Monthly Archives: March 2013

Work hard, play hard

In the US, the work hard, play hard motto is ubiquitous, especially in corporations. I think I first encountered it in college around 2002, or at least that’s the first time it stayed with me. Even back then I thought there was something deeply disturbing about this concept, something wrong with the notion that your whole life has to be hard. Organizations claim that this phrase encourages work-life balance, but let’s be honest: what it really communicates is the idea of doing everything at full blast.

What does play hard really mean?English courses Utrecht

I’m sure the form it takes differs, but in my experience it means employees playing (partying) together: binge drinking, all-night parties, crazy behavior that typically would not be accepted at work but is during the party period, and then getting up at 7am on a Saturday morning and working all day. I question: When did you sleep? Plus, if you are partying with your coworkers, is this really time away from work, or work-sponsored partying?

Wikipedia claims: “This work-play balance is similar to the concept of work-life balance.”

However, if all parts of your life are hard, where’s the balance? The concept of “life is hard” is everywhere, but I still strongly associate it with the US. There, it has taken the form of “Life is hard: work all the time,” but no one talks about how your productively plummets when you live such a lifestyle, not to mention what happens to your stress levels.

The more time I spend in Europe, the greater the rift that grows between me and the US culture of working non-stop and then playing hard. Such a lifestyle would never have been my choice, though what interests me is why people still think it’s not only normal, but also the preferred way to live.

We know Americans view Europeans as lazy: shops are closed on Sunday, everyone gets at least 6 weeks of vacation every year,  and you can’t get anything done in August. Compare this to the 24 hour superstores and 2 weeks of vacation and it doesn’t make sense that US productivity per employee per hour is lower than the Netherlands and some other European countries. I am not an economist, but it seems like if you compare productivity per hour worked, a number of European countries come out better than the US:

Europe: More Holidays and More Productive?

List of countries by GDP (PPP)

So why continue to promote this destructive culture? By destructive I mean destructive of your health, both physical and mental, and destructive of your relationships outside of work.

Fortunately, not all companies are continuing to promote it. After analyzing their alcohol-related incidents at work, the U.S. Air Force tried to change their motto from work hard, play hard (which in practice had become work hard, play recklessly) to work hard, play smart.

How about work hard, then relax? Spend some time with your family? Take the weekends off to recharge? Employees should be able to decide for themselves how they spend their free time.

Leave a comment

Filed under Business English

Language Mixing: when the dominant language no longer rules

Mixing languages is extremely common and natural, especially among bilingual children. However, being an adult language learner is not the same as being bilingual. Why do we sometimes mix a “weaker” language with a dominant one?

Language learners often use native language words in foreign language sentences, usually because they haven’t yet learned the word(s) they are looking for in the foreign language. This insertion seems logical to me because the learner still wants to communicate a message but doesn’t have the words for it yet– maybe they are even hoping their conversation partner will supply them with the missing foreign vocabulary. However, when the opposite happens (speaking in your native language and inserting foreign words), it seems counter-intuitive. If one language is obviously dominant, why do we insert words from a less dominant language?

English language mixing

Let’s take a practical example. When we are speaking in our native language (let’s say English), which we are presumably 100% capable in, why do we insert foreign language words (let’s say Dutch) from a language that we are not as competent in?* Isn’t continuously switching back and forth between languages more difficult (in the beginning at least) than staying in one language?

I’m not talking about the trendy words that have practically become English (déjà vu, ahoy), but about the case where you really can’t think of the word you want in your native language, and only the foreign language word comes to mind.

Perhaps, when living in a foreign language culture, our minds pull up the foreign word first when it has been the most recently seen, heard, or used. For example, when you hear the Dutch word gezellig fifty times a week, you forget how you used to describe a fun social gathering in English. In this sense, I think that our mind is lazy–it’s faster and easier to accept a mixed-language sentence than to reach back to the last time you used the equivalent English word. Because we see this inability-to-translate conundrum frequently with gezellig, the majority opinion seems to imply that gezellig can’t be translated.

Dinner last night was so gezellig! Thanks for inviting me!

But if that’s true, how have we been able to survive our entire lives without this foreign concept?

I no longer think that the explanation for foreign-words-in-native-sentences is so simple.

As we get more comfortable speaking in the foreign language (Dutch), and especially if we are surrounded by it, we might change the structure of our English sentences just slightly, which might cause them to no longer sound completely natural. This usually happens when speaking because you start a sentence without knowing exactly how you will finish it.

In a recent English conversation with a Dutch speaker whose second language is English, this sentence came out:

I don’t want a toy on my desk at work because I have to have a professional …**

Demeanor?*** Appearance? Glow?

