5 more reasons why native speakers need to learn to speak English internationally

The following post was first published on etprofessional.com in March 2016.

Bob Dignen, the author of Communication for International Business: The secrets of excellent interpersonal skills, is known to have said that a common goal that many learners have is to speak like a native speaker and that this implies that native speakers are the best communicators, which often isn’t the case.

In an age when English has cemented its position as the lingua franca in the world of business and trade, it is easy for English native speakers to assume that they would have an advantage in international communication. But as my previous blogpost has shown, this might not be the case.

It seems ironic to consider the fact that native speakers now perhaps need language training to communicate internationally in their own native tongue and in this blogpost, let us consider five more reasons why.

But before we begin, allow me to re-post this disclaimer: Despite my name and skin colour, I am a native speaker of English and am by no means writing this post to criticize or put down other native speakers. This is my opinion and I am merely seeing a skills/knowledge gap that the public sector and companies need to consider training their staff in.


6. They are sometimes regarded with caution.  

During my MA research, I interviewed some non-native speakers who worked on a reception desk at a school. One very fluent and very proficient non-native speaker said that he preferred talking to other non-native speakers because he felt like native speakers looked down on him when they spoke to him.

Whether they actually did look down on him or whether he was simply feeling self-conscious, it is hard to tell. I then asked a few other non-native speakers about this issue and there seems to be consensus about the fact that non-native speakers feel intimidated by speaking to native speakers.

Some non-native speakers revealed that some native speakers feel like they are the authority when it comes to communicating in their language, and adopt a condescending attitude when speaking to non-native speakers.

A friend of mine was in a meeting with a couple of English men. They were asked to brainstorm an adjective to describe a scene and my friend suggested ‘picturesque’. The native speaker beside him laughed and said, “There’s no such word in English!”

When my friend insisted that such a word did exist, the English man said, “I am English. This is my language. I know there is no such word in English.”

Of course, not all native speakers behave so badly but it is undoubtedly easier to feel ‘holier-than-thou’ when the lingua franca being used is your mother tongue.

7. They could be seen as using their language as a weapon. 

Some non-native speakers perceive native speakers as using their language to confuse, to lie, to trick, to irritate, and generally, to run circles round their conversation partners. There’s a level of distrust accompanying such a perception, as mentioned here, some non-native speakers see native speakers as playing games and using their language abilities to manipulate the situation, especially in business.


8. They are more likely to be ethnocentric. 

Some language learners report of a change in their voice, their mannerisms, the way they hold themselves and even their personality when they adopt another language. I have been told many times that when I speak in Japanese, my voice is higher, more child-like, and my entire body language becomes more delicate and less assertive. This is not surprising as language can affect our identity and vice versa.

In the theory of linguistic relativity, also known as the Saphir-Whorf hypothesis, the language we speak determines the way we see the world. (See for example, Whorf, 1956) And it also follows that when we speak another language, we are able to see the world through the cultural ‘lens’ of that language.

Does it naturally follow that those who are only able to speak their native language and are communicating with those who are speaking in a foreign language are therefore less able to see the world from a different point of view? Are native speakers more ethnocentric in their view of the world?

9. They are likely to be less aware of the mechanics of how their own language works 

Noam Chomsky (1957) suggested that native speakers had a level of linguistic competence where language knowledge is internalized. They do not have to think about what tense to use or reflect on the syntax of their spoken sentence. Everything is natural and automatic to them.

But might automaticity breed complacency?

A Korean student of mine took a holiday in France and was coming back into the UK for three months before going back to Korea. At passport control, he was asked, “How are you going to occupy yourself for the next 3 months?”.

The idiomatic use of ‘occupy’ followed by a reflexive pronoun confused my student and panicked him. Despite being an Upper Intermediate (B2) user of English, he was stumped and couldn’t speak a word. The immigration officer seemed annoyed that despite stating that he had been studying English for a year in the UK, my student didn’t appear to be at all proficient.

If the immigration officer had changed his questioning tactic and opted for a more ‘globally understood English’ e.g. ‘What are you going to do for the next 3 months?’, my student might have been able to answer the question more satisfactorily.

The lack of awareness of his own language use has prevented him from successfully questioning the non-native speaker. By speaking to him in idiomatic speech seemed to only fuel miscommunication and insecurity.


