englishman abroad, Teaching English

English for Specific Purposes

Teaching English in Germany was a not a career I studied for at school, nor could I have done so if I had wanted to. You see, although I studied English Language and English Literature at A-level and literature as a BA, even if I had gone on to do a teaching qualification it would not have prepared me for English teaching outside of the UK. To really understand English, you have to forget even as you learn.

English is a world language; some might say the world language. As Salman Rushdie wrote in ‘Commonwealth Literature’ Does Not Exist, “Those peoples who were once colonized by the language are now rapidly remaking it”. The once colonial outposts of India, the USA, and Australia now speak Indian, American and Australian English respectively. Just take a look at the various Englishes available in Microsoft Office, they have eighteen different versions of proofing English. That’s just the Englishes that a multinational thought were worth its time. The myriad English languages are in flux: making and remaking themselves as more speakers learn, adapt, and tailor the language.

In 1987, John Marenbon’s English, our English railed against a perceived orthodoxy in English Language Teaching (ELT) which regards the notion of “standard English” with disdain. Pre-existing counter-arguments to Marenbon’s vision of “standard English” include the interrogation of the word “standard” as a paradoxical term which could mean both “superior” and “ordinary” (Keywords, Raymond Williams, 1983). Is “real English” the English spoken by the elite, or the average?

Just look at how “standard English” has changed in the last decades: e-mail is now de-hyphened and countable: emails; “the data are” is now “the data is”, the subjunctive is practically dead, the Oxford comma can be taken or left, and prepositions are perfectly good words to end sentences with.

And you can begin a sentence with “and”. One can even say “you” instead of “one”.

Is there a German English, a Denglish? Of course there is. Just look at the way the tendrils of modern life have crept into everyday German: ‘updaten’, ‘downloaden’, ‘liken’.

But what do Germans need English for? As I mentioned in a previous post, everyone has different needs when it comes to learning English. Some want a general refresher course, some need it for school, some for their jobs, some for a specific project. But there is a recurring theme, at least when it comes to those medium-to-large companies that punctuate the German business landscape: office politics.

I’ll take a company I taught for a couple of years, a large multinational company which makes polymers, i.e. plastics, as my example. Whether it’s sewage pipes, car parts, air-conditioning, surgical tools, windows or something else, if it’s made of a polymer of some kind then this company probably makes it. This particular plant made car bumpers, pipes, sewer ducts, proprietary underground drainage structures and the like.  I taught a mixed group of people: some worked in the office, some in despatch, some in a warehouse, some in production, some in quality control. They all had different needs.

  • Office workers needed English to talk about orders and the attendant bureaucracy with offices in other countries.
  • Despatch workers needed to talk to logistics companies, customs and truck drivers.
  • Warehouse workers didn’t really need English at all.
  • Neither did those in production.
  • QC workers needed to explain and excuse, justify and persuade, usually to international customers about why product quality was so good or bad.

What did they all have in common? Nothing, except politics. A manager further up the tree had a training budget and an appraisal to look good for; people were lumped together and given English lessons, despite their needs (if they had any) being at such variance. The purpose of these English lessons was ostensibly to invest in people and to increase their worth to the company, but they were really:

  • to make the middle manager look good
  • to allow the employees to relax a bit on company time

These two themes are commonplace in German companies of a certain size, and probably elsewhere, too.

So how to teach such a disparate group?

I started with needs analyses. I already had one written by the manager, but I promptly threw it out.

Everyone completed a needs analysis in which they described what they needed English for. As well as the points made above, e.g. that office workers need bureaucratic English, I learned that:

  • others wanted to visit New York City
  • some wanted to understand the jokes in British and American comedies
  • most people wanted to be able to order in a restaurant or café
  • one wanted to find a new job abroad, doing something else completely

They also filled out the details of their day-to-day work so that I could perform some box-ticking lessons: how to give a presentation in English, how to use the phone and send emails in English, how to describe an English invoice, how to talk about health and safety, factory tours, fire drills. Ulterior-motivated, pointless, soulless, box-ticking, virtue-signalling, dead-end, English for the sake of it.

