Avoiding Dunglish and other Foreign English

Being bilingual has many advantages but also a few disadvantages. The most prevalent one is thinking of a word in the wrong language and not being able to translate it in your head fast enough. When talking to someone who doesn’t know I’m bilingual, I always get the feeling that they think I’m slightly dim-witted.

Connected to this, is having two sets of grammatical rules in your head. Writing as much as I do, I’m constantly confronted with the question of which rules apply to which language.

Prepositions and more

A simple example: In Dutch you sit in the train but in English you sit on the train. I know this, but sometimes if I think too much about it, I start to doubt which preposition is used in which language. First both sound correct, then neither and before I know it, I can’t write in either language.

And it’s not just prepositions that differ. Where one language uses a comma, the other language will demand a semi-colon or full stop. Dutch has many solid compounds and English usually has open compounds. But then there are the exceptions in both languages and the doubt sets in again. And the list of slight differences goes on and on…

Sentence structure

Last week I learned that even the way the languages construct their sentences differ.  It was a real eye-opener. Normal sentence structures in English have end-focus. In other words, the most important and new information is placed at the end of the sentence. Dutch sentences, however, don’t often follow this pattern, and instead have the focus at the beginning, as it’s this part of the sentence that has the most impact on a Dutch reader.

I now understand why I would see texts where the sentences were grammatically correct but just sounded so wrong… so Dunglish.

Sentence length also differs. Good Dutch writing has short, compact sentences. In English a well written sentence should usually have an average of 15 to 20 words, although the length should vary throughout the text. A translated Dutch text will therefore sound choppy and even childish if the sentence length is not altered.

Mixing it up

I realise that when writing in Dutch, I use the English technique of end-focus and when writing in English I’m often inclined to write short, compact sentences. Things I should keep in mind when writing.

And I’m sure for bilinguals with other language combinations there are other things to watch for.



9 thoughts on “Avoiding Dunglish and other Foreign English

  1. Funny that you think English uses longer and more complex sentences (and I suppose it does, if you compare it with Dutch). I grew up with German, English and Romanian and thought that English was by far the simplest and most direct of the three. However, when I returned to Romania during high school, my teachers thought I was using very ‘childish’ language, because I always strove for clarity (English style), while the Romanian style is more flowery, with lots of polysyllabic words to prove you’re clever.

  2. Your insights are very interesting. My husband grew up in Germany and Italy, learning both languages in addition to English, but he’s never mentioned any differences in syntax or sentence structure. I learned rudimentary French in high school and am just now attempting to learn Spanish on a very part-time basis, but I don’t know either well enough to have anything intelligent to say about their form. Except, perhaps that I found the dropping of the pronoun (letting the verb imply the pronoun) in Spanish to be confusing until someone told me that both forms are correct. I just have to train my ear (brain) to recognize both forms on the fly.

    I have a friend who’s translating poems from Catalan to English, a process I find fascinating. To be “true” to a text, one must not be “true” to the text, so to speak. There’s an interesting essay, “The Task of the Translator,” in Walter Benjamin’s book, Illuminations, that talks about the intricacies of translation. Too much to go into here, but it may be worth your time to read. There’s another marvelous essay in that collection called, The Work of Art in an Age of Mechanical Reproduction. Actually, the entire book of essays is stellar Thanks for the wonderful post!

  3. Learned something new: that in English *in* and *on* the train can both be used, depending on vernacular. Never realised that. As I try to keep to the standard British as much as possible I guess it would be *on* the train for me.
    Also, isn’t this just what makes language so complex (and interesting). Try keeping all this in mind for two (or more) languages!

  4. Personally, I sit in a train In English. I hope I would in Dutch as well. If I sat on the train I might fall off. I think this was a bad example, but I do get your point. You even have to be careful about which English you are trying to sound clever in.

    Sometimes my Spanglish pops out to trip me up. But hey, you are among friends and at any rate you’ll inevitably sound a lot more intelligent than a lot of single-language sports figures and celebrities.

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