10. They might confuse language ability with cultural knowledge.

So much of what we say is infused with cultural references. And when your language is so much part of your day-to-day speech, it becomes more difficult to distinguish between what parts of language require cultural capital (Bourdieu, 1986) and what doesn’t.

In Norton’s (2000) case studies, one of her subjects, Eva, a Polish immigrant in Canada who was working at a fast food restaurant was quickly ignored when it became clear that she didn’t understand her colleague’s socially-referenced comment about Bart Simpson.  She was then assigned menial tasks that didn’t require her to interact with anyone.

In a native-speaker environment, the inability to understand the cultural and social references common to that environment’s native speakers could lead to breakdowns in communication. The non-native speakers’ English proficiency is often then blamed for the failure to understand those references.

In an international environment where the native speaker is no longer the majority, making cultural references could not only cause confusion, but could make those involved feel awkward.

I’ve seen teacher trainees new to the profession trying to build rapport with new students by making references to Heston Blumenthal, strawberry trifle, the white van man, and even Guy Fawkes. I’ve heard native speakers in international meetings making jokes that nobody in the room understood. I’ve seen an English person trying explain why he’s described someone as ‘such a red coat’ (a reference to entertainers working for the British holiday village Butlins) and when it was clear that it was causing more confusion, the English person said , “But I thought you said you were fluent?”

There is a huge difference between being proficient in English, and being proficient with English culture, and although sometimes it’s difficult to tell the difference, it’s important that the native speaker learns to do so or communicating internationally might become an issue.


While there are many reasons why international communication might be difficult for the monolingual native speaker (and I recognize that there are also many native speakers who aren’t monolingual, but certainly a great number of them are), it certainly does not mean they should be resigned to it.

In my next post, I will look at some ways that native speakers and the organisations they work for can help them speak better English for international communication.


Whorf, B. (1956) Carroll, John B., ed., Language, Thought, and Reality: Selected Writings of Benjamin Lee Whorf. MIT Press

Chomsky, N. (1957) Syntactic Structures. The Hague/Paris: Mouton

Bourdieu, P. (1986) ‘The forms of capital.’ Reprinted in S. Ball (ed.) (2004) The RoutledgeFalmer Reader in Sociology of Education. London: RoutledgeFalmer.

Norton, B. (2000) Identity and Language Learning: Gender, Ethnicity and Educational Change. Essex: Pearson Education.

See also this BBC article which was partly inspired by this series of blogposts.


5 reasons why native speakers need to learn to speak English internationally

The following post was first published on etprofessional.com in March 2016 and quickly became a topic of controversy even amongst native-speaking English teachers. This post went on to win the British Council Teaching English blog of the month award, and is the first part of a 5-parter.

Perhaps it’s important for me to clarify before you read the post that this post is not aimed at criticising native speakers, but hopefully will serve to raise awareness of this issue and highlight the fact that native speakers can’t rest on their laurels and assume they are the best communicators simply because their mother tongue happens to be the global language. Communication training is something that everyone can benefit from, and is not only for those communicating in their second or third language.


When we think about teaching English to native speakers, we often either think about teaching linguistics and the mechanics of language, or about teaching English literature.

And when we think about the TEFL industry, we often focus on those who speak English as a foreign or second language (Hence the acronym TEFL).

But perhaps there is another sector that we have left out: the teaching of English to native speakers who will be using English internationally.

As English becomes the lingua franca of business and trade, education, and tourism, there are growing communities of people using English to communicate internationally with both native and non-native speakers.

Communicating with people from different backgrounds who have different views of the world, different ways of ‘encoding messages’, and different assumptions and expectations can pose its own set of problems. Intercultural communication by nature is already fraught with the endless potential for misunderstandings and conflict. But non-native speakers of English, albeit from different language and cultural backgrounds, have an understanding of what it means to be communicating in a language that is not their mother tongue. And native speakers on the other hand are at a disadvantage when it comes to using English internationally.

It seems ironic to consider the fact that native speakers now perhaps need language training to communicate internationally in their own native tongue. Here are five reasons why.

But before we begin, allow me to post this disclaimer: Despite my name and skin colour, I am a native speaker of English and am by no means writing this post to criticise or put down other native speakers. I am merely seeing a skills/knowledge gap that the public sector and companies need to consider training their staff in.


