Archive for the ‘Linguistics’ Category

Soft Skills as Genre

July 28, 2012 Leave a comment


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:

  1. General Positive Statement
  2. Specific Critical Statement
  3. Specific Positive Statement
  4. 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.


On Soft Skills Coaching

July 14, 2012 6 comments


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.

Does BEC do the Business?

March 5, 2012 4 comments

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?

@Martin Warters on teaching Impoliteness in EFL

February 14, 2012 2 comments

The recent conversations on how we should approach politeness in the ELF classroom reminded me of a great talk I saw at IATEFL Brighton in 2011.

In this talk, Martin Warters explained how responding to specific problems his UK based learners were experiencing led him into the controversial world of teaching learners how to be rude.

Here I interview him about his view on what we should be teaching in the classroom, what he learnt from the experience and why he feels raising sensitive language issues in class is an important way to empower second language learners to fully express themselves.

Martin lives in the US and is taking an MA in educational technology. Read his blog here  or follow him on twitter @MartinWarters. Thanks for your great views Martin.

1. There’s currently a discussion about what forms of politeness English learners need to know and whether people can really absorb the politeness conventions of a new language. What’s your view?

I think you can but you need authentic contact within the culture. Whether or not that can be truly achieved in a traditional classroom setting, well I am unsure. Speaking as a language learner, I learned more about the culture the illocutionary force of the language by actually immersing myself in situations.

2. In your IATEFL talk last year, you described how learners living in the UK have a real need to at least be aware of ‘impolite’ forms of English, how did you come to this conclusion?

Something happened to me that had a profound effect on my teaching, and also my way of thinking. I would even go so far as to say that it led on to me questioning my own principles and approaches of teaching English.

I taught in a private language school here in Brighton, where the majority of students are young graduates. Predominantly these students are focused on obtaining the Cambridge FCE to improve their employment opportunities when they return home, but it is also clear from needs analysis that there is a need for ESOL tuition, and many of our students have spent at least one semester following programmes for the Cambridge ESOL skills for life examinations. The average period of stay is about one year and during their stay a secondary aim for many of these students is to obtain a greater understanding and experience of the UK through full integration in the target language and culture of the UK, and like many young adults, this includes taking advantage of Brighton’s established and eclectic social life.

One day, a student brought up a topic that would introduce this idea of teaching impoliteness…. Increasingly, the functional-notional aspect of the consolidation sessions had moved away from survival English, e.g., completing job application forms, setting up direct debits, to what to say in response to impoliteness being directed towards students.

After an impromptu class discussion where I invited students to share their experiences of impolite behaviour, it soon became apparent that the majority of students had unfortunately experienced a situation where they felt verbally threatened or uncomfortable during their time in Brighton. This primarily was taking place in social situations, but also somewhat worryingly in work settings as well: both by co-workers, supervisors and customers

At the time I didn’t know what to do! Only yesterday we were having a lovely lesson on the merits of different cafes in Brighton, and now the student body was asking for a lesson on how to respond to discourse that was perceived as impolite.

There is an awful lot to unpack from this situation, and I think it is worth noting here the key word RESPONDING. I had never heard of students requesting the language to instigate rude or impolite discourse exchanges…. That would be another postJ

This impolite discourse does happen on a daily basis unfortunately. The world that is reflected in coursebooks rarely exists outside of their pages. This is not an attack on publishers; it would take a brave publisher to reflect real life needs of impolite discourse. Reviewing materials that were at hand in the staffroom, professionally it seems that systematically we teach the importance of how to be polite extensively and in great detail. But this merry old England doesn’t really exist anymore (if it ever did!!!)

I feel strongly that in this sense it is not actually behaviour changing. The way I would behave in English is the same that I would behave in a second language. If a student is comfortable to do sth in their L1, then they should have the opportunity to do this in English.

I decided that there was a real need to empower students to have the ability and opportunity to respond impolitely, if they so wish, with full knowledge of the implications that such responses would have.

Almost by chance, as part of my MA, I came across an article by Gerry Mugford (2008) and this dilemma of appropriacy is something that he investigates, concluding

‘that teachers need to take the lead by preparing learners to communicate in pleasant, not so pleasant, and even abusive interactional and transactional situations’ (375).

3. How do you knowledge of impoliteness adds value to learners’ ability to operate in an English speaking environment?

There is clearly a need for teachers to provide the language for students to operate in any given situation they may find themselves in, and this, for many students, could be the not so pleasant and abusive situations. Adding this to a student’s lexical resource hopefully gives the student more confidence in their day-to-day English exchanges.

4. How did you go about introducing the subject of ‘impoliteness’ in class and how did your learners react?

As mentioned above, it was brought to me! The sessions went well. I was nervous that a few students might react badly to the lesson and not feel comfortable in the session. I introduced the topic systematically, and I think it helped that all the students had had a bad experience that they could discuss.

