When working with native-English clients I find I sometimes have to pay attention to the meanings of words so that we do not end up talking at cross-purposes. (English speaker – what does ‘being assertive’ mean to you?) Working with non native-English clients is even more problemmatic and often leads to interesting situations. The problems are not so much in the actual translation of a word or phrase but more in the meaning behind them and how they differ in meaning according to culture.
For example, ‘aim, goal and objective’ translates into Polish as ‘cel, cel i cel.’ There is no distinction between them in Polish. Why, I wonder? What does this say about Poles? The distinction is important in English. Or if I show my CV to a Russian I usually have to spend several minutes explaining what I mean by ‘executive coach’ since to them ‘coach’ means ‘trainer’, as in sports trainer. And I have learned to be especially wary of the term ‘personal development plan’ which more than a few Russians see as a threat to their privacy rather than simply as a plan of development designed for a specific individual.
When it comes to acronyms like SMART with non-native speakers, we have further problems. In English, if you want to make sure you set out a good work objective for someone, you can use SMART as a quick guide. An objective is a good one if it is: Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic and Time-limited.
Acronyms can be quite clever at giving extra meaning in an easy-to-remember way to something. To me, the word ‘smart’ in English suggests a range of attributes such as ‘clever’, ‘intelligent’, ‘sharp’, ‘tidy’, ‘bright’, ‘quick’, ‘energetic’,'organised’ and ‘stylish’. Remember the old (and no longer permitted) job advertisement they used to hang outside the factory gates, “Smart young lad wanted”?
At bquest we use SMART learning and development plans . We use the acronym slightly differently however – we say Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant and Time-limited. In my opinion, if an objective is judged achievable then it is also realistic. I think the word ‘Relevant’ is better because it makes sure you focus on an objective that is worth achieving; you should be asking, “Is this objective the right objective, is it relevant to me and the business?”
So, an acronym like SMART can be used as a form of mental model. It has its core mearning of S.M.A.R.T and it has a whole set of associated meanings of smart; if you want a good learning objective, then SMART is a very appropriate word. In English, that is. Does it work in other languages?
Many native Polish speakers, hearing the word ‘smart’, will translate it first as ‘elegancki’, the reverse translation of which is obvious. An ‘elegant learning objective’ is not quite the same thing as a ‘SMART learning objective’! An bang goes the immediate value of the SMART acronym. In fact it may even be confusing; I have to spend extra time making sure Polish bquest participants don’t think being ‘elegant’ is the goal of their learning and development plans!
We native speakers of English are lucky that English is the global language of business, but we have to be especially careful that we don’t take it for granted that ‘our’ English is the same as the English of others. Here’s a true story:
I went to a conference ten years ago about internet technologies for management education. The conference was in English. A Japanese expert stood up and presented a paper, in English. I did not understand a word. He sat down to applause. A man in the audience stood up and asked the presenter a question. The man I found out later was Portuguese. He asked his question in English. I did not understand a word. The Japanese presenter replied, again in English. Again, I did not understand a word. The two of them exchanged a couple more questions, obviously understanding each other. It was then I realised that there was a new language of ‘international English’ emerging that native-English speakers like me would have to learn if we are to communicate effectively in future.
Years of clarifying meanings with Russian, Thai, Polish, Italian, French and other clients has really helped me understand and empathise with other cultures.