ESL – Subject or Communication Tool?

What happens in a math class? There were so many rules, but only one answer. You sit there and listen. Maybe the teacher asks you to come up and work out some problems on the board. But, honestly, if you find math boring, then you probably just copy the homework off your friend. Exams are an exercise in guesswork.

And, you know what? You were right, and your teacher was wrong – this stuff really isn’t useful after high school.

Of course math is absolutely necessary for certain professions, and some people really love it. I have engineer friends who use it all the time. But for your average high school screw-up, math isn’t nearly as useful as, say, a foreign language.

I teach university in Mexico. I see the looks on my students’ faces on the first day of class – the dull glaze to their eyes, the fear of losing so many hours of their young lives in stuffy classrooms at the mercy of some bore droning on and on.

This learning method – teacher speaks, students listen, students do exercises, repeat – has been beaten into them. It sure was beaten into me back in my university days when I was forced to study Spanish.

How ironic. Back then Spanish was one of my most boring classes, right up there with math. And now I live in Mexico and study Spanish as much as I can. What happened?

While in university I zoned out in class and barely learned a thing. Now, here in Mexico, studying Spanish is a means to an end. That end is communication.

My Spanish teachers taught Spanish like how my math teachers taught math. Learn the rules and formulas. Listen to some explanation and then do exercises from the book. Sure, to her credit, one of my Spanish teachers put us in pairs to get us to practice, but it just didn’t work. We all had a common language, English – too easy to fall back on.

My point is, why teach a language the way math (or history, or science) is taught? Languages have much more in common with music or sports, and they should be taught that way. Practice is vital. Mistakes are normal, even to be encouraged.

You don’t learn piano or hockey by opening up a book and answering questions. You learn by doing it. Your students should spend the majority of their time in class practicing, usually by speaking. Explain the grammar, give some examples, and then give them plenty of time to speak, with corrections of course.

Have you studied the P-P-P teaching method: presentation, practice, and production? It really does work. The presentation part, where the teacher explains the grammar topic, should be as brief as possible, maybe only five minutes in a one-hour class. The other two parts, practice and production, are when the students use the language. Maybe they make a survey, give a presentation, or have a conversation. Remember, it’s not only practice, but practice with correction. Strive to correct every mistake. Make notes if you have to.

That’s the benefit of learning in a classroom, which is why ESL teachers still have a job in this Internet age. Making mistakes is part of the learning process, which isn’t the same as, say, studying to be a doctor.

A system to help write in English for a local or global business audience

Wherever we are and whatever we do, we need to communicate. Communicate well and it can make you, communicate poorly and it can break you.  Even in the common language of English, one size is never going to fit all, so below are a few steps to follow when using business English in writing, for both home and global markets.

Step 1

Be correct for purpose

  • Know what you want to achieve each time you write
  • Align this with your personal and organizational values – and reader expectations
  • Check quality and remove mistakes before you send

Written messages can be judged when we’re not there to explain them!   Business readers largely expect written communication to appear professional.  If spelling, punctuation and grammar are wrong and if messages are muddled, this often leads to reader complaints.

Getting business messages across can be tricky enough without entering linguistic debates, interesting and worthwhile as they are.  In my workplace emails I definitely avoid starting a sentence with “but” or “and” – knowing it will irritate some readers’ sensitivities.

Step 2

Be clear

  • Use accessible English and express facts simply, wherever possible
  • Edit well so that your key messages are both seen and easy to understand
  • Use a good layout so your writing looks good

Step 3

Be smart and make the right impact

  • Use the right words, content and style to get “brand you” and organizational brand noticed for the right reasons
  • Understand which variety of English to use – and when to “use a splash of local color” or “colour”! (either your own or your target audience’s, if different)
  • If you want to use idiom or slang, think carefully first. What might work for a local market might be misunderstood globally.  It might even cause offense. Should you run that risk?

Sometimes we feel we have mastered a language when we know how to use its idiom.  It might, however, be a really unhelpful barrier to understanding for others for whom that language is their second or third one.

Step 4

Focus on your readers

  • Be valuable to your valued readers and use words that are relevant to them
  • Be aware of differing personalities’ and cultural expectations
  • Write from your readers’ perspectives as well as your own

When we talk about understanding cultures, we are often referring to a set of customs, traditions, values and conventions that are specific to a particular group. Naturally, where there are humans, there are differences in the way any one culture is practiced, expressed and reflected. It’s the same with business organizations.

So, for example, you might seriously embarrass someone from China or Japan by putting them in a position where you ask them to answer yes or no on behalf of their organization.  The concept of empowerment is not global.  It sits well with many cultures but not all.

The common usage of English doesn’t mean automatic understanding or tolerance of individual foibles! In fact, whether you speak English as a first, second or even third language, the new global and digital economy means “getting it right” for your readers, has never been more important for you – “brand you,” we could say – and your organizational brand.  Native English speakers can no longer think the language “belongs to them.”  Alongside ESL speakers, they actually face challenges too when using global business English. In the digital age, nobody “owns” English outright. It belongs to us all!

Fiona Talbot runs TQI Word Power Skills, a Business Writing Skills consulting company. She delivers training/remote coaching at all levels in all sizes of business. She is the co-author of Improve Your Global Business English as well as the Better Business English series, both published by Kogan Page.