1. In international communication, native speakers are sometimes the ones least understood.

Academics who discuss the phenomenon of English as a Lingua Franca (ELF) often recount this familiar anecdote: A large group of directors from different countries are sat together for a meeting in English. Although English is their second or third language, they seem to get by perfectly fine and they all understand what each other is saying. Then an American or British person walks into the room and starts chatting away. Everyone looks at each other and no one seems to understand him/her!

So why are native speakers more prone to not being understood? Here are some reasons why: they tend to speak quickly; they use a lot of idiomatic language, they make use of humour and irony, some of which depend on a play on words, and they often require their listeners to infer from what is being said.


2. Many do not know what it’s like to communicate in a second language.

It might be a generalisation but many native speakers of English have never learnt another language, and many of those who have, did so at a Secondary school level and never had to actually communicate in their second language.

This means that their expectations of a non-native speaker speaking in English might be inflated and misguided. They are less tolerant of mistakes and they expect non-native speakers to be as in control of certain linguistic aspects as they are.

I’ve seen more than one native speaker trying to talk to my intermediate students about the different accents and dialects in the UK. They ask them questions like, ‘Which is your favourite accent?’, ‘Don’t you think the Scottish accent sounds sexy?’, ‘Have you learnt the Cockney Rhyming Slang?’ and ‘You should try and learn to speak with Queen’s English. It’s more proper.’

Have you ever tried to tell the difference between accents in a foreign language? Especially when you are not an advanced user? Deciphering the content of what is said is preoccupation enough. There is no necessity to complicate matters.


4. They might not be as charitable towards low-level users.

During my MA, I conducted research on the perception of politeness in the polite requests made by non-native speakers. And the results were overwhelming.

The native-speaker respondents were much more unforgiving, saying things like, “She’s so rude!” and “That was a bit abrupt!”

The non-native respondents were much more understanding, saying things like, “I don’t think she intends to be rude. I think she doesn’t know how to say it,” and “She might be nervous about speaking in English and in that moment, she forgot how she had wanted to say things.”

When questioned, some of the more proficient English users said they were non-native speakers and they remembered what it feels like to try and speak English when they weren’t good at it.

In my paper, I termed it the ‘principle of charity’. And non-native speakers were much more likely to apply it than native speakers. Native speakers on the other hand seemed to lack patience and empathy towards low-level English speakers.

Native speakers tend to have a clear sense of ‘good English’ and ‘bad English’, and this isn’t surprising as English is the language they were brought up in. They therefore have emotional and psychological connections to the different types of English used. They are more likely to be intolerant of what they perceive as ‘pidgin English’ and are less forgiving of language variation.


3. Native speakers sometimes struggle more with understanding different foreign accents.

I remember this one lesson about the second conditional I had when I first started teaching. I had asked the question, “If you could watch a film tonight, which film would you watch?”

The student I had nominated to answer the question smiled and muttered something that I couldn’t understand. I asked the student to repeat what they had said, but to no avail. So I asked her to repeat I again. And again. And again. But I still had no clue what she was saying.

Yet every single person in that multinational class seemed to understand her without a problem. Soon, I had the entire class shouting the name of this film at me. And I was none the wiser. It took me a full five minutes before I realized my student had wanted to watch ‘Resident Evil’.

Learners of English have a higher chance of encountering speakers of other languages who speak English with different accents. This could be through their multi-cultural English classes, or their multi-cultural English coursebooks. Those that use English for work tend to communicate with people from countries different to their own. They are therefore more likely to understand English speakers from different language backgrounds.

Native speakers who do not have the opportunity to encounter a variety of nationalities often find it hard to understand certain foreign accents. Being the ‘native speaker’, it is easy to blame this difficulty on the speaker’s ‘bad pronunciation’ or ‘bad English’ and not on their own lack of exposure. 


5. Those who have never learnt another language are less aware of the language learning process. 

A student of mine told his English colleague that he was attending English classes and his colleague asked him, “Does your English teacher teach you to use good words like ‘discombobulate’?”

Those involved in language learning and teaching would know that this English colleague has totally missed the point. English classes aren’t about teaching students to use big bombastic words.  They are about teaching learners to communicate more effectively.

Another student was asked by an immigration officer at passport control, “Why are you coming here to study more English? You were studying English for six months last year. Isn’t that enough? You should be able to speak English by now!”

I wonder how many languages this immigration officer learnt in six months.