Ultimately the main technique I used was Awareness Raising, and this was primarily done through a social comparison of behaviour and the students’ own reflections on how their own culture differs to what they have experienced in the UK. I did this as a class discussion, and it was fascinating to hear differences of opinion between nationalities about the UK and it opened up opportunities for exploration into the ESOL syllabus and generated some really useful language patterns.

I did this by using existing coursebook materials

A possible welcome by-product would hopefully be that students feel more confident outside of class, and this would have a positive effect on their motivation and progress in English inside the classroom.

Two things that I did came straight from coursebooks we were using, and this was the topic of Customer services.

At the time we had the Ash cloud from Iceland, and later on in the year we had the travel chaos at Gatwick, and Eurostar. So the images of happy airport and rail passengers that were typical in the EFL coursebooks we were using were not so apparent.

We discussed what could go wrong, how to react and if we would be impolite. There was a wealth of material on youtube and bbc news channel at the time on these stories, and this provided great input materials for analysis.

Customer services was an especially interesting area as some of our students had experience of working in receptions at some of the hotels here in Brighton. We found, unsurprisingly, that many times being impolite actually ensured that staff would be understandably unhelpful.

This activity also opened up the much needed analysis of what is impoliteness: one person’s remark could be construed as banter or as a deeply insulting remark, and from this there would also be a clear need to differentiate and grade potential responses highlighting the level of how impolite something is, and generally what is seen as an appropriate response on a discourse level. This then lead onto further work such as pronunciation- attitudinal tone, and the illocutionary impact of the language based on relationships between speakers.

Interestingly, after implementing the awareness-raising activities and class discussion, most students said that they would never dream of using the target structures in their setting. The feedback it seemed was that how to respond to impolite language was just another lexical set in the same way as making a complaint about food in a restaurant is. It was the empowerment of being able to be impolite that was desired rather than the actual need or desire to be impolite.

I don’t think it’s about teaching foul language or how to swear like a native speaker, but rather raising awareness of situations where people are speaking impolitely and helping students to make informed decisions, with strategies and phrases: Knowing how to be impolite, and the potential consequences.

The students said this was useful to know, and as a teacher, I feel that that is reason enough to warrant this and further exploration.

5. Do you think impoliteness should be taught as a receptive skill alone or is there an argument for teaching the production of impolite language?

A given tenant of teaching is that we enable students to be adequately equipped with a lexical resource to operate in any given situation. How do you feel about this if the lexis is related to being impolite, disrespectful or rude? The second language classroom is usually the place for dealing with the more pleasant side of language and discourse whereas impoliteness is seldom a feature. I would say that having the knowledge of how to produce impolite language, and being aware of its potential consequences, is…. well, there is a strong argument to do this.

6. What would you advise trainers to focus on if they decide to address impoliteness in class?

It would be impossible for me to advise trainers individually: I can’t really offer up a definitive guide as all our contexts are unique and will be informed by the specifics of the ecology of our teaching environments, and also by your own pedagogical and social viewpoints. Also I am still working through my own interpretations and understanding of this theme!

This teaching of being impolite has a huge social and pedagogical stigma associated with it. Speaking to colleagues in the staff room highlighted comments and ideas that had a startling breadth of opinion on the topic, with most stating that they would never dream of teaching explicit impoliteness in class, yet would appreciate the illocutionary power that it wields if they were learning a foreign language.

Just before my presentation, I was contacted by an MA student at Liverpool’s John Moore’s University asking for my view on teaching impoliteness. Her name is Dawn Skeoch, and she shared her own research on the teaching of impoliteness as part of her dissertation work, and this quotation is a very nice summary that I ended up using in my presentation.

One interesting point that came indirectly out of my research was that teachers’ and students’ interpretation of the term impoliteness related to foul language or insulting language, not very many teachers thought about other branches of the term which is partly why they were against teaching the subject in class although interestingly they recognised the need for students to recognise that kind of language and situation. (Skeoch, 2011)

Dawn’s findings fit in with what I found:

It seems many teachers were experiencing this dissonance of approach-wouldn’t do it, but would want it as a student. This actually got us all talking and horror stories emerged of previous negative experiences in a second language setting.

Personally, I am quite confident that 9 times out of 10 I must say that I wouldn’t actually use impolite language in an L2 situation but being able to think of a response would give me some comfort and confidence. I think trainers need to be guided by their own local context and student body.

7. Do you think practical matters, such as dealing with impoliteness, should have more of a central place in language teaching?

I do. It is language that our students need and as a learner I would like to have access to this language. I don’t think it will ever be incorporated into a mainstream language course by a big publisher but on a local level it is something that we can help our students with.

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.