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To Buy, to Purchase or to Procure?

What comes naturally and what doesn’t when working in English as a second language.

CSL global communications team on-site in Bern, Switzerland.
CSL's global communications team during a visit to the biotech company's leading-edge manufacturing site in Bern, Switzerland. Author Jasmin Joller (highlighted by arrow in back row) writes about the challenges of working in different languages on a global team.

This is part of an occasional series about working on a global team. Based in Bern, Switzerland, Deputy Communications Director Jasmin Joller speaks Swiss German, German and English. She also understands much in French and Spanish.

With foreign languages, people love superlatives. So they marvel at cultures that have more than 50 different words for the phenomenon we here in this part of Switzerland call “Schnee” (snow).

Regarding vocabulary, we Swiss-German speakers are happy to use two words - “Dings” or “Züg” - for half the world’s objects and beings. But because I work on a global team with people from the United States, Australia and the United Kingdom, the English language provides me with linguistic entrancement on a regular basis.

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I was astonished to learn about the numerous ways of expressing to “buy” something in English. In Swiss German (and also in German, by the way) we use the words “Einkauf” (noun) and “einkaufen” (verb). The English language though offers you a way more exquisite choice: Besides simply “buying” something you can “go shopping” or “choose to purchase” it. Oh, and there’s this word “procurement,” whose meaning hasn’t completely revealed itself to me up to this date.

But careful if you mix and match them. If you do, well, here I need a phrase that expresses that something can go pretty wrong … Here’s another example of when English offers too many choices: Consider the words that come up in matters of performance management.

To keep track of your performance at work, you will define what we in Switzerland and Germany call “Ziele.” Makes sense, right? “Ziele” means keeping track of what you’re doing. But as soon as I try to translate the “Ziele” into English, it gets tricky.

Can I translate it with “target?”(Or would I then be attempting to – I don’t know – shoot an arrow at the task at hand – e.g. the annual report?)

Or is it better to say the annual report is my “aim?” That doesn’t sound as merciless as “targeting,” at least.

Is it my “objective?”

My “goal,” perhaps? If so, then does completing the task at hand make me a goal-getter, like in a big football (soccer) match? Am I allowed to throw my arms in the air, run around the office and celebrate wildly the moment the annual report is published? Probably not.

Honestly, I admire how skillful my English native teammates use their synonym-rich language. But sometimes, I’m pretty content with all the “Dings” and “Züg.”


Want a counterpoint? Read a native English speaker’s perspective on working with German-speaking colleagues.