Focusing on communication strategies instead of language per se

Last Saturday Evan Frendo gave us at ELTABB an absolutely excellent presentation on the latest research in Business English, focusing on four key areas: English as a Lingua Franca (ELF), Communities of Practice, Intercultural Communication and Lexis and Genre/ Corpus Linguistics. His presentation and handout are here: scroll down to the bottom for all the links.

In discussing ELF, he quoted, among others, Alan Firth saying that the practice of communication has been overlooked by the general focus on lexico-grammar. Despite its relevance for our business clients, Evan said that teaching practice will presumably only begin to change when the big testing organisations budge and develop new standards. How exactly the level of skills in practical communication can be tested to standard levels is still unclear. Even so, a few key elements have become central in my teaching, and are learnable: Jennifer Jenkins’ Lingua Franca Core, being able to analyse and apply successful communication strategies, and successful listening comprehension across varieties. I can well imagine them becoming a part of a set of new testing standards that extend the old ones rather than throwing them overboard entirely.

I saw the relevance of prioritizing communication strategies again yesterday. I was teaching back office skills to a group of management and team assistants and administrators at Mundipharma in Limburg. They’re part of an international corporate group where 1/3 of the staff they normally address are based in Germany, and 2/3 are based in Britain. As they wrote practice emails and we went through them, it became very clear that it was far more valuable to discuss how their British colleagues would respond to their direct formulation of requests and orders, and how to reformulate them to reach both the Germans and the Brits, than to nitpick minor errors in their use of the tenses and prepositions.

ELF, or BELF, will also be the focus of the BESIG pre-conference event at IATEFL with Vicki Hollett, Chia Suan Chong, Almut Koester, and Mark Powell speaking. I’ve decided to go and am very much looking forward to this. Have to sign up today, I think, to still get an early bird discount. I’ve never been to Scotland…

Debate and discussion

I enjoyed yesterday’s communication skills class with the Master of Public Management class at the University of Potsdam. We did discussion and debate, and I used a few resources I can recommend:

communication triangle anne hodgson

After showing the students my communication triangle above (connect at the human, the community, and the (competitive, self-)marketing levels), I highlighted the skill of building and maintaining rapport. I used Bob Dignen’s lovely “Business with Bob” video, “Building Rapport”, where he explains mirroring and positive modelling. You’ll find it and the rest of his video series on the Business Spotlight site. (Link to the intro page to that series. Link to the video itself.)

how to disagree

Then I showed them Paul Graham’s great “pyramid of disagreement”, from the lowest, and least effective, ways (name-calling, ad hominem attacks) to those that promise most in every respect (refutation, and especially refuting the key argument). That article is well worth reading (Paul Graham, How to Disagree, March 2008).

Then we got down to business. I started with an activity from a great book I’m using a lot at the moment, by Jenny Guse, Communicative Activities for EAP (Klett/Cambridge University Press 2011, with CD-ROM, e.g. here). The activity is Discussion Trios, so: three to a group, they get a problem card, and have 10 minutes to come up with as many factors that contribute to this problem as they can. This gets them talking and practicing the language of coordination (and, as well, also, another one…). I took Jenny Guse’s material for this, namely a range of 10 environmental issues. Then we did Trios reloaded, where the same teams had to think of a new problem themselves (social, economic, cultural,…) and do the same thing again. They came up with issues like overpopulation, social inequality, corruption, but also having too many term papers to write in too short a time, and eating too much. Then they were ready to do the first extended task. I adapted an activity in Jenny Guse’s book, where she asks students to design a computer game for the elderly, and asks students to discuss and come to an agreement on the passions, values and experience of the elderly. This is to practice the language of agreement and disagreement. I preferred to have them work “closer to home”, and told them that they were to design a computer game for young adults like themselves to educate them to a pressing problem of our day and age. They were to determine the passions, values and interests of their target group that this game would appeal to. I put them in four groups of 5-6 each, and they started out by deciding on the problem, then outlining the values and passions, which each team presented, and they then went back into their groups to develop the game itself. These four games were then presented by a duo from each team:

