IATEFL BESIG Dubrovnik conference, 2011

Photos by Mike Hogan and Chia Suan Chong

The BESIG Annual conference this year was held in the Grand Palace Hotel of Dubrovnik, Croatia, and most of the delegates were staying at the very hotel that hosted the conference. On a practical level, this made it much more convenient for speakers who did not want to lug their laptops around all day, but an unexpected effect of this was an overall feeling of warmth and familiarity that bonded the members of BESIG.  IATEFL conferences have always been a great opportunity to catch up with old friends and make new ones, but the BESIG Dubrovnik conference went beyond that. BESIG Dubrovnik was about letting our hair down and relaxing while getting to know old friends better and feeling like a family – a family that shared the same goals and beliefs.

The Welcome

Despite the delayed and missed flights due to the unfortunate strike at Zagreb airport on the first day of the conference, most delegates made it in time to see the beautiful coast of Dubrovnik twinkling in the evening lights.  After a wonderful buffet dinner and some plum brandy amidst conversations with like-minded friends, we retired to our bedrooms, ready to wake up and see the Adriatic Sea in daylight.

The Plenary

Speaking of the importance of raising our clients’ awareness of the different cultures as they use English in this globalized world, Jeremy Comfort in his talk ‘What’s culture got to do with business. Supporting our learners in a complex world’ explains how to help learners develop mindfulness – an ability to step back and observe. He briefly addresses the more essentialist notions of national culture, e.g. Hofstede’s taxonomies, but goes beyond that by broadening the view of culture to encompass conflicts that are caused by different personality styles and different attitudes to time and directness in communication, and talks of the development of ‘push’ (presenting, telling) and ‘pull’ (eliciting, getting participation) skills as tools to avoid and/or getting around conflict. He wraps up the plenary by reminding BE trainers to focus on cultural issues that are of benefit to our clients’ businesses rather than those of interest to the trainers. There is no doubt that the key to understanding other cultures is curiosity and openness.

Photo by Mike Hogan

The Talks

Vicky Hollett’s talk ‘Learning to Speak ‘merican’ was a brilliant lesson in the significance of pragmatics in our understanding of intercultural interactions. Challenging the traditional stereotypes that Americans do not share the British sense of humour, and that Americans are more direct than the ‘Brits’, Vicky cleverly uses many familiar and humorous examples to demonstrate how being indirect could make utterances less threatening and help avoid awkwardness, and this ironically allows British conversations to have much more cut and thrust since we can always use jokes to cover it up. While the Americans tend to try and maintain positive face (i.e. the need to be accepted and appreciated by others) and therefore pride inclusion even when telling jokes, the Brits are more concerned with maintaining negative face (i.e. by not intruding or get in people’s way because of their need to be free and not be burdened by others) and are happy to use the ambiguity of jokes at any time or circumstance to relieve uncomfortable moments or rescind our initial requests. Thus, what might seem sarcastic to American might simply be witty quips to the Brits.

This cross-cultural interaction theme was continued by several speakers, including my own talk about perceptions of politeness in cross-cultural NNS interactions, Richard Lewis’s ‘Cultural Factors in International Business’…

Photo by Mike Hogan

and Dr. Sabrina Mallon-Gerland’s talk ‘Case Study – Why the Germans are arrogant and the Americans are not committed’. Sabrina highlighted the cultural effect on linguistic use and suggested that we could teach students to use certain formulaic language but cannot expect them to feel comfortable using them if it is not something done in their own culture. She goes on to use concrete examples in a comparative case study, e.g. the German use of ‘The problem with that idea is…’ to signal an interest to take the idea further through discussion, but could be mistaken by Americans to mean ‘I find this idea problematic and am not interested in it’.  In order to prevent misunderstandings caused by such cultural differences, Sabrina proposes the use of meta-language to describe communication intentions so as to enable clients to explicitly define and discuss each stage of their communications, and not leave it to cultural interpretation to inaccurately understand the pragmatic intentions of the speakers.

This ‘training’ and ‘coaching’ aspect of the Business English teacher’s portfolio continued to take centre stage throughout the conference, and it was perhaps most appropriate that we ended the conference with Barry Tomalin’s ‘Teaching Business Communication in the 3rd Space’ Barry describes the ‘3rd Space’ as ‘the new phenomenon in globalisation’ where ‘managers’ reporting lines are internationalized and they are reporting to managers in different countries who they never meet…’ In order to overcome problems of unfamiliarity, Barry suggests several useful mnemonics to help clients make their communication more effective. This included the importance of signposting, summarizing key points, concluding and inviting questions when structuring a presentation, and training clients to give F.A.C.E time when interacting, i.e. Focus, Acknowledge, Clarify, Empathise.

Photo by Mike Hogan

The Publishers

Photo by Mike Hogan

Aside from the opulent amount of wine and plum brandy sponsored by the wonderful publishers (thank you, it was delicious!), it was wonderful to see the rich and innovative BE resources that were being presented at the conference and the exhibition area. Ian Badger’s ‘Listening’ (Collins ELT) must be one of my favourite as he makes use of authentic recordings from various real-life business interactions and offers not just listening practice, but thought-provoking, awareness-raising discussions through them. Co-writer for Grammar for Business (CUP) Rachel Clark continues to make her mark with her cleverly-written and –organised corpus-based grammar reference book, while Mike Hogan presents his new business series starting with Business English for beginners (Cornelsen Verlag). However, perhaps making the most waves is Paul Emmerson’s photocopiable resource book ‘Management Lessons’ which he has bravely published on his own through PaulEmmerson.com, making this the first BE book to ever be self-published. Judging from Paul’s previous successes with ‘Email English’ and ‘Business English Handbook’ (Macmillan), he wouldn’t have any trouble getting this one off the ground.

