Get a Grippe

In the last but one issue of British satirical magazine Private Eye, resident health commentator “M.D.” offers this helpful piece of advice concerning the Corona virus: “Get a grip and wash your hands”. It made me chuckle because “Grippe” is the German word for flu, or at least has come to mean so (traditionally it just meant a cold). In any case, saying that you have the “grip” sounds much more menacing than the simple “I have a cold” and have resolved to use it more often.

More fortuitously, and never one to miss an opportunity in my amaranthine undertaking to infect the good people of Vienna with my version of the English language, the phrase “get a grip” also seemed like a useful phrase to kick-off my most recent meetings. As someone who has suffered at the hands of the English language industry in the number one city for longer than I ever imagined, I am always on the lookout for something requiring the minimal amount of teaching. By this I mean anything weighed down by unfathomable linguistic terminology or a need to refer to the grammar book (eighty percent of which has very little value to the second language user).

In practical terms, this means conversation (my specialty, especially when I am being paid). Admittedly, there is a lot of what sociologists call “emotional labour”, but I see this simply as an occupational hazard. And if I have to listen to people’s views about their colleagues, bosses or society (these things always seep out because people cannot keep up the “pretence” indefinitely) then I tell myself there are worse ways to make a living. Yes, yes, I nod sympathetically, like an under-paid, under-qualified psychiatrist, as I casually glance at my watch, unseen, with absolute discretion, perfected over twenty years of surreptitiously checking the time, your manager sounds like a wanker.

However, chat will only get the average English trainer so far, with or without a pay-cheque. From time to time one must raise the stakes and unleash an idiom. Unlike the risk of death from the Corona virus, introducing English idiom to second language users is always a risk. Sometimes idiom will translate easily. For example, in German “Heu machen so lange die Sonne scheint” is the same in English: make hay while the sun shines. But equally you might as well be talking Martian.

Here in the capital of incomprehensible German, two favourites which spring to mind (“spontan in den Sinn kommen”) and exemplify this peril quite neatly are: “Es ist mir Wurscht“ (often shortened to the simple exclamation of “Wurscht!”), literally translated as “It’s a sausage”, and “nicht dass Gelbe von Ei”, which scans as “not the yellow of the egg”. The first idiom means slightly different things in different contexts but mostly “I don’t care” or even a dismissive “whatever”; and the second one “something which is not as good as it could be” (in other words “it’s not the best”).

Alas, and this is the point, you cannot say “sausage” in English when you simply want to convey the sense that you don’t give a monkeys (although I have met countless Austrians over the years who have tried and then laughed at their apparent etymological creativity). And no, nobody will understand your references to yolks (cue immediate laughter in any case when used).

The risk with idiom, then, is that the user has to not only have a deep socio-linguistic understanding about where the idiom will work or is appropriate, but also precisely the right wording without which the idiom is meaningless. Yet even if you can get both of these correct, I always caution my language improvers about using them. Learn and understand some of them, yes, but there are risks in application. Alongside the appropriacy issue, there is also the question of whether the idiom (or phrase) is current or “up-to-date”. Failure to get this right and it sounds like you learned English from Enid Blyton.

But equally, it is my contention that when a non-native uses an idiom (which is essentially a deep-seated symbol of linguistic cultural appreciation), it sounds like you are taking the piss (verarschen). You would get the same effect if say a middle-aged man or woman tried to use the vernacular of twenty-first century teenagers. Not only would you look and sound like a Wappla, it could easily be interpreted as an attempt to mock, disparage or worse, that you were “arsing” them. At best all you can do, is signal an explicit, self-deprecatory hint that you know the phrase sounds ridiculous coming from your mouth, but it’s important for your listener to know it is ridiculous. And no offence.

