June 27, 2015

False Friends

I mentioned false friends before, words in the language you study that sound very much like words in your own language and hence one is tempted to assume they mean the same.

Two examples from the German and English languages come to mind: eventually and actually in English and eventuell and aktuell in German.  Let’s talk about and clarify both of them:

Eventually and eventuell – are very close sounding and used in similar contexts.  However, “eventually” indicates that something will happen at some non-specified time in the future.  The point is, the thing will happen, just when isn’t determined yet.  “Eventuell”, on the other hand, means that something may happen in the future, so the basic fact whether the event will happen is uncertain.

Getting married eventually is very different from getting married "eventuell/maybe."  (c) Tina Baumgartner

Getting married eventually is very different from getting married “eventuell/maybe.”
(c) Tina Baumgartner

The difference can be rather disconcerting: “eventually we’ll get married” is quite different from “maybe we’ll get married.” Hearing a college student say: “I will eventually finish my degree” is cause for concern for parents, but hearing them say “Maybe, some day, I’ll finish my degree” is way worse.   From the German’s perspective misusing the word the consequences can be dire as well: saying to your business partner “I will eventually come up with the $2M needed to keep the doors open” is telling him/her that you will get the money when what you meant to say that you “eventuell” will get the money which means potentially/maybe you somehow manage to come up with it.

Actually and aktuell are also similar sounding but have the advantage of being used in different contexts and hence it should be easier to keep them apart.  “Actually” is a frequently used word in English which is mostly used in the same contexts as the German “eigentlich”.  It is a bit of a fudge word that is hard to translate and very context dependent.  A few examples might illustrate the use best:

“Are you going to the grocery store with me?” – “Actually, I had planned on going to the gym now.” – here it is used in the sense of “well” or – since it is often used when saying no to something, it is used in the sense of “uhm, well, no”

“This is actually a good question” – here it is used in the sense of “indeed”

“How did your trip to Italy compare to the last time you were there?” – “Actually, I had never visited Italy before” – here it is used in the sense of “in fact”.

Aktuell, however, means current/up to date:  “aktuelle Nachrichten” are current news, “ist das noch aktuell?” means “is that still up to date?”

So a false friend but not as deviously false as the eventually/eventuell pair.


June 24, 2015

Of course

“Of course” in English is used to express that something is well-known and understood and not surprising.
“We loved Norway in winter, but, of course, the days were short.” Now, that doesn’t come as a big surprise to most people.

“Was the food in Thailand spicy?” “Of course it was.”  At least to those of us who have traveled to Thailand this not new either.

“Of course” is one of those little phrases that Germans use a lot when they speak English and that they use slightly differently than native speakers .  And it is another of those phrases that Germans use the way they would use the literal translation “natuerlich” in German as a way to emphasize a fact or statement. They often start a sentence with “of course” to express not that what follows is a well-known fact but that what follows is a somewhat surprising or unusual fact that needs a bit of emphasis.”Of course, all our dishes come with French fries” a waiter might say, before anybody even asked whether French fries are available.

Germans use “of course” often to express that they think something is the case or to proactively confirm a not generally known fact and hence use it more in the sense of “certainly”.

The following is a bit of an overstated example to make the point:

German sales person: “Of course, the computer comes with a free ticket to Disney World and preloaded software.”

While the computer can be reasonably be expected to come with software (and hence an “of course” would be appropriate if the buyer asked “does it come with software?”) it cannot reasonably be expected to come with a free ticket to Disney World, hence the “of course” is misplaced.

Now if the company had put out an advertising campaign saying “Buy a computer get a free ticket to Disney World!” and the buyer had come in, flyer in hand and asked “does this computer come with a free ticket to Disney World?” then “of course, it does” would have been an appropriate answer.

It is a fine difference and probably not particularly relevant in many contexts but I have noticed it a number of times and in some occasions this “proactive of course” comes across as a bit unfriendly or slightly offensive.  As if the other party should have known already.  As if a generally accepted fact somehow had slipped the attention of the other person and one now has to point it out the obvious.

