Sunday, 27 September 2009

Can non-experts teach ESP? Part 2: It all depends … but on what?

A few months ago, I wrote a piece about non-experts in ESP. To use myself as an example, I teach legal English but I’m not a lawyer. So I’d class myself as a non-expert in the subject of law. Should I worry about that? Should I leave it to the ‘experts’? Would I be a better teacher if I had a law degree? Am I ripping off my students by pretending to be something I’m not?

These are all important questions, and I won’t be able to answer them fully in this (hopefully short) post. Today I just want to move the discussion forward slightly. I was also planning to do a review of the various reactions I got to my initial discussion – there were plenty of great ideas, which I want to bring together on this blog. But I’ll save that for a later post (I want to do it properly and not rush it), and concentrate here on clarifying the slippery concepts of ESP and non-experts.

Seeing other people’s thoughts on this question really brought it home to me how diverse ESP is. I’m not just talking about the range of ESP subjects (Legal English, Technical English, English for Biotechnology, English for Counter-Narcotics, etc.), but also the range of teaching situations that we work in (e.g. in-company courses, open courses at private language schools, 1-to-1 lessons with practising professionals, ESP modules in vocational training courses, university degree courses, etc.).

The primary distinction here seems to be whether the aim of the ESP teacher is to develop general English skills (using the context of the students’ subject simply because it’s more interesting than talking about chimpanzees, for example), or whether there’s some element of CLIL (content and language integrated learning, i.e. teaching the subject and English at the same because in many ways the two are inseparable). Subject expertise is clearly more important in the latter than in the former.

There’s also a wide range of sources of course materials that we use (published course books, home-made courses written by the teacher, institution-made courses written centrally, dogme-style student-generated courses, etc.). Here I’d say the relevant distinction is between courses written by the teacher and those written by another person, an expert. It’s one thing to teach well-written materials created by someone else, someone who has decent subject knowledge and awareness of the learners’ professional needs. It’s quite another thing for an EFL teacher to try to write such a course from scratch.

My confidence as a teacher of legal English comes in a large part from the fact that I use a book written by lawyers and tested on lawyers. Five years ago, when I was using course materials I’d written myself, I was on much shakier ground. So although I’d spent six stressful months writing and teaching Advanced Legal English for the British Council, as soon as International Legal English (CUP) was published, I ditched my own course and used the one written by experts.

(I’ll explain one day how I came to write the teacher’s book for that course, despite my non-expertise at the time. In fact, I think being a non-expert really helped me with that book, because it meant I asked and researched lots of stupid questions that more experienced teachers would think were obvious, like “what does tort mean?”).

So my not-very exciting answer to the question “can non-experts teach ESP?” is “it depends”. But the rather more interesting follow-up is “but what does it depend on?”. When I write a blog posting to review other people’s thoughts on this topic, I think the two distinctions above (general English skills vs CLIL; teacher-written courses vs expert-written courses) will help to organise all the ideas.

There’s also, of course, a considerable grey area between the extremes of expert and non-expert that I described in my earlier post. When I called myself a non-expert earlier, I don’t mean I’m completely clueless when it comes to legal English. In fact, after five years of teaching legal English and with two books published on the subject, I’m very often treated as an expert (which can be quite scary, given all the questions I can’t answer off the top of my head). People tend to assume that because my books contain so much knowledge, I must also have that knowledge! In fact, I just copied it off the internet and forgot most of it straight away.

But last week I started unit 1 of International Legal English with a new group – the fourth time I’ve taught that unit in the last 6 months. And you know what? I did know all the answers. I predicted my students’ questions and was able to take the discussion off in new directions, confident that I knew what I was talking about. I also knew exactly how to make the exercises more communicative and fun. But all of this came from (a) having taught the book so many times recently and (b) having a great teacher’s book to support me. (Sorry for my lack of modesty, but the teacher’s book does make life so much easier for teachers.) So I actually felt like an expert – much more so than six months ago, let alone two or five years ago. And this time next year I’ll be further along the non-expert–expert gradient.

