Saturday, 27 February 2010

A lesson in the psychology of learning languages (part 1)

This post is in response to a blog carnival hosted by Kalinago English. The theme of the carnival is LESSONS, but I thought rather than providing a lesson plan here, I’d tell you a lesson I learnt while observing a lesson. Actually, I’m not sure that’s allowed – the rules of the carnival say it has to be a lesson plan (bah!), so I’ll have to follow this up with part 2, a lesson plan based on the lesson I learnt during that lesson I observed, if that makes any sense.

The lesson was a bit unusual. I was at the European Patent Academy (EPA) in Munich to learn about patents – how to apply for one and how to fight for or against one in the event of a dispute. The idea was that I’d then use this knowledge while writing a new course for the British Council, English for European Patent Attorneys, sponsored by the European Patent Office (EPO). For more on my experiences with that course, see my article on needs, wants and lacks here.

Anyway, the lesson. I was watching a group of trainee patent attorneys preparing for their EPA exams. The trainees were French, but the lesson was in English. The lesson involved a letter from a client, of which the following is a fragment:
Two weeks before mention of grant in the bulletin we filed third party observations in view of annex 5. Our remarks were ignored. Should we argue that the first examiner will be biased against us?
The discussion went something like this:
Professor: Any thoughts?
Class: [Silence]
Prof: Come on … it’s not difficult. What do you know about third party observations?
Clever student 1: They’re not binding, sir. According to protocol XYZ dated blah blah blah … [OK, so I don’t remember the details, but you get the idea]
Prof: Excellent. So … was the examiner biased or not?
Class: [silence]
Prof (getting exasperated): Look … the third party observation isn’t binding … is the examiner biased or not?
Class: [silence]
Prof: OK, here’s an easy question. Why were the remarks ignored?
Clever student 2: Because everything’s frozen. It’s frozen 7 weeks before mention of a grant.
Prof: (relieved) Absolutely. So there’s the answer. Third party observations aren’t binding, so the examiner doesn’t have to act on them. Everything is frozen anyway, so it won’t make any difference. There’s nothing the examiner can do. So is he biased?
Class: [silence]

Sheepish student 3: Sorry, sir. Could explain what ‘biased’ means?
What did I learn? A few things, actually.

Firstly, and least interestingly, we must teach vocab, vocab, vocab.

Secondly, never assume. Never assume they understand, even if they are nodding their heads and pretending to understand.

Thirdly, and most importantly, a significant part of teaching and learning English has nothing to do with language. It’s about psychology. I’ll give you a couple more examples and then explain more.

I used to teach a successful Polish businesswoman, deputy head of accounts in a large factory (owned by Germans). Her English was fine in class – strong upper intermediate. But she was afraid of speaking English at work, so she always had a translator or relied on her boss in important meetings. She was terrified of making mistakes and looking stupid, but the irony was that her solution made her look much less competent (both in English and in business) than she actually was.

Her boss had no idea how good her English was, because he never heard it. As far as he knew, all the money and time that was going into her English lessons was being wasted because she still couldn’t string a sentence together. Except, of course, that she could.

So the focus of my lessons ended up being on psychology – trying to break down the barrier that was stopping her from speaking English in public.

Another situation: another Polish student in another factory complained that he was embarrassed by his English and intimidated by the wonderful English spoken by his boss, an Argentinean. Well, it’s hardly surprising his boss sounded impressive – about half of English’s sophisticated vocabulary is the same in Spanish. And the Spanish tense system and rules for articles are far more similar to Spanish than they are to Polish.

And you know what … I also taught the Argentinean boss. And he too was intimidated by his own boss’s English. His boss, a German-speaker, used wonderful phrasal verbs and really sophisticated grammar all the time. Again, no surprise there, since there are really close parallels there between English and German.