This is definitely American English 201 or even 301, not 101 but its best to not get into the habit of using “of course” to emphasis a fact that isn’t widely known and accepted.



June 21, 2015

He, She, It

The inappropriate use of  pronouns is one of the most common mistakes native German speakers make when they start speaking English and have progressed to the stage where they attempt conversations, even simple ones.

In German there are three definite articles “der, die, das” associated with gender: der for male, die for female, das for neuter nouns.  The process of assigning a noun and a gender and with that an article strikes many non native speakers as arbitrary and, although there are rules, that is probably at least partially true.

However random this might look to English speakers, gender and articles are deeply engrained in the German language and when Germans start speaking English they carry that notion with them.

That’s why German refer to dogs as “he” and cats as “she” despite the fact that they do not know the actual gender of the animal because in German it is “der Hund” and “die Katze”. What to make of “das Pferd” – the poor neuter horse is a different story.

Die Katze, der Hund, das Pferd, welcome to the confusing world of German articles source: www.hundekeks-online.de

Die Katze, der Hund, das Pferd, welcome to the confusing world of German articles
source: http://www.hundekeks-online.de

In English if one uses a pronoun to replace a noun it is “it” unless we know, as in the case of animals, for certain what actual gender the animal has.  So if we know that Ginny, our friend’s dog, is a girl we refer to her as “she” and to  Rascal, our other friend’s tomcat as “he”.  The same is true for humans, that goes without saying, Fred is “he” and Sarah is “she” and Baby Caitlyn is “she”, too, not “it” as it would be – correctly stated- in German, as Little Caitlin (das Maedchen, the girl) is technical a neuter.

However, in English one never ever uses “he” or “she” to refer to an inanimate object.  So the infamous sentence “put it into she” I once heard a German visitor use when he meant to say that the other person should pour the water (das Wasser and hence “it” – which happens to be correct) into the bottle (die Flasche and hence, in German, “she”) is not only horribly incorrect but also rather unambiguous verging on the suggestive because if “she” is used the assumption is that one speaks about a woman.

An exception are engines: all sort of moving engines such as trucks and ships are referred to as “she” in casual language. I don’t know why, but my assumption is that the lone trucker out on the highways or the boat captain away from home for months likes to think about his vehicle as a woman.

Another exception is the earth, which is generally referred to as “she”, also countries can take a female pronoun.  However, assigning a female gender to these words sounds rather poetic and should only be done if that connotation is desired.

It is not intuitive to Germans to replace all their pronouns but for a few with “it” but it is also not a hard rule to learn and an easy one to remind oneself of and correct oneself – and will go a long way towards a much better command of the English language.



June 18, 2015

Literally Pesky Adverbs

Adverbs can be a bother. It starts with them being quite an idiosyncratic bunch with words thrown in that actually seem to somehow not belong anywhere – such as actually.

Let’s not worry for now, about the intricacies of classification of adverbs and similar advanced topics, much has been written about this by experts, let’s just say, they can make life hard, for the native as and especially for the non-native speaker.  Literally.

Native speakers like to misuse “literally” by using it frequently in a context where whatever they suggest should be taken literally isn’t actually true, literally.

“Oh dear, we literally shopped til we dropped when we were in Vegas.”  Unless you really collapsed on the street or in the store you didn’t literally shop til you dropped, you likely just wore yourself out.

“I literally don’t have anything to wear.”  – no comment needed

“I literally haven’t eaten ice cream in a year.” – while that could, literally, be true it most likely isn’t and the person is just trying to make a point.

So, what is a person trying to learn English supposed to do with literally? Ignore, use correctly, use casually but incorrectly just like the native speakers?  That is really a decision everybody has to make for themselves.  I use literally and I use it incorrectly at times but I do so knowingly.  If called on the topic I would concede that point and acknowledge my ungrammatical ways.  However, why be more catholic than the pope, why try and keep the language purer that the native speakers care to?

