Thursday, 29 November 2012

How To Improve Your English Dramatically (Part 2)

I have to labour a point here (and probably in one of the next Proficiency Lessons, too) : Idioms are what makes English sound English. I may sound like your old English teacher here, but a) he probably didn't know any and b) he didn't emphasize enough just how important they are. You will always sound like a foreigner if you don't use them. 

Quite a fun first idiom exercise is to see (and learn!) how many English idioms are taken from the world of sports.

 So let's start the ball rolling, shall we? Talking of balls (polite laughter in the background) - you have to be on the ball to win in this idioms game. But don't worry, you'll soon be able to blow the competition away with a few choice phrases. In English, you can simply let rip, and not fear you're overegging the pudding.You'll win hands down if you manage to learn, say 10 idioms per day and get your ducks in a row. Just don't throw in the towel but stick at it! If you can't start today, take a raincheck. Just don't throw in the towel!

Well, okay that was laying it on a bit. (Sorry, can't stop!) But you get my drift (...:) - sporting idioms are everywhere. So get down to it!

But my actual aim was to point out some specific cricket idioms. You don't have to be able to understand cricket as such  (very few foreigners do) but you'd be well advised to familiarize yourself with some cricket expressions, as they tend to crop up a lot in everyday speech - e. g.:

- I was completely bowled over
- That topic is a bit of a sticky wicket
- I was hit for six, really stumped - didn't know what to say.

Try and find more cricket/sports idioms and actively use them! But don't limit yourself to the cricket/sporting side of idioms - there are literally millions of others.

So - I'm sorry to say, that's not close of play yet when it comes to idioms - more to come!


Friday, 23 November 2012

How to Improve Your English Dramatically (Part 1)

I'm often baffled as to why almost everybody in the world speaks English - but why they generally tend to speak it so badly. (see my post specifically about Germans speaking English on

So rather than be Outraged of Tunbridge Wells (actually:  If you don't know this expression - look it up, see how it's used and try including it in sentences), I decided to do something about it - hence this post.

Of course it matters where you're coming from, i.e.the specifics of your mother tongue. If you're Chinese you will find pronunciation a problem, if you're Italian it might be the tenses and so on. Still, I think everybody will/might/should benefit from my rather simple but effective language tips.  I assume that you will be relatively proficient already - I won't be teaching any grammar etc.I just want to give you that last little kick to really make you sound more fluent, and less foreign.

1. "NO!"

It may sound odd, but if you really want to sound English, start eliminating "Yes" and "No" from your vocabulary. Any question you get asked - reply in a different way. (You can always come back to yes and no later, when you feel you've got the hang of replying in a more "English" sort of way.) Here are some examples where you first reply in the affirmative, then in the negative - without using Yes or No.

Q: "Would you like another cup of tea?"  - A: "Oh, I'd love one, thanks very much!"/ "I'm fine, thank you so much"
Q: "Have you been to the supermarket?" - A: Absolutely! Got up really early, and got it all done./"Oh dear, totally forgot, sor-ry!"
Q: "Can I borrow your jumper?" - "Course you can! It's on the chair/ Sorry, jumper's dirty, needs washing"

In German for example, it would be absolutely in order to answer simply "Ja" oder "Ja bitte" to those questions. In English, it IS of course possible to reply "yes please" when asked say, the 1st question, but then it very much depends on whether you get the tone right. So, for the First Proficiency Lesson, I suggest you do without yes and no altogether. If you come from a yes/no language this is quite tricky, as your first instinct will always be to reply with a resounding YES, but believe me - it sounds rather weird in English.

See if you can find appropriate replies to the following questions  - avoiding yes and no altogether:

- Would you like to sit next to the hostess?
- Have you got a ticket?
- Can I help you?

I intend to write this as a series of 10 occasional  posts.
If you'd like to co-operate you're more than welcome!

copyright Margit Appleton 2012

Wednesday, 14 November 2012

The South - Der Süden - Il Sud

Of course- every country has a "south", even places like Iceland do. There's even a website advertising the special charms of "South Iceland". For me, though "The South", and even more resonant "Der Süden", or "Le Sud" is such a powerful and exhilarating concept that I find it hard to have it associated with a particular country, especially a northern one.

I remember overhearing a conversation between two English ladies one of whom was about to move "South", to the seaside. "It's so beautiful down south!" the other one said admiringly. That was when I noticed how difficult it is for me to bring together England and The South. Despite having lived in "Southern England" for ages, I always thought of it as "The North". I was living somewhere in the North, or Northwest."South" meant Italy, or maybe the "South of France" which signifies not just the southern end of a country, but actual 'Southernness' - heat, sea, baked landscapes, fragrant nights, southern food. To be sitting somewhere between Bournemouth and Dover, rejoicing in that Southern feeling, sniffing the Southern air and generally enjoying the Southernness of it all seems to me the height of absurdity. I hasten to add that I'm not denigrating the concept or questioning the relativity of it all - I'm just startled myself by the psychological power of the concept and the pull it has. It goes without saying that the concepts of Southern Iceland/Scotland/England exist and have an important role to play in some people's southern dreams. It just isn't MY south.

At the moment I'm living in the extreme south of Germany, even further south than Munich - not far from the Austrian border. Munich itself is often jokingly referred to as Italy's furthest northern town. A lot of its architecture is Italianate,and every weekend there is a massive influx of Italian tourists.The summers here are often very hot, and even during the winter months you get freak weather which frequently wrenches up the temperature. That's when the Alps suddenly look as if they were just behind the town centre - and beyond the Alps, of course lies Italy - il Sud. L'area mediterranea.

Thursday, 8 November 2012

Quality Control for Translations!

