@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 rolesspacesplaces.blogspot.com 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.

Learner Expectations – The Elephant in the Room

June 19, 2011 2 comments

I wonder if many would disagree that the job of the ESP trainer is to ensure that, following their course, clients can better perform key business functions and add value to their organisation.

In my opinion, the most effective way to do this is to identify what learners need to do in English, assess how well they do it now, diagnose what linguistic areas are causing perfhey do it now, diagnose what linguistic areas are and meaning’ version of the ‘time and motion’ study.

Therefore, in order to achieve time bounded results and provide maximum value to the learners and other stakeholders,  language presented and practised must be that which is most likely to be used in work place situations.

If the learner is B2 or above, they’re likely to have most of the grammar and much of the vocabulary they need to perform their job and their major issue is likely to be effective utilisation of that language to achieve particular purposes.

As a result, effective business English teaching should avoid lengthy grammar teaching and subordinate accuracy to fluency and meaning. I’m sure many people will reply to that; well, duh! However, how many of your learners agree with you?

In the language classrooms of many cultures, the teacher represents ultimate authority, learners expect a directive approach and accurate use of grammar is viewed as the ultimate purpose of study. This means that many learners come into our classrooms with rather set expectations of what’s going to happen, for example:

  • We’ll study grammar
  • We’ll learn new words
  • The teacher will make me learn
  • My input is not wanted and not needed

You may think I’m being a little flippant and I probably am but I’m also sure that some of these observations will resonate with you and your experience. How do we reconcile this with the general values of modern language teachers:

  • Context and meaning are of pre-eminent importance
  • Fluency is of greater importance than accuracy
  • Realistic practise is critical for remembering and using new language
  • Grammatical study should take second place to real language use

I truly believe that focusing on the latter list is most likely to produce in long term linguistic effectiveness but I also know that, for some learners, practice is not learning. Giving them a gap fill exercise resonates with their experience and is therefore how they perceive learning. Learners often view talking in class as a cop out as it doesn‘t result in new knowledge. In their opinion learning is distilled to the acquisition of words and grammar, recalling them in stressful situations will just happen.

Being flippant again?

How many learners with books of uncatagorised, decontextualised vocabulary have you encountered and how often have the same learners asked to study the present perfect, again?

Obviously, even if we don’t agree with many learner opinions of learning, we need to accept that their experience and worldview is valid and must be accommodated into the learning process. At the same time, allowing the learners ‘wants’ to dominate the learning process may mean that ‘needs’, of both learners and stakeholders, are not addressed. So, how best to ensure learners are taught effectively but their perspective and experience is respected?

Here’s an approach I’ve been using:

  • At the start of the course, express your values overtly, sincerely and honestly and explain how they will affect classroom activities.
  • Ask learners about their expectations for grammar learning, vocabulary input and error correction, listen empathetically and explain why you may disagree with anything mentioned.
  • Negotiate an approach that accommodates all opinions and put it in writing in the form of a training contract.
  • Explain aims and approaches before activities and how they relate to the training contract.
  • Summarise achievements at the end of each activity and ask learners to assess progress at the end of the course.

In my experience, this framework works and you win respect from the learners. It also guarantees that you can incorporate the wants of other stakeholders who, at the end of the day, are probably paying the bill anyway.

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?



The course, she is good but maybe more grammar!

May 31, 2011 2 comments

As I read this feedback comment earlier today, I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.

Masimo was a lovely guy and everyone liked him but boy, did he love that grammar.

It’s not like he didn’t get any either. Future in the past, mixed up conditionals, perfect, past all sorts.

But, by the end of his three week stay, his speech was as slow, laboured and irritating as  when he arrived.

He learnt lots of grammar but couldn’t use it. He couldn’t express himself using the language he arrived with, so why did he want more?

His excellent trainer pointed this out to him but he didn’t listen and after being fed grammar for 3 weeks, still felt he hadn’t had enough.

So, lessons to draw from this?

1 Some learners are bonkers.

2 Language in context is not always as important to our learners as it is to us.

3 Ideas about the best way to learn differ greatly throughout the world.

I’m told grammar fetishism is an Italian trait and there’s not much to be done. Italians of a certain age won’t accept communicative approaches so don’t even try.

I understand where this comes from but I can’t agree. We have here a classic example of needs vs wants. He wanted grammar but needed vocabulary and fluency. How does the future in the past help him do his job better? It doesn’t.

I worry that the language he forced his trainer to teach him hasn’t helped him to use English at all. I also worry that he’s already forgotten it all.

I should have forced the point, talked to him and made him see that being able to talk is far more important than collecting grammar points.

But I know I would have failed, some learners just love Grammar McNuggets.