Part of becoming fluent in both business as well as casual English is to use the language just as the native speakers do (which can be very different in California and Texas, let along England or Australia) and that includes to a certain extent to adopt idiosyncratic (read: wrong) uses of words.  It’s good to know what is wrong and what is correct and it is also very important not to overdo it such as adopting a specific slang of a group one doesn’t belong to.  Ebonics sounds weird on the overwhelming majority of kids from Stuttgart, Sydney or Shanghai (and most other places).

June 14, 2015

Never ever ever …. seriously!

I said it before, I am saying it again: never, ever, ever translate a saying, proverb, slogan, idiom, expression literally.  Seriously, do not do it, it will not work.

This is a fundamental truth of learning another language and it seems hard to grasp for people.  Somehow I understand, if you only ever spoke one language you might not have an appreciation for the fact that other languages and other cultures see and describe things differently, feel about things differently and hence use other expressions and mental images to talk about it.

That being the case it is critically important to accept that it is that way and that – however logical or natural an expression might seem – it is likely not appreciated in a verbatim translation.

The now infamous "Mirror Egg"I still cringe when I think of my first trip to the US, many many years ago with a couple of friends. We were ordering breakfast and my friend ordered a “mirror egg”. I can’t begin to describe the confusion on the poor waitresses face.  In German a fried egg, sunny side up is indeed referred to as “Spiegelei” which, in the literal translation is a “mirror egg”.  The expression likely stems from the fact that while the egg white is curdled the yolk is still liquid and has a shiny surface.  At that time I wasn’t an expert on American breakfast egg preparation but it was immediately obvious to me that the literal translation was disastrous.  I have no idea how we resolved that situation but I remember to this day how uncomfortable it was.

But that kid of blunder isn’t just reserved for regular people with limited English knowledge.  Even big companies do stuff like that, which is when it gets really bad.  For a long time one of Germany’s major chain of stores selling perfume used the slogan “come in and find out” to entice customers to come into the store and find out what great offerings await them inside.

This phrase has two major issues: firstly, one would never use it in English. “Find out” doesn’t stand by itself, it would need to be followed by a “what”, something that we are supposed to find out. Find out how great/cheap/well-stocked/exclusive/whatever we are.  But “find out” alone leaves me puzzled and unsatisfied.

Secondly the Germans overwhelmingly misinterpreted the sentence to mean “come in and then find a way to leave again”. The “find out” was translated literally to “herausfinden” which can mean discover but it can also mean “find your way out” – like out of a scary dark forest or a maze.  Not exactly what the message was supposed to be.

So, please, big retail store, car maker, pharma company next time you want a cool sounding English slogan ask me first.  I can fix it and save you a lot of confusion and embarrassment.


June 12, 2015

Picking up where I left off

my year by the lake

my year by the lake

I have been inactive for a long time but recently decided to do a little bit more of what I like (writing) and a little bit less of what I have to do (working on a job that by no means can be described as 9-5).  So, here are the good intentions, which – as we are all know – pave the road to hell.

I have spent the last 10 months in Germany, which is my home country.  It was an interesting experience in many ways, also from a language stand point.  Many Germans, especially the younger generation speak English, some very well, some, well, not so much.

English is in many ways pretty prevalent in Germany, of course the Germans send emails, just like the rest of the world, not ePost or eBriefe and have computers, just spelled Computers.  There is a good deal of English in music, science and as mentioned anything having to do with computers/IT and in advertising – although the trend for that latter one seems to be slowing.

Some of the things I will write about in the next few blogs are funny, weird, silly and confusing mistakes made by German natives trying their hand at English – especially if they are trying to sound cool, young and hip.  Generally it is a recipe for disaster and some general conclusions can be drawn for any non-native speaker learning English (or any other language, I suppose).  The main ones:

  • never, ever, ever translate a saying, proverb, slogan literally.  It might work, in some rare cases, but in the overwhelming majority of cases nobody will understand what you mean and you’ll end out looking weird – at best
  • be aware of “false friends”- I suppose most languages have them and there are a few specifically tough ones in German-English that just keep coming up over and over again.  The most obvious example is the English “become” and the German “bekommen” – look like twins, don’t they.  Well, they aren’t.  Bekommen means “get” not “become” – endless confusion ensues.  I actually do know a Spanish false friend or rather a really devious couple of false friends: “asistir” in Spanish means attend, whereas “atender” means pay attention to, look after.  I can’t count how many times I had native Spanish speakers tell me that they will “assist” an event.
  • Adverbs matter and so does punctuation.  More on that in a later post but I’ll end with that example that has been going around on Facebook and alike:

Let’s eat Grandpa!

