Thursday, 16 July 2009

Fun with contracts

I've just finished a 3-day teacher training course - Teaching Legal English - which went very well, but which completely took over my week. (Apparently it's been hot and sunny ...)

One of the great things about teacher training is that it forces you to hunt back through your old materials from years ago, looking for inspiration. This week I stumbled across some work I did about 5 years ago, when I first got involved in legal English. Like most materials writers, I tend to dismiss my old work as hopelessly naive and embarrassing, but revisiting old stuff can remind you that it wasn't so bad after all.

Anyway, the materials I found related to extracts from contracts - how to understand them and how to write them.

The first exercise is about commas: students have to draw lines to show relations between different types of commas: list commas (e.g. A, B and C) and enclosing commas (e.g. ... including, but not limited to, the following ...).

Sorry if you can't read it clearly - I've copied the text below this paragraph just in case. Anyway, the point is, when you've done the intial matching, you find you're left with about 4 commas that don't match up with anything ... or rather they match up with each other over long distances. In the above extract, for example, the comma before "in each case" leads all the way back to the one after "expenses", 5 lines above. This sort of untangling exercise REALLY helps me to understand the complex relationships within monster sentences like the one above. So I guess they should help students too, not only when reading such sentences but also when drafting their own.
(a) The Partnership shall indemnify, to the fullest extent permitted by law, the General Partner and its officers, directors, employees, partners and agents ("Indemnified Parties") from and against all costs and expenses, including attorneys' fees, judgments, fines, settlements and/or liabilities incurred by or imposed upon any Indemnified Party in connection with, or resulting from, investigating, preparing or defending any action, suit or proceeding, whether civil, criminal, legislative or otherwise (or any appeal thereof), to which any Indemnified Party may be made a party or become otherwise involved or with which any Indemnified Party may be threatened, in each case by reason of, or in connection with, the Indemnified Party being or having been associated with or otherwise acting for the Partnership, or having acted as a director, officer, employee, partner or agent of any Entity in which the Partnership had invested, or by reason of any action or alleged action, omission or alleged omission by any Indemnified Party in any such capacity, provided that the Indemnified Party is not ultimately adjudged to have engaged in gross negligence or wilful misconduct, and provided further that the Indemnified Party acted in a manner that he reasonably believed to be in, or not opposed to, the best interests of the Partnership.
Before I move on, did you notice the mistake in the above clause? I'll tell you at the end. (It's very satisfying when a mere English teacher can find holes in an apparently beautifully-crafted legal text.)
OK, here's the next one:
Students have to complete the boxes, using this sentence from a contract:
During the course of your employment and following termination of your employment for any reason, you are required not to use, reproduce or disclose to any person, firm or company any information coming into your knowledge or possession which relates to the affairs or the business of Shark or any client or to the work performed by you, …
Again, this is really useful for understanding complex relationships within long sentences. (Speaking of which, can you spot the mistake when I made this 5 years ago?) Once the diagram's complete, of course, you can also get students to cover the text and recreate it orally or in writing using only the diagram. As a follow-up, get students to create their own diagram of a different sentence. And then get them to draw a diagram using their imaginations (based on, say, a role play) and then use the diagram to write a perfect sentence/clause. Fantastic!

The third example is very similar to the last one, but the answers are already filled in.

Again, here's the sentence it was based on:
C. The Company possesses, and will continue to possess, information that has been created, discovered or developed by, or otherwise become known to, the Company (including, without limitation, information created, discovered, developed or made known by me during the period of or arising out of my employment by the Company, whether before or after the date hereof) or in which property rights have been or may be assigned or otherwise conveyed to the Company, which information has commercial value in the business in which the Company is engaged and is treated by the Company as confidential.

How about cutting it up (each box on a separate slip of paper) and giving students some string and glue, as well as the original paragraph, so they have to physically move the pieces of paper around and show the relationships with string ...
A bit too TEFLy, perhaps ... but let me know if you try it (or any of the other activities)!
OK, I promised to tell you about the mistake in the first contract clause. It's here:
... any action, suit or proceeding, ... to which any Indemnified Party may be made a party or become otherwise involved or with which any Indemnified Party may be threatened ...
There's a mix-up with prepositions: party to, OK, threatened with, OK, but involved to?
As for the second exercise, my mistake was to have the 'why' arrow pointing from the wrong box. For whatever reason relates to termination of your employment, and not, as I've shown it, required not to. Oh well, you live and learn ...
One last thing: the contracts all come from, a fantastic free source of thousands of authentic contracts and legal documents.

Saturday, 11 July 2009

Needs, lacks and wants

I've been thinking a lot this week and last about student needs. You see I've just taken over a couple of groups of lawyers for a month, while their regular teacher is doing the dreaded CELT-YL qualification. And the book we're using ... English File Upper Intermediate.

Don't get me wrong, it's a fine book. I like the grammar presentations, and the topics are interesting. But last week, after a quick get-to-know-you, I found myself asking the lawyers "What do you know about chimpanzees? Have you ever seen one in a zoo? Can they think?"

Hmmm ...

The weird thing was, though, that I was the only one who seemed distressed by the silliness of asking lawyers to talk about chimps. They were quite happy, and answered all the questions fully and intelligently. It turns out that these students, as well as their bosses (who had arranged the contract with my employer, the British Council), had specifically requested a general English course. I was actually not allowed to touch on legal English. Fair enough ...

And this reminded me of the famous trio of things to consider during a needs analysis: not just NEEDS (what they have to do in their jobs in English) but also their LACKS (what they're currently unable to do) and their WANTS (what will motivate them to study during and between classes). I'd become too focused on NEEDS, and overlooked their WANTS. I also discovered an important LACK during my second lesson with them: serious holes in their understanding of Present Perfect Simple and Continuous (hardly surprisingly, I suppose, given that they're Upper Ints). And that was something they WANTed to overcome.