Photo by Mike Hogan
That's just me...

The Partying

Delicious seafood, colourful (but lethal) cocktails, and BE Trainers dancing to ‘Like a Prayer’ on what was an exclusively BESIG dance floor till the wee hours of Sunday morning. Need I say more?

The Goodbyes

For those heading home on the last day of the conference, there was a mere 3-4 hours of a quick city tour before making our way to Dubrovnik airport. For the lucky few who got to stay for an extra day, they were made luckier by a last-minute cancellation of what would have been a second strike at the airport. For those that were heading back to the UK, foggy weather meant that Dubrovnik airport saw a whole herd of more than 50 BE teachers hanging around nostalgically looking back at how wonderful BESIG 2011 had been…

See http://www.flickr.com/photos/irishmikeh/sets/ for more BESIG Dubrovnik photos by Mike Hogan.

Why are Business English Teachers paid so badly?

What is the difference between Business English Teaching and Business Skills Consulting? Business Teachers get paid about £25, 000 a year and Business Skills Consultants get paid about £300, 000. There must be something that differentiates these two services.

I attended Pete Menzies’s closing plenary for the English UK Business English Trainers’ Conference 2011, where he addressed this question that I’ve been asking myself for quite a while. After workshopping and discussing this with several conference delegates, these are what I gathered the differences were. (The opinions on this blog are my own…so feel free to disagree with me.)

Business English Teachers have language objectives. Business Skills Consultants have business-based directed objectives.

There is the belief that teachers go into class aiming to teach the present perfect, the first conditional for negotiations, or a list of agreeing/disagreeing phrases for meetings. The overall objective is to get their students to improve their grammatical and lexical abilities. Consultants, however, try to enable better communication so as to avoid wastes incurred in businesses.

Business English Teachers correct. Business Skills Consultants troubleshoot.

Teachers mark papers and deal with grammatical, syntactical and lexical mistakes, as opposed to looking at the language used by members of a firm that is causing breakdowns in communication. Consultants are aware of the linguistic impact on interactions and how shifts in the way we use language can contribute to waste management.

Business English Teachers rely on coursebooks and materials. Business Skills Consultants use students as a resource.

The multitude of Business coursebooks available seem to perpetuate this idea that Business language learning is about moving through the chapters of a coursebook usually defined by topics such as Global Trade, Marketing, Human Resources and Finance, each featuring different grammatical and lexical areas. Global Trade teaches us the 2nd conditional and functions of negotiation, while Finance teaches us the present perfect and trend vocabulary a la IELTS Writing Task 1.  Teachers are seen to rely on a syllabus.

But our clients already work in business. In specific areas of businesses. And they are not likely to have the need for Global Trade, Crisis Management AND Human Resources in 3 successive lessons. Instead, consultants analyse the areas they work in, the way they use English and who they use English with. They look at how their use of English affects the way they communicate. They work with emergent language. Consultants focus on needs analysis.

Business English Teachers know about language. Business Skills Consultants know about businesses.

One of the maxims that has kept me sane and prevented me from being reduced to a state of panic in my business English lessons has been ‘I am not an expert in their business. I am an expert in language.’ But how much business knowledge should the business English teacher have? Can a teacher with no business experience teach Business English? Should a teacher research their clients’ business models before a lesson? Is it important for a teacher to know their client’s area of specialty? Surely, it will not be possible to know a client’s business better than they know it? So how do consultants do it?

Arguably, it is the knowledge of general best practices in business and in management that consultants draw from when analysing a client’s communication techniques and business skills. Questions like ‘What is your business objective?’ ‘How are you going about achieving those objectives?’ ‘What is your best way forward?’, coupled with some fancy mnemonics commonly seen in management textbooks, gives consulting the value-added edge that teaching lacks.

But could one claim that such best practices are really about having common sense?

Business English Teachers teach. Business Skills Consultants coach.

Teachers teach. Surely that’s logical. They go into class and tell students what is right and what is wrong, and instruct students as to what they should do or not do. We say things like ‘That’s impolite in English. It’s not what we say.’

Consultants, on the other hand, help direct their clients towards arriving at decisions about the way they use language. They say things like ‘Would you like to add value to your organisation?’, ‘What impression would you like to create?’, ‘How can you rephrase that to make the impact you want it to?’ Like life coaches and psychiatrists, they don’t make judgements. They listen and ask questions to enable clients to make the improvements needed. Sawyer, in the US TV series Lost, says that the best conman leads their victim to think that the idea was their own. (I’m in no way implying that consultants are conmen.)

But are these descriptions fair of Business English teachers? Is this really what we do? Sure, we tell teachers to define their language aims on teacher training courses like the Celta, but in Business English teaching, don’t we analyse our clients’ needs, use our clients as the main resource, and deal with emergent language? Aren’t we already aware of the use of English as a lingua franca in business environments and don’t we prioritise communication and intelligibility over the mastery of the English tenses? Don’t we understand best practices in businesses from watching countless episodes of The Apprentice and Dragon’s Den, coupled with the reading of some management books and a good dose of common sense? Aren’t we already curious about our clients’ work and business environments? Don’t we already use questions to encourage classroom interaction and to determine our clients’ issues with language?

As a Dogme practitioner, the above definitions of a consultant seem to resonate with the principles of Teaching Unplugged. The traditional idea of what a teacher does, on the other hand, seems to be precisely what Dogmeticians are trying to avoid.

Perhaps these differences are in the expectations of what a teacher, as opposed to a consultant, does. Perhaps the differences are in the associations that these two labels conjures in the lay person’s mind. Perhaps the difference is in the way we package and market our product.

So what’s the difference between a good Business English Teacher and a good Business Skills Consultant?

Nothing. Just the rhetoric and £275,000.