And then we started meeting people’s needs for a change: trips abroad, Anglo-American pop culture, ordering food and drinks, having fun and escaping the rat race. Sometimes the versatility of General English is contrasted with the inflexibility of its teaching, sometimes English for Specific Purposes is really English for Real Life.

A needs analysis should be received from the needy. If you get one from a manager, ignore it. Lessons need to prescribe, not proscribe.

A good teacher should never trade their niceness for niceties.

englishman abroad, Teaching English

Teaching British slang to Germans

So, two Germans and an Englishman walk into a bar…
Specifically a proper English pub, the Red Lion in Southampton. The interior is old wood panelling and armour, coats of arms and other such British minutiae. The football is on and my two German colleagues, neglecting their fish and chips, are watching the match. I’m rather more interested in my gammon steak, so I don’t notice the hapless defender score an own goal. “Oh dear,” says German 1 “I suppose any hole is a goal”.
Dear God, I need to be more careful what I say around the Germans. That’s not what ‘any hole’s a goal’ means. I’d even taught him what a gammon was, and he looked at my steak knowingly but said nothing. “Yes,” I said, “I suppose so. More beer?”
“Ok, but let’s not get rat-faced”
“you mean…”
“No! Shit-arsed”
My teaching skills are clearly inadequate. I have failed as a teacher. A proper teacher would have rightly instilled shit-faced and rat-arsed as synonyms for drunk.

“shit-arsed”. Honestly. I sidle away to collect more warm, flat ales, perhaps the most British and un-German of beers. But as I leave, my dear Krauts resume their conversation:
“This referee is a C U Next Tuesday.”
“Whatevs”
I suppose I taught them something after all.

 

 

englishman abroad, Teaching English

… and then three come along at once

I’m giving up some of my work to make time for more work. The freelance Business English side of my work has been rather disappointing recently. Specifically, there was this one big firm that just didn’t have any lessons for months and months. “don’t worry!” they said, “we’ll be back next week!”

Well, they said that for six months and that left a big hole in my plans and finances. Unfortunately, there’s nothing to stop all of my other freelancing gigs from doing the same thing…

 … so to hell with it! I’m minimising my freelance work and prioritising another more predictable and more lucrative project now. I’m currently doing twice as much work for the time being, handing off my old clients to new people and segueing into my new project. I’m very busy!

There’s also plenty of work to be done in my work as a lecturer: one of my two university courses is presenting coursework and writing essays, the other one is about to have exams which I am writing. I’m very busy!

There’s also a house we’re looking at and a couple of top-secret projects I can’t write about yet. Unfortunately, all of this busyness has kept me away from my two pet projects, this blog and Brexpats, for a while.

It’s just like buses: you wait six months for one and then three turn up at once!

englishman abroad, stories, Teaching English

Who bothers to learn English? Interesting people, that’s who.

I’m an English trainer in Germany, NOT an English teacher. Teachers work in schools where learning is mandatory, whereas I teach English to those who learn voluntarily. Not everyone who chooses to learn English is ‘normal’ so here’s a sample of my more memorable students.

1.       The Eccentric

The Eccentric had worked as a civil servant for many years, had an industrial accident and left with a nice, big payoff. He also had some not-so-nice constant pain. With his payoff, he’d impulsively decided to get some extra education at a university. For his course he needed English, and so began a last-minute, month-long intensive course to transform a very eccentric guy with attention deficit issues into an English-speaking savant who would pass his English exam with flying colours. Every hour, on the hour, The Eccentric would take a ten-minute break. He’d zoom out the door, chain-smoke four cigarettes in record time, down an energy drink and make himself a latte macchiato which he would nurse, scowling, for the next 50 minutes. Every two days he needed a heavy metal break, and we’d load up whatever he fancied and blast it at high volume, before discussing the relative merits of e.g. Deftones in comparison to Korn. Every day I would teach him the same lesson because he’d forgotten 90% of what we did the day before. Every five days, like clockwork, he would be blessed with total recall of everything and we’d move on to the next lesson. Eventually, we completed the course and he went off to study something unusual.

