Welcome to the BESIG World Blog. Each month we’ve got a different guest author lined up who will be sharing thoughts and experiences on teaching business English from countries around the globe.

  • Back to the future

    Let me take you to the south of Spain. I’m working as a freelancer in Algeciras, the biggest port on the Mediterranean and the nearest town to Africa. It’s mid-January and I have my first lesson of the new year with Manolo – an insurance salesman who wants to speak to the expat community. Manolo has lessons during his short lunch hour and usually runs to my house. Today is no exception and, when he arrives at my door, he’s out of breath. A pearl of sweat drops from his brow. He comes inside and I start my lesson.

    I want to see what Manolo remembers of the Present Perfect that we looked at briefly last year. I give him a handout with a cutting from a bumper book of twentieth-century history that I found in my local library. The cutting is an announcement from the first newspaper of 1900 and celebrates the coming of the new century. It speaks of the dawn of a new era, one of prosperity, opportunity and hope. Manolo struggles with the words. Next to the story there’s a picture of a woman who I think is Libertas, and around her in little clouds are a steam engine, a hot-air balloon and open volumes of an encyclopaedia.

    I photocopied the page of the book at the library. When I got it home I cut out the section that I wanted to use and sellotaped it to a blank sheet of A4. On this new copy, faint black lines appeared where the edges of the cutting had been, so I tippexed them out and made another copy. Then using my typewriter, I typed some examples of the Present Perfect, as well as some questions about things that have happened since the beginning of the century. ‘We’ve leant to fly’ is the example given. I made a typo so, before making my fourth generation photocopy, I pencilled in an ‘r’. The figure is now no longer Libertas and the things that surround her are barely recognisable. Yet I am proud of my handout.

    Manolo uses it to fan his face. He struggles with some of the words, so I get him to look them up in my dog-eared dictionary. As he does so, the centre pages fall out and he puts it down.

    ‘You know Andrea’, he says, ‘we are at the beginning of a new revolution!’ He holds his head high, proud of this sudden statement.
    ‘First came the industrial revolution, then medicine and science – we learnt to fly; heart transplantation – what do you think is next?’
    I don’t know, I haven’t thought about it.
    ‘Information!’ He then says. ‘The informatic revolution!’

    We sit silently reflecting on what this means. We have no idea of what’s to come. I prepare my listening comprehension, using my cassette from the Streamline English series.

    Fast forward 15 years and I’m in Hamburg, Germany. I’ve just given a workshop with Andi White on teaching with technology. The participants listen politely as we go through each item on our agenda – blogs and wikis, rss feeds and readers, websites and apps. We are so enthusiastic that our teacher talking time goes through the roof.

    Beside us on the desk are a Mac and a netbook, and the cable to a video projector passes between them as if in a game of tennis. We don’t have an IWB but we do make the board interactive using the projector, and I get to play with my latest toy – a powerpoint clicker.
    As Andi speaks, I remember Manolo and reflect on how technology and his ‘informatic revolution’ have completely transformed teaching as I knew it. Manolo was right. When I taught him, mobile phones – the black and white variety – were used for making phone calls only. People did have computers but internet was unknown. We did not scan documents or pictures, videos were VHS and even the CD was unrecordable.

    At the Besig Conference in November, I attended Pete Sharma’s workshop ‘Business English on the move: a critical analysis of mobile technologies’. In his session, Pete mentioned things I have yet to really discover. He also made a very important point that, even if we do not have all of these things ourselves, our students probably do. Instead of telling them to switch off their smartphones as a courtesy to their classmates, they should demonstrate the apps that they use and discuss how these apps can help with language learning – dictionaries do not fall apart any more! I’ve since followed Pete’s advice and had some excellent lessons as a consequence.

    When social networking first came out, it did not take me long to sign up for friendsreunited account and then, a little while later, I signed up for a Facebook account. Then I discovered pleaserobme.com. I read things I shouldn’t have, and I developed facebookphobia.
    That said, the very thing that has influenced my teaching most recently is Twitter. Used in a professional context, I can not only share my own ideas and materials but also follow what other teachers, trainers, and authors are doing. Stuck on a Sunday afternoon for inspiration for next week’s teaching, I now only need to switch on my tweetdeck and either an interesting article will pop up or someone might even share material that’s been tried and tested.

    When Andi and I planned our workshop, we tried hard not to squabble over who got to talk about what but, when our Assistant Manager suggested we do the workshop individually, he was sorry. We protested like spoilt brats, we waved our hands in the air and cried ‘never’, not on your Nellie! We both realised that we had important things to share – the wealth of technology we now have is so vast that it would be impossible for one person to cover everything in a three hour session.

    In our excitement to deliver the workshop, however, we did forget to ask the participants the burning question: What do you use? And if you were faced with going back to the days of sellotaping cut-outs, what single piece of technology would you want to take with you?

