As I haven’t updated for ages and have some different ideas in mind, I’ve decided to start a new blog.
If you’ve followed this one, first, thank you very much and I hope you’ll follow me at my new blog
Well, one thing nobody can say about the EFL industry is that we don’t understand the importance of technology to our profession. If the recent IATEFL conference is in any way representative of the industry as a whole, then we seem to be obsessed with technology.
There were again a huge number of technology talks over the four days, if you ask me, far too many.
I do honestly get it, technology is important and we need to adapt to it and include it in our classroom. However, don’t we know that already?
I was extremely disappointed with the majority of tech talks at this year’s conference. All but a handful seemed to be obsessed with the following questions:
- Is technology useful in English teaching?
- Should we be using technology in our classroom?
Well, I think everybody knows that the answers are 1. Yes and 2. Yes. Why do we need to keep talking about it? Where are all the talks entitled ‘how to use technology in the classroom”? There are some but you have to wade through a huge amount of irrelevant rubbish to find them.
There were a few excellent, practical workshops that just gave people solid ideas on how to incorporate technology into their teaching. However, the majority of talks seemed to focus on the ethics of using technology and whether it has a place in the classroom.
The answer is YES. Can we move on please? We have technology, its good. Let’s start seeing all technology talks providing people with what they really want; practical ideas on how to use the vast array of technology successfully in their classrooms. Conference organisers, if a technology talk isn’t practical, please don’t accept it, enough already.
When you consider teaching genre, you probably think about emails or report writing. So, conversational discourse, such as the classic soft skills, is probably far from your mind.
However, if you’re looking for a way to introduce the key business soft skills into your teaching, analysing and presenting them as a specific ‘genre’ can make them accessible for teachers and learners.
Furthermore, a genre approach represents a high impact methodology that gives lots of value through easily applicable communication techniques. It also allows teachers with limited business knowledge to engage with language, not business, while at the same time providing dynamic communication models that learners can easily translate into workplace situations.
Recognising a Genre
Technically, a genre is any communicative act that is associated with a particular structure, language items and conventions – things that the majority of people do when they are performing this act.
If we analyse them, we see that most soft skills neatly fit this pattern. For example, when many people give feedback theyfollow the following structure:
- General Positive Statement
- Specific Critical Statement
- Specific Positive Statement
- Advice for the future
If you think about the times you’ve given or received feedback I’m sure you can recognise this structure. In addition, if you think about the language used I’m sure you can make a list including – softening phrases (a bit, kind of, maybe…), modals (you could have, you might…) and indirect sentences (maybe you could think about…).
Finally, anyone who’s had issues with the appropriateness of their feedback has probably discovered the same conventions – the things successful feedback givers do and unsuccessful ones don’t
- Avoid negative words (problem, criticise, didn’t like etc)
- Be vague when being negative (one thing I’d say is… rather than you should have…)
- Stress collaboration (next time we need to…)
Business trainers have been talking about this for years and you can easily find what they have to say through a simple Google search.
Why Teach Soft Skills this way?
For many years, I presented language for a particular situation, such as meetings, and then ran a role play practicing the situation. Like me, you’ve probably noticed that, when taught this way, learners are rarely able to apply new language in the communicative situation.
I believe that the reason for this is the detachment between language input and communication. An answer could be to teach the language within the meeting, in a test teach test scenario for example but I also find that learners do not engage overly in this process.
In my opinion, this is because, although they may tell you they want to improve their ability in meetings, what they actually mean is that they want to improve their communication skills.
By presenting a ‘soft skill’ as a specific genre, you can present high frequency grammar and vocabulary and explain why these language items are so critical for completing the particular skill. You can also embed the language within the specific skill and apply that skill to different situations. For example, influencing can be practicised in a meeting, on the telephone and in a negotiation.
In other words, the genre not only provides a vehicle for the language in the class but also creates a trigger for specific language use in the client’s working environment.