Now, I didn’t teach the boss’s boss, unfortunately, so the last part of the triangle is pure speculation, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the German speaker had also been intimidated by the wonderful English intonation of some of the Poles in the factory. Again, nothing odd there – speakers of different first languages all have different strengths and weaknesses in English.

But human nature is such that we tend to focus on things that others can do and we can’t. My Polish students once told me they were impressed that the German speaking big boss seemed to use present perfect all the time. But that was actually his problem – he really did use it all the time, and was probably impressed that the Poles used past simple all the time.

One last example. Many years ago, I was part of a team of half a dozen native-speaker English teachers based in a cigarette factory. We were all around post-beginner level with our Polish, so we clubbed together to get ourselves a teacher. (There were no organised lessons in that place at that time. Courses in Polish for foreigners are still a bit of a rarity, and were much more so back in those days).

I remember sitting in our training room (a pub) with all the other teachers, listening to the teacher speaking much too fast, and barely understanding more than half the words in each sentence. It kind of made some sense at the word-level, but I had no idea what he was talking about at the sentence-level. Word soup. But all the other teachers on either side of me were nodding confidently and smiling and laughing at his jokes. I felt a bit foolish and … intimidated. So I did what everyone else was doing, in the hope no-one would notice I was bluffing.

But then the word soup stopped suddenly and I realised he had asked me a question. I was completely destroyed, and had to admit it had all been a bluff. The teacher was a bit taken aback, and asked the next teacher … who, it turned out, had also been bluffing. And so on round the whole group. We’d all been doing it. A group of professional teachers who really should have known better, all pretending to understand.

Soooo … What I’m trying to say is this: the most important lesson many (but not all) of our students will ever learn is how to break down the barrier that stops them from speaking in English in public, and stops them asking for clarification or help when they don’t understand something.

That’s what I mean about psychology. If we understand what causes that barrier, we can help our students to understand it. Four important things we can teach our students:

(1) Most people suffer from this barrier but most people hide it – all those nodding heads may just be bluffs.

(2) If you try to avoid looking stupid by avoiding speaking, you end up looking far more stupid. And failing to do your job properly. (And making your English teacher look incompetent, I might add.

(3) We’re all intimidated by what other can do that we can’t, but we must remember that other people are probably intimidated by us! It might even be the same people! We tend not to notice the things that we can do (that others can’t) – again, because most people are so good at hiding their weaknesses and insecurities.

(4) As a bilingual speaker of English, it is absolutely ridiculous to feel intimidated by monolingual native speakers. If you’ve made the effort to learn and use their language, the least they can do in return is to use non-idiomatic vocabulary and to pronounce things properly. If they fail to communicate successfully, that’s their failure, not yours. No need to feel ashamed.

So, yes, we need to be a counsellor, a therapist, a life coach, a shrink, to persuade our students to go for it, to take risks. And of course we also need to teach them some language strategies and useful phrases for interrupting, for clarifying, for pinpointing specific problems (and not just saying ‘I don’t undertsand’) and for managing the conversation (including getting the other person to speak more slowly or clearly).

And when I get time, I’ll turn all of that into a lesson and post it here …

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First steps in course design 
Thoughts on blogging 
Needs, lacks and wants

Sunday, 21 February 2010

My first and worst legal English lesson

We all have bad lessons from time to time, and I've certainly had my share of truly dreadful ones. My top five would definitely include my first lesson on the CTEFLA course (shaking like a leaf) and the last one (when I was told it would have to be perfect or else I'd fail the course ... and it was even worse than the first one).

I'd also have to include my first lesson with teenagers, having taught adults confidently for seven years, I was totally unprepared for their lack of interest in my lesson). And my first - and last - lesson with little kiddies. That's one I've blanked completely from my memory. Never again. Ooooh no.

And then there was my first lesson with lawyers. (Apologies if you've heard my story before - I guess I'm a bit hung up on it).

I'd been asked to write a legal English course for the British Council to prepare students for a new exam, TOLES Advanced. For lesson 1, I'd created a Starter Unit, a kind of get-to-know-you, get-to-know-the-exam lesson.

