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.