Home > Intercultural Communication > Does our language or our background determine how we speak?

Does our language or our background determine how we speak?

This week, I’ve been exploring what causes communication problems, in the classroom and in the workplace. My learners, my own interaction and some great resources have been my classroom and here is what I’ve found out about my learners and myself:

In his plenary speech at BeSig 2010, Mark Powell talks about two low level engineers he was teaching who couldn’t speak English but managed to do a business deal during lunch. This was an important moment for him, and, listening to him, I started seriously thinking. Although they couldn’t speak English, they could speak ‘engineering’ and they communicated on that level. The langauge was secondary to the meaning. They shared meaning and did business on that alone.

I have seen this in my own classes many times. Recently, we placed an Italian CFO and a French production manager together because they had very similar communicative abilities. I hate to say that they were the same ‘level’ but that’s how they were grouped. The group was a disaster and we eventually had to separate them and give both clients one to one classes.

Reflecting on this incident, I’m drawn to how I observed these two learners behave in break and social time and critically, who they associated with. The financier spent his time with another financier, a German insurance manager, and the engineer seemed happiest in the company of a Russian quality control manager. These two learners had purchased individual tuition and both had very high communicative ability. However, despite having a much stronger grasp of English than their peers, they also seemed comfortable in the communicative relationship.

Now, despite being one example, this episode raises an interesting question. For effective interaction, do people need effective general communication skills or do they need shared meaning?

In his excellent IATEFL 2011 talk, Even Frendo talks about ‘discourse communities’, making the point that the job of professional English training is to help people who are not members of a specific community join it. There are multiple reasons for lack of access to the community, and lack of language ability is definitely one of these,
but there are also a wide range of other issues. Central to this is shared meaning. Does the group I’m trying to join understand things in the same way as me. Metaphor is also critical, how does the target group view the world and how is this interpretation communicated? This is similar to the cultural aspects of communication in my last post. Finally, it’s important to consider how you communicate and how this style will be perceived by the target group. As someone still learning the management ropes, I can say that this point is central to all communication, not just other language.

In his BeSig talk, Mark Powell talks about ‘English Just in Time’ (EJT), saying that the majority of professional learners should be focused on language that will have an immediate effect on their workplace communication. I completely agree with this. He contrasts this with the majority of business English teaching, calling it ‘English Just in Case’ (EJC) and comparing it with general English teaching, where a large amount of language is taught for no particular reason. His argument, which I support, is to strip down the language we teach in order to ensure we provide learners with the language that enables them to achieve maximum workplace results. Using the VOICE corpus, Mark goes on to demonstrate how language traditionally taught is actually insignificant in native and non native business talk and urges us to teach language that is significant. I won’t go into any more detail as you can watch the video yourself.

However, despite agreeing wholeheartedly with Mark, I can see some significant problems with implementing this in the classroom. In fact, I encountered some when I tentatively tried to do so this week.

In another great IATEFL talk, Steve Flinders and Ian McMasters from York Associates stated ‘ … the learners have hijacked the agenda’ when referring to learner obsession with grammar and vocabulary. Again, I completely agree with this but any attempt to refocus learner attention on communicative tasks such as giving feedback or showing empathy, both advocated in this talk, is likely to be met with resistance. I encountered this earlier in the week when a class who wanted to increase their confidence in meetings and conference calls kept drawing lessons back to grammatical and vocabulary accuracy. Although I feel this is less useful for them than considering how others communicate, as a learner focussed teacher, I must respond to their need. I also think that the approach advocated by York Associates, although pedagogically valid, runs the risk of polarising teacher – learner viewpoints of learning.

I’m also convinced by Evan’s argument that ESP teachers should focus on the discourse community their learners wish to join and base their lessons on examples from this community. I can see myself doing this much more extensively in the future but also find this approach extremely problematic for many trainers. In my context, I often represent one week of my learners’ lives and the other stakeholders are far removed, usually in distant countries. Therefore, the type of information gathering Evan promotes in his recent BeSig blog is difficult to obtain due to reasons of trust, accessibility and accountability. I agree that there’s huge amounts of academic research one can do to help identify with the learner’s discourse community and I’m already beginning to do this.