So there I was, facing a pack of 12 highly intelligent and demanding students who had paid a lot of money to learn from me ... A recipe for disaster.

One of my exercises involved students working in pairs to come up with examples of legal English vocabulary - the idea being that they could share their expertise with each other and I'd facilitate it and it'd all be nice and collaborative. A five-minute throwaway activity.

Problem was, my round-up activity generated more questions than answers, and I was totally out of my depth. For exmple, the students wanted me to explain the difference - the legal difference - between renting, letting and leasing. They wanted me to tell them how to pronounce pupillage (rhyming with village or camauflage?). Is it HARRassment or haRASSment? And so on and so on.

All I could do was write the problem words up on the board and bleat that I'd deal with them all in the next lesson. But every word that went onto the board seemed to generate another half dozen. It was awful. My students could see me for what I was, a clueless fraud, and I just wanted the floor to swallow me up.

Here's a selection of the words I was expected to explain or to pronounce and couldn't (or rather, not to a group of professionals):

Somehow I made it to the end of the lesson.

Anyway, before the next lesson I spent a few hours crashing round the internet, finding the answers to all those questions. In case you aren't familiar with, I heartily recommend it for tasks like this. It has links to all the online dictionaries, so you can be sure to find a specialist or generalist explanation of just about any word, plus pronunciation, etymology, everything. Usually.

As an example, I searched for "escrow" (any guesses how to pronounce that one?) and was offered 58 dictionaries, including one from's great dictionary. And Encarta, where I heard it pronounced. (I know I could also subscribe to TransLegal's new dictionary, which has all the information I could possibly want on legal English vocab. But I'm too mean.)

Then I turned it all into a worksheet, or rather two worksheets, one for each of the next two lessons - there was too much to cover in one lesson. Here's the first one - sorry it's too small to read, and also my IPA has become Greek for some reason. But you get the idea.

And somehow I got away with it. I started my second lesson with a warmer to match the words with the definitions - using my old cut-up-slips-of-paper trick. And it was good fun. I was able to explain the subtle differences, with help from other students. And the students learnt something that they didn't know before. And the rest of the course went fine. Phew!

But ... I learnt never to expose myself to such a situation again. As an ESP teacher, take control of what's going to come up in lessons and what your students are likely to ask you to explain. Open-ended vocab generation exercises are bound to end in tears, unless you really know most of the vocab already. Open-ended discussions are great, though - if you're left with four or five tricky items to come back to next lesson, I'd say that's healthy. Any more than that, and you're in trouble.

Anyway, the point of this post, if there is one, is to reassure teachers who are considering going into ESP (like my new friend Neil, for example), that although it can be scary, with a bit of common sense - and learning from others' mistakes - it's actually not too bad. Lesson 1 may be a disaster, but as long as lessons 2 and 3 are better, you're on your way to becoming a great ESP teacher.

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Wednesday, 10 February 2010

Free online teacher's notes

This is a post I wrote back in early December, in a hotel room in Klagenfurt, Austria. I didn't have an internet connection there, so this post has been sitting on my computer since then, waiting for me to have time to tidy it up. Well, I still don't have time, but ... here's the post.

If you’re wondering why I’ve been a bit quiet recently on the old blog (don’t say you didn’t even notice!), it’s because I’ve been working flat out writing a teacher’s book for our new course book, Cambridge English for Marketing. I finally got my teacher’s notes finished and sent on Monday this week, which was a huge relief. Now I can start dealing with all the other urgent jobs that I’d had to ignore while I was trying to stay focused on the big job.

The student’s book itself is due out in early 2010, and, as you can see, the author is Nick Robinson, who also has the honour of being the first follower of this blog. I’ll write more about the new book soon, but I wanted to talk here about teacher’s books, specifically the free online ones that we’ve made available for the Cambridge English for … series.

