Archive for the ‘Intercultural Communication’ Category

How long left for English in London?

April 29, 2012 11 comments

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:

  1. 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’
  2. 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?


The Empathic Classroom

April 22, 2012 1 comment

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.

Questions about Politeness in BELF

February 7, 2012 6 comments

Last Sunday about 50 TEFL heads joined Chia Suan Chong’s BESIG seminar on the language of politeness, ELF and how non native speakers can be polite with limited language.

I found this talk extremely well presented and insightful. I particularly took away the fact that Chia’s research showed that many of the politeness gambits I had been teaching for years are not used, even by proficient non-native language users. This made me rethink the breadth, depth and accessibility of the functional language I present in all areas of the classroom. So, seriously big thanks.

However, following up the idea of politeness, I rediscovered this video on mutual knowledge in speech acts that I had watched last year via Viki Hollet’s blog.

This led to a train of thought that has caused me some disquiet about the ELF and particularly the BELF movement when applied to professional learners with real need to use English to complete work based communicative tasks.

The RSA video introduces the concept of ‘mutual knowledge’ (an inherent part of ‘game theory’) and applies it to speech acts.

Why do we ask the pretty girl ‘if she’d like to come up for coffee’ at the end of the date and not ‘do you want to have sex?’

The answer is to preserve lack of mutual knowledge. If I ask her ‘do you want to have sex?’ and she says no, I know exactly why she refused – she doesn’t want to have sex me, she also knows why I refused and we both know each knows. This makes it very difficult to preserve any relationship.

On the other hand, if she says ‘I don’t like coffee’ I am free to continue pretending that she does really want to have sex with me, she just doesn’t like coffee. The girl can also deny that I know she doesn’t want to have sex with me, she thinks I think she doesn’t like coffee.

Thus, the shell of friendship can be preserved.

OK, back to BELF. The type of face saving interaction outlined above is part and parcel of business life. In meetings, negotiations, ‘difficult conversations’ between manager and staff and myriad other cases, business people need to allow their interlocutor ‘plausible deniability’ (refusing to make something mutual knowledge so that relationships can be maintained).

The pragmatics and linguistic dexterity required to achieve this is quite high but is also possessed by a large number of native and non native speakers.

Therefore, if our aim is to provide professional learners with the tools they need to perform in the work place, we have a duty of care to arm them with the weapons of extreme politeness because anything less will result in poor performance.

A while ago, a colleague told me that the German managing an international team is rarely sent on a language course because his poor English is causing problems at work, it’s because he’s German. This means he lacks the ability to recognise different pragmatic expressions of politeness and other speech acts and reacts inappropriately.

Therefore, offering a simplified form of politeness will not improve his workplace performance. He needs his awareness of all forms of politeness raised and to be provided with strategies for recognising these face saving gambits. He also needs help in how to respond in an appropriate way. Anything less than this limits his ability to do the job.

This extract from a recent conference in Japan on the future of the Euro illustrates the point further:

Moderator (Japanese): Jesper, given your German blood, do you think, what my friend tells me, that the German is not going to let the Greece leave has some reality in it?

Jesper: Well, we just going to invade them. (uncomfortable laughter) That would be the old solution. (awkward pause) look…

(Watch the full video here [14.10 minutes in])

For me, this shows the danger of being too simple. We all understand the moderator’s message and can accept that he doesn’t mean to upset anyone. He even trys some softening with ‘has some reality in it’. Even though the question is directly about Germany maintaining the Euro, the bald phraseology causes problems. If he had said ‘Germany is determined to maintain the Euro’ or a similar, less direct utterance, there would have been no problem.

We know the history, we know what people say, but we don’t know (or need to know) that others know that people say it. This maintains social cohesion.

Common knowledge is not the same as mutual knowledge. Even if we know it, we shouldn’t always ‘put it out there’. The moderator’s error is not missing a formulaic politeness marker; it’s a lack of a deeper cultural understanding and linguistic dexterity.

Inadvertently, his message makes uncomfortable common knowledge ‘mutual knowledge’, leading to an unnecessary moment of awkwardness. Can you imagine what could happen if money were at stake?

I know this post may buck the trend but I also think it raises some important questions. If anyone had anything to add, it’d be great to hear from you.

well, yes I get your point, but…

August 15, 2011 2 comments

I know what you’re saying, I’ve read ‘getting to yes’ but if you said that in Russia, nobody would notice.


So, what were we studying?

It was a lesson on giving feedback and the class had been experimenting with ‘the sandwich technique’.

We opened out the discussion, looking at whether the senior managers comprising the class used this technique in their L1. They all agreed they did but were all uncomfortable with doing so in English.

I pushed a little deeper and another Russian, who happened to live in France, said that it just seemed like too much. If performance is bad, why not say so, rather than it’s ‘not completely satisfactory’. Then an Italian agreed, ‘not satisfactory’ is ok but ‘not completely satisfactory’ that’s just lying.

In response, I found myself discussing British culture, understatement and all kinds of things. They were interested and seemed to understand but did this mini rebellion mean my carefully prepared lesson would fail?

Does this mean that the language isn’t memorable? I love books like ’getting to yes’ and am a big fan of management coaching. My lessons revolve around turning these ideas into language training materials.

However, as an Anglo Saxon, I read and teach the Anglo Saxon way of doing things. There’s a worry that, as learner worldview doesn’t match mine, it won’t go in.