Believe me - I don't need reminding that there are many many gifted, inspired, and devoted translators out there, toiling away at the most tediously written and  badly formatted document. Working long hours for little reward. And I can understand that they feel undervalued and underpaid.

Yet translation as a profession (or freelance activity) is such an open-door activity. Increasingly I notice that people with a lot of time on their hands, people who (for whatever reason) prefer to work from home, either because they're mothers, or because they have a second job) are jumping onto the translator bandwagon. A half-finished certificate, an A-level, an evening class, or whatever will provide the ticket to supplementing your income. A hefty spurt of marketing activity, membership in a trade organisation, a bit of slagging off of the old "machine translation" -which nobody in their right mind would ever use other than to get the gist of a text - and you're sorted.

A recently divorced acquaintance of mine is busy translating the most hard-core pharmaceutical texts. Ans she needs the money, she does this night after night, all night. She translates from English into German without any prior pharmaceutical knowledge. Her German? She can just about make herself understood. I call that highly irresponsible.

My husband's company (a major multi-national) commissions translations into almost any language on a regular basis. Very often those translated texts have to be re-done: Nobody in the target country could even understand them!

Look at almost any tourism website - German, English, French... and read the translations. I checked 20 - 16 of them were not just bad, they were hilarious.

Translators like to connect on Social Media. Which has the added benefit (or disadvantage, depending on your viewpoint) that they occasionally write in their second or third language. It is often not a pleasant spectacle.  A lot of them avoid it all costs, and will always reply in their own language. Others never follow bi-lingual people. They probably know why.

All is not well in the field of translation. And whilst you could say this is true for many areas, this is one I can judge. And I don't like what I so frequently see. There is also a strange conspiracy of silence out there. People will not criticise others for fear of being found out themselves. Yet they know that things are not as they should be.(A tiny bit of self-awareness and realistic judgment of one's own abilities would also be beneficial.)

Unless translators themselves will accept that all is not well in their midst, things are bound to deteriorate further. It is simply not good enough to shut up, and hope your client simply won't notice. Or website users will be too polite or inactive to speak up. Just as in other industry segments, quality control, quality assurance and best practice need to be implemented.

Einfach durchwursteln geht selten gut!

Sunday, 4 November 2012

Guest Post by Marie-Paule Graham: Why Would a Brit Leave Britain?

It's a question I get asked a lot, at weddings, parties and randomly as I try to make my way through speaking exercises in language class. Why did you come here? Will you go back? Why not?

Why did I come here? Love, is the simple answer. The more complex answer is probably better addressed with a question: why would you ask the love of your life to move to a country that is falling apart; a country that is the most surveilled nation on Earth, where the economy is stagnant, at best, and that infuriating phrase "I'm sorry for any inconvenience caused" is the answer to every problem. 

Baffled faces stare back at me as I talk about the reality of living in Britain. "But, when I stayed with my host family it was great." is one reply. Of course it was, you were a guest and everyone was on their best behaviour. Visiting a place and living there are two very different propositions. A visit is finite and often enjoyed with that holiday feeling. The visitor often leaves before culture shock kicks in. The resident stays and lives through their culture shock, allowing themselves to become a part of the fabric of their new home.

“But Britain is a great democracy and you've got the BBC!” is another answer. Democracies don't spy on their citizens, they don't extradite them to foreign countries and as for the BBC, google the name Jimmy Savile.

And then there are the middle aged British expat women whose expressions turn to mild horror when I say that I live in Chemnitz.

Chemnitz has always had a rough deal. The first DDR leader Walther Ulbricht changed the city's name to Karl-Marx-Stadt and made it the model of Communist industrial ideals, i.e. dirty, grey and unimaginative. They even concreted over the river Chemnitz to obliterate anything that spoke of a life before Socialism. In April 1990 the people of Karl-Marx-Stadt voted to reinstate the city's original name and today the river is being restored to its original path through the centre of the city. 

Like all cities Chemnitz has beautiful parts and less desirable parts; there is commerce and there are areas of post-industrial emptiness. In Britain I couldn't leave the house without my iPod and headphones to drown out the constant cacophony of life on a crowded island. Here, I can walk through the city without headphones if I want to and, standing in the main square on days when the market isn't there, I can hear the sound of shoes on cobblestone and church bells. I also walk upright because I know I am not under constant surveillance. I can ride my bike on the roads here without fear of losing life or limb at the hands of needlessly aggressive drivers - something I never felt happy doing in Britain. Riding for 40 minutes in any direction will take you into the countryside. There is also an Olympic size swimming pool, while some towns in Britain don't have a pool at all. Prague and Berlin are two hours away and if I want to ski, the Erzgebirge (Ore Mountains, if you wish to be Tolkien about it) are 30 minutes away. Gangs of youths don't roam around with menace, in fact, young people will say hello to you. I was leaving my building laden with luggage one morning and sitting outside the front door were two teenage girls. Cue the sudden sense of foreboding I've been conditioned to feel at the sight of teenagers, but before I can finish my thought, one of the girls asks me if I needed any help. I had to hide me astonishment because teenage girls don't behave that way in Britain.

I watch the faces of these middle aged British expats as I recount the above and realise that, while the city I live in has made the best of itself since reunification, it's reputation hasn't changed. “Oh, it's so dreary”, says one lady in that withering manner I don't miss at all. No, places without employment are dreary, where everyone is scared of everyone else and people would rather seethe about foreigners taking their jobs than actually fix the problems that brought their country to its knees. 

So, why would a Brit leave Britain? Because there is love and peace and stability in this small corner of Saxony. Isn't that what everybody wants?

Marie-Paule Graham writes "Adventures in Waldiland" [] and tweets @mpg4.