I’ve always been a bit dismissive of teacher’s books. So many of them just provide obvious instructions and not much more. Like many teachers, I gave up using them years ago. So when I was asked to write the teacher’s book for International Legal English, I wanted to do it properly, and create a resource that would really make a difference to the teacher’s experience in the classroom (and, by extension, the student’s experience).

Since then, I’ve been a bit less dismissive of teacher’s books (especially ones I’ve written myself), but I know many other teachers still don’t bother with them. I think in ESP that’s something you can’t afford to do, especially if you’re fairly new to either the ESP topic or to teaching. I’m not saying all teacher’s books for ESP courses are excellent, but in general I think this is one area where teacher’s notes come into their own.

I’m writing this from a hotel in Klagenfurt, Austria, where I’ve just been doing some teacher training on two of the original books in my series. This morning I was showing a group of teachers Cambridge English for Engineering, and then after a break I moved on to Cambridge English for Nursing.

My brief for today’s training sessions was to explain a bit of background to the series and these two books in particular, and then walk the audience through a unit of each, making full use of the materials in the online teacher’s notes.

When I checked those notes, which are available for free download here and here, I was a little bit blown away by how good they are. That’s not just me blowing my own trumpet. Even though I’m series editor, I was involved only peripherally in the teacher’s notes for those two titles – most of the editing work was done by my friend Sara Harden (who I’m delighted to see is one of the newest followers of this blog).

And of course the writing work was done by the course book writers themselves. I only wrote one of the original sets of teacher’s notes, for Cambridge English for the Media. The other three were written by the same people who wrote the student’s books.

Anyway, as I was saying, there’s some great stuff available online, and it’s all free to download and use. Here’s a screenshot from the Cambridge English for Nursing site.

As you can see, in the top left-hand corner there’s a complete glossary (with audio recordings of every word), a list of abbreviations, a text on medical technology for every unit and vocabulary games for every unit. The teacher’s notes themselves contain instructions for teachers, answers, suggestions for extra activities and background information. Actually, I think the background information is the best part of the teacher’s notes – if you read them carefully and follow the links, you’ll be much much better prepared for teaching nurses.

The notes for Cambridge English for Engineering are also really excellent.

The screenshot shows only two things in the top left-hand corner, the teacher’s notes themselves and a series of case studies, but that doesn’t mean there’s less content. It’s just that more of the content is integrated into the teacher’s notes. So we have around three or four extra worksheets per unit, plus lists of useful vocabulary and background notes with web links. Plus of course all the ideas for little extra activities.

I could go on … I’ll tell you more about what I wrote for the teacher’s notes for Cambridge English for the Media and Cambridge English for Marketing another time, but suffice to say I put a lot of thought and effort into both of them. And of course Colm Downe’s teacher’s notes for Cambridge English for Jobhunting are also excellent.

So … what are you waiting for? Did I mention that they’re free? Check them out, and I hope you find them as useful as I do.

PS I think all that work on the teacher’s notes for Cambridge English for Marketing must have had a bad effect on me. One of the sections was on SEO (search engine optimisation) and SEM (search engine marketing), and I’ve also spent weeks crashing round tons of marketing websites from Google searches, where the sites that come top of the search are the ones that use these techniques best. And now I’m doing it … look how many times I mentioned my series above. Not healthy …

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Friday, 5 February 2010

Listening: What's the aim? (part 2)

In a posting last year, I listed what I consider to be five valid aims for listening tasks in ESP courses. To recap, these are:  
  1. To provide listening practice.
  2. To teach listening skills.
  3. To provide an interesting topic for discussion.
  4. To present useful language in context.
  5. To serve as a model for speaking activities (and, by extension, for real-life situations).
In that posting, I tried to deal with aims 1 and 2, and I promised I'd come back to the meatier ones later. So here goes with aim 5.

What about 3 and 4, I hear you cry? Well, aim 5 happens to be the one that was very prominent in my ESP Consultancy in Cyprus last week, so I thought I'd deal with it while it's fresh in my mind.