To take another example, I have a friend, Andrew, who has been teaching legal English full-time at the highest level for nine years (and who is a follower of this blog, so I’d better watch what I say). He’s also a partner in a legal translation company, so he knows all the right jargon and can speak intelligently on pretty much any law topic. Whenever I speak to him about the law or lawyers’ needs or legal writing or whatever, it’s blindingly obvious that he’s an expert. Partners in the top law firms in Poland trust his expertise and experience. But … he doesn’t have a law degree, so some people might argue that, on paper, he can’t be an expert. (I’d say expertise is about what you know and can do, rather than what pieces of paper you have.

An important point to make is that expertise and experience grow over time, so all experts started out as non-experts. My first legal English lesson was dreadful, and I wouldn’t be surprised if Andrew’s was not-so-hot either.

So my message to would-be ESP teachers is this. There’s no need to feel ashamed about lack of expertise. I’d advise you to start off with skills-based ESP rather than CLIL, and to use a course book rather than write your own materials, if at all possible. You’ll also need to manage expectations carefully (I’ll expand on this in a later post). But if you work hard and learn from your students (two very big ifs), you can move along the grey-scale from non-expert to become a real expert.

PS For more on this issue, see this great article by Alex Case.


  1. What could be more interesting than chimpanzees??

    If I can attempt to answer "Depends on what?" in one sentence, I'd say it depends on being always genuinely interested in the answer when you ask "What exactly do you do in your job?" and "Yes, but what exactly does that mean?" If you are so interested that you can read a popular business book on the subject due to genuine interest, all the better

    Here are my more extended thoughts on the matter:

    (You have to pay to read that on Onestopenglish, so hopefully Macmillan never notice that I'd already republished it on my blog!)

  2. You're absolutely right, of course, although sometimes enthusiasm isn't enough ... as I learnt quickly when I started teaching legal English. But without it - if you're not genuinely interested in what your students do - there really is no point.
    PS Thanks for the link. I'll add it to the main body of this posting so it's clickable. Cheers.

  3. Absolutely agree, Jeremy - with enough curiosity in what the students are doing, anyone can be an ESP teacher.

    What it takes is the patience to learn the field you're now teaching in and most importantly, on the part of the teacher, the ability to ask questions and listen to the answers...


  4. Yes ... but you make it sound a bit too easy: "learn the field".

    It takes many months - or years - of solid teaching in any given ESP field to start to get your head round the issues your students need answers on. And during our learning curve we're not on top form. (Just the fact that we get so much better over time confirms that we're not very good when we start!)

    But ... we've got to learn somehow, and - here's the big controversy that I'm saving for later - perhaps a talented and enthusiastic EFL expert who's just starting out in a new ESP field is a better teacher than a subject specialist who doesn't know anything about teaching/learning languages. Perhaps ...

  5. I don't remember my first legal English lesson Jeremy (I've blocked out the trauma, no doubt).

    My approach when I began was:
    a) do a thorough needs analysis,
    b) do background reading based on the N/A,
    c) while educating myself on their more specialist needs, build trust with my clients by teach to my existing strengths (soft skills work, and essentials of biz English that even lawyers need,
    d) tell my learners what I'm doing to educate myself to meet their needs and ask for their help and advice.

  6. I actually DON'T agree. As an American lawyer teaching legal English to European lawyers, I would find it impossible to do a good job without my legal background. European law is civil law; English-speaking countries rely on common law as well. Our language is rooted in an entirely different legal system, our organization is different, and our terms are often not directly translatable. Often, we delve deeply into legal concepts to discover exactly where they diverge, and where one English word must be used to cover 2 in their native language or vice versa. In the same way that I find I can do a decent but by necessity more superficial job with legal translators who don't have legal training, I can imagine that non-lawyers can do a decent but superficial job teaching lawyers. But I don't think it can ever be as comprehensive or accurate as when the conversation takes place between 2 lawyers.