It’s easier to recognise the skill and thus the associated language than pick discreet language items to use when doing business.
I’ve recently been sucked into several conversations on whether business English trainers should be retraining as coaches or ‘soft skills experts’. This isn’t a new debate and I’m sure this post won’t end the speculation but there seems to be 2 core issues around this debate:
1. Does Interest in Coaching and Soft Skills represent Client Need or Trainers’ desire to increase their income?
Many people are extremely sceptical about the rush for business English teachers to become coaches and soft skills providers and there is much to the theory that lots of people who choose this option are just experimenting in a rebranding exercise. There has been a lot of debate over the years about what precisely we should call ourselves and how we can best demonstrate what we do to our clients. We all know that most business English courses involve a lot more than language and it’s definitely the case that many courses do cross over into cultural awareness, soft skills and even life coaching in many cases.
I share the frustration of many that we all know that we use a wide range of skills but only get paid for our language competence. It’s also incredibly frustrating that many people who aren’t as good as many of the excellent professionals in our industry get paid considerably more because they have marketed themselves as a soft skills/sales/executive trainer rather than a language professional. However, I have serious concerns over the idea that we should follow our cousins in the soft skills area and attempt to develop a style of coaching that tacks language training onto more general business skills training.
The reasons for this are twofold. Our niche, language training, represents a real need for many of our clients. The problem is not what we do but how we package it. I strongly feel that trying to disguise language development as ‘soft skills training’ not only dilutes our USP as English trainers but also denies the fine tradition of pedagogical development that ELT has gone through. I have had experience of various training approaches including the PGCE and corporate ‘train the trainer’ approaches and the fact is, none of them are as good as the communicative approach we have evolved over the last 40 or so years. What we do is really high quality and we should stop beating ourselves up for how little we get paid and start singing about the myriad fantastic things we do every day in our classrooms.
A second consideration for anyone considering the switch to business coach is the fact that you must take a coaching qualification if you want to be successful and those courses are expensive. Something you should also do is google ‘business coach’ and see how much competition is out there. Is it really sensible to spend a lot of money moving into another saturated market where the successful people have tons of business experience, PhD’s and a track record as long as your arm? Maybe you should stick with us and help make Business English the credible, professional industry we all want it to be.
But what do we want it to be or:
2. What Core Competencies do Business English Trainers need?
I recently had a conversation with my extremely experienced DOS on why he would always take someone with sound EFL experience over a strong business background to teach in our executive centre. His reasoning was that someone who knows his way around a language point and can manage a classroom has the ability to learn about business and soft skills. Although they’ll never be as good as someone who’s been there and done it, they can be good enough and convince clients they know what they’re talking about. Conversely, someone who comes to language teaching late in life will never have the same grasp of and ability to present language as someone who spent their apprenticeship in a general English class before learning about and specialising in business English. Therefore, they’ll never satisfactorily provide clients with their core need, language development.
The fact is, this ability to explain and manipulate language is the business English teacher’s competitive advantage and, in the rush to up-sell ourselves, we’re forgetting this. Yesterday, I went to an event aimed at helping professionals develop their influencing and persuasion skills. There were lots of conversations about the way people speak and behave in different situations. There also seemed to be confusion about how certain utterances had led to unintended outcomes.
As a linguist, I didn’t fully understand the business situations they were discussing but I could see how the language they were using resulted in negative outcomes. The reason for this is I know not the only the meaning of words and grammar structures but also how they can be inferred in different situations.
This knowledge of discourse, illocutionary force, face and politeness is our competitive advantage. Business coaches often tell people to consider their language but they don’t have the linguistic knowledge to advise people on specific language they might want to use or avoid. We have that knowledge, why aren’t we selling it to our clients?
We’ve had business psychologists and occupational therapists for years but there’s a key competency that’s missing. Pick up any business book and you’ll learn about the primacy of communication but there’s no one analysing the language business people use and advising on what specific elements of communication create conflict and how people can speak to develop relationships.