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  • A need to know

    by Andreas Grundtvig 

    Thank you everyone for joining the blog. It’s really good to read your thoughts on the first post as well as your compliments to the driving force behind the blog – Andi and Carl. I have to admit though, that until now I’ve been a blog sceptic. I started a teaching website way back in the days before youtube (founded 2005) and facebook (founded 2004) and while my site was quite informative, it was not very interactive and as a consequence, it didn’t get much response. But now thanks to you all – I’m inspired!

    Here’s the second post.

    I have an excellent friend, let’s call him Mick because that’s his name. Mick lives in Holland and does quite well as a technical writer. A few years ago he did a Tefl introduction course in Cambridge and after its two days of training (yes I know), he had an inkling of what teaching English was about. He went home happy and forgot all about it.

    At the beginning of last year the inevitable happened. Mick was approached by one of his Dutch friends who asked him if, as he was an English speaker, he could teach a course at a local language school? He jumped at the chance.

    Over the weeks that followed we skyped each other regularly and I tried to give him the best of my advice. I told him about the importance of recognising the aims of his students from the outset and even sent him a few frameworks to work with. The year passed and as I did not hear any more from Mick about his teaching, I assumed things were going swimmingly.

    Last week I skyped Mick to tell him about this blog. I also remembered to ask him about his teaching. It became immediately clear that this was a sore subject. He told me the course had ended at the end of last year. I pushed him for more information. First came the self-pity – how he was never really a teacher, he called himself a charlatan. Then he said something about the student feedback at the end of the course and how unfair it was. My initial response in defence of my friend, was to tell him there was ‘nowt as queer as folk’!

    “Although generally it went well” he went on, “I’m more than a bit miffed by the students who never once asked for more grammar. Even though I asked them what they wanted in every lesson and everything seemed fine – they later told their boss that they didn’t do enough grammar!”

    There could be many reasons why Mick’s students should tell him one thing and then tell their boss something different, but what Mick said got me thinking.

    In my blog post about Suffolk, I asked what language we should really be teaching our students. Evan Frendo replied that ‘the answer, if there is one, can only lie in our analysis of our learners’ needs.’

    David Scarborough also made the excellent point that our students ‘do not need to be taught to speak the regional variety’ but that ‘they do, however, need practice in understanding the regional variety of the spoken language they will hear.’

    After speaking to Mick I thought a lot about what our students want and need, about how we normally conduct our needs analyses and how to follow up on the information that we get from them. At a risk of giving away too much company information, I’ll tell you what happens here in Hamburg.

    Usually on a first point of contact with a client, our sales team will speak to the representative of that company (usually a personnel manager) to get a general understanding of the needs and nature of the client’s business. This overview is later backed up by a fifteen-minute interview with each student where we ask him/her individually to tell us about their job, the context and quantity they use English and what the student would like to be able to do at the end of the course. Finally it’s up to the pedagogical management (Andi and I) to brief the teachers. In our teacher training workshops we also continually emphasise that despite being already armed with the information from the personnel manager and telephone interview, it is important to again ask the students about their aims in the first lesson and write them down together. This I find, is usually effective.

    Yet I feel, something is missing.

    I get the feeling there are fundamental questions that we should be asking (such as was suggested in the first blog entry, to ask in which region the student will mostly interact) to be sure that what we deliver suits the students’ aims perfectly. The way we  drum home to the student in Hamburg that what they tell us is what they get may seem excessive but is there any other way? I’d also be very interested to know which questions in your experience, you find most effective when carrying out a needs analysis.

    Ps. Mick does other things too: photography, poetry, music to name but a few. The  only way to get him to agree to me to telling you this story was if I promised to give his website a plug.
    It’s http://mickdavidsonpicturesword.weebly.com/

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  • Hello world!

    by Andreas Grundtvig

    As I read the description of Vicki Hollett’s webinar to be held on 7th February, I’m intrigued. It ties in very much with something that’s been on my mind since I spent a few days in my hometown in Suffolk – in the southeast of England – at the end of December. Humour me for a moment and I’ll tell you about it, you’ll see that it will lead to a very relevant question.

    My wife, Alma, and I went over to the UK on Boxing Day to spend a few days catching up with family and friends, take the opportunity to drink lots of real ale, and be introduced to new additions to the family circle. This time around, it was the turn of my daughter Vanessa’s boyfriend. He’d lived with her for about a year and the fact that I hadn’t yet met him was just one of several embarrassing reminders that I hadn’t been home in ages. A quick father-to-daughter chat and a plan was hatched – we’d meet them both in the Buttermarket, the biggest shopping centre in Ipswich – County-town of Suffolk.

    As we walked past the discount clothing stores and bargain bins, I was the first one to spot her – my daughter was all grown up and brimming with confidence – funny how, despite the fact she’s now 19, I still picture her in nappies. Behind her was the man we’d come to meet. Shane. Big lad! Twice my size but when he introduced himself, he spoke with a voice that came from somewhere so far inside that would never make it to the surface to say boo to a mouse. We asked them both where they wanted to go and, without the slightest hesitation and with an ‘oh so cheeky’ grin on her face, Vanessa announced that they needed to pick up something from the sex shop!

