Home > Business Theories, Linguistics > Does accuracy add value?

Does accuracy add value?

Having politely explained, using a combination of stuttering English and hand gestures, why he couldn’t place an order, Mr Falconio gently moved his German colleague towards the door. As he did this, he stopped, looked Jochim directly in the eye and congratulated him on his perfect use of the past semi modal verb ‘would need to’. On the long flight home, Jochim was left reflecting on the 5000 Euros he had spent on English classes, his inability to complete the sale and his failure to meet his target for the third month in a row. His boss was going to be mad, again!

This, of course, is a fictional (and farcical) account but it raises important questions about what we do in our ESP and business English classes. It’s clear that Jochim’s lessons had a strong focus on accuracy and, no doubt like most learners, he was happy with this as grammatical accuracy shows that one really ‘knows’ a language. This focus probably ticked the teacher’s boxes too as a focus on accuracy is a satisfying and relatively easy way to quantify the learner’s progress and your own teaching.

However, despite all his English lessons, Jochim still can’t close a deal in English. If his classes had focussed on the process of making a sale, how this is done in German and how this differs to English, would he still be finding it so difficult to close international deals?

Yesterday, I observed one of the best lessons I’ve ever seen. The two learners needed English for finance and the trainer had huge amounts of experience in finance and corporate language training, The lesson was high quality in all areas except one; error correction. This was very lean – over the hour I observed, there were three instances of correction – and sporadic – one phonological, one grammar and one collocation correction. In feedback, I asked why there had been such lean correction and feedback? .

Here’s the trainer’s answer:

‘Well, I understand where you’re coming from but, when you noticed mistakes, particularly grammar, did you still understand?’ ‘Yes’, I replied. ‘What about the things I did correct?’ He went on to ask. ‘Well, yes the phonological errors confused me, but the collocation was OK, I understood’ I replied. ‘Yes, you’re right, but it was a financial term, should a financial director use ‘OK’ financial language, or ‘exact’ financial language?’.

The trainer then went on to explain his three reasons for correction:

– Accuracy
– Intelligibility
– Irritation

For him, accuracy is the weakest reason to correct, particularly when learners rarely speak to English native speakers. The only justification for error correction is when what is said causes confusion or, like the old classics ‘I am agree’ or ‘my English is not well’, grates the nerves of the listener like fingernails on a blackboard.

I’m convinced that the majority of trainers would agree with this but how many of us are brave enough to act on this fact in the classroom. In my lessons, I have a tendency to correct everything. There’s certain things I can let go, articles went a long time ago and I’m slowly giving up on third person ‘s’. But certain things, like the German love of putting the frequency adverb in the middle of the sentence, I can’t let pass. It doesn’t affect intelligibility, it’s actually kind of cute, not irritating but I must correct it. Why? Because it’s wrong!

This raises two further questions:

– How will learners feel about lean correction?
– If we don’t correct language, what should we correct?

In answer to the first question, learners regularly mention a desire for thorough ‘feedback’. When digging deeper, their impression of feedback almost always seems to be ‘accuracy’, they’re obsessed with it. Feedback rules my school and many freelancers would be uncomfortable with reducing error correction because, in their opinion, it’s important to them getting good feedback. However, we should be braver and confront our learners with the question ‘how does better grammar help you do your job’? As Steve Flinders said, ‘it’s like the learners have hijacked the agenda’, let’s take it back

Considering Jochim again. I wonder if his teacher had decided focus on his ability to explain and persuade in English, would he have so much trouble closing a deal? If feedback focussed on how convincing or persuasive he was when presenting features and benefits, I’m sure his boss would not be shouting at him on Monday.

I know in my own classes, this form of feedback takes place but not enough and unfortunately, in 99% of the lessons I observe, it NEVER happens.

If feedback focusses on job rather than language performance more, I’m positive learners would be better served, add more value to their organisation and ultimately say ‘I am agree with my teacher, accuracy doesn’t matter, they understand’.

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  1. May 24, 2011 at 1:58 pm

    Thank you for sharing! This was a very good post. I don’t teach Business English, but rather University students. I waver back and forth on my correction stance. Sometimes, I correct everything, but usually I step back and wait until my students ask me if they are actually correct. I want them to have uninhibited experience in the language, and I am willing to work around the problems, unless like you said it hinders understanding or it is something I know my students should already know.
    Thanks!

    • May 26, 2011 at 7:30 pm

      Thanks for the comment Kylieliz, sorry it took so long to reply. I also move between total correction and little correction. I think it’s also important to factor in learner style and expectations to make sure that the correction is acceptable and memorable.

  1. May 24, 2011 at 2:03 pm

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