  7. Thanks very much for commenting, Anonymous (any chance of a name?)
    This was intended to be a bit of a debate, so while it's nice to find plenty of people who agree with me, I'm actually very happy to hear from people who don't. (That's why I was keen to interview both Paul East and Lawrence Harris for this blog earlier this year, as both have said something similar to your ideas).
    I completely agree with you that when it comes to delving deeply into legal concepts, there's absolutely no replacement for an expert in that field. (Whether you define "expert" as someone who's got qualifications or deep knowledge/expertise arising out of experience is another question).
    Speaking for myself as a teacher of LE, when it comes to those deep legal concepts, I'll be the first to admit that I'm out of my depth.
    But ... that doesn't mean I have nothing to offer to my students. To my mind, there's much more to 'legal English' than concepts and the words we use to explain/define them (crucial as those issues are, of course).
    I'm talking about things like fluency, pronunciation, confidence when speaking, skilful use of non-technical and semi-technical vocabulary, grammar, listening skills, general writing skills, general business skills, etc.
    I think - in fact I know - that as an experienced teacher who has made considerable effort to get my head round my students' field, I can actually help them with those things, and it makes a difference to their English skills.
    (And I think I could say the same for the other contributors to this discussion above: Alex, Karenne and Andrew, all of whom I know take their teaching very seriously and, I'm sure, get good results).
    For the other things (like, as you say, deep analysis of legal concepts and translations), they'll have to check with the experts - their law professors, books, the internet and of course lawyer-teachers like yourself.
    I think there's room for both types of LE teacher, and both sides can learn from each other (an idea I plan to develop in a later posting).
    Thanks again for your great comments.

  8. I'm back, and still anonymous, though you can call me Dobes. I was thinking about this discourse this week, when one of my classes came across a draft of a closing argument included in Chapter 7 of International Legal English. The first sentence read:

    "In determining whether a landlord has unreasonably refused to consent to an assignment, the court should consider only those factors that relate to the landlord's interest in preserving the value of the property, and the court must evaluate whether a reasonably prudent person in the landlord's position would have also refused to consent."

    That one sentence led to discussions of 1) whether a sublease is a type of assignment under the American legal system and theirs; 2) whether the tenant in question intended a sublease, an assignment, or a novation - and this included the idea of a novation as a substitution of one party to a contract with a new one who assumes both the benefits and obligations of the contract - they had until then incorrectly defined the word 'novation'; 3) the idea of lawyers, in their closing arguments, presenting to the judge their own interpretation of the law (...only those factors which relate to the landlord's interest in preserving the value of the property); and 4) the legal standards of civil trials and the role of the mythical 'prudent person' in setting the standard.

    As we discuss issues such as these, I see a change from students who use terms such as 'novation' or 'pledge' incorrectly because of direct translations from their own language, and who cannot express their legal ideas in terms I can recognize and respond to, to lawyers who can speak about their own legal systems and concepts in an English that sounds perfectly natural and logical to me. I love that!!

    I agree that non-lawyers have a place in teaching Legal English, if only because there are not enough lawyers willing to take the pay cut to do this! But it still makes me uneasy, and I truly want to know - could you have conducted the discussion I described above? Did you know which words indicated the legal standard the lawyer wanted the judge to use, and which indicated his interpretation of relevant (case) law? Did you know that that paragraph was PERSUASIVE, not necessarily factual? Did you recognize that the author used 'whether a landlord has UNreasonably refused...' quite deliberately over the choice of 'whether a landlord has reasonably refused'?

    I'm not saying you couldn't have done this. You seem experienced, very dedicated, and open to discussion. So what I want to know -- as someone who is probably a very top level non-lawyer English teacher - when you present that chapter to your classes, do you have that kind of discussion?

    And then, consider - even though you aren't a lawyer, you clearly take the teaching of Legal English seriously, and do a lot to prepare yourself. But I know there are lots of teachers out there who just grab a book and the Teacher's Book and wing it. That REALLY upsets me!

    Hey -- maybe instead of swimming against the tide, I should just teach Legal English to English teachers who want to teach it??


