Monday, 29 March 2010

English for nursing

I was sitting in the staffroom between lessons this evening and one of the teachers asked the room, 'What's the name of that thing nurses wear on their heads?' No-one seemed to know, and then someone suggested, "Ask Jeremy - he's got two books on English for Nursing".

Well, yes. But there weren't any hats in either book, as far as I remember. Not a priority. As far as I'm concerned, the thing nurses wear on their heads is called a nurse hat. Perhaps a kind reader could fill me in on the proper name, although I'll admit now that I'm not really that worried about not knowing.

The point is this: what do nurses (or any other sets of ESP learners, for that matter) need English for? To explain the various parts of their uniform? Or to deal professionally and symathetically with patients in crises or high-emotion situations and with other medical professionals in situations where accuracy may make the difference between life and death?

In our new book, Cambridge English for Nursing Pre-Intermediate, we teach nurses and nurse trainees how to speak with patients who have suffered embarrassing situations (like incontinence). Just stop for a second and think how you would help someone maintain their dignity in that situation ... and then try doing that in a foreign language ... at pre-int level.

We also teach them how to reassure patients who are about to undergo unpleasant operations, such as having a tube inserted through their nose into their stomach. Again, stop and think for a second how you'd deal with that.

We've got a unit on communicating with terminally ill patients.

Last week I had a phone meeting with Virginia Allum, one of the authors of our nursing books (together with Patricia McGarr). Virginia's a hugely experienced nurse and nurse educator (as well as being a great English teacher and writer). She told me that every single dialogue in both books was based on real situations she'd been through as a nurse. Incontinence, tubes up noses, dying patients, everything. It was quite moving hearing her talking about her experiences, and how absolutely important language skills are - for native speakers as much as for foreign language speakers.

Sometimes they were great experiences where she'd done everything right. Others were based on failures, where she'd later analysed what went wrong and what she should have done.
It's easy to lose sight of the fact that we're talking about real-life situations here. This isn't just about teaching people to talk about their holiday palns or to use future perfect instead of future continuous or whatever. It's about making a real difference to the lives of our students and, in turn, to the lives of the people they'll deal with in English.

As I've said before, the most important person in the classroom may not actually be in the classroom. It may be a patient with a tube up their nose or worse.

I hope users of the books go on to use the language and techniques from them. If, as a result of this book, a patient is treated with extra dignity and tact, is reassured when scared, is listened to when they need to talk ... well, for me, that's what it's all about.

Related posts:

Saturday, 20 March 2010

Financial English ... if such a thing exists

I'll explain my strange title in a minute. This post will be a bit of a mish-mash of my thoughts on financial English. First some background.

This time last week I finished a series of presentations around Poland on Financial English. One week, 4 cities, 8 presentations (and I still managed to do two days' teaching too).

Why me? Well, a few years ago I was asked by my colleagues at the British Council to prepare 3-hour presentations for the two new Cambridge ESOL exams, ILEC (International Legal English Certificate) and ICFE (International Certificate in Financial English). So I went a bit wild with the Powerpoint and created the presentations - basically talking teachers through the exams, with guidance on how to prepare students for each task in each paper.

Then last year I did a tour to promote ILEC around Poland, using a whittled down version of my monster presentation. This year it was ICFE's turn. I had to squeeze my 150-slide masterpiece into 45 minutes. Not an easy task. I actually quite liked the big presentation, so it was quite distressing to have to delete so many slides.

The point about the ICFE is that it's an English exam, not a finance exam. It's designed to provide an accurate assessment of a candidate's skills and level of English in a financial context. It doesn't test their knowledge and skills of finance itself. With that important proviso, I think it's a pretty good exam. Maybe one day I'll offer deeper thoughts on ICFE and ILEC.

For the ICFE tour, I was also asked to do a second presentation in each city (Wroclaw, Krakow, Warsaw and Gdansk), this time on behalf of my other main 'employer', Cambridge University Press. (I should point out that I'm not actually employed by either the BC or CUP, but almost all my work is for one or the other).

