The Hidden Challenges for Non-Native-English Speakers:
(or: We Don't Know What We Won't Know)

We should admire the very large number of people who now speak English as a second language.   From all parts of the world and from all walks of life, they have developed their knowledge of English to gain access to the world outside their home environment.  They have travelled a remarkable journey.

As the level of English everywhere has improved steadily in cross-border travel, trade and ideas, so has the level of English expected in these areas.  The World is demanding more, and good English has increasingly become a growing differentiator in many life areas.

So, it is time now to address the hidden unknowns of non-native English.  These are the errors made by non-natives that they don’t realise are errors.

The hidden unknowns

Non-natives are often not aware of mistakes they might make in English.  Even those who speak good English can be unaware of their errors, due to their own lack of knowledge, or because they have “learned” these errors other non-natives.  All the examples of “hilarious English” we can find in an internet search are from authors who did their best to write good English, but didn’t realise that the result was funny or embarrassing.

These hidden challenges, “what we don’t know that we don’t know”, can be grouped into three categories of errors:

The three main types of hidden unknowns

. Simple mistakes:  errors of the individual, that are specific to each person as a non-native;
. Common pitfalls:  common errors committed by many, that we have “learned” from each other;
. Linguistic traps:  errors that lead to a comical, distasteful, embarrassing or offensive result.

  • Simple mistakes:  Pure innocence

    These are errors that result from our own lack of knowledge.  We don’t realise they’re errors because we’ve never been taught that they are wrong. 

    • The minefield of English spelling
      In English like in no other language, identical letter combinations can have more than one pronunciation. The reverse is also true: words pronounced exactly the same way can have different letter combinations.  This makes English spelling very difficult.
    • English grammar
      Contrary to the popular view, English does have a grammar, which in some respects can be quite difficult.
    • Articles
      The difference between “the”, “a” or “an”, and “no article” is sometimes fine and not easy for the non-native to appreciate. Their use in English is often different from their use in other languages.

“Hope dies last” in English
“The hope dies last” in French or German

    • Incorrect prepositions
      Every language uses prepositions differently and there is no common rule. This makes the correct use of prepositions a challenge in any language.

      In English, you participate IN an event, in French TO an event, in German AT an event.

      Incorrect prepositions are especially noticeable in business presentations, because these use often short sentences, making them more visible.

  • Common pitfalls:  Bad company

    These are errors that are common and widespread.  We don’t realise they’re errors because we hear them often and have learnt them from others.

    • Choosing the right word
      A common problem for non-native speakers is how to choose the correct English word or expression from many words with similar or related meanings but not identical meanings (synonyms). Synonyms usually differ somehow in the setting they reflect:  each will carry its own nuance, context, tone or level of formality.

These differences can be very difficult to appreciate for the non-native speaker.  Selecting the wrong one can be incorrect or misleading.

For example, shops have customers, banks have clients, and hotels have guests.

Some words, in addition to their basic (literal) meaning, can be used in a figurative sense.  Others cannot.  It is very difficult for a non-native speaker to know which words can also be used in a figurative sense.

A large bank advertisement in a European airport showed itself as “Blooming in Europe”.  The word “blooming” can only be used in its literal sense:  only flowers can bloom.  The appropriate term with this intended figurative meaning would be “thriving in Europe” or “flourishing in Europe”.

Also, foreign words often have two meanings (homonyms), and choosing the wrong translation can give a strange or funny result.  This is a common problem with automated translation tools.

In a classic case, the word “avocat” in French means both “avocado” and “lawyer”.  Many tasty “lawyers” have been offered as a dish in the English translation of French restaurant menus—obviously the work of automated translation tools.  Native-speakers reading this will find it highly amusing, or they will be bewildered by it.

    • “False friends” used in translations
      “False friends” are words in two languages that are similar, but whose meaning differ (for example “famous” in English and “fameux” in French). Almost always, the meaning of similar words in two languages is not identical: each one reflects a different nuance, context, tone or level of formality.  Using a “false friend” without first verifying the meaning usually results in an incorrect or misleading translation.

In the above examples, the meanings of “famous” and “fameux” are not only different, they are opposite.  “Fameux” in French means “infamous” in English.

Another type of “false friend” is the “invented friend”.  These are translations that borrow a word from another language to create a word that doesn’t exist in English.

An example of an “invented friend” is “to precise something”, taken from the French “préciser quelque chose”.  In English this should be: “to specify something”, as “precise” in English is an adjective and cannot be used as a verb.

    • Colloquial expressions from a foreign language
      Every language is a rich source of colloquial expressions that describe the truths of everyday life. Their colour and imagery reflect the richness of the culture from which they stem.

