Mistakes in a second language – cool! Mostly

Fountain penI’ve recently moved areas from East to West Germany, and amazed at how much more comfortable everyone here is with using English.

In Leipzig, very few people could speak any English, and it was always a (good!) surprise when a shopkeeper asked me a question or wished me a good day in English. In and around Villingen and Wiesbaden, this seems to be normal, which is fantastic!

As a long-time English teacher, I’m rapt that people feel comfortable enough to speak in English and don’t get held back by their fear of making mistakes. Chats and informal emails containing errors – great! I don’t care about broken grammar, wrong word choice, and incorrect pronunciation in these situations. Spoken English is flexible enough to be understood around these errors.

The more you use a language, the better you will become.

Please keep speaking and writing informally in English – you are all incredible, brave and skilled!

Where mistakes matter

Imagine that you are reading a press release in your native language that looks like a primary school child had written it. How would that affect your impression of the company, the brand, the individual, the product or service?

You’d probably think less of them – you’d be right to do so – because they didn’t want to spend the money or time to ensure their press release was error free. What does that say about the standards and quality in the other aspects of their business?

Shoddy work in one area often indicates shoddy work in all areas.

Formal written English riddled with mistakes looks unprofessional, and it seems like you don’t care enough about your product or service to spend the money on an editor/writer/translator to produce a decent piece of writing.

Websites, marketing emails, presentation slides, product documentation, posters, billboards, and the like are where such mistakes matter. Social media? Not so much – this medium is less formal and you can get away with more errors. At least until you have become such a big brand that everywhere matters.

If you want to be taken seriously in the English-speaking world of business and services, a well-written ‘front’ is a must.

Hire a professional

There are three options, and each usually takes more time (and sometimes money) than the previous:

  1. An editor will clean up the English you write.
  2. A translator will take the content you wrote in your native language and put it into English.
  3. A writer will write the content for you, with a few prompts.

Of course, there are more specialised writers and editors targeting specific fields like medical, legal, and so on.

In all cases, you must make sure the person you hire is an native English speaker, and can actually write well. Not all native speakers can write professionally!

The person you hire will probably pinpoint the areas of your business that need the most amount of work. In my experience, the following written communication channels contain the most mistakes:

  • Website – This is the place people go to find out about your products and services.
  • Product and service descriptions – These are extremely important, as they will make or break the sale.
  • Emails – Newsletters full of errors will result in people who unsubscribe.
  • Presentation slides – You don’t want people distracted by errors on your slides as you speak.
  • Documentation – This should be clear, easy to follow, and contain no errors.

As a result, people will take your products and services more seriously, and will more likely consider purchasing from you.

Act like a professional

There is no excuse in today’s hyper-connected world – you can easily find professionals online who will ensure your written communications are in perfect English.

But don’t just hire the first person you come across on Fiverr or Upwork that has the cheapest rates. Look for experienced freelancers with good reviews, and you’ll get good results.

And please don’t expect everything to be corrected overnight – think about how long it would take you to edit, write or translate an entire website, or documentation collection.

If you want others to see that you offer a quality product or service, you need to make sure your business communications are as error-free as possible.

What’s the worst piece of writing you’ve seen?

What’s the worst piece of writing from a company that you’ve seen, either in English or in your native language?

How did that affect your view of the company’s products and services?

Let me know in the comments below!

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