I was promoting the new CUP Financial English course, called, er, Cambridge Financial English. It's designed as a blended learning course, based on the idea that many finance professionals are busy and stressed and in need of a flexible learning solution.

I've never used the materials to teach, but they look excellent. What I like best is the bank of 40 short video clips - a mixture of functional/situational dialogues (i.e. finance people doing their jobs, interacting with colleagues or clients in English) and informational listenings (e.g. news reports, interviews, etc.). The course looks very thorough, professional and useful.

I won't explain the whole course now - there's a nice demo video on the website. And I won't try to sell it to you!

But I did spot a great business opportunity, which I was very tempted to keep to myself and make a fortune ... if only I had time to exploit it. So here's the lowdown (don't tell anyone).

I think the site,, must get a lot of traffic (since it's also the site for the exam, and plenty of finance pros and students are likely to visit). Interested clients go to the site and want to register for the course, so they check the 'list of tuition providers'. And here's what they see:


Yes ... that's the complete list as of today. One in London and one in Kiev. So my idea was this: I could put the name of my language school here at no cost to myself and wait for the customers to come to me, knocking on the door and desperate to give me their money. No cost, no risk. The only problem is that I don't have my own school, and I don't really have the stomach to set one up and manage one. I prefer writing.

Anyway, I promised I wouldn't try to sell you anything (and I swear I'm not being paid to promote the course now), but if you've got a language school or you want to attract customers for financial English, I think this is too good an opportunity to miss.

Right ... I promised I'd explain my strange title. You see, I've always felt a bit uneasy about Financial English, and I'm not 100% sure it actually exists. My own main ESP area, legal English, has many grammatical and stylistic features that make it different from all other Englishes, as well as all the specialised vocabulary. The same could be said of Technical English (especially technical writing, i guess), Aviation English, Shipping English, Marketing English (especially the language of advertising). The same goes for Medical English: the skill of speaking with patients in delicate situations is probably unique to that set of professions. (My talk at the IATEFL conference in a couple of weeks is focused on the language nurses use - a fascinating topic that I'll blog about soon).

But financial English? Of course there's plenty of jargon. In fact, my main contact with financial English is the Jargonbusters I write twice a month for Professional English Online. (In case you're not familiar with them, they're lesson ideas based around a hot new vocab item, mainly from the world of finance.) So I know all about CoCo bonds, Clawback provisions, Legacy loans, Moral hazard and Quantitative easing, for example.

But I also know that finance people don't spend all day discussing terms like these, and that, interesting as they are, they're only the tip of the iceberg in terms of what finance pros need.

So what exactly do they need? Hmmm ... here's where I get to my strange title. My gut feeling (based on no evidence whatsoever) is that finance people need lots of generic business skills (speaking, writing, negotiating, reports, meetings, etc.), plus a bit of finance vocab. Of course specific branches of finance, like banking or accounting or insurance or whatever, may have other exciting needs, but I'm thinking about needs that unite the whole spectrum of finance people. And all I can come up with is ... business English in a finance context.

Even within a sub-field like banking, surely the front-office staff have radically different language needs from the back-office staff. And those back-office staff in turn will have different needs depending on which particular back office they work in. Retail banking is different from investment banking, which in turn is different from the world of national banks.

So my question to you: am I missing something? Does financial English exist or not?

Perhaps it doesn't matter to you: of course you can create great courses for your own individual students and groups, and you'll find plenty of language needs so you can prepare great courses. My own crisis comes from my job as an ESP editor: I have to find common threads for each of the ESP fields that are taught in my books, beyond easy things like jargon and generic business skills.

Anyway, I'll leave it there. I'd be very interested to hear your opinions, espcially if you have more expereince in financial English than me (not difficult, as I have next to none).