      However, in most cases it is not possible to translate a colloquial expression literally into another language.  Any attempt to do so creates an expression that has no meaning in the other language.

In English, the expression “we’re not out of the woods yet” means that we haven’t yet found a way out of our difficulties.  In French one would say “we haven’t yet left the inn”, and in German one would say “we haven’t made it over the mountain yet”.

    • Use of verb tenses and tense forms
      The use of verb tenses and tense forms is devilishly difficult in English. Strangely, the ear of a native-speaker will immediately notice an incorrect use of tense or tense form—however, most native-speakers are unable to explain why it’s incorrect or explain the rule.

An especially frequent example is the incorrect selection of the past tense (e.g. “I went” versus “I have gone”).

To make things even more difficult, in each tense there are different tense forms:

Present:  I eat, I am eating; I do eat
Future:  I will travel, I am going to travel, I will be travelling, I am going to be travelling;
Past (imperfect):  I sang, I was singing, I was going to sing, I was going to be singing, I used to sing, I did sing;
Past (present perfect):  I have moved, I have been moving, I have been going to move, I did move.
Pluperfect (past perfect):  I had moved, I had been moving, I had been going to move.

Each of these has a meaning that is slightly different.  Note there are thirteen (13!) different ways of expressing a verb in the past—and each one has a specific meaning.  It is understandable that non-native-speakers have a difficult time with these.

Tense and tense forms in English are important because they convey differences in meaning.
Their incorrect use can therefore be misleading.  Even if not misleading, the native-English reader will often hesitate for an instant to check what the most likely meaning is—this is a distraction and can be irritating.

    • Sentence structure
      In English many possible sentence structures can be used to convey the same idea. However, each one will reflect a different emphasis, logic or meaning.  Some sentence structures are simpler and easier to understand than others.

      Native-speakers can naturally craft sentence structures that are simpler or complex, or that convey their intended emphasis, logic or meaning.  Non-native-speakers often have great difficulty with this in both directions—they do not always understand the emphasis (or logic or meaning) that a specific structure conveys.  They are also unsure how to select a sentence structure that reflects a specific emphasis they wish to add.  Also, they often have difficulty creating sentence structures for a complex matter.

      In addition, incorrect sentence structures are often taken from the foreign language from which a text has been translated.  These can sound very strange, even when their meaning seems clear.

    • Inappropriate or incorrect word sequence
      Like sentence structure, word sequence is a linguistic tool that can convey a desired emphasis, logic or meaning.

For example, the positioning of adjectives—before or after the noun—can give slightly different meanings.  The “concerned citizens” speaks about citizens who are worried about something.
The “citizens concerned” speaks about the citizens who are of relevance in a particular matter.

In addition, an incorrect word sequence is often taken from the foreign language from which a text has been translated.  These will often sound very strange, even if their meaning isn’t ambiguous.

  • Linguistic traps: Harmless but deadly

These are errors that lead to a comical, distasteful, embarrassing or offensive result.  We don’t realise they are errors because we are not aware of their effect.

A large bank advertisement in a European airport recently showed itself as “blooming in Europe”.  The word “blooming” can only be used in its literal sense:  only flowers can bloom.  The native-speakers who see this sign will be highly amused by it.

In another real-life example, a company memo outlined the details of an office move.  The memo explained how computer equipment, including “mice”, was to be moved.  Native-speakers were still laughing about this weeks later:  Although the plural of “mouse” is indeed “mice”, this plural can only be used for the animal with this name.  The term “mouse devices” should have been used instead.

The word “Lust” in German means fun, amusement or a willingness do something fun.  It is best not to use the word “lust” in English to denote ordinary fun—the context in English is very different and the result would be embarrassing.

The internet has a vast number of “hilarious English” sites offering examples of errors that are extremely funny, distasteful, embarrassing or even offensive.

Do I know what I don’t know?  The answer is No.

The truth is, when we learn a foreign language such as English, we never really know what we don’t know.  This is true even for those who speak good English.  We can never be completely sure, simply because we aren’t native-speakers.

And for every unknown error, there are in fact three additional unknowns:

  • We don’t know if it changes the content and therefore misleads the reader;
  • We don’t know how it is affecting the reader’s impression of us;
  • We don’t know if it leads to a funny, distasteful, embarrassing or offensive result.

Finding the Unknowns:  Native review and optimisation

The only way to find all those hidden unknowns is a review of your English text by a native-speaker.  This will find and correct errors, and will optimise your text so that it is accurate, professional and pleasing to read.

Native review and optimisation:  Showing you at your best!

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