  • A stress-reduction game: The player moves through various environments where she makes healthy, fun, vitalizing choices to move from 100% to 0% stress.
  • An urban life game: The player moves through urban adventures, where he has to “do the right thing” and is awarded citizenship and other bonus points and can become mayor or similar.
  • An end terrorism game, where the player has to put together a team to end terrorism (a lawyer, a general…). Each profile has a different chance of success, and this is predefined, so depending on whether the player employs the members of the team the way the designers have determined them to be successful, the mission will succeed.
  • An end organized crime game, in which players gain the necessary resources, which they then use as they try to infiltrate the criminal networks in missions, distracting and entertaining them to get inside.

After this entertaining activity, the students went on to “take a stand”. I showed them a cartoom that’s been making the rounds (“Dad, I’m considering a career in organized crime.” “Government or private sector?”) and asked them “Which sector is more corrupt?” The more outspoken in the class stood and spoke, and responded to each other with counter-arguments. They were great, and this I filmed, but unfortunately at over 13 minutes, the film is too long too share. (I have to break the film down to upload to our private channel, but this always takes time.) In a second round, everyone paired up, and one player expressed a standpoint, to which the other responded by agreeing with certain parts of the argument and disagreeing with others. This gave the less outspoken ones a chance to speak.

We didn’t get around to the big two team debate I had set up to end things, based on two groups, each reading only one side of an argument, and then engaging in debate, as the above activities took up the full three hours.

One thing that is rarely successful in these types of lessons is to get students to actually use functional language. I did hand out respective phrase bits and modeled them, but I didn’t actually give positive feedback when I heard them being used. The most effective feedback, I think, is when they are grasping for words and then get, from their peers or from me, the correct phrase (Comprehensible Output). I heard lots of that going on. But in my experience, as I say, it’s rarely the language usually defined as functional, it’s usually the words that carry more content. These students are using English as a Lingua Franca (ELF), at differeing levels of fluency, and they are collaborating towards an outcome, very successfully. I don’t think it’s wrong to point out functional language, it may ring a bell with some of them and come in handy, but I don’t believe in pushing it. I think it’s far more essential to internalize the principles of good communication, and that’s why a bit of a presentation and discussion of those, followed by loads of communicative activities to practice and get routine, is my favored approach. What I need to improve next time I do this sort of thing is to make sure there is a feedback slot at the end to revisit those principles.

Here is my presentation as a pdf. If you have done or do anything similar in classes, I’d love to hear from you!

MPM Discuss and debate

Sys admin

We’ve had such bizarre trouble with our landline for weeks now, with virtual repairmen who didn’t show up and left messages with the helpline hours later. My work was piling up, and my blood pressure was rising. And then the MacBook Pro had trouble with the software on the Vodafone mobile stick that I was going online with.

So push came to shove and on Saturday, with Helmut off on a business trip down South, I decided to get things fixed. I bought a “Portable WLAN Hot Spot” (TrekStor) that I can go online with. It’s essentially like the Fritzbox we would otherwise use (which ordinarily hooks up to the landline, DSL) in that it allows any laptop in the vicinity to log in, with the access code, and go online on my T-Mobile contract.

The only trouble is that the amount of data transmitted is far more limited than with the fast DSL connection we had ordered. It slows things down incredibly. I tried a few Skype calls, and you’re lucky if the conversation works. I hope it won’t be a big problem. But, for example, some downloads are just too big to go through wireless.

Still, after all the trouble we had I’m playing with the idea of getting rid of the landline alltogether. It sure would save a lot of money.

I’ve also splurged on an iPad. I’ll be teaching large college classes, and I want to be able to go online easily. At the TH Wildau they have a Moodle I’m supposed to use–, and I also want to show nice presentations. I’ll need to get my materials tidied up for the Moodle anyway, so then I can also put them into the iTunes format the iPad needs.

Anyway, I’m tickled pink to have successfully set up a local network, however weak the data stream. I’ve even sorted out my passwords. So I’m feeling quite the sys admin today!