So, a new title for you, I’m not a coach or a soft skills trainer, I’m a Business Linguist.
So why’s a Business Linguist better than a Business English Teacher?
It’s not really and that’s the point. We all know that business English differs from general English in the language used, specific words, phrases and grammatical structures appear more frequently or in different ways in this genre of communication. But we’ve never taken it any further than that.
If you think about soft skills, all they are is a specific genre of communication. Taking the classic soft skill of feedback as an example, this technique is associated to specific language items that are more frequent when giving feedback than when engaged in normal talk. Furthermore, there are certain items that people good at giving feedback use more frequently than those who are bad at the skill. A classic example is past modals versus future time phrases.
A manager I hated always told me what I should have done and what she would have done if she had been me. In short, she always focused on the mistake and made me feel bad about it. Funnily enough, everyone hated her. Conversely, an inspirational manager I worked for always began feedback by simply stating the problem before saying ‘going forward…’ or ‘next time…’ and then giving practical advice. This language turned the mistake into a learning outcome and thus motivated you to do better next time.
Again, business books are full of this stuff but they never contain the practical language people can use to make a difference because they don’t know how. We, the linguists, know how to do this and are more than capable of building a dossier of effective and ineffective language and providing detailed ‘coaching’ on the language people use and the illocutionary force of such language.
This is a unique skill that business people talk about all the time. They want it but know it’s available. It’s our job to shout about what we do and start delivering in our natural niche.
At the Business English UK conference yesterday, Evan Frendo gave an excellent talk about Specicifity in business English and ESP. As usual, he blended cutting edge research and everyman charm to deliver a well thought out and ultimately simple message; simple but worrying. The business English market is fundamentally shifting.
Evan showed a lot of evidence that companies and L & D managers are growing dissatisfied with the results from traditional classroom training because the trainer does not really know what the clients need and takes a guess. Even when the trainer is highly skilled, which, sadly, many are not, he does not have the specific knowledge of the clients’ target discourse to deliver the training really required. See Evan’s slides here
Companies are responding to this in two ways:
- Increasingly looking to researchers to investigate the language used in the specific discourse community and work directly with that community to deliver training, increasingly ‘on the job’
- Rejecting training altogether and sending delegates to spend time living and working in the target discourse community. For example, sending a German manager to Japan to learn how to work with the Japanese.
This idea is backed up by Chris Bowie, an embedded trainer at PWC China. At IATEFL Glasgow, Chris talked about the 70, 20, 10 rule where multi-national companies are increasingly expecting 70% of employee’s training to be delivered ‘on the job’, 20% to come from working with colleagues and only 10% from formal training. Watch Chris’s talk here.
This means that an ever increasing number of providers will be fighting over an ever shrinking number of clients in the future.
In my opinion, this makes intensive immersion UK based training particularly venerable. If clients are turning away from training where all delegates are from one discourse community, why would they send delegates to the UK to sit in a room with a trainer who maybe has never even been to their country and a group of people from wildly varied business and cultural backgrounds. Where’s the value?
If we continue to teach more traditional business English skills, I feel the UK global market share will continue to decline and the ‘immersion’ argument is no longer enough. We need to start selling our competitive advantage better and more clearly.
So, what do we have that no one else does:
- Immersion in English
- Variety of delegates
- Escape from the office
Immersion is attractive and will remain so but I strongly believe that this isn’t enough. Our key advantage, and one that you can only really find in the UK market is this: people from everywhere come to study here. This is such an advantage because it gives a real need for clients to pay attention to cultural awareness, requires people to revise their communication strategies and teaches people how to build relationships across cultures.
Compared to this, immersion is a side show. Nobody in London speaks to them anyway.