So ... listening as a model for speaking activities. It's a bit of an odd aim, since it's not really a listening aim at all. But here's why I think it's important:
  • I believe a key part of ESP is situational, i.e. training learners to cope with real-life situations that they are likely to encounter and that are likely to cause them problems in their professional lives.
  • If we're going to train them for those situations, we need to provide functional language input and opportunities to practise in controlled and less controlled activities.
  • Rather than providing that functional language input in isolation and out of context, I believe we need to provide good models of successful communication in those situations. The models should include not just useful language, but also communication strategies (e.g. the importance of interrupting or clarifying) and professional skills (e.g. active listening or empathy skills).
  • The models can be presented as a written script, but it's far more satisfying to hear people actually acting out that script, or even watch them on video or live.
Before I go any further, I need to say that of course there's far far more to ESP than that, and that teaching functional language is not the be all and end all. It's a messy business, as I'll explain in another post soon.

Anyway, if you're with me so far, we need scripts and we need them to be performed. Tricky. There are three potential sources.

Firstly and ideally, we'd find a ready-made script tailored to our students' needs somewhere in a coursebook. That's actually one of the big reasons my own books are so full of listenings and situational dialogues - because I think they're important and because I think they're hard for ESP teachers to find or create by themselves.

Secondly, we'd find some useful clips online. This is actually quite tough, even in these days of YouTube. It seems most of the videos you can find online seem to be non-situational, i.e. they don't represent the sorts of situations our learners are likely to find themselves in. There are plenty of interviews with experts, plenty of talking-head monologues, plenty of clips with not much useful language at all ...

But you can find them if you try. A year or so ago I set myself the challenge of finding something on YouTube for each of the first four books in my series. This was a bit superfluous, since I already had all the scripts I could want for those four areas in the books themselves, but it seemed like a reasonable challenge. Here are the results.

For Nursing, I found a clip from a BBC drama series, Casualty, which is about doctors and nurses in a hospital. I can't say I've watched the programme (I'm not one for TV dramas, I'm afraid), but it's worth remembering that there are plenty of dramas around. Of course, you might not find a drama series relevant to your ESP learners, but it's worth a try.

For Engineering, I searched YouTube for "cool engineering demonstration", and found this one, which indeed is really cool. The point is, the presenter is using the same type of language that real life engineers need to use when explaining their gadgets. There seem to be plenty of light entertainment programmes with engineers explaining things too, like Robot Wars and Brainiac (search YouTube if you haven't seem them - they're nerdy but excellent).

For Jobhunting, I searched for "funny job interview", and found all sorts of examples, including one from Monty Python, but the one I chose was a brilliant interview for a job with a box manufacturer ... which has been removed from YouTube. Shame. Anyway, here's another one. Comedy series in general are great for how-not-to-do-it, and often contain some great functional language, although the really funny ones always seem to contain some strong language (which I'll leave you to discover).

To help me get over my disappointment at finding my favourite Jobhunting video missing and the other good ones full of swearing, here's another great ESP/HR video from Big Train, this time about losing a job.

Finally, for English for the Media, I wanted to find an example of a debriefing meeting at a TV company, and came across this clip from a fly-on-the-wall documentary. Again, documentaries can be a great source of authentic situational language.

So ... there's stuff there if you look hard enough for it, but ... it's a bit hit and miss. There's no guarantee the clips you find will match your course aims in terms of content and target functional language. And of course there's the next problem: transcribing the useful language and making exercises out of it. I've tried that a few times recently, such as this lesson on recycling televisions - useful for engineers explaining what's happening in different parts of a factory, etc. But it's hard work.

So I'm coming to the conclusion that it's better to write and record your own scripts ... which is the long-awaited "thirdly" in my list of three sources. But that creates its own problems. And since it's now very nearly midnight, I'll have to save that for another post.

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