don’t get those ‘handy’ tips. Say the Croatian word with an English accent, you never know, they might understand you, hmmm. 

It’s not only our words that get exported, English grammar and sentence structure is spreading too.

In English we say something makes sense, which in German should be es hat Sinn. But now many Germans say “es macht Sinn” a direct translation of the English. I’ve said it too, thinking it was genuine German. I’ve also said Ich rufe Sie zurück (direct translation from ‘I’ll call you back’) instead of Ich rufe Sie wieder an.

Let’s not even get into gedownloadet or downgeloadet instead of heruntergeladen (downloaded) – even as a native English speaker I prefer the original German.

The problem with this happening is that the distinctions between languages get blurred. 

Denglisch (a mish mash of Deutsch and English) arises when people who speak both languages use German words or structures when speaking or writing English.

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Rucksack is another word we’ll keep, thank you

Although the English language may have adopted a fair few German terms like Schadenfreude, Fest, Doppelganger etc., German grammar constructions and literal translations are less well received and highlight the differences. If you want your English-speaking clients to focus on your message without getting distracted by minor yet common errors, make sure you get your texts checked by a native speaker.

It makes the difference between a journal accepting a research paper… or not. A website visitor finding what they need… or not. Sealing the deal with your international distributor… or not – because they rightly or wrongly suspect they’ll have to do unnecessary extra work reproducing and correcting documentation before giving it to their clients.

It’s not what you say, but how you say it (Der Ton macht die Musik) that has the biggest impact.

High demand for unofficial language

International English under the microscope

Walk into any supermarket to buy carrots and you have a decision to make: do you buy those bunched with leaves, the rough and ready ‘wonky’ type, cleaned and packaged, or baby carrots? It may surprise you to know that baby carrot is a misleading term. Most of these delicate little carrots aren’t plucked from the ground prematurely, they’re simply sculpted from larger, rougher carrots and sold under a different name. ‘Invented’ in the 1980s by Californian farmer, Mike Yurosek, the original aim was to tackle waste and sell more carrots. Today, baby carrots dominate the industry and made up over 54 % of all carrot sales in 2020. Impressive for a product that didn’t exist 50 years ago. 

In a similar vein, international English doesn’t technically exist as an official language variant. But it’s in high demand.

What is international English?

It’s used to refer to English that would be appropriate for an international audience without being culturally bound to a particular English-speaking group. As a British person, I’ll naturally write and translate into British English, but should your corporate style be US-English spelling, I can switch to that. It’s the same as European Portuguese or Brazilian Portuguese, they differ and the difference is critical if you’re selling to one particular market. But if you want to sell to both audiences, you need to find some common ground.

International English is that common ground for the English language. Over 1.35 billion people worldwide speak English and only about 360 million of those are native speakers. A greater proportion speak it as a second language. This includes those who use English as a business language or choose English for preference out of the languages available on a website – but who aren’t native speakers. 

Who is your reader?

If you’re exporting your products and services and want English translation, you probably want to use English to communicate with international clients rather than ‘just’ those in Australia or the US or Great Britain. Perhaps for business partners in China, Latin America and across Europe, people with wildly different cultures and frames of reference. Your English translation needs to be accurate and consistent in its chosen spelling and grammar but accessible to the broadest possible audience.

A key aspect of international English is that it is written to avoid any specific cultural references that would be relevant to a small section of the target audience.

Why you need to avoid cultural references

You may be talking about autumn in October while your southern hemisphere readers are enjoying spring. The relevant associations you’re making in your text won’t land in the same way and your message becomes less compelling.

Let’s say you include a football metaphor in your text. A British reader will understand the intended context and envisage a match between teams such as Chelsea versus Tottenham Hotspurs (other teams are available). This game in the US would be called soccer because football refers to American football, an entirely different game involving heavy padding and helmets for protection. Which is called Gridiron locally in Australia. Throw non-native English readers into the mix and a throwaway reference in your text becomes a cultural minefield. 

If you’re writing for an international audience, the references you use are just as important as the language. Especially if you want your reader to focus on your message and not be distracted by an unintentional ambiguity.

Website visitors may click away, customers might not follow your instructions, business partners may not grasp the finer details of your offer. 

Simple is always best so make language work harder for you without involving idioms, complex word play, or specific cultural references to practices that would baffle a tourist.

Doesn’t that make it boring?

Accessibility to a wider audience doesn’t have to mean a text becomes boring, stripped of its clever comparisons and only straightforward information left behind. It just means you and your translator need to work smarter. 

Instead of referencing the Pfand deposit system, talk about recycling in general. Instead of a football metaphor, you could talk about bikes or a sports concept common to everyone. If your goal is more international interest in your work, keep these readers in mind as you write and your efforts are sure to hit the back of the net… er, score a home run… um, a hole in one.

Or write whatever you like and send your text to me to revise and adapt where appropriate.

Searching a globe with a magnifying glass
Searching for that elusive lingua franca