Let’s eat grandpa! – opps – Let’s eat, Grandpa! – better

January 27, 2013


Superbowl is coming up to the excitiment of everybody, pic: cartoonaday.com

Superbowl is coming up to the excitement of everybody, pic: cartoonaday.com

THE annual event is coming up.  No it is not Christmas and I certainly don’t mean Valentine’s Day either.  I mean Superbowl, one of the most holy and revered sporting events in the US.  There are others, but I don’t now anything about baseball and World Championships and basketball and whatever very important events they have.  But I know a thing or two about American football and I have been to a Superbowl party for 10 years straight.  That makes me an expert – at least for an expat from Germany.

Every year through some mysterious process which I don’t tend to follow, 2 teams end up playing the Superbowl.  Whoever wins is the champ.  I am sure they get something cute to put on the mantel and tons of money.  This year a catastrophe was narrowly avoided: the home team, the San Francisco 49ers, qualified and the Patriots (the Boston team) was a hot contender to play the 49ers.  Now that would have thrown me into a big conflict over whom to root for as I also spent two extremely educational and very pleasurable years in Boston.  Alas, the Patriots lost to the Ravens (Baltimore) and so I won’t have to face this conflict.  Go 9ers!

If you want to know about the football rules, there are better sources than this blog to educate you.  I can follow the game, yell “interference” with the best of them or say something like “3rd and 8” with a grave face if it pertains to “my team” but the subtleties are lost on me, sort of like off-side in soccer.

The point, though, is that Superbowl is an excuse to party.  And by that I mean drinking beer during the day  and eating food that would generally not pass the “healthy, whole-grain, gluten-free” test but will score high on fat, carbs, spices, and preservatives – and lots of it.  It’s also the day where the man cave turns into the center of the house and the poor schmucks who don’t have a man cave dust off all sorts of comfy reclining chairs that have been banned to the basement by wives with a finer taste in interior design .  Wives/girl-friend pass platters with nacho chips and salsa during the game, chat among themselves and wait for their moments: the abundant ads.  Superbowl ads are super expensive and legendary and anticipated as eagerly as the game.  A classical radio show host question has become: “what do you look forward to most?  The game, the ads or the snacks.”  In recent years companies have started to leak sneak previews of their anticipated ads a couple of weeks before the Superbowl – as if these things were big movies.  This years anticipated ads include VW and Mercedes Benz, Coke, Best Buy and a bunch of others to be found here.

I do enjoy these events, they are so quintessentially American (although, where I live the majority of the Superbowl party attendees are of Indian or Chinese origin) – and a perfect excuse to eat junk food.  Go, 9ers, go!

January 4, 2013

Drive Thru II

On our road trip over the winter vacation I saw something I referred to in my last post, not knowing whether it exists or not: the drive thru dry cleaner.

Walking around Bakersfield, CA after a long day in the car I came across one and here is the blurry picture to prove:

The drive thru dry cleaner.  I should have known it existed.  Pic: mine

The drive thru dry cleaner. I should have known it existed. Pic: mine

December 28, 2012

Drive-thru Nation

I never thought that eating while driving was a good idea.  I also always thought it was a rather good  idea to actually park your car, get out, walk 30 feet to a door, walk in,  order your food, sit down (or the other way around if you choose to not go to a fast food restaurant) and eat it without spilling ketchup all over yourself because you are eating that double burger with extra cheese and the curly fries with one hand while maneuvering a big ass truck (or a Honda Civic or anything in between).  Alas, I seem to be in the minority as some recent observations have confirmed.  We are all used to the Drive-thru fast food joints, all the big names of this world and slowly getting use to the drive-thru upscale coffee places (yes, I am talking Starbucks) although I am still wondering why I would want to pay almost $5 for a medium (they call it grande) Frappuccino and then not enjoy it because I am  negotiating Los Angeles/Bay Area/Toronto/add other places as appropriate traffic.

