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Psychology and Business English

Nick Michelioudakis from Greece is making a name for himself as a leading advocate of the connections between English language teaching and psychology and how teachers can make use of them in their teaching practice. In this interview, Nick talks to Claire Hart about the importance of psychology in the field of English teaching and how this is all relevant for Business English teachers.



Nick Michelioudakis (B. Econ., Dip. RSA, Msc TEFL) is a Teacher/ Teacher Trainer based in Greece. He is best known for his articles on ´Psychology and ELT´ which have been published in many countries. His love of comedy led him to start the ´Comedy for ELT´ project on YouTube. His interests include student motivation as well as Social and Evolutionary Psychology. When he is not struggling with his students he likes to spend his time in a swimming pool or playing chess. For articles or handouts of his, you can visit his website at http://www.michelioudakis.org/

CH: I have read some of your “Psychology and ELT” articles and I know you love stories… Do tell me one…

NM: OK! Back in the 50s, when instant coffee first made its debut, Nestle marketed it as an easy, inexpensive alternative to ordinary coffee which tasted just as good. The tins just gathered dust on the shelves. Puzzled as to why sensible housewives shunned this economical product, the company asked a number of women and were surprised to find they were almost offended by this sales pitch! No self-respecting housewife would even dream of serving cheap coffee to her husband! So the marketers went back to the drawing board… The new campaign stressed that because the new coffee saved time, women could spend more quality time with their spouses and children! Sales took off! Brilliant!

CH: So why do you think psychology is so important for the field of ELT and business English ?

NM: Well, quite apart from the teaching implications of such stories—“tailor your message to suit your audience!”—I think it’s just so much more interesting! It’s something you can discuss with people. Can you imagine going up to a friend and starting talking to them about the Natural Order Hypothesis? But there is another reason too: I believe our field is insular—too insular. Colleagues go to conferences and all they hear about is linguistics and methodology (oh, and technology too these days). But we seem to forget that we are teaching people, and questions like ‘What to teach’, ‘How to teach’ and ‘What to teach with’ tend to leave something out—the learner!

CH: That’s not true, we do get some input on psychology at conferences and other professional development workshops...

NM: Yes we do, but that only addresses the question of ‘How students learn’ – correction: ‘How students learn a second language!’ So our input comes mostly from cognitive and developmental psychology. We seem to forget that we are not only teaching second language learners, we are also teaching learners and “learner” is only one of the identities these people have; in fact what we are trying to do is teach human beings. The right question if we want to manage and motivate people is “What is it that makes people tick??”

CH: Can you give me an example?

NM: Here is one: researchers called students and asked them whether they wanted to participate in a study, but they would have to wake up at 7am. Naturally, only 24% of those asked volunteered! But then they tried a different tack; they called another group of students and asked them whether they wanted to participate – this time 56% of them agreed. Once they had, they were then told about waking up at 7am and given the chance to back down – none did! Fantastic!! Moral: sequencing matters – a lot! If you get people to commit to something, then they are likely to stick to their commitment!

CH: Why do we need the experiments though? Can’t we just have the conclusions?

NM: It’s not quite the same. Experiments are like stories and we have evolved to like stories. They are more memorable and they make the principles more concrete, while still allowing us to extrapolate to other situations. Think about it, which is more potent as a message: an injunction like ‘Love thy neighbour’ or a parable like that of ‘The Good Samaritan’?

CH: Aren’t all these findings more or less common sense though?

NM: Well, actually many of them are counter-intuitive! Here is an example: in Arizona there is a petrified forest and the authorities wanted to stop people taking little “souvenirs”, so they posted the following sign: “Your heritage is vandalized – 14 tons of the petrified forest are stolen every year!” Psychologists wondered whether that was effective, so they tested it – they used this sign in one path and a control sign (“Stealing fossilized wood is both wrong and illegal”) in another. Results: in the latter, theft reached 1.7% but in the former an incredible 7.92%!! Theft actually increased!! Instead of deterring people, the sign was in fact saying “everybody else is doing it—why don’t you?’ Now think about a teacher when she tells her class “I hope you are not going to be like the other group who are always late / who claim they have no time for homework.”

CH: How is all of this useful to teachers of Business English?

NM: Well, if these principles are useful to teachers and to teachers of English, they are bound to be useful to teachers of Business English as well! But that’s not all; Business students are overwhelmingly adults and they appreciate professionals who know what they are doing and why they are doing it. If you can offer them a good (research-based) rationale of what you ask them to do in class they will respect you all the more and they will be more likely to comply. But there is a third reason as well: much of this research has been done in a business context and many of the findings have been applied in the corporate or advertising worlds. This means that the Business English teacher can derive a double benefit:

a) she can improve her classroom management /motivational skills in the light of research findings and

b) she can tell her students about these same findings, which they can then apply in their work context!

CH: What is the single most important message you think teachers can take from psychology?

NM: Here it is: “If psychology has taught us anything it is that not only do we think ourselves into a way of acting, but also we act ourselves into a way of thinking!” (Myers) This has huge implications: do you want to change people or get them to act in a certain way? If you do, their hearts and minds will follow! And we are teachers—we are in the business of influencing people. I want to change my students because I love my job and I love them too. As Brecht once put it: "What do you do," Mr. Keuner was asked, "if you love someone?" "I make a sketch of the person," said Mr. K., "and make sure that one comes to resemble the other." "Which? The sketch?" "No," said Mr. K., "the person."