Business correspondence

A short phrasebook for secretarial business correspondence has been published in my name. I was somewhat surprised when it was brought to my attention. I’m pretty sure it extracts the key phrases from a large collection of letters I wrote about 12 years ago, edited down by the publisher a few years back to bring out the ‘essence’ of each letter. I’m grateful for the additional publication, but frankly, my input here was limited.

The slim phrasebook is a “Prämie”, or bonus, offered online to attract customers, with a “Schutzgebühr”, or nominal or token fee,  listed on the cover. It’s also on offer on online marketplaces for €14,95, but would anyone really pay that much in this day and age?

I do find looking up complete phrases to be very helpful. I needed some formal French correspondence phrases yesterday to write to a gallery, and found the right phrases online. Sometimes it’s a special grammar form you need, and more involved phrases such as the ones in the 16-page booklet are more liable to include such extras.  So here’s wishing you a bit of serendipity – incidental, fortunate, unexpected discoveries – as you go through business correspondence phrases!

Cornelsen Basis for Business C1

How exciting – the book I worked on for a year, with Carole Eilertson writing the practice sections, has just been published. I’ve been lucky to work with inspiring people and a great team, with Janan Barksdale editing, and now the book is public. There will be a teaching guide by Andreas Grundtvig and a workbBasisCook by Mindy Krull coming out soon. Here’s hoping learners find it useful. I wish everyone who uses this book very productive and enjoyable learning sessions! Do let me know what works well for you, and what doesn’t.

Getting real in teaching listening

phonology-for-listening-richard-cauldwell-paperback-cover-artBook review:
Richard Cauldwell: Phonology for Listening. Teaching the Stream of Speech. Speech in Action. Birmingham, UK 2013.
ISBN 0954344723, ISBN-13: 978-0954344726. Printed on demand by Amazon. €25.68

Richard Cauldwell makes a key point: Listening acquisition lags behind the acquisition of other skills, he says, because we treat listening skills as something learners will acquire through enough exposure, as if by osmosis. Instead of teaching listening, we simply test listening comprehension. Drawing on learner diaries, Cauldwell reports that, as a result, learners typically have two complaints:

  • Ying’s dilemma“: Ying from Sinagpore says she can’t catch the words she knows, as she doesn’t understand how their sound shapes change in the middle of sentences, squeezed together, especially in spontaneous speech.
  • Anna’s anger“: A student from Finland is angry at her teachers for underusing recordings. She wants them to go beyond comprehension practice to teach what Cauldwell calls “the realities of the stream of speech.” (p. 3)

Approaching the problem from the standard pronunciation syllabus doesn’t resolve the problem, Cauldwell says, because the “careful speech model” that underlies that syllabus treats language as “a correct, tidy, steady-speed, rule-governed phenomenon,” with a limited set of sounds and rules for sentence types and connected speech phenomena, “optimised for clear pronunciation.” (p. 4) So while it may be easy to use such a syllabus to teach, it doesn’t help learners acquire the listening skills they need. Cauldwell explains the challenge using three metaphors: Beyond the “greenhouse” of the classroom, and outside the “garden” of careful speech, the student of English needs to deal with the unruly “jungle” of spontaneous speech (p. 260). That’s the messy, real world that we need to prepare our students to handle.

Cauldwell’s solution is to take a comprehensive approach, “teaching learners to decode the sound substance of the stream of speech.” (p.1) He lays out a “window on speech framework”, a toolkit for contrasting the clearly pronounced “citation form” with the changed sound shapes in spontaneous speech. The framework is built around the speaker-defined speech unit, rather than the grammar-defined sentence unit, as it reflects “the moment-by-moment choices that speakers make as they communicate.” (p.5) Speech units are defined as multi-word rhythmic sections with prominent and non-prominent syllables, steps up and down in pitch, and tone glides (up, down and level). Cauldwell’s special focus is on the “squeeze zones” of non-prominent syllables contained in speech units, and he highlights the compression of whole word groups.

  • Part 1 (Chapters 1-5) presents the “window on speech” framework, expanding on the work of David Brazil, Richard Bradford, Martin Hewings and others to introduce notation techniques to describe the precise sound effects of squeezing.
  • Part 2 (Chapters 6-10) describes the sound substance of the stream of speech, including shifts in stress. This includes an interesting discussion on syllable timing, i.e. how speakers of an L1 such as French will retain syllable timing when they use English.
  • Part 3 (Chapters 11-15) studies the range of factors influencing the stream of sound, including accents (i.e. Britain, Ireland, North America, and Global including English as a Lingua Franca), as well as how identity, emotion and attitude influence speech.
  • Part 4 (Chapters 16-20) suggests learner activities for spontaneous speech listening, in both low-tech (teacher and peer listening, recordings) and high-tech (recordings and apps) contexts.