Related posts:

Friday, 12 March 2010

A lesson in the psychology of learning languages (part 2)

A week or so ago, I posted the background to a problem that I think all teachers, including ESP materials writers, need to address, namely the psychological barriers that prevent people from using English in real-life situations and that prevent them from admitting they don’t understand.

In this posting, I’ll work through a lesson plan to tackle that problem. I won’t say solve the problem – I wish I had a magic wand, but this is actually one problem we can’t solve for our students – they have to overcome it themselves.

There’s a related linguistic problem which is perhaps easier to solve. They may not actually have the language they need in order to interrupt effectively and check information in English. Let me demonstrate that these aren’t as easy as they sound with another example using me as a case study in how not to do it.

I have two sources of paranoia when I’m in a large group of people speaking Polish and I sit quietly rather than getting involved in the conversation. Firstly, by the time I’ve thought of the right words to say, the conversation has moved on and it’s too late. What I need is the Polish equivalent of “Shut up for a second while I think of what I’m going to say”, which is normally expressed more politely in English as “Could I just say something here?

My second source of paranoia is the panic that even though I understand 90% of what I hear, that 10% might make the difference between success and humiliation. At an integration day at my company several years ago, we had a nice session where we all got musical instruments and the trainer got us to create group music. At one stage, he asked (in Polish) for volunteers to be bell-ringers, so I thought that’d be fine for me and went forward … only to realise, to sniggers from around the room, that he’d put the feminine ending on the word for volunteers … so I made a fool of myself in front of 120 people.

Now, no amount of language could have helped me there, but in smaller gatherings, it’s important to be able to pinpoint misunderstandings. Rather than simply blurt out “I don’t understand”, our students need to be able to ask “Sorry, what exactly do you mean when you say ‘volunteer’?” or “Sorry, you said you’d liked what exactly?

So … so far I’ve got two aims, a psychological one (learner training) about understanding that we all have crises like these and we need to get through them, and a linguistic one of teaching useful phrases.

Before we go any further with the lesson plan, it’s important to note that the aims come first. Very often, we find a good text or video clip, plan some exercises around it, and only then think about aims (to give reading practice, to give speaking practice, to teach some nice vocabulary). Don’t get me wrong, those are all very important aims, and certainly nothing to be ashamed of. But as I’ve said elsewhere, they’re not enough. The difference between a course and a series of lessons comes down to the aims you start with.

Once you’ve got aims, the next thing you need is a context. Now, because I’m doing this not actually as part of a course, I have the advantage – or disadvantage – of having the whole range of ESP topics to choose from. I’ll make an arbitrary decision to focus on English for Marketing, since that’s a field I have some knowledge of, and also because our new book, Cambridge English for Marketing, is out in the coming weeks. (Look out for it – it’s great!) And within that field, I’ll go for the marketing budget, simply because I remember there was some tricky vocab there.

OK, so now we can start planning stages. Since we’re actually teaching something in this lesson, I think we need an input stage, an analysis stage and an output stage. You could call that presentation-practice-production if you like, but I prefer my own names for the stages, which I think are better descriptors.

What could we do about input? Well, we really need to see or hear some characters doing things badly and/or well, in order to provoke some good discussion and also to model the language for later. I’m going to use Xtranormal for this. I’ve never used it before, but I’ve been very impressed when I’ve seen others use it. I hope it works for me.

Anyway, here’s a dialogue to illustrate how not to do it. I’ll show you the second part in a moment.

Remember, my aim here isn’t to give listening practice, so I think this is a very valid way of presenting a script. For more ideas on this sort of listening activity, see this posting.

I’d better point out at this stage that I’m building a toy lesson. If this were a real lesson with real students in mind, I’d check my facts more carefully and probably make the dialogues longer. But I just want to talk you through the stages in the process here.

So … we’ve got some dialogues. Time to start lesson-building. Three rules are worth remembering at this point. Firstly, personalise. So start with a discussion lead-in based on your students’ experiences … of what, though?