The latest, and I have seen it several times now including today, is a Drive thru drug store, like Walgreens, or Rite Aid or one of those.  I am waiting for Drive thru Safeways, and Drive thru fine dining (you’d get a complimentary linen napkin and probably one of those self-heating containers to keep the bisque warm ), for men only I could envision a Drive thru haircut place, I assume most women would not go for that one, but one could definitely drop off dry cleaning in a Drive thru kind of a way.  Why hasn’t anybody thought of that yet?  They probably have and I am just too out of touch to have heard about it – yet.

Drive Thru - so very convenient.  classbias.blogspot.com

Drive Thru – so very convenient. classbias.blogspot.com

What I still don’t understand is the appeal of all of that.  Is the act of getting out of the car so inconveniencing people that they avoid it at all cost, although we are reading constantly that even a little exercise every day helps a lot in terms of health outcomes or do people love sitting in their cars so much that they don’t want to get out ever?

One thing, I believe, Drive thru anything is often not: faster.  The Starbucks this morning had a line of at least 5 or 6 cars whereas we were the first in line inside.  I remember distinctly one time when, on a road trip, we went to have lunch at a fast food restaurant and on our way between tour parking spot and the door had to cross the Drive thru lane.  We almost got run over by a driver too focused on deciding between the tantalizing meal options so I remembered the car.  When we came out, after ordering food and eating it, sitting on a chair with a table in front of us, washed our hands in the bathroom, and walked out, that driver was just ordering his food at the Drive-thru window.

So much for faster.

I think it comes down to the word I have learned to hate: “convenience”.  Getting ones butt out of the car and walking a few steps  is so not convenient so people much rather sit in the car longer to avoid that hassle.  How sad is that!

November 28, 2012

United Airlines, or how to seriously p… off your customers

Now granted this is a ranting blog post not a culture blog post  – having said that, there is a bit of culture (or lack thereof) involved – and also I just need to rant about this.

So, for as long as I can think of I have been a United frequent flyer.  I never amounted to more than a Silver status but what kept me is Star Alliance which also includes Lufthansa and Swiss, which I fly regularly and the fact that San Francisco is a UA hub.  Now, for the first time I exceeded 50,000 miles and felt more than entitled to my Gold status, after all I had chosen United to fly to Australia recently over, say Qantas or Virgin.  I flew back Air New Zealand, a Star Alliance member, for one reason only, the flight was about a thousand dollars cheaper (I flew business).

My account now shows 51,000 some odd miles and Silver status.  Wait, Silver status???

So I called, politely inquiring when my status will be updated.  Call me a status hog but part of the reason I did this was to get to Gold and therefore into the Lounge and to more frequent upgrades.

However, I was informed, that I do not qualify for Gold as I have not satisfied an new requirement, namely that one flies 4 segments with United per year – not any old stupid alliance partner.  The reason being that the administration of the mileage program costs money and obviously I am not worth that money.

To put this in perspective: had I flown to LAX from SFO twice for under $200 I would qualify but having had just one measly business class flight to Australia plus a cross country flight to New York makes me inadmissible?  Which genius did think that scheme up?  Was it developed with the expressed purpose of annoying the hell out of loyal customers?  Does United seriously fell that they have to many frequent flyers and therefore need to treat them badly to get rid of them?

Somebody should write a Harvard Business School case about this classic imbecility.

I for one will take my business somewhere else.  Virgin offers a status matching program, American might, too.  Then I am going to get myself a Lufthansa Miles and More card and will henceforth avoid flying United at all cost.

Bye bye, United, it was a long and unhappy marriage and now it is over.  I am divorcing you!




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