To avoid this, the next stage is too bring in pragmatics, talking about perception and understanding from a cultural point of view. But, if you go too far down this road, will learners recognise it as learning?

Did you mean what you said?

July 23, 2011 Leave a comment

Maybe it was because she’s Chinese or maybe because she’d lived in France for 10 years that made her start the negotiation that way.

But, what I found particulary interesting was that she didn’t believe she said it til I played the recording. Not sure she believed it then either.

How can it be that  what was in her brain wasn’t what had come out of her mouth.

So, what had she said?

‘Hello, how are you? Good, so I will need you to work on Saturday. You will?

She agreed it wasn’t the best thing to say and worked hard to absorb diplomatic language over the next hour. We then did another simulation and she opened with:

‘Price is what I buy on, give me a good one!’

Oh well, maybe next time.

The 7 Truths of Business English Teaching

June 12, 2011 Leave a comment

I read a great blog post by Seth Godin recently, entitled ‘selling nuts to squirrels’. In this post, Godin talks about the challenge marketers face when selling products across multiple markets.  The issues outlined revolve around how different world views result in different needs, different ways of perceiving products and, critically, different ways of talking and behaving in the same interaction.

This simple but rarely dwelt on observation has serious implications for how we instruct ESP learners. The language that will automatically be produced in any given interaction is greatly affected by how the speaker views the world. Therefore, it’s critical that our instruction takes account of this world view and ensures that the language we offer our learners correlates with their way of interacting with the world.

A perfect example is the language of negotiation. If you ask any teacher what they would teach in these situations, items such as conditionals, diplomatic language and softening technique (both lexical and phonological) will probably emerge.

However, does this decision take into account what the learner thinks about negotiating and how they wish to express themselves? Although this generic language may be used in a negotiation, will the learner use it? Many negotiation materials don’t take into account cultural or organisational styles or positions people take. It’s fundamental that we, the trainers, find these things out before instructing a functional task so that the language we offer is that which is most likely to add value to the learner’s workplace production. In short, does our instruction equate to the learner’s meaning.

This problem is also true when one thinks about presentations. Signposting is one of the most common items taught in any presentation lesson. However, analysing my own and others’ presentations, this generic language is actually very low frequency. What I struggle with when preparing and delivering a presentation is ensuring that my meaning is conveyed clearly to my audience. It’s the content that causes sleepless nights, not the structure.

Again, content and, most fundamentally, meaning is specific to individuals. Without starting by analysing what learners say and how this fails to express what they want to mean, we cannot be sure that our instruction will aid them the next time they prepare and give a presentation. Of course, generic materials and language cannot help us to achieve this.

In order to ensure language is meaningful, memorable and useful, it must be tailored not only to learner needs but also to learner worldview. Therefore, whenever a particular communicative situation is taught, to be as useful to learners as possible, it must be unique, speaking to the meaning that particular person wishes to express.

This realisation has led me towards developing the seven eternal truths of Business English teaching:

  1. All instruction in a business English classroom must start with the learner, their worldview and their language.
  2. Trainers should focus less on what learners say and more on what they mean.
  3. Needs analysis should focus on perspective and meaning as well as linguistic competence.
  4. Trainers must be knowledgeable about learners’ culture and industry, whether this be through experience or research.
  5. Feedback must focus on meaning rather than accuracy.
  6. Generic materials are incompatible with developing meaning and workplace performance.
  7. The assumption that we, as experts, know the language needed cheats the learner of opportunities to express meaning. We cannot know their meaning because we are not them.

I feel that if we put learner meaning at the centre of our classes, we will ensure maximum learner performance. However, a fundamental problem to this is that the learners, who do not have the benefit of educational theory, don’t always agree with us.

How do we ensure that learners schooled on ‘grammar Mc Nuggets’ accept an approach focussing on meaning?



Management Speak

May 26, 2011 2 comments

I had an amazing insight into the differences between management philosophies in different countries today. The group contained a Russian lawyer, a French tax consultant and a Danish oil engineer, all managing at a senior level. The target language was modals, specifically you must, you have to, we must, we have to and we need to. We did a listening exercise focussing on different managers using the various modals to give directions and then discussed which phrases were most likely to result in:

1. Task achievement and strengthened relationships

2. Task achievement and weakened relationships

3. Task failure or subversion

Both the Russian and the Frenchwoman agreed you have to was the best phrase to get results. Must was viewed as too strong and need to too weak. Both could not see the point of saying we stating “but we are not going to do it, you’ are” However much I argued, they wouldn’t buy it, we was a pointless thing to say.They also seemed confused when I tried to explain that saying you have to might upset people.

Fortunately the Dane was on my side, agreeing the we need to  was the most appropriate, stressing the co-operative nature of any business situation and strengthening personal relationships. The other two scoffed, maintaining that the relationship, when giving direction, was less important than the task and it didn’t matter how people felt.


The Russian and French learners were also sceptical of my comment that must and have to are pretty much the same, they both maintained that must was stronger. Then the Dane asked “aren’t all the phrases ok if you use we? I gave up and we moved onto a simulation; delegating a task. Unsurprisingly the above opinions were reflected in the language used.

Reflecting on this led me to think of Hofstedde’s ‘power distance’ relationships. Is it a coincidence that the high power distance cultures thought it fine to be extremely directive and the low power distance cultures felt a need to show solidarity in their direction?

And a final point, does this explain why the Frenchwoman’s most difficult team member is Australian (a very low power distance culture). I’ll keep digging!