Enter the editor: English as a lingua franca

In many international companies, the only common language among employees is English. Whether they like it or not, staff have to get used to communicating in English. From casual emails and social media updates to internal instructions, presentations, blog articles and website content – a great number of people are habitually producing text in their second language. What level of English is needed in this environment and how do we make sure the texts we produce are of a decent standard?

For many years, one part of my job has been to QA, proofread and edit English texts, written by both non-native and native speakers of English. Here are a few things to think about when non-native employees need to produce text at work:

 

Writing vs talking

First of all, it can be good to remember that speaking and writing require different skill sets. I know people who are fantastic speakers, including non-natives who have acquired a perfect or almost perfect accent – but who struggle to express their thoughts with a pen in their hand. It is not so strange. If we only needed verbal English skills to write in English, then all English people would be brilliant writers by default. I can assure that is not the case. The same goes for any language, of course, not just English.

Moreover, when we communicate verbally, the words we use are only one part of the overall message. There is also body language, tone of voice, facial expression etc. A foreign accent is rarely a problem and language mistakes can even be charming. Written text on the hand consists only of the words on the screen, and they are staring at the reader.

  • Remember that just because somebody speaks English fluently, he or she does not necessarily have adequate writing skills.

 

What writing?

The second thing to keep in mind is that not all texts are created equal. I think we can all agree that there is a long way from updating your personal Facebook status to composing a technical report. Practically everyone I know in the whole wide world are perfectly capable of explaining what they want by email, SMS or IM. They may not be nominated for the next Nobel Prize in literature, but it is usually perfectly understandable. And in everyday communication, the most important thing is that the message gets through. Hence in many cases, there is no need to have perfect English language or professional writing skills as long as the message comes across loud and clear.

On the other hand, if we need a text that is intended for publication to promote, engage or sell a product to an English-speaking or international audience, it is very wise to have the text edited by a language professional.

  • Think about the purpose of the text – is it important that it is of top quality? If so, make sure it is proofread and/or edited before publication. Even if it has been written by a native.

 

It is not just about being correct

A common misunderstanding is that texts written by non-natives simply need to be proofread, i.e. checked for grammar and typos. In reality, correcting language mistakes is the easy part. When I QA articles written by non-native speakers of English, the tricky and at the same time the most interesting part is to make sure that the article is easy to read and has a natural flow (ideally without wrecking the individual voice of the author in the process).

It is not so strange: Just as everyone speaks with an accent, we also write with an accent. In many cases, this is absolutely fine – again, it depends on what the text is going to be used for. It doesn’t matter if my Polish colleague sends an internal email that says “Who is willing to go for a dinner?” when she means “Who would like to go out for dinner?”, because in the relevant context, it is perfectly clear what she wants to say. It would not however be a good idea to send this phrase as a formal invitation to a potential business client.

 

Good grammar, no sense

One of the most fascinating things about non-native speakers of English is the potential pitfall of creating grammatically correct sentences that barely make sense. A couple of years ago, a few colleagues asked me if the sentence “Already in your pocket” was correct? “Grammatically, yes”, I said – “but what are you going to use it for”? It turned out it was meant to be used as a selling slogan for a new app. Aha, a direct translation from Polish that unfortunately makes no sense in English. This example is extremely interesting for me as a translator, because it explains

1)      that translation is not a straightforward, easy process, or at least that it is not what many people think it is. Translators do not translate the words on the paper: they translate the intended meaning behind the words. Hence the key to a good translation is to edit and rephrase;

2)      why it takes so long for most people (adults, at least) to become fully fluent in a foreign language, and why people who are learning a new language come up with the most endearing phrases; and

3)      why it is not enough to be correct – for a text to be effective, it has to be fluent and sound natural too. In other words, the writer has to have a native or near-native level of English.

  • Remember that in most cases, a text written by a non-native needs to be edited as well as proofread.

 

Top tips: Improve your English writing skills

Finally, here are a few tips for those who want to improve their English writing skills.

Apart from the obvious (read newspapers and magazines, listen to English radio and podcasts, watch TV series and film, write a lot and ask for feedback), I would recommend three things:

  1. Subscribe to a few English-related blogs. Here are a few short, easy articles to get you started:
  1. Get a few language apps (Memrise or Wordgram for example) you can play around with when travelling etc.
  1. Do online English tests – not just to check your current level, but to learn something new.

 

Conclusion

If you work for an international company and are able to understand and make yourself understood in written and spoken English, that is probably enough for most positions. For casual, internal communication there is no need to speak or write like a native. Documents that will be available to the public or used for promotional activities should always be proofread and/or edited prior to publication.

If your level of English bothers you or if you don’t feel confident in everyday communication, there are plenty of things you can do to improve your writing skills – try some of the tips above!

 

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