However, we should of course not be blaming the individual officer for his lack of knowledge and ability to communicate internationally. Instead, we should be looking at the UK Border Agency as a public organisation who could be setting aside their training budget and be sending their frontline staff to communication and language workshops where they are trained to speak to non-native speakers more effectively.

In my next post, I look at another five reasons why the English native speaker might need to learn English to communicate internationally, before exploring the ways a native English speaker can become a more effective international communicator.

IATEFL Manchester Pecha Kucha Photo Credits

Here are the credits and links to the photos I have used via Creative Commons for my Pecha Kucha presentation at IATEFL Manchester 2015.


Heart, love and gratitude – ELTpics, photo by Hana Ticha

Students in class with teacher reading – by Ilmicrofono Oggiono

Point and laugh – by Ross Pollock

Happy students – by Nicholas Chan

The Impossible Triangle – by Michael

Brain puzzle – by Toca Boca; artwork by Gustav Dejert

Please do not feed the animals – ELTpics, photo by Roseli Serra

I want YOU to use grammar – by Scnal

I’m with stupid – by Seth Anderson

Hello, my name is – via Deviant Art by Roninmakeswaffles

Ponder – by Hobias Sudoneighm


Making a point, Bologna – by Todd Mecklem

Shock by Jannemei

Cool Rasta, Cool Leicester – on Flickr by Gabi Whitthaus.


Earth, Continents, Global, Home – on Pixabay by Geralt, 6898 Images

Facepalm – on Wikipedia.

Tired Villy by Tambako the Jaguar

David Crystal from Wikimedia

The Apprentice via Wikipedia







The Misuse of Silence

First of all, I must apologise for the silence on this blogsite for the last year.

Aside from starting a new family, I also have been blogging fortnightly for http://www.etprofessional.com and therefore have taken a break from this blogsite.

However, I’m back from the silence with a re-post of this blogpost, first published on etprofessional.com:

Silence is a powerful tool and can be used to achieve varying effects both in the classroom and out.

And perhaps feeling its power but not fully understanding its potential, many newly-qualified teachers treat silence like how radio DJs regard dead air – with great fear, discomfort and panic. Those intimidated by silence are often keen to anxiously fill every moment of it with unnecessary and uninteresting chitchat (see 1), running commentary (see 2), rushed eliciting (see 3), or finishing learners’ sentences for them (you don’t need an example for this one because we all know someone who does this).

  • Unnecessary and uninteresting chitchat

    What the teacher says: (While the learners are doing an activity on their own) By the way, this is my first time taking an advanced class, and you know, well, I really shouldn’t tell you this, but you know, I’ve got to be honest and true to myself, right? Apparently, I’m not very good at pretending any way, or that’s what I’ve been told, and many people who know me say that about me, and you know, to be honest, as far as I’m concerned, I would say I would agree…

    What the student hears: This is my first time taking an advanced class and blah blah blah…not very good…blah blah blah…I want you to complete this exercise but I also want you to listen to me. And if you can’t do both, I want to make it difficult for you to do either of them.

  • Running commentary

    What the teacher says: I’m going to take the OHP projector and put it right here, in front of the screen. Oh it’s a little too far to the right. I think I should move it a little more this way, ah yes, that’s better I think. I don’t normally use the OHP projector and I find it quite fiddly.
    Now, where did I put my OHP acetates? Oh my, why am I so forgetful? I always do this. I think they are in my bag. Oh yes, here they are. They are in the front pocket of my bag, where I usually put my stationery. Oh, this acetate has a fold in it. It doesn’t look too professional does it? Oh well, too late now. Can’t help it. Well, it’s just a fold anyway, it shouldn’t bother you.
    I’m going to put the acetate on the projector and there you go. It’s on. And I’m going to cover half of it with a sheet of paper. Where’s that sheet of paper I had prepared? I thought I left it on my desk…

    What the student hears: I’m going to blah blah blah…projector…blah blah blah…my bag…blah blah blah…projector…blah blah blah…

  • Rushed eliciting

    What the teacher says: What tense do we need when we are talking about an action that continues until now and might still be continuing? The Present Perfect Continuous. Yes, the Present Perfect Continuous. That’s what we use.
    And how do we form it? Well, what auxiliary is used in Perfect tenses? ‘Have’. Yes, ‘have’. We use ‘have’ in all Perfect tenses, don’t we? Yes.
    And then we need the Past Participle of the verb ‘to be’. What do you think that might be? ‘Been’, yes ‘been’ is the Past Participle of ‘to be’. And then we now need the Continuous aspect, so what do we need? The ‘-ing’ form. Yes, we need the ‘-ing’ form. And what is the ‘-ing’ form of the verb sleep? ‘Sleeping’!
    So put it all together, ‘I have been sleeping’. Yes, there you have it, ‘I have been sleeping’. Do you understand?