So, what should we be selling? The fact is, yes, I can sit in on your meetings, record your discourse, use concordance to produce an accurate list of the language you will need to use and ‘find your gap’ more accurately by being embedded with you in your community but, for anyone who has to deal with more than one other culture, the benefits of a week in the UK is immeasurable.
Only here can you really test your ability to conduct a meeting with a Japanese and a Russian at the same time.
Only here can you argue politics with a Brit in the morning and argue about how to cut the budget with 4 Brazilians in the afternoon.
This is a major competitive advantage but are we selling it? Most marketing departments I’ve worked with still talk about immersion and the training techniques we use. Everyone uses the same techniques it’s not better in London.
How can we make the sales people change their pitch? Well we have to change the way we teach. Currently, I spend almost all of my time teaching cultural awareness and soft skills, embedding language inside these skills. This gives delegates something they can’t get anywhere else.
What do you do in class and how can we same executive training in the UK?
I’ve spent a lot of time teaching small talk strategies lately. The reason is partly because my recent learners have expressed a strong desire and a real need for it. Here’s what I’ve been doing:
- My learners feel it’s really difficult to engage with people from different cultures and they really struggle to build the same connections that they can in their native language
- A lot of the time, learners struggle to understand each other due to lack of clarity, not insufficient language (I’ve been teaching high level learners)
- Learners seem to focus too much on their own communication needs (language accuracy etc) and not the needs of their communication partner
- Deep discussions about the learners’ own communication style and the differences between them have led to an increase in empathy and a big change in how learners interact with each other. These conversations were initially led by me but, by building a collaborative environment where the importance of understanding other people is prioritised, learners have grown in awareness and are initiating conversations about each others’ differences and peer teaching is really taking place.
- By consistently recording learners and helping them identify areas where they are unclear, learners are slowly thinking about how to express things more clearly and, little by little, they are much clearer and easier to understand.
- These two activities have resulted in learners’ addressing each others’ needs much more openly and negotiating communication much more consistently and collaboratively. They also remember more language input too.
As a result of this exploration, I’ve learnt things about my learners I’ve never found out before and really believe the learners are developing faster as a result of collaborative training and peer teaching.
I’m speaking about these issues at the Business English UK conference next weekend and would love to see you there.
I got in trouble last week. I’ve been sharing a learner in a group ‘young business’ class with a colleague doing one to one preparation for BEC higher.
On Thursday, the colleague came to find me with a rather large bone he had to pick. In a practice test, the learner had constantly tried to use ‘you needn’t have’ to discuss mistakes made in a project. When corrected to ‘you shouldn’t have’ the learner replied ‘Ed said ‘should’ is bad and to use ‘need to’ instead’.
He’s right, I had. Of course, the context was different. I was looking at using modals to delegate and give responsibility and in that context, the order like quality of ‘you should call the suppliers as soon as possible’ is quite rare in business speech as managers are often trained to leave orders implied, suggest them or make requests.
Therefore, phrases expressing collaborative necessity followed by requests are much more common such as: ‘we need to call the suppliers as soon as possible, could you take care of it?’
A valuable lesson for me is that I need to demonstrate the context more carefully and illustrate the limitations of the language
However, when discussing the use of ‘shouldn’t have’ to give feedback I claimed that no decent manager would use even a mildly directive phrase such as ‘you should/shouldn’t have’. They would be much more likely to make weak suggestions using something like: ‘wouldn’t it have been better to..?’ or ‘couldn’t you have thought about…?’
That is, if they were to dwell on the past. The fact is, most international management training programmes suggest that negative feedback should take the form of future advice, making something like ‘so, going forward, we need to think about….’ The most likely way the phrase would be delivered.
Although my colleague agreed, he still pulled a face. He’s a very senior BEC examiner and he was concerned that language like that doesn’t fit the BEC mark scheme. I find that extremely disconcerting.
This is the way managers talk, critical language has been removed from their lexicon by countless books and training programmes. If BEC is encouraging language use that does not reflect corporate discourse, does it do the business?