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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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Coping with specialist content in ESP

Industrial plant workers checking plansLewis Lansford explores some of the difficulties of teaching specialist content and vocabulary in ESP. His talk at IATEFL 2011 in Brighton, entitled ‘Mudmen and monkey boards: Coping with specialist content in ESP’, will this explore further.

I interviewed a handful of teachers of English for Specific Purposes (ESP) about the challenges of their job and how they’ve overcome them. All four of these comments were made by teachers during the interviews:

“I’m afraid I’m not up to it.”
“I’m at a loss.”
“I’m not a [content area] specialist.”
“The content teachers might disagree with what I say.”

Of course all teachers have felt these things at one time or another, especially newer teachers who are still finding their way. But all four of the teachers who made the above statements are highly educated, well-trained, extremely experienced professionals. And yet they had all felt The Fear.

ESP teachers work in an environment of constant challenge, often with a nagging sense of self-doubt. While general English teachers are trying to decide whether a discussion about Lady Gaga will hold their students’ attention long enough to get through a lesson on comparative adjectives, ESP teachers might be struggling with the question of whether someone could be seriously injured on the job if tricky technical vocabulary is mishandled in the classroom. It can be a huge responsibility.

When dealing with high-achieving doctors or super-ambitious airline pilots, teachers can begin to feel that they just don’t know much. They forget that teachers, too, bring specialist knowledge to the classroom. The same teachers who expressed the doubts above also came up with these suggestions for how to approach ESP.

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World English at the well head

Oil pump by sunsetFollowing Peter Astley’s introduction to the oil and gas industry, Lewis Lansford, co-author of  Oil and Gas 1, considers the confusion British vs American English can cause in international industry, and whether this is countered by the emergence of ‘World English’.

When I began teaching in Barcelona in the late-80s, I was surprised by the intensity of the rivalry between students at the Institute of North American Studies and those at the British Council over the question of which variety of English was superior. Some teachers, too, expressed firmly held positions on the matter. But in today’s international workplace, Global English may have ended the debate by swallowing both the American and British varieties whole.

“I was the only native British English speaker on the team” says Peter Astley, remembering his stint as a project controls manager in the oil and gas industry in Kuwait. “I reported to a Texan project manager. We had an Anglo-Indian clerk and two Polish women – one setting up the computer system and the other a trainee scheduler. The engineering manager who was being transferred from another project was from Lebanon. Various high-ranking Kuwaitis floated in and out. The client I interfaced with was Indian.

“The Texan, of course, spoke English, but I often had to translate what he had said to the Indian clerk, who was also a native English speaker. The clerk disliked admitting he didn’t understand something, so I often had to decode instructions from the Texan even though I wasn’t present when the request was made. The world's top 10 oil producing countriesThe Texan didn’t allow the Polish girls to speak Polish in the office even though he couldn’t understand the Indian clerk’s English.”

More than 100 countries produce oil. Many of the largest producers in the industry – Saudi Arabia, Russia, Kuwait, and many others – employ a diverse workforce made up of both local and imported expertise. When people from all over the world work together, English is frequently the main language of communication. But this lingua franca, often called World English, is rarely identifiable as either British or American. It generally encompasses both – and a whole lot more.

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An introduction to Oil and Gas

Oil rig on the oceanPeter Astley, the series consultant for Oil and Gas 1 and 2, part of the Oxford English for Careers series, gives us an introduction to the oil and gas industry for language learners.

The oil and gas industry has grown from its beginnings in North America and the United Kingdom into an international industry where English is the common language. Although reserves of oil and gas are declining, the world demand for energy is growing. Remaining reserves of hydrocarbons are more difficult to exploit and require challenging engineering and business skills. Countries where oil and gas are found are keen to develop their own industry and the skills and resources of their own people in all the stages of oil and gas development and across the wide range of disciplines and different levels of ability. In this way they can fulfil the aspirations of their own people and improve their long term national economy.

The industry is divided in to two main sections, Upstream and Downstream. The Upstream sector is concerned with extracting reserves and carrying out initial processing to transport the oil and gas to the Downstream sector for further processing, refining, distribution and sales. The Upstream sector is also divided into Offshore and Onshore depending on where the reserves are located.

The industry requires a vast range of skills: scientists and geologists in exploration, engineers and technicians to develop and maintain very expensive capital equipment, production workers, administration personnel and managers, and business specialists managing the complex projects and contracts involved.

In such a specialised industry there are many different disciplines and different levels and so good communication skills are essential. People tend to work in international teams where competency in communicating in English is essential. This is a time when technology is advancing and there is a greater need for qualified people at all levels who in conjunction with their main assignments must plan, design train and enforce high levels of safety and the maximum possible protection of the marine, land and air environment.

With the advance of computer techniques such as technical analysis software, computer aided design and the ability to communicate and work simultaneously in different parts of the world, there are great opportunities for young people to start a satisfying, secure and well paid career in the industry, particularly for those with a good command of the English language.

Are you an ESP teacher? How do you introduce a new topic to your students? Let us know your thoughts and experiences.

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