He was just one of those special people, I suppose.

2.       The Rule Breaker

The Rule Breaker was an interesting man, he was a senior partner in a business and was about to leave and start his own. He was a wealthy and successful workaholic who ostensibly needed English for an upcoming business deal. But halfway through every lesson he would discuss other things: his ongoing marital problems, how he was going to stitch-up his old business partner, how he had turned an office building into a home to circumvent zoning laws and how he periodically had to pretend that his apartment was an office block to keep up the illusion. It seemed that although he was paying for English lessons, what he really wanted was a confessor. Several others have come to me seeking confession, or therapy, under the guise of a ‘conversation course’.

My philosophy at such moments is: “If it’s in English, it’s an English lesson”.

3.       The Social Media Guru

The Social Media Guru is a very likeable woman who does the social media for a medium-sized German company with many English-speaking customers. We spent Friday mornings brainstorming what posts might work on the company Facebook page, how we could broaden her customer base, what seasonal or topical themes could be worked into Facebook or Twitter… April Fool’s posts, Christmas Carols, you name it, we did it. She’s taking a hiatus right now but I still get the occasional email asking for ideas or translations.

I’m always happy to help.

4.       Mr Robot

Mr Robot works in programming and looks a lot like Rami Malek, hence the nickname I’ve given him. Mr Robot was going through a period of great change in his life: divorced, going nowhere in his IT job, living next door to the neighbour from hell… let’s just say that Mr Robot needed some encouragement. Mr Robot came to me with practically no English skills at all but left at level B1, an impressive new freelancing job, a new house and even a new name.

I still see Mr Robot around sometimes, he’s a new man.

5.       The Academics

The Academics are professors and doctors from a university, they have papers to write, conferences to attend, research to perform, studies to conduct. They are important people in a behind-the-scenes kind of way, and their work will probably go on to shape German social policy in years to come, indirectly, of course. I’ve been privileged to see a little of their research and translate parts of it before it’s gone to press.

Far from being stuck up and awkward, they have a healthy sense of humour and self-deprecation to keep them sane.

6.       The Biker

The Biker is a wonderfully accepting, friendly, down-to-earth man with kind eyes and a charming manner. He is a respected boss, a competent manager, a great motivator, a doting father and a loyal husband. He is also in a world-famous biker gang and likes to tell stories about the wild parties he’s been to, the people he’s associated with, the scrapes he’s got into with the police, his membership of certain other dangerous clubs and political movements, the hardware that his bike gang entrusts him with and what happens to people who cross the gang.

The truly scary thing about The Biker is not that he’s a dangerous man who has done bad things, but that you’d never realise it when he’s a mere pedestrian.

Whoever said that teaching English was boring?

Red and Blue Pill
englishman abroad, Teaching English

Sometimes my lessons go like this…

Most of the time, lessons have a specific plan: ‘I will teach my students about X today’.

X could be new vocabulary for technical English, or when to use the present simple and when the progressive, it could even be a more functional lesson like how to traverse an airport in English, or book a hotel.

But sometimes the students have a lesson plan: ‘today we want to talk about Y’.

Y could be pretty much anything that would appear in X, but it can also be whatever bee happens to be in the students’ bonnet at the time.

Yesterday I had an amazingly unplanned conversational lesson with a couple of sociologists about Action Theory versus Communication Theory, whether societal actions were communications or vice versa and the great sociologists such as Durkheim, Parsons et al. My sociologists are very academic, better qualified and far cleverer than me (Prof. This and Dr. That).

BUT I had the opportunity to bamboozle the students a couple of times by injecting and explaining relevant ideas from other fields: Behavioural Economics and Predictable Irrationality (I’m a big fan of Dan Ariely), and Illocutionary Acts (John L. Austin’s philosophical / linguistic concepts on performative utterance).

My planned lesson on grammar went out of the window, of course, but that’s just how it goes sometimes. This particular group has one lesson left, I hope it will be about X, but I’m going to swot up on Jean Baudrillard just in case it’s about Y again.