Overall, the exercises raise awareness for getting past the “decoding gap”. The key requirement is “letting go of the careful speech model”. While Cauldwell uses sample recordings throughout the book to raise awareness for the specific sound shapes, with careful listening/analyzing and preparing/performing tasks, Part 4 goes the extra step of explaining how to work with the material.

The activities pivot on what Cauldwell calls “savouring” and “handling short stretches of speech“. Such activities often involve drafting a transcript of the various versions of one and the same phrase. Notations bracket phrases in speech units between double lines to signify short breaks in the stream, capitalize the stressed syllables and underline the main stress. One of the exercises goes like this:

18.1 Stepping stones (mp3 sound files 18.01-4)
This pair work activity to explore a variety of ways a phrase can sound is modeled in four recordings using the phrase “It’s the second biggest city in my country, I think.”

  1. First, students or the teacher create a “greenhouse” version of the phrase, i.e. every word is spoken very clearly.
  2. Then they create a slightly messy “garden” version with stress being dictated by the speaker’s personal intended meaning.
  3. After that, pairs speak in unison to contrast the two different versions (then performing before the class). In the recoding, this sounds quite disjointed.
  4. Finally, students are presented a very messy “jungle” version with hesitation, stumbling, hedging (perhaps from the teacher, or from an authentic recording)

This is a rather general awareness-raising exercise that could be used to introduce the overall approach, and to practice noting down a phrase in its different sound shapes.

Other activities targeting more specific areas include:

  • Practicing clusters of frequent forms
  • Close listening following transcripts
  • Soft focus listening to suggest “mondegreens” – phrases that are misinterpreted because they sound like something else – i.e. “occasionally” can sound like “ok jolly” (p. 285)
  • Formulating multiple choice questions to include an answer that the learner would give based on mistakes in decoding the sound stream
  • Taking phrases from the squeezed version to the clear version and back
  • “Instant dictations” in which you stop recordings and have students write down the last 4 words they’ve heard, which are still fresh in mind and not yet processed for meaning

Finally, Cauldwell suggests using Audacity or another digital editor to record and study the wave shape of sounds, and Audio Notetaker to listen to, analyze and edit the chunks of a given piece of audio.

Overall, Phonology for Listening represents an original and enormously practical approach to teaching an essential language skill that needs attention, and is clearly in need of improvement among many of our students. Highly recommended.


Eddie Izzard is a Force Majeure

Eddie Izzard is unbelievable. 8 years of French and 2 years of German in school. And after witnessing people of many nations splashing about peacefully together in Santorini and believing that languages will unite us, he’s decided to do his show in various countries and languages. Standup comedy in  foreign tongues, not just in French, which he speaks, but also in German, Italian, Spanish, Russian and Arabic, which he doesn’t.

The title of the show, “Force Majeure”, he says, is about his wanting to be a force of nature for peace. He doesn’t believe in waiting for some hand of God to come down and do the business.

His brother has translated the show into German, and he began learning it by heart, came to Berlin on 4 January, and on 14 January was on stage, doing the show. The show gets a bit longer every night as he adds new bits he’s learned, and the older parts get a bit shorter as he gets through them more quickly.

He handles forgotten lines by interacting with the audience. Finally, a suitable context for that word! It slows his pace down, but also provides the opportunity for some fresh improvisation, playing with words and the audience. Then he surfs on the positive energy of the audience. The basement at the Imperial Club seats no more than 150, and maybe 100 people were there on Sunday, so it’s all rather intimate. I was close enough to get a good look at his lovely manicured fingernails, with the Union Jack and the flag of the EU painted on them.  The show is set to continue through to the end of February. Tickets and dates here.

In language learning terms, he’s proving a point. As he said in the Q&A he gave instead of an encore, he finds the key to learning to speak a foreign language is

  • total immersion
  • not worrying about the grammar
  • learning by heart
  • simply having the courage to speak
  • being under extreme pressure to actually perform before an audience with high expectations

He says sometimes he can access language at will, it all flows out of him, and sometimes he’s completely stumped.

In the interview below he somewhat surprisingly says he doesn’t think there are any cultural differences in humor. His jokes work in any language, he says. I’d  agree, but isn’t that simply a measure of Britain’s lead in the world of comedy? With Britain’s history, after all, how can it not be multi- and cross-cultural?

I’ve found an illegal recording of the show from about a week ago. Judging from what I heard as compared to what the video shows, he’s already made some headway.

State of the art: Machine translation

In a word: Aaaaargh! The German machine translation below is complete nonsense. Lexis is far more complicated than you’d think. A word like ‘searing’ can be a verb, an adjective or a noun. Consider how differently ‘even’ can translate –’even heating’ has been translated here as  ‘sogar Heizung’ rather than ‘gleichmäßige Erwärmung’. And ‘seasoning’ is a good example of usage in a technical context: ‘Seasoned cast iron’ does not mean ‘iron with a pinch of salt’!
Curiouser and curiouser: How did the machines get from ‘bare’ to ‘Blondine’?

