If you write in English to an audience that speaks English as a foreign language (EFL, ESL), choose words that have few meanings. Or provide a context to help your readers understand the meaning.
In a writing seminar last week, a woman named Montserrat, who is from Spain, shared an example that illustrates the point: At a social event, someone asked Montserrat’s friend what type of dressing she wanted. Embarrassed, the friend wondered What is wrong with the dress I am wearing?
Dress, dressing. According to Montserrat, what made the question “What type of dressing do you want?” more challenging is the fact that Spaniards typically enjoy their salads with olive oil and vinegar–or “undressed”–not with the many dressings North Americans use.
If the exchange had taken place in writing, a clearer version might be this: “Do you want ranch, blue cheese, or vinaigrette dressing on your salad?” That sentence provides examples (ranch, etc.) and a context (on your salad).
Simple words can create the most confusion. For example, I offer classes. Someone who reads English as a second, third, or fourth language, must translate classes to determine my meaning. Does class mean a set, group, or configuration of members? Does it mean a category? A division? A quality such as “first class”? A rank? A group of students? A time in which students meet?
When I saw an entry from this blog translated into German, it mentioned my Kategorien. But I teach writing classes–not writing categories!
The German Kategorien taught me a lesson. Now I mention my seminars–a word that, when translated, always conveys my meaning.
It is often not the most common word that works for a global audience. It is the word with the fewest meanings, used in a helpful context.