18.6.08

Indian English, or "verbing nouns"


Frequently through the last several years of my career I've been confronted by US engineers (the "retained staff" in major outsourcing endeavors) who wanted to give voice to complaints about their offshore cohorts in India.

Typically, the complaint has been something along the lines of "these engineers are not good at what they do." Whether the complaints were with or without merit, the focal points and exemplars were often communication skills, particularly in written English.

I'll be the first to admit that written English skills are critical to success in a global team setting.

However, I'd like to point out that there are some common usages that might seem odd to a reader in Chicago, but may be perfectly normal to a writer in Chennai. And these seemingly odd usage patterns don't necessarily indicate either low comprehension of written English, poor command of the English language, or low levels of skills and brainpower.

I've written before about the pervasive idiomatic language that seeps into business correspondence and writing. (...it's an old post, but if you're a new reader to this blog, it's worth taking a look at.)

If you're an American writing to a person or a team of people somewhere else on the planet where U.S. English (and all it's concomitant idiom) is not the first language, you need to carefully remove this idiom from your writing, or risk being misunderstood.

It's obvious but not necessarily a "given" that this applies in the other direction. For instance, by easy way of example, members of the Commonwealth of Nations may want to skip the cricket references.

Aside from idiom, there are other usage patterns that are problematic in global teams. I've recently started paying attention words and expressions that are not well understood or accepted in US Business English. This is a short list (transcribed off a corner of my white board) but should serve to illustrate the point, and hopefully to generate some comments or e-mail. I'll add words to this as I have them pointed out to me.

In Indian English, I've frequently seen phrases like:
  • The upgradation of the server. Upgradation isn't going to be found in the Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, but you will find it in a Dictionary of Indian English. It is used consistently to mean the past tense of the verb To Upgrade.
  • The updation of the system. Similar usage to upgradation.
If you think about it, both of these represent an attempt to apply a logical rule to the English language. In other similar words, it's normal to add "ation" on the end to change the form of the word. For instance, "to manifest" becomes "manifestation", with the noun form "manifest" representing a slightly different meaning now. In a famous Calvin and Hobbes comic strip, Calvin referred to this as "verbing nouns." I'd link to the strip in question, but I'm afraid of the copyright police...

Someone recently asserted to me that in Indian business English the words deployment, installation, and implementation were all used synonymously. That may be true, but on reflection, I don't believe that's a trait of Indian English, as I've seen similar kinds of problems occur with text written by studied practitioners and native speakers of US and British English. (As an aside to this issue, I'll say that the particular word chosen for deployment / installation / implementation is less important than consistent use of that word. Many professional writers will develop a "style guide" for a given topic. In it, they'll define what word or set of words they will consistently use to describe a single instance of a particular piece of technology, or multiple instances, or the physical act of making such an instance come into existence. In this case, again it's not the word, but the consistent application of the word. A glossary helps too.)

  • Another bit of Indian English that I found odd several years back was the phrase "do the needful." It is used in context thus: "We understand that this module must be completely tested by 08:00 EDT tomorrow. We will do the needful." It may sound quaint to Americans, but it makes sense if you think of it as a more stylistic way of saying "We're on it, dude."
These are just a few examples off the top of my head. Some of the language differences between Indian English and US English are idiomatic in nature. Some are attempts to extrapolate rules where common usage dictates that the rules don't really apply. Some are common traits of all people who speak and write in English.

Here's the best practice to derive from this:
  • If you're an American, remember that your global peers probably speak English as a second or third language. Cut them some slack. Don't presume that poor grammar or punctuation directly correlates to poor intellect or engineering skills.
    • Don't equate using the wrong word with not being smart. I grew up in the South of the United States, and went to public school. I'm a pretty smart guy, but for crying out loud, I was TAUGHT the wrong words for stuff.
  • If you're British, or if you grew up in the Commonwealth, you're probably used to your language being butchered. But remember, if you spell color with a u, we're going to resent you for it.
  • And if you're Indian, or Chinese, or Russian, or if your from any other country where English is not the native language, and if you've somehow managed to learn English to a level of fluency that allows you to conduct business and engineering in English, kudos!
    • You should be proud of that accomplishment.
    • But remember, every interaction you have with your global peers is a "selling" and a "teaching" event.
    • Try to mirror the language patterns of the people you work with. Use MS Word's grammar checker, with the locale set to US English. Avoid colloquial phrases, and request the same of your peers, where ever they are on the planet.
    • Use simple, precise language, and make it acceptable and safe for people to question your usage.
  • What ever language you use, decompose the problem space you work in, and come up with a glossary of common terms and usage. It will make communicating (amongst yourselves and with global teams) much easier and more precise.
  • What ever language you use for business, recognize that there are variants and dialects, and that your interpretation of what seems like a simple and obvious phrase may differ from your peer's, because of where they live, where they grew up, or where they studied the language. Be aware of this, talk about it, and avoid the trap of confusing one another with what seem like simple and obvious phrases.
Yea verily I vouchsafe these steps will easify your endeavors.


2 comments:

Abhinav said...

The use of English in different parts of the world is indeed a very interesting and important topic for global interaction.

Here is an interesting example of how a seemingly very simple sentence can be interpreted completely differently by an American and an Indian.

The sentence - "I had a flat near the school".

Indian interpretation - "I had an apartment near the school".

American interpretation - "My car got punctured near the school".

Do I need to say any more?

BPO Manila said...

Indeed, there are various interpretations to some English words. The use of those words in some sentences often create confusion to both the sender and receiver of the message.