However, as an academic manager, I have my own stakeholders to consider. The preparation Evan promotes takes a huge amount of time effort, and knowledge. I’m very motivated and committed to a career in ESP but many of my teachers aren’t. They have other lives, other motivations and do not have the patience or ability to do this research. I understand and don’t expect them to but would like to think that my efforts can be used to help them in the classroom.

Going back to a DOGME approach, I think there’s lots to be said about using the learners’ lives and language. In my opinion, the learners I meet are aware of their own strengths and weaknesses, the discourse community they need to join and why they fail to achieve entry. Unfortunately, this is often subconscious and is vocalised in vague notions such as;

‘Their accent is very difficult to understand’
‘They speak English better than me’
‘They go very fast and by the time I know what I want to say the conversation’s moved on’
‘I don’t have the words’
(All learner quotes from this week)

The idea that I’ve begun to play with is a series of frameworks that help learners analyse their own discourse community and identify areas where they are struggling to join. Then lessons can focus on these areas, whatever they are and provide practical input. This is still in a very experimental stage so no more here.

Finally, I’ve noticed that my learners who’re living and working in the UK already do this for themselves. Whereas people from other countries generally identify extremely general communication problems, these learners often come to me with questions about specific interactions, language used in a specific situations or the problems they have understanding a particular person. This last point does often refer to accent but often also takes the form of a discussion of gender, background and education, making me wonder again whether the problem is only language based or whether misunderstanding comes from lack of shared meaning?

Well, that’s kind of it this week and I can’t go further at the moment without beginning to repeat myself. I trust that the blogosphere will again help me with the questions posed here and I’m looking forward to your comments, as well as still wondering if I’ll get any 🙂

Thanks for reading!


Mark Powell, BeSig 2010 Plenary Speech, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0ApW0AhSC8g
Evan Frendo, Assessing English for Accounting, IATEFL 2011 http://iatefl.britishcouncil.org/2011/sessions/2011-04-17/assessing-english-accounting
Evan Frendo, On Myths, BeSig World Blog, http://www.besig.org/blog/category/evan-frendo/
Viki Hollett, What is Pragmatics, http://www.vickihollett.com/?p=2551
Viki Hollet, What isn’t Pragmatics, http://www.vickihollett.com/?p=2595
Steve Flinders & Ian McMasters, Communicating Internationally,
IATEFL 2011 http://iatefl.britishcouncil.org/2011/sessions/2011-04-17/communicating-internationally-english

  1. May 16, 2011 at 8:04 am

    Some excellent points here. 🙂

    Just to follow up on the reality of learning about target discourse communities. Yet, you’re absolutely right – in many contexts it is not possible to do this as thoroughly as one would like. At the end of the day, like so many things, it boils down to money – is the client prepared to pay for trainers to do this sort of analysis, because it doesn’t come cheap. We are talking not only about time, but also the skills involved.

    As so often in this world of ELT, it is all about how well we market our training and help the client understand what it is we are able to do. Traditionally many schools have gone for a low coststrategy, but I think clients are beginning to realise that this is not necessarily a good thing. Perhaps a differentiation approach would be better?

    • edpegg
      May 16, 2011 at 1:16 pm

      Hi Evan,

      Thanks very much for your reply. I agree with you completely about cost. It is primarily a cost issue. In our centre, it’s also important to show the learner that the course is centred on them, as we never meet the other stakeholders.

      However, learners are not always aware of what they need to communicate better and usually focus on grammar and vocabulary. I don’t think this is necessarily a problem if we can get the information from the learner but we need to make sure that happens.

      If we want to do this, we need to make sure that ‘learner centred’ does not means only focus on ‘learner wants’ and we have systems to find out the real discourse needs. In my centre, we don’t yet have these things and need to develop them.

      Thanks again for the comment and the brilliant sources, they’re a great help.

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