Opponents will argue that idiom, notwithstanding accent, will make you sound like a native. That it demonstrates a level of second language nuance, understanding and expertise. Yet even then, when you hear idiom, even from non-natives who clearly have an amazing command of English, it is very likely to be prefaced by something like, “As you Amercians/British say…” suggesting I speak your language, I respect your language but you know and I know I will never be a gatekeeper for your language.

The only exception I try to encourage is the subtle, multi-applicable and equally treacherous “phrasal verb”, a grammatical deception where a verb and adverb combine to mess with the literal meaning of the original verb. Examples like, “kick off” (start, begin, commence), “crack on” (continue) or “cop off” (anything between a kiss and a full-blown shag). Spoken English, especially informal speech, is peppered with such constructions, so it would be normal for natives to say, “the neighbours fell out” or “the kids were playing up”. But it is because of this that second language English improvers often find informal spoken English surprisingly difficult. Like in any language, comprehension, or lack of, is determined by many things: speed, pronunciation, lack of clarity. But because of phrasal verb ubiquity in English discourse (where natives will inevitably relax their linguistic cloak, especially when they are not used to speaking with non-natives who they assume understand everything), they become an idiomatic challenge.

As we have seen, most phrasal verbs in English are informal (normally). Yet they will often have a formal equivalent: “he turned down the job” or “he refused the job”. However, aside from the highest levels of English tuition, teaching focuses almost entirely on the formal verbs (this is my experience of working twenty years with business people in Austria from multiple nationalities).

On the face of it, this is fine because the formal verbs will serve any user in any situation. Indeed, it would be perfectly reasonable to say “he refused the job” either in within a business context or down the pub after a couple of pints. Yet most natives do not talk formally when the context demands it (even maintaining cognitive formality eventually gives way to more relaxed features of speech, even if you are really concentrating). And remember, most native English speakers will almost always over-estimate the language ability of non-natives because they often do not have the experience and understanding of the demands of actively using another language. But this explains why this this peculiar form of idiom is such a challenge for non-natives.

Form and mastery of phrasals give a nuance of language expertise. But the road is long and danger lurks with every utterance in English. Mix up the adverb or preposition and crack on can easily become crack up or crack (one) off, and we wouldn’t want that, especially in your global business meeting, yearly performance appraisal or speech to a visiting dignitary. Caution is thus advised. Which brings us to a certain global health panic.

Having got to grips with the phrase “get a grip” we are now in the “fluency” part of the language teacher’s existence. And if fluency training is your game, the Corona virus has been a boon to the industry. Because it is, for better or worse, on everybody’s lips. Opinions are wide and varied but it provides the language trainer with multiple lead-ins to other areas of discourse, perfect as you run down the clock. So, you can discuss internal company contingency plans which might include the sudden attraction amongst managers and human resources staff to let their staff have a “home office”. This then might lead to discussions about productivity, mobility, inter-connectivity, the future of work and whether it is acceptable to have a conference call in your pyjamas. Alternatively, you can talk about government responses, whether there should be travel bans or the closure of schools, and why now everyone is being compelled to suddenly wash their hands and avoid shaking them.

But my favourite health-scare tangent is when the conversation turns to the subject of risk and how we humans are generally incapable of rationally weighing up the probabilities of existence. We have all made bad decisions in life (mine was electing to live next door to a German) and if nothing else the Corona story is a text book reaction of how are brains over-estimate certain dangers (the fear of “dread risk”) but diminish more tangible probabilities. This is why a simple phrase like “get a grip” is so useful. We know this to be so because people respond to plain, three-word messages, especially if you repeat them over and over: “Get Brexit done”, “Take back control”, “Wash your hands”.

But don’t take my word for it, listen to an expert. In his 2014 book Risk Savvy, Gerd Gigerenzer (Berlin based Director of the Centre for Adaptive Behaviour and Cognition at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development and former Professor of Psychology at the University of Chicago) has a simple first law when it comes to risk communication on television, radio, the papers and even on the socials:

The more the media report on a health risk, the smaller the danger to you”.

© 2020 RJ Barratt