So I decided to swallow my ESP pride and give them what they lack and what they want.

I've got another group of lawyers who are slightly more complicated. At the start of the course, they and their bosses agreed that they needed to learn about legal English, so we got them copies of International Legal English, and I started working my way through unit 1. But it turns out that what they need and what they want are actually very different. They spend all day dealing with legal problems in English and Polish, and by 5.30pm they're sick of legal English. When I take the book out of my bag they roll their eyes and beg for interesting articles from the internet. Hmmm ...

Here I have a delicate balancing act, because ultimately it's their boss who is the customer, and my brief is to teach them legal English. But I also need to motivate and engage them. So I try to hide little nuggets of legal English in 'internet articles' (such as the one I talked about the other week
here). Very tricky.

And what of LACKS? The best example of this was a few years ago when I was working on a course called 'English for European Patent Attorneys' (you see - my imaginative course-naming system doesn't get any better over the years), which I wrote for the British Council in partnership with the European Patent Office (EPO) in Munich. The aim was to have a course for patent attorneys in countries such as Spain, Poland and Italy, which had large populations but whose languages are not official EPO languages.

I was flown to Munich for a couple of days' intense training, including sitting in on some amazing hearings about disputed patents. I learnt about the language needed to apply for a patent, to challenge someone else's patent, to take part in face-to-face hearings, and all the rest of it. Needs, needs, needs. I was even given a big pile of excellent materials developed by the EPO's in-house English teacher.

Anyway, to cut a long story short, I came back to Warsaw and started writing and then teaching my wonderful course. It went pretty well, and the patent attorneys were very happy (not least to have a teacher who had more than a very basic idea of what they did). But it was pretty obvious that they knew all the stuff in the course already. This was their job, what they did every day. It was all new to me, and of course they were interested in the materials, but I was focused too much on their NEEDS and not enough on their LACKS.

So what did they lack? What they were desperate for was the language to write to an important client who hadn't paid for work done several months earlier. It turns out that this is extremely common in the world of patents - it's really quite shocking how often this happens. So that was one of the things I added to the course: some model letters with focus on the ability to be firm but polite.

That's of course only one example, but it taught me an important lesson: focus on what they can't do, not on what they do every day.

By the way, last year I wrote up my lesson on delicate-but-firm emails and put it on Professional English Online. You can download it
here. I've used patent attorneys as the context, but of course the language is suitable for all sorts of professionals. I've used that lesson with most of my students, no matter what their background is.

Over to you: how do you determine your students' needs, lacks and wants? Are they all equally important? Do students really know what they want? (Or what they need or lack, for that matter.)

Friday, 3 July 2009

Factory tour

I spent most of the first half of my teaching career in factories, including half a year in a paper factory (where they turned trees into boxes) and three and a half years in a cigarette factory.

That was where I first got into ESP, although at the time I didn't know there was a name for what I was doing.

In the very early days, I had one-to-one lessons with the Health and Safety Manager, so every lesson we used to go through her huge H&S Manual (which was in English) and see where it would take us. I called that course English for Health and Safety. I did something similar with a group of accountants preparing for their ACCA exams (English for Finance) and the team of junior managers who were being trained in their new SAP computer system in English (English for SAP Coordinators).

A bit more sophisticated was my first course on sales, English for Regional Sales Managers, where I actually wrote some of my own materials, and English for Company Chauffeurs (for the A1-level drivers who ferried VIPs around and needed to say "Let me help you with your bag" instead of "Give me bag!"). My final course in the cigarette factory, English for Production Trainers, was my most ambitious. The students were the factory's top engineers who had become trainers within the factory and were being groomed to train in other factories around the world. In English, of course.

So at the end of my stint in the factory, I had a pretty impressive ESP CV (although the names for my courses didn't show much imagination - a tradition I'm pleased to say has continued with the series I edit for Cambridge University Press). But in fact the courses in those days were based on the simplest of teaching techniques. One of my favourite such techniques was the fabulous Factory Tour.

Basically, this involved the student(s) showing me round their part of the factory and explaining everything in English. ... er ... and that's it. Of course I did error correction and noted useful new vocab, but otherwise there was no input from me. What I loved about the tours (apart from the fact that I could get away with a whole lesson with no preparation) was that I got to know the factory really well - better in fact than most of the employees. When you've been shown the same machine by a production manager, an accountant, the H&S manager, an engineer and the factory boss, you get a really deep understanding of how everything works.

But there was always the nagging feeling that I should be providing more input, rather than just correcting the output. At the end of last year, I stumbled across a video of an authentic factory tour on the BBC news website - well, actually it was a tour of a TV recycling plant, but the language of the tour is what I was interested in. So I set about analysing the language of describing processes as part of a factory tour. Here's what I came up with:

a. What you can see here is the conveyor belt which takes the circuit board away.
b. Over here is where the glass is cut and dropped down a chute.
c. What we do here is we use a rotary diamond blade to separate the back glass, containing lead, from the front glass, which has some hazardous coatings.
d. What happens next is the TV yokes are sent to another specialist recycling plant.
e. What we have to do next is separate the glass section from all the other components.
f. This is where the old televisions are brought in to the plant.
g. What’s going on here is the televisions are taken apart.

So lots of great what-clefting, as well as a few more such introductory phrases - phrases which focus the listener's attention, and allow the main content of the utterance to come at the end, where it'll be more prominent. What-clefting is one of my favourite grammar structures: once you start noticing it, it's everywhere.

Anyway, you can find my activity on Recycling Televisions
here, and the BBC clips here and here. You don't actually need internet access in the classroom to try the activity - and you don't need to be in a factory. If you do use this lesson, I'd love to hear how you get on with it.