When I started teaching Business English, my biggest nagging worry was that I had never heard the language I was supposed to teach. It’s been written in a lot in publications about corpora that close analysis of real language in use has shown that quite a few of our intuitions about language use are incorrect and so some staple teaching practices and grammar rules need to be taken with a pinch of salt. Now, what really strikes me is that this is related to General English – that is, the language we’re exposed to on everyday basis. What about intuitions about workplace communication? How could I even have any intuitions if I’d never participated in a business meeting in English or made a telephone call in English to a supplier? And what about workplace communication in a specific sphere (I was mainly teaching in IT companies)? How much did my coursebook, my only source of information (apart from the students), represent that?
Another problem I was facing was that, time after time, my students failed to incorporate the functional language I was teaching into their speech. Having partially solved that problem now, I believe that it at least to some extent originated in my teaching, but I’m not sure it was one hundred percent down do my teaching. For example, one thing that has always frustrated me is teaching functional expressions for handling interruptions (e.g. Can I come in here for a moment?) What was happening was that, as soon as my students moved on to a genuinely communicative tasks, they stopped using the target language because it struck them as unnatural. However, I’m not really sure whether this problem lies in my teaching or whether the students actually just do what’s only natural to do. For instance, I chanced upon an article which suggests that the expressions for interruption presented in textbooks aren’t actually used that much in real life – maybe for exact same reasons my students tend to avoid them in communicative activities?
But then, this is data about face-to-face meetings and my students mainly participate in skype meetings – surely in that case they’d need more explicit strategies for interrupting? Again, how do I find out, having never heard a single meeting by skype?..
This year I’ve been lucky enough to have access to recordings of some IT meetings and I’ve been squeezing them for at least some insight into real language use in this sphere. I’ve learnt a lot and incorporated a lot of insights into my teaching, but there have also been a number of problems, not the least one being that it’s much easier to analyze a meeting if you’ve got a complete transcript, but transcribing is a terribly long process and I was finding it difficult to find time for that between teaching and other commitments. Other obvious issues are that I have the enthusiasm to analyze this data but not the skills and that my ‘corpus’ of 10,000 words in transcripts and a few dozen emails is not enough to do statistical analysis anyway.
Three weeks ago it finally occured to me that there’s actually a huge pool of IT communication freely available on the internet – that is, IT forums, for instance stackoverflow.com. Of course it won’t examplify a large proportion of business related functions, such as turn taking, but nevertheless it’s a great resource that represents a lot of aspects of workplace communication in IT. It’s conversational in style, so it can probably give insight into spoken as well as written communication. A forum is also a great source of topics to discuss in class. Moreover, most of my students know and use that particular forum and so far they’ve been reacting extremely positively to the idea of looking at language through that lens.
This is another idea that I can’t believe I’d been missing for so long. I’ve been using http://www.webcorp.org.uk/ to retrieve concordance lines from stackoverflow and for the past three weeks I’ve been totally hooked on playing with this tool.
In the following post I’ll write about some interesting examples of language I’ve discovered in the past three weeks and describe the associated activities that I’ve used with my students.
I’d also love to hear about other people’s experience tailouring their business English course to their students’ needs. I’m sure I’m missing quite a few more ‘elephants in the room’ and that this journey is only beginning.