How to simplify your language
Working with a student this week, he told me it was really important to him to ‘keep it simple’: to use sentences which followed a clear structure with vocabulary which everyone could understand. I understood what he meant: he works with native and non-native speakers and he wants to be easily understood and not complicate matters unnecessarily. How can we do this without sounding too ‘basic’ or patronising? Here are some ideas we discussed.
1. Know the basics
Following the Pareto Principle, did you know that around 2000 words cover around 80% of what we read and say? As a non-native speaker, you may feel tempted to learn more and more advanced vocabulary. However, this statistic shows that we need to know the most frequently used items to communicate well. A dictionary like Macmillan, has the most common words highlighted in red (verbs like have, take, give, etc) and serves as a good guideline. On our intensive courses, we have a bank of materials and resources and our experienced teachers guide you towards words commonly used (compared to ones which might be outdated or not appropriate for the context). If you do need to use longer words because they are the most appropriate words, especially in technical fields, be sure you know how to stress the words correctly and pronounce them well.
2. Don’t rely on direct translations
We can all too easily reach for a translation short-cut when we get stuck on a word. What we encourage you to do is paraphrase rather than translate (one vocabulary learning tactic we use is to increase synonyms). In a professional setting, you risk disrupting the flow of the meeting or discussion and you also switch your brain back into your native language. If you feel self-conscious about this, it’s useful to remember that native speakers often forget words too. It’s perfectly normal to try explaining in different ways until you remember the word or clarify the meaning. Lastly of course, we know that direct translations may not provide the most appropriate way to express your idea (sometimes with humorous effect).
3. Be aware of false friends
Just as you want to avoid relying on direct translations, you also want to avoid ‘false friends’ - words that look or sound very similar in two languages but have very different meanings. For example, we use ‘actually’ for emphasis in English (similar to ‘in fact’); it does not mean ‘right now’ or “currently” as in many Romance languages. Over a number of years, we have built up an extensive list of these false friends and we work with you to correct any misuses and give you more suitable options.
4. Master the vocabulary most used in your field
When we work with our students, we often encourage them to start collecting a list of vocabulary words that are most frequently used in their field of work (we do this in the classroom and our student have their own personal record). We can then work on the pronunciation ensuring good understanding. To sound more professional, you can also focus on listening more carefully to conversations in your office; the language your colleagues use in business meetings could – and should - be a rich source of expressions.
How do you feel about these vocabulary suggestions? Do you think grammar can be simplified in a similar way?