    What the student hears : What tense do we need when blah blah? The blah…yes, the blah. And now, I’m not going to give you time to think, but instead I’m going to show you that I know a lot about English and you don’t. Auxiliary. Past Participle. Been. Continuous Aspect. I have been sleeping. There you have it. Do you understand?

In the classroom, silence is often the necessary space between input and output, and it gives learners the time to think about what has just been said and to think about how to then formulate a response. It is an essential part of the learning experience in a language classroom, and a crucial step when eliciting answers from students.

Moving out of the controlled learning environment of a classroom, however, silence can have many functions, and the use of silence in discourse might not often be as positive.

Fairly recently, I got into a taxi in Singapore and after telling the taxi driver my destination, I was faced with a wall of silence. To confirm that he had heard me, I repeated my destination. Again, this was met with silence. He started driving and I thought it best sit back and enjoy the journey. But I was left wondering, ‘Has he understood me? Is he driving towards my destination? Was he in a bad mood? Does he hate me?’


I was again confronted with a similar situation when I went for lunch at a Thai restaurant the next day. When we tried to order, our server wrote silently in her note pad and then walked away, leaving us puzzled and frustrated. Was her silence meant to represent respect or subservience? Was there perhaps an intercultural misunderstanding going on here?

That same day, another similar occurrence took place when we went to do a bit of shoe shopping in the middle of Chinatown. Wanting to try on some of the shoes in my size, I approached a sales assistant and asked, ‘Could you help me with those shoes over there? I would like to try them on.’ She stayed silent but had what I interpreted as a half-smile on her face. So I turned to walk towards the shoes, only to realize that she wasn’t following me. I walked back, puzzled, and repeated my request, and this time, she muttered, ‘Ask my colleague over there.

Was silence her way of shutting me out of her world? Perhaps she did not engage me so that she could continue pretending that I hadn’t asked her a question.

But why would she want to pretend I wasn’t there?

Although Singapore is an English-speaking country, conversational exchanges in places like Chinatown are often conducted in Mandarin. In a Mandarin-dominated environment, perhaps she was intimidated by the prospect of having to speak English to someone. Her insecurity about her own language might have led to her shutting down and hiding behind the comfort of silence.

This got me thinking about our less-confident language students, who might shy away from interactions in English outside the classroom. As a default response to any conversational gambits or scenario that might lead to feelings of embarrassment due to their insufficient mastery of English, the second-language speaker might employ silence, not because they planned to do so, but because it is a safety net, a security blanket, a comforting shell that they can retreat into.

But unbeknownst to the silent interlocutor, their reticence could be interpreted as being uncommunicative, disinterested, rude, and even moody.

And if this second-language user encounters English at work and needs to use the language to carry out his/her job satisfactorily, like the taxi driver, the waitress at the Thai restaurant, or the sales assistant at the shoe shop, the misuse of silence could have disastrous results.

As science fiction writer A. A. Attanasio so aptly puts it, “Silence is a text easy to misread”.

So we should perhaps teach our learners what their silence could mean.

In-Company training versus In-School training

First of all, allow me to apologise for the long hiatus I have taken from this blogsite.
I have been blogging regularly, but for the website ETprofessional.com
and would now like to make up for my absence from my own website by re-blogging some of my previous posts published on ETprofessional.com

The first of which is a very personal account on my experience moving from teaching at a language school to doing in-company training.

Leadership - mentoring

Most CELTA courses briefly touch on the teaching of Business English and in-company teaching, but most CELTA centres are language schools where Teaching Practice is naturally conducted with students who are within the school compound.

The only time CELTA trainees get to have a taste of what it might be like to be an in-company trainer is when they actually get a job teaching in company. And the first day as a newly qualified teacher being surrounded by the piercing stares of men in ties and women in suits can be more intimating than being confronted by a difficult grammar question.