    Now, I live in Hamburg in Germany. I have to admit that one of my favourite games to play on unsuspecting friends, who visit me there, is to take them to see where the Beatles began their career in the dive-bars and nightclubs of the notorious Reeperbahn. As soon as the tour extends beyond the barber who claims to have cut the first mop tops, the window displays change and the victims of my joke are full of surprise – “Did you see that girl over there?” “What did she say to you?” “Shocking!”

    I had not expected Vanessa to play the same game on me and Alma today – especially as Vanessa was with a boyfriend that she wanted to make the best of first impressions. As we traipsed along behind them, I wondered what exactly Vanessa had up her little sleeve and I sheepishly asked Shane what they were looking for. His answer didn’t help erase my state of mind – “we need some new games!” What was a super-easy-going dad to do?

    Vanessa had obviously been planning the moment.

    ‘There!’ she beamed, pointing to a big store next to the Cock and Pye, ‘That’s it!’

    What we’d been led to was not quite what I’d had in mind – there was no scantily clad Fraulein beckoning us with a languid figure, and the only red light was the one that came from the flickering fairy bulbs of the festive decoration. We were standing in front of a window display full of DVDs, mobile phones, and electronic equipment. We had indeed arrived at the “sex-shop”, only now I could see it was Cex – The Complete Entertainment Exchange. Vanessa and Shane had been given a Wii for Christmas and this was where they came to get their games.

    We followed them inside for a quick look around but, getting all hot and bothered in my German winter gear, I decided to go back outside and wait for them in the doorway. As it turned out, it was the perfect place to people-watch and listen to the conversations of the locals.

    ‘There’, someone said, ‘them ones!’

    Now, I find myself asking, is it an ordinary reaction or is it due to the years of correcting ESL speakers in a bid to help them speak ‘correct English’ that I now have a burning urge to correct the speaker’s grammar? Looking across however, I recognised the speaker as someone twice the size of Shane and now my ‘those’ came from voice somewhere so far inside that when it did make it to the surface, it was nothing more than a silent meow.

    ‘Didn’t we not see that last night?’, Someone else said. This time the burning urge was extinguished by mathematical reasoning – if you use a double negative you cancel out the negative because two negatives make a positive. I turned and asked my wife. We translated the sentence into her native Lithuanian and quickly decided that no, even in a language where grammar and mathematics seem not to be such good buddies, this sentence still does not work.

    ‘I shew you the game in HMV!’ Shew? I remembered reading that shew is an archaic spelling of show, but no-one ever pronounced it that way, did they? The language I heard in the doorway of the Cex shop played on my mind for the rest of the afternoon. Even when we got to Vanessa and Shane’s place, and they tried to show us their wii I was too busy thinking about what I should be teaching.

    Many of my Business English students back in Hamburg had told me that their biggest difficulty in understanding English, was not when doing business with speakers from France or Spain but with native speakers of the language. I pictured what would have happened if Rudiger had said ‘them books’, his other classmates would have been quick to shout him down until he’d sheepishly correct himself with a ‘quatsch’!

    Even as I type this now, my Microsoft spell check is not happy!

    I remembered how I’d once complained to my Centre Manager at Cambridge ESOL about Vanessa’s use of ‘int’ (instead of ‘isn’t, am not, have not, etc.) and saying that I thought it was an example of ignorance and laziness. To my surprise, he not only told me off for not recognising an appreciating the importance regional variation but also made me feel guilty for contributing to the demise of regional dialects in Britain!

    It’s true that shew instead of showed, is as Suffolk as a punch. But not everyone I heard that afternoon spoke in a thick Suffolk dialect. What about those other things I’d heard? Were they to be encountered nationwide? This was England, the place where English was and continues to be invented.

    When we got back to my mum’s, who we were staying with, I told my stepfather about the “sex shop”. He too raised his eyebrows but after I’d explained my experience there, he asked, “how does a word move from being unacceptable to slang to acceptable usage?” Good question, David. I’m still searching for the answer to that one.

    Of the two main Englishes that we now have, I know that American English is regarded as being much closer to the English of Shakespeare than British English. Could this be because, while those in America kept up the language of their forefathers, English-speakers in Britain were much more concerned about what Stephen Pinker describes as “human minds interacting with one another”? That’s what lean language is about, isn’t it?

    But Pinker also says that “new language is visible in unstoppable change in language – slang & jargon, historical change, dialect divergence, language formation.”
As we discuss and develop the language we teach, are we inadvertently creating a new language that is removed from the one used by native speakers and in effect, spawning difficulties in understanding comparable to the Hamburg and Ipswich “sex shops”? If our students really want to have meetings, negotiate, and socialise with native English speakers is it not important for us to expose them to regional variation?

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