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The fear of the native speaker

Jon Naunton is a freelance teacher and materials writer. He is co-author of Business Result, and Oil and Gas 2 in the Oxford English for Careers series. This post, originally published in Dialogue Magazine, explores why non-native speakers are often nervous about conversing with native speakers.

Two people looking nervous

Those of us who have taught foreign execs learn early on that they would far rather speak English with other non-native speakers than with an English person, or – heaven forbid – an American.

Executives with status and responsible positions in international companies often dread encounters with mother tongue speakers that leave them feeling confused, infantilized and at a disadvantage. These two stories may help to explain why.

I live near a small town in France that attracts its fair share of tourists. Over the summer I was in the newsagents when a man in a blazer and shorts approached the counter. ‘Have you got my copy of the Daily Mail?’ he barked. ‘You said you’d keep it to one side.’ The shopkeeper looked at him blankly. ‘My Daily Mail!’ the visitor continued in a slowly enunciated bellow. ‘Have – you – kept – it – back – for – me?’ When the shopkeeper shrugged helplessly, Daily Mail man turned around, muttering to himself, and left.

Recently at our local airport, blessed by Ryan Air, I met an English aeronautical engineer seconded to a British owned French subsidiary. In the four years that he had been there his wife had picked up quite a bit of French but I had to contain my surprise when I heard him order lunch. His French was, at best, basic. Linguistically speaking, his knuckles were scraping the ground. I was left wondering how he got by with his French colleagues.

Now, I know there is a danger in generalizing from the particular, but I won’t let it stop me. I would argue that Daily Mail man and airport man are fairly representative of how the English perform in other tongues. The use of English as a lingua franca has made us lazy, and Daily Mail man would have been raised in the conviction that it was his God-given right to be understood wherever he trod on foreign soil.

Yet in my opinion, their lack of ease in French goes deeper than either consideration, and has a lot to do with how foreign languages are taught in England. Part of the problem is to do with time – language lessons in England receive far fewer classroom hours than most other EU countries, and it is possible to drop a foreign language at the tender age of fourteen. It doesn’t matter whether it is a sport, a musical instrument or any other skill including languages – you have to put in the hours to achieve a decent level. Time and practice are crucial.

The next problem is to do with expectations. When my nephew started French at secondary school, his homework for week one was to learn numbers one to five. For week two it was six to ten. As part of an exciting school project the kids in his class were supposed to create a French market by drawing cards of fruit and vegetables. My nephew’s task was to draw a big pile of plums – prunes in French – which he duly did. I am certain that he will never forget the word for plum but I wonder if his time could have been – excuse the pun – more fruitfully employed. Nevertheless, on parents’ evening the class’s handiwork was displayed as a reminder of the school’s commitment to excellence in foreign languages.

The net result is that the average English person has such a poor grasp of what it is to tussle with a language that he cannot even begin to comprehend where the difficulty lies when he runs into communication problems. Even when English is used as a lingua franca the native speaker can get into trouble. He is less able to modify his language to accommodate the language level of the person he is trying to communicate with. Once he has received the signal that the other person speaks some English no further effort is made to modify or ‘grade’ his language. This behaviour, wrongly classified as arrogance, is due to benign indifference or being oblivious of any problem in the first place.

All this may go to show why most non-native speakers are happier communicating with English as their common language than having to cope with an unaccommodating monoglot who simply can’t recognize the problem. I sympathize with the reluctance of some EU members (notably France) of adopting English as the principal language of Brussels and Strasbourg, thereby reducing the annual billion Euro interpreting and translating bill. Were this to happen it might confirm the attitude of the English to learning other languages and make matters even worse.

What do you prefer – communicating in English with native or non-native speakers? Share your thoughts below.

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Helping Students Give More Effective and Memorable Presentations – Part 3

Female business speakerJon Naunton is co-author of Business Result and Oil and Gas 2 in the Oxford English for Careers series. In his final post on helping students with their presentational skills, he offers some tips on how to spice up a presentation. If you missed them, catch up on Part 1 and Part 2.

Download my helpful hints on Presentations – Expressions and introductory phrases (PDF).

Memorable speeches

Once we have dealt with the basics it can be fun to teach students a few rhetorical devices to make their speeches and presentations more memorable. The study of rhetoric – a way of speaking or writing meant to influence or impress people – was once at the heart of a classical education. Nowadays the only people who seem to employ it are politicians. So why not teach our students a few rhetorical tricks which they can easily put into practice?

Here are some ideas you may like to draw on or add to.

(i) Lists of three

For some reason, human beings seem to be hard-wired to use lists of three. There are numerous examples which we can draw from a range of languages:

  • “Veni, vidi, vici” (I came, I saw, I conquered) – Julius Caesar
  • “Liberté, fraternité,  egalité” – motto of the French people
  • “Government of the people, by the people, for the people” – Lincoln
  • “Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few” – Churchill on the pilots of the Battle of Britain
  • “My foundations support people in the country who care about an open society. It’s their work that I’m supporting. So it’s not me doing it. But I can empower them. I can support them, and I can help them. – George Soros (financier and philanthropist)

Remember that in English when we say lists we tend to use a rising intonation on the first items, and a falling intonation on the final item to denote completion.

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Helping Students Give More Effective and Memorable Presentations – Part 2

Jon Naunton is co-author of Business Result and Oil and Gas 2 in the Oxford English for Careers series. This is the second of three posts on helping students to overcome challenges in presenting in English. You can read Part 1 here.

