Cut Out Your Idioms & Slang When Speaking Abroad

by Gilda Bonanno LLC

A few months ago, I made my third trip to China to conduct training for a U.S.-based company that has global operations, including a large presence in Asia and a branch in Shanghai.

The participants came from China, Japan, Korea, Thailand and India and the program was conducted in English, which for most was a second or even third or fourth language. One afternoon, I wrote down all the "Americanisms" - idioms and slang – that the instructors and company executives used. While these idioms and slang words are an important part of the richness of our language, they can make it very difficult for a non-native speaker to understand what we are saying, even if they are fluent in grammatically correct, technical English.

Here are some of the Americanisms that I heard:

• Switch gears
• It's a tall order
• Pet peeves
• Check it out
• Go the extra mile
• Get everyone on board
• Get bogged down
• Raise a red flag
• Let's not get off track
• Drag your feet
• Dig your heels in
• Hit a home run
• Batting a thousand
• Block and tackle
• Hail Mary pass
• Push the envelope

And there were many more….

In my travels, I've presented to and facilitated training in English for people from many countries in the Americas, Europe and Asia (and also throughout the U.S. to audiences which contain non-native speakers). Here are my quick lessons learned:

1. Use as few idioms/slang words as possible (this is difficult because we're not always conscious of using them!).

2. Explain the idioms when possible.

3. Be clear about the context of the sentence so it is easier to understand.

4. Simple, clear, direct sentences are best.

5. Enunciate and speak slower than usual (especially if you're from New York, like I am, and tend to speak fast) – and also make sure you speak loudly enough to be heard clearly.

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