The word in both our minds was the Dutch word uitstraling, even though we were speaking in English. If you speak Dutch, maybe your mind also automatically filled in the sentence with uitstraling. After ~10 seconds of thought (in which we both ran through all of the above options in our minds) the speaker gave up and just ended the English sentence with uitstraling. We want the feeling of glow or of radiating a particular aura. But no matter which English word we choose, it all sounds awkward, or just not quite right, so we are left with the Dutch word.

You would think, though, that being the native English speaker I am, I would have been able to come up with the right word! In this case, none of the possibilities worked within the structure and context. Using any of the English words that ran through my mind would have sounded awkward and I can’t stand awkwardness in language. Nothing was structurally wrong with the sentence up to that point; it was only at the end, when we finally understood the meaning of the phrase, that we realized that the structure would be awkward if we completed it in English. In this case, our aversion to structural awkwardness was stronger than our aversion to language mixing.

Of course, such mixture is perfectly fine–we both speak Dutch and English, we both know what the other is talking about. I don’t think language mixing is a problem or should be avoided–I am just curious as to why our brains work this way.

By constructing that particular sentence with the verb “have” we backed ourselves into a corner, where there was no way to end the sentence naturally in English and maintain the same level of formality. However, if we back up and insert a different verb, then we find the exact meaning and the natural construction that we were looking for:
“I have to come across as professional.”

So if you are facing a choice between language mixing and awkwardness, and you want to avoid both, I have learned to go back and rephrase. The odds are that the structure you’ve been using won’t sound natural no matter how long you spend with the dictionary.

To summarize:

I have to have a professional uitstraling.→ I have to come across as professional.
It was gezellig! → I had a great time!

*We are not talking about truly bilingual individuals who grew up speaking two languages equally, but about the situation where your native language is obviously dominant.
**Google translates the original Dutch sentence as “I have a professional look”–another reason to not use Google translate for anything important.
***We do say “have a professional demeanor” but it’s too formal for our casual conversation.

1 Comment

Filed under Bilingualism, Language Learning

Your Professional Reputation: the conditional

If you’re trying to come across as professional and capable of speaking English at a high level, even the smallest giveaway can clearly demonstrate that your English is not up to par.

One of the most common pitfalls for non-native English speakers occurs when people want to talk about a conditional. This can be a hard habit to break since it is a direct translation from Dutch.

The big blunder in the Netherlands is putting the will/would in the “if” part of the sentence:

Right: If I get a promotion, we will go on vacation.
Wrong: If I will get a promotion, we will go on vacation.

Right: If you ran a marathon, you would be really tired.
Wrong: If you would run a marathon, you would be really tired.

Sometimes, students are confused because they think that because we use the past tense (if you ran) then we are talking about something that happened in the past. Not true, this is just an idiosyncrasy of English: we use the past simple to talk about a future condition.

Another common problem is when people mix up if and when as if they are interchangeable–they’re not!

As a rule of thumb, conditionals always start with if:

If means that you are not sure something will happen. When means that you know it will happen, you’re just not sure if it will be tomorrow, next week, or next year.

Be careful: If you start a conditional sentence with when, it can change your meaning entirely and you may end up saying something you don’t want to.

If we rob this bank, we’ll be rich. (I haven’t decided yet if we will rob the bank. No need to call the police.)
When we rob this bank, we’ll be rich. (Decision made! We are so robbing the bank. Don’t say this too loudly.)

Leave a comment

Filed under Business English, Language Learning

Your Professional Reputation: Fired or Laid off?

In our current economic climate, more and more people are losing their jobs. In the Netherlands, we have been hearing about the casualties every week on the news: 3000 from one company, 800 from another. If you find yourself among the ever-increasing number of unemployed, Dutch and foreign alike, you should do all you can to increase your chances of future employment, starting with changing your vocabulary.

English course Utrecht

“I got fired” is the go-to expression in the Netherlands. However, this expression implies that you did something wrong and that you left your company on bad terms. When you say “I got fired,” you will usually be asked to explain what happened (you weren’t performing, you cooked the books, you couldn’t get along with your manager). Most companies are going to view the phrase “I got fired” as code for “I was a bad employee and my company had to get rid of me.”

Most likely you will want to use “I got laid off”: because of circumstances outside of your control, the company could no longer afford to employ you (and probably many of your co-workers). This expression implies that you could be a good employee, but your business division or your job was made redundant. It strengthens your argument if you can say something along the lines of “I survived three rounds of layoffs before it was my turn.”

Another neutral option is “I lost my job.” Use this when you don’t want to give information about the circumstances surrounding your dismissal.

Best of luck on the job market!

Leave a comment

Filed under Business English, Language Learning