Original article:
By: Michael Shah
Cast iron is used for cookware because it has excellent heat retention and diffusion properties, and can be produced and formed with a relatively low level of technology. Seasoning is used to protect bare cast iron from rust, and to create a non-stick surface.
Cast iron cookware is slow to heat, but once at temperature provides even heating. Cast iron can also withstand very high temperatures, making cast iron pans ideal for searing. Being a reactive material, cast iron can have chemical reactions with high acid foods such as wine or tomatoes. In addition, some foods (such as spinach) cooked on bare cast iron will turn black.
Cast iron is a porous material that rusts easily. As a result, it typically requires seasoning before use. Seasoning creates a thin layer of fat and carbon over the iron that coats and protects the surface, and prevents sticking.

Machine translation:
Von: Michael Shah
Gusseisen ist für Kochgeschirr verwendet, da ihm verfügt über ausgezeichnete Wärme-Speicherung und Verbreitung Eigenschaften, und produziert und können mit einem relativ niedrigen Niveau der Technologie gebildet. Gewürz dient Blondine Gusseisen vor Rost zu schützen, und eine Antihaft-Oberfläche erstellen.
Gusseisen Kochgeschirr ist langsam zu heizen, aber einmal bei Temperatur bietet sogar Heizung. Gusseisen kann auch sehr hohe Temperaturen, so dass Gusseisen Pfannen ideal für die sengende standhalten. Ein reaktives Material können, aus Gusseisen chemische Reaktionen mit hohen saure Lebensmittel wie Wein oder Tomaten haben. Darüber hinaus werden einige Lebensmittel (z. B. Spinat), gekocht auf nackten Gusseisen schwarz.
Gusseisen ist ein poröses Material, das leicht rostet. Daher bedarf es normalerweise Würze vor Gebrauch. Würze erzeugt eine dünne Schicht von Fett und Kohlenstoff über das Eisen, das Mäntel und schützt die Oberfläche und verhindert kleben.

Google translate back to English:
Cast Iron Oven to Tableware
From: Michael Shah
Cast iron is used for cookware because it has excellent heat retention and distribution properties, and produces and can be formed with a relatively low level of technology. Spice serves blonde cast iron to protect against rust and create a nonstick surface.
Cast iron cookware is slow to heat, but once at temperature provides even heating. Cast iron can also be very high temperatures, so that cast iron pans withstand ideal for searing. A reactive material can , of cast iron have chemical reactions with high acid foods such as wine or tomatoes. In addition, some foods (such as spinach ) cooked on bare cast iron black.
Cast iron is a porous material that rusts easily. Therefore, normally it requires seasoning before use. Seasoning creates a thin layer of grease and carbon over the iron that coats and protects the surface and prevents sticking.


Scratch off the wallpaper in the front room upstairs, and out comes Taut’s blue. Fantastic. I’d love to just leave it as is, but I’m worried it will be too busy. Many of the walls in this room and in others are all patched up from new wiring. So I’ll make a window of sorts wherever the original color shows through, and then match the color with silicate paints and try to reconstruct the look, for this room for sure and perhaps for some of the others. This blue room is going to be my and Helmut’s home office. There’s a great view of the buildings across the street from here, the walls of which show up in the oxblood red and ocher yellow Taut used. It has the feeling of true primary colors. One of the downstairs rooms was originally painted a dark green. He was clearly not one to be cautious about wallpaint.

Hitting the books again

Having finished Basis for Business C1, and soon to hand over ELTABB events coordination, my workload is relatively light.  Next to my compact teaching sessions I’m writing teaching files:

But overall I now have a little extra time on my hands to finally, finally finish my Diploma TESOL.

I was in Barcelona in August 2011 to complete Unit 1, the written exam, and Unit 3, the assessed lessons and the oral phonology exam. I blogged about that here. I’ve also completed most of Unit 2, including my Observation Instrument – though I need to rewrite the argument thoroughly, since scaffolding means something different to me now.  My Developmental Record on teaching pronunciation is all done.

What remains is my Independent Research Project. It will most probably be either

  • a questionnaire on Learner Inventory – an issue that is much debated and misunderstood, but was a revelation to me in Barcelona. I’m looking forward to welcoming Rebecca Oxford to ELTABB on 1 June.  We had Marjorie Rosenberg speaking here recently on Learning Styles, and her book for Delta Publishing is very useful. I think there is more to both Learner Inventory and Learning Styles than meets the eye. Specifically, I’m interested in how awareness of learner-style diversity can increase skill in handling cross-cultural diversity. This is a minefield I’ve wanted to get a handle on for some time. It’ll require a bit of deep thought.
  • a questionnaire on using technology to extend a coursebook – this is an old chestnut of a topic, but one I’m rather a specialist in. Oxford University Press have very kindly invited me to provide a VHS teacher training workshop on combining the new Headway with online tools, a workshop due on 21 June.

As I work out how to set up those questionnaires and the arguments to go with them, I’ll be rereading Theresa’s and Paul’s related posts on their great (discontinued) blog,