Lost in translation: confusion caused by differences between US and UK English in interpreting feedback

Weekly transmissions from the blogosphere

July 3, 2014

Have you ever wondered how American students studying in Britain or Ireland interpret the feedback given by their professors? Similarly, do European students studying in the US always get the right message when they receive words of wisdom from American faculty? What about students in their home country being taught by academics trained overseas – is there potential for crossed wires?

According to a post on Kieran Healy’s eponymous blog, the associate professor in sociology at Duke University believes there is more than a slight mismatch between what scholars mean when they talk to their international charges and how those words are understood.

A table on the blog, titled The American Grad Student’s Guide to Interpreting Feedback from Faculty Trained in Britain and Ireland, reveals the extent of the potential for miscommunication.

If a UK or Irish scholar says “I hear what you say”, for example, the American student takes this to mean “they agree with me”. However, the handy table reveals the actual definition to be “I disagree and don’t want to discuss it further”.

If a scholar trained in Britain or Ireland says “with the greatest respect”, it is likely that the American student will interpret this as meaning “they’re listening to me”. Not so, according to the actual translation: “I think you’re an idiot.”

Also, if a UK or Ireland-trained academic starts making a point by saying “oh, by the way”, it would be inaccurate to presume – as US students do, according to the blog – that the ensuing point “isn’t very important”. This is, in fact, “the main purpose for our discussion”.

However, it’s not just a problem for US students, the blog continues. A second table – The European Grad Student’s Guide to Interpreting Feedback from American Faculty – reveals that similar issues arise when those from outside the US come under the tutelage of American academics.

Whereas a European student might think that being told something is “awesome” means it is “amazing”, it does not. It is merely “OK”.

And although “I’d like to push back on a few points” sounds as though the academic has “some minor objections”, this phrase in fact means that what you have submitted is “the dumbest thing [they’ve] ever heard”. Conversely, “we should collaborate” does not mean that your adviser wants to “write a paper together someday”. No. It means “I am now first author” of the paper being discussed.

And here’s a useful warning, if a US scholar says that something you did was “inappropriate”, this does not mean that you have made “a slight gaffe”. Far from it, in fact. “Your actions disgust me, you should be expelled” is a more accurate translation, the blog advises.

Grade interpretation seems to be a problem for students on both sides of the Atlantic. If a US scholar tells a European student that they got “an A minus”, surely they are “doing really well”? Alas, the real message here is that they are “in danger of failing”. And while a US student receiving 71 per cent on a paper might assume that is roughly worthy of a “C minus”, it is in fact an “A plus”. Useful to remember when you are next giving feedback to a student from across the pond.

Send links to topical, insightful and quirky online comment by and about academics to chris.parr@tsleducation.com

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