Preparation and research

Most good presenters readily admit that their success is a result of careful preparation and practice. Generally speaking, a presentation is a piece of carefully constructed writing delivered as an extended monologue and is often the result of research. However, expert speakers understand that there is no point in reading out detailed information or research findings. Instead, they recognise the need to keep their message simple. They will regularly summarise, return to their main points and say the same thing in different ways, so listeners have several opportunities to catch their message.

Lazy or unaware students sometimes think it is enough to find an interesting article and read it out to the rest of the class. This is usually catastrophic for the following reasons:

  • Articles often contain rare and difficult vocabulary and expressions unknown to the audience. This is frequently made worse by the reader’s poor pronunciation.
  • Articles may assume some kind of shared background knowledge with the reader. (A story which has been running for some time will often just add what is most recent to the tale.)
  • Articles are not meant to be read aloud. The information load is dense and there is little repetition or redundancy. Remember that when we read, we can return to the text as often as we need. Simply reading the text once does not allow listeners extra chances they need.

Presentation as a process

I believe the most important thing we can do as teachers is to make students aware of the process they need to engage in to produce an effective presentation from source material.

I often follow these steps:

  1. I find a text and read it aloud, making many of the typical mistakes of pronunciation, poor delivery and absence of eye contact common in these cases!  I then ask the class what the article I have just read was about. Few, if any, can answer confidently!
  2. I hand out examples of the text and get them to read it.  Then we begin the business of paraphrasing and simplification. We re-phrase complex sentences, identify rare or unknown words, idioms and expressions, either eliminating them altogether, or substituting items which our listeners are more likely to know.
  3. We then identify the main and subsidiary points of the article and decide which key ideas we are going to use.
  4. Perhaps most importantly, we then discuss what background knowledge the article assumes, and how we can supply this with a more general and clear introduction.
  5. Finally, we re-assemble the text into a coherent summary which can form the basis of a presentation.

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Helping Students Give More Effective and Memorable Presentations – Part 1

Young people giving a presentationJon Naunton is co-author of Business Result and Oil and Gas 2 in the Oxford English for Careers series. In the first of three posts, he offers advice for helping students to overcome challenges in presenting in English.

Many schools and universities require students to give presentations. It is difficult enough to present successfully in one’s own language, let alone a foreign language. A shy and timid learner in his or her own language will not miraculously become a fantastic presenter in English!

This article will examine how we can help students become better presenters by developing their confidence and improving their preparation. Good presenters say something interesting, which they communicate in a lively and memorable way – it is a true performance art. Nevertheless, I sincerely believe that good presenters are made, not born, and that even those learners who lack self-confidence can be transformed into acceptably confident, albeit not brilliant presenters.

Download my helpful hints on Presentations – Expressions and introductory phrases (PDF).

Confidence building

Use sub-groups

The stress presenters feel tends to grow with the size of the audience they address. In most cases, during the training process, the audience will be other class members.  Recently, I have taught larger groups of up to thirty, so breaking them up into sub-groups can be useful.  Speaking in front of six people is usually less intimidating than speaking in front of thirty. Arranging the classroom into different zones means three or four students can present simultaneously. Not only is this a more efficient use of classroom time, but it shifts the focus away from a sole individual. I generally play background music to reduce distraction between groups.
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Teaching English as a Foreign Script – Part 3: Reading and Handwriting

Close up of pen on paperIn the last of his series of posts on teaching in Libya, Jon Naunton, co-author of Business Result and Oil and Gas 2 in the Oxford English for Careers series, discusses how his students progressed in reading and writing.

If you missed them, read Jon’s previous posts about teaching The Alphabet and Spelling.

At some point in the process, we introduced cursive i.e. ‘joined up’ writing. This was largely to satisfy the pressure put on us by our students who considered words formed from individual letters rather infantile. Again, there were important considerations here as we had to demonstrate carefully how the preceding letter joined the one that followed. Letter ‘a’ for instance always joins up from the bottom, while letter ‘o’ joins up from the top. I remember how some ingenious students would print the word in separate letters and then add the lines to join them up!

You might wonder what else went on in these lessons. Only about a third was dedicated to the business of writing. The rest of the time was spent on beginner’s oral English. Of course this was made more difficult for students as they could not have a written record of what they had been taught.

Many teachers, myself included, allowed them to transliterate; that is, render in Arabic script an approximation of what they had heard in English. Fortunately for us, Arab learners of English are used to rote learning and have superb memories. Their oral English was well ahead of their reading and writing. Oral work previewed what would be read and written later, so teachers had to be extremely vigilant about their choice of structure and vocabulary and grade their language with care and precision. This discipline has stayed with me.

As the terms progressed we spent a lot of time exploiting graded readers and getting students reading aloud. I can hear the ‘tut tuts’ of some readers – ‘Reading aloud! How retrograde, whatever next?” But for us, it was an absolutely necessity that the students proved that they could see the correspondence between the printed letters on the page and how the words that they formed were actually said. We had a well-equipped library of graded readers that were used as class sets. They were too precious to lend out.

To return to the opening sentences of this series, teaching script and spelling to my Libyan learners is high up on the list of the most interesting and challenging things I have done in my teaching career. As a teacher I learned to have a great deal of respect for the efforts of my students, even if to most eyes they would appear ill-formed and juvenile. I realized that they were the result of a commitment and perseverance which few people, myself included, are capable of.

What have been some of your most interesting and challenging teaching moments? I’d love to hear them!

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