Along with my recent move from London to Munich, my teaching context also changed rather drastically, and I was taken out of a comfort zone that I had firmly established for myself over the 10 years of teaching in language schools in London.  I was now plunged into a world of in-company teaching. I hope that in sharing my experience, it will help pave the way for new in-company trainers who do not quite know what to expect.

Having taught years of Business English and trained Business English trainers in Cert IBET courses, on top of having dabbled in some in-company work in London during my early days as a teacher, I knew to expect logistical variation from my career shift. But ultimately, I had believed that the difference between a language classroom or a company meeting room was simply a matter of geography.

I soon found out that geography was no small matter. Geography can determine the facilities available to you. It can affect class atmostphere, rapport and motivation levels. Geography could affect attendance. But before I go into the differences, let me outline the nature of my two different teaching contexts.

My teaching contexts

The language school I worked for in London is a well-respected institution that has a steady flow of students registered to have classes for an intensive period of time. For General English students, this period could last from 2 weeks to a year. Class sizes go from 1 to 15. In our Executive Centre, many of the Business English students are subsidized by either their government or their company to work on their level of English, and usually would stay for a period of 2 weeks to 3-4 months.  Classes are smaller in the Executive Centre, and had a maximum of 6 clients, and lessons took place everyday. Each lesson would usually last for 2-3 hours, and some students might have 2 lessons a day.

As an in-company trainer in Germany, I would travel to different companies on different days of the week for lessons that are usually held in one of their company meeting rooms. A productive day would involve 2 or more classes taking place in the same company on the same day, which would essentially save me travelling time.  Classes are usually 90 minutes to 2 hours long, although on occasion, there would be intensive days of 6-10 hours, especially for courses dealing with specific soft skills such as Presentation English or Negotiations in English. Classes do not usually contain more than 6 students.

Perhaps saying that my move to in-company training was a culture-shock might be a bit of an exaggeration, but here are some of the things I quickly learnt about in-company training.


Diverse business group meeting



 In a language school, one might be equipped with Interactive White Boards, CD players or some kind of multimedia player, and even computers. Wifi connection is often provided, and students often have access to the internet through 3G on their smartphones.

When teaching in company, be prepared for lessons with little more than a flip chart. Markers are usually provided, but bring your own just in case. White boards are not common, which means that any exercise which involves rubbing away parts of sentences or phrases will need to be rethought.

CD players and multimedia players are not always provided, so if you are relying on a listening activity or a video clip, make sure you have it on your iPad or laptop and bring it in yourself.

Many companies don’t allow visitors to have access to the company’s wifi due to security reasons. Some go to the extent of putting up firewalls so that you (or your students) do not have 3G access on your smartphones while in the building. In some cases, you could request to have a special password which might allow you access from certain terminals, but if you plan to show students a particular website, taking screen shots beforehand, and printing them, or pulling them up on your iPad might save you a lot of hassle.



Attitude and Motivation

Students could seem less motivated. It is likely that these students have not paid for these lessons, nor have they travelled a long way to get to their lessons. Some they might be in the dark as to why they have been sent for language training.

The fact that they are in their own home ground and within their own office building means that their mind would always be partially on that urgent reply they need to give their clients or that proposal they need to read and sign off before midday. You can’t blame them for not switching off completely because they are technically still at work.

Not only do they have trouble switching off mentally, getting them to switch off their devices might be a tough call too. Expect interruptions from ringing mobile phones and buzzing pagers. That student who is constantly glancing at his watch may have a meeting to rush to straight after the lesson. We even had a client who once attended an hour-long conference call during his lesson. And disciplining students regarding the right classroom etiquette might not be appropriate. That million-dollar contract may be more important than coming to grips with the Present Perfect Continuous.


Communication Skills rather than tenses

Conversely, some say that in-company learners can often be more motivated than General English in-school students if their learning is directly applied to the working environment around them. This would mean doing a more detailed Needs Analysis at the beginning of the course and finding out why and how they might need to use English. Avoid teaching language for the sake of teaching language, and focus on helping learners improve their ability to communicate.

Prepare lessons that are directly related to what they are doing at work. You can:

  • Adapt published ELT materials so that tasks are current and relevant to the learners.
  • Make use of authentic materials, e.g. news articles, case studies, infographics, TED talks, etc as a springboard to discussions, skills practice and language input