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Posts Tagged ‘pragmatics’

Soft Skills as Genre

July 28, 2012 Leave a comment

Image: callcentercartoons.com

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

 Image: freedigitalphotos.net

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?

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?

Does our language or our background determine how we speak?

May 14, 2011 2 comments

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!

Sources

Mark Powell, BeSig 2010 Plenary Speech, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0ApW0AhSC8g Read more…