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A Murmuration of Starlings

While even native English speakers can have trouble keeping track of the language’s grammatical rules (“don’t end a sentence in a preposition”?), it’s even more difficult for non-native speakers to wrap their heads around our expressions, idioms, and seemingly random rules. I recall a friend who was teaching ESL abroad a few years ago telling me that most of the questions his students came up with stumped him every time – for example, why do you wear a *watch* on your wrist, yet on the wall it’s a clock, and you would never say “It’s 3 o’watch” – there was literally no way for that student to have known that ahead of time. The same friend relayed that when the students asked him to explain the meaning of “The darker the berry, the sweeter the juice” he was similarly at a loss for how to explain that in terms they would (or, really, should) understand.

One of the wackiest things about English has to be collective nouns – words that essentially mean “group” but are specific to what the group is made up of. Nowhere is this clearer than with animals; many of us are familiar with a “flock” of seagulls or a “herd” of cattle…but what about a “sloth” of bears, the aptly named “destruction” of cats, or the rather exquisite “exaltation” of larks? Few English speakers know all these collective nouns – a full list of which can be found here. And to expect non-native speakers to know what you’re talking about in conversation is unfair.

Using words or phrases that are extremely colloquial can be dangerous when you are trying to express yourself to as wide a variety of people as possible. I find this to be the case in my global communities, which comprise members from all around the world and, as my fellow verbatim blogger Rita detailed in a recent post, bring a whole new perspective on what “local” means. Marketers and brands are interested to know how certain messages will translate around the world, or explore how people from a range of countries feel about a particular topic. When you use words, expressions or idioms that are extremely specific to one language, you risk being misunderstood.

I found that community participation rose when I made my language simpler, and I believe it’s because my members felt more confident that they had understood my questions and comments more fully, giving them the confidence to share their own thoughts.

Ultimately, this means part of my job as a community manager is understanding what my client wants to learn, and figuring out how to phrase that in the community in a way that will be understood by everyone. Happily the learnings go both ways, and our members delight in picking up slang from other countries and teaching it to their friends. I just have to make sure that when my clients want to discuss a crèche of penguins….it might need to be rephrased.

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