The second rule is: content before language. The language focus (as well as the learner training) will come after the listening. At the beginning, we need to focus on the story – what they’re discussing in the dialogue, in this case, marketing budgets.

The third rule: contextualise. Before we listen, we need to have a good idea of what we’re listening to and why.

So let’s start with a lead-in discussion:
- Have you ever been involved in planning a marketing budget?
- What did you do?
- If you haven’t, what stages do you think it involves?
- What different approaches might there be?
- How difficult would it be to get the relevant information?

And so on.

It’d be good here to do some work on the theory of marketing budgets, such as matching six popular approaches with explanations. This is actually a task in our Marketing book, so I’ll leave you read up on it here.

Now we need a first listening task. We’ve already personalised and contextualised to some extent, so we can focus on the actual interaction here. Perhaps first get students to predict who the two people might be, at what stage in the development plan they should discuss the budget, which approach they should choose and what sort of data they’d need to collect. Then watch the clip to compare it with their ideas. I nearly said ‘watch to check’, but that would imply that my answers are somehow more valid than theirs, which is unlikely given that they’re probably marketing pros and I’m an English teacher who’s making it up as he goes along.

Lead-in, predict answers, watch to compare.

Now we’re ready for the meat. At the end of the clip, the woman asks ‘What’s the problem?’, so let’s turn that into a class discussion. This is where all my psychology comes in (see my previous article). Get them to tell anecdotes about times they sat in silence instead of admitting a lack of understanding, or share your own stories of foreign language paranoia (or you could tell them some of mine). I won’t go too deeply into the discussion for two reasons. Firstly, this kind of open-ended discussion can’t really be planned too deeply – as long as you know the key points you want to cover (see my article), you’ll be fine. Secondly, I’ve got another lesson on exactly this topic, which I wrote some time ago for Professional English Online. It’s not been published yet, so I don’t wan to pre-empt it, and in the meantime I don’t see much point in reinventing the wheel.

OK, now we’re ready for language work, so we’d better watch the second clip. But … remembering the rule about content before language, we need comprehension questions first.

How about these:

1. When the woman talked about competitive parity, what did the man think she was saying?

2. Why did the woman start talking about golf?

3. Why did the woman talk about the standard of his work?

4. What exactly is competitive parity?

Right. Now we really are ready for the language work. An old favourite here is a gapfill. Students predict what could go in each space and then watch again to check. Here are the gapped sentences.

I’m sorry. I don’t know _____ _____ _____ _____ the word ‘party’ in this context.

I’m sorry. I don’t know _____ _____ _____ _____. I don’t play golf.

_____ _____ _____ there’s something wrong with my work?

I’m afraid I still _____ _____ _____.

Now we can elicit some more ways of checking information, of pinpointing the exact word that’s causing problems. Perhaps we could also focus on the language the woman uses to explain the concepts. Also, I haven’t done anything on interrupting and all those other functions I mentioned at the beginning – let’s save those for next time and do them properly.

Perhaps there’s room here too for another discussion: in both parts, the man looked a bit stupid. But in which part did he look more stupid? In which part did he overcome the problem?

Then we just need a role-play to bring it all together. You could follow my procedure for instant role-plays (here), but make sure you elicit before you start some really tricky vocab that can serve as the focus of the role-play. (But remember my lesson when this policy went wrong). Tell students they have to use the techniques and language from this lesson (including phrases that they generated themselves).

So students do the role-plays in pairs. Perhaps they could swap roles and do it again. A nice bit of feedback and discussion. Homework: use the techniques and language at work some time before the next lesson and be ready to tell us how you got on.

The end. Simple as that. Try it out, let me know if it works or falls flat, or if you improve my rough ideas into a polished lesson. Good luck.

Related posts:
A lesson in the psychology of learning languages (part 1)
Listening: What’s the aim? (part 2)
Instant role-pays