  9. Hi Dobes

    I do hope some visitors find their way to this quiet corner of the blog - these are really important points you're making. Before I answer your questions, I think we can agree on a couple of non-controversial issues:

    1. There are good teachers and bad. A teacher who doesn't take LE seriously doesn't deserve to be taken seriously.

    2. The good/bad divide cuts across the expert/non-expert divide. I wouldn't like to hazard a guess as to whether there are more good or bad teachers from one side of the expert/non-expert divide or the other. I really don't know.

    3. All other things being equal, teacher A, who knows X, is better than teacher B, who doesn't know X.

    (That said, all other things are never equal - teacher B may be good in other ways which counter-balance teacher A's advantage. Or not ...)

    But it sounds like you're knowledgeable, communicative (in methodology) and enthusiastic as a teacher, which makes you better than someone who's just two of those things.

    Anyway, enough theory. Back to your comment:

    What I like about your comment here is that your lesson sounds really engaging and communicative. Best of all, when you say "I love that", I really believe you. I also love it when I get a good discussion going and some real learning comes out of it, which will make a difference to their day-to-day lives. Fantastic.

    [It seems the program can't handle long comments, so I'll finish this answer in a new comment below.]

  10. [continued from above]

    OK, on to your question. Of course, no, I don't think I'd have been able to have exactly that conversation with my students. I don't have the deep knowledge at my fingertips. I wish I did, and I'm working on it. But there are plenty of similarities with my own lessons:

    1. As I mentioned in another post recently (Why I love teaching), I think I'm getting much better at this. I'm lucky enough that my current LE group consists of 12 people with a huge range of expertise between them, so many tricky questions are actually answered by the group. (See my comments at the end of that post for some of the discussions we had). But there are still plenty of times when I'm the expert and I'm able to explain things to them - mainly from the research I did when I was working on the teacher's book (and that of the lower level book).

    2. I have had some lessons where students have got in a mess with superficially similar concepts. I remember a few years ago there was a problem with rescind, terminate, cancel ... that sort of thing (which I notice was a recent topic on the Translegal blog: Drafter - How to end things). So I did my research between the lessons, prepared some simple worksheets, and taught them the difference (or rather we worked it out between us based on the evidence I'd found). Perhaps that's not as neat as knowing the answer and dealing with it on the spot, but it's ok.

    3. Looking at the fragment from unit 7 (which, believe it or not, I think I've never actually taught - we do units 1 to 7 in the 1st semester and 8 to 15 in the second, and I usually run out of time before we get to 7), I think I would spot at least some of the points you raised. I'd certainly be curious about whether 'assignment' here referred to subleasing or not, or perhaps a range of similar things. I'd have a sense that novation is the wrong word - it comes up in another unit, I seem to remember, where it refers to something else, but I wouldn't be very confident about it and would have to check.

    I'd be more confident about the other points you raised (persuasion vs facts, reasonably prudent person, reasonably refused vs unreasonably refused, etc.)

    Of course there could be layers of subtle meaning beyond the level of understanding that I have, which by definition I'd be completely unaware of, but in my experience of talking with lawyers, I don't often get the sense that I've missed the point. I've got a good solid understanding of the way lawyers think, and although I don't know all the names and concepts, I can have intelligent conversations with them and spot very subtle distinctions.

    (I remember being told last year ago by someone at Translegal that I'd make a good lawyer, after I found several holes in legal texts destined for the book.)

    So, to sum up, no I couldn't have that conversation, but I'm not far off, and I'm getting better!

    2 last points:

    - I can sympathise with you getting upset about teachers who grab the teacher's book and wing it, but as the author of that book, I kind of like the idea that it enables them to do that! It means I did my job.

    - Your idea of teaching LE to teachers sounds fantastic. I could definitely benefit from such a course. There's just one problem ... do you think EFL teachers could afford your fees? But if you're serious about it, mention it on the EULETA discussion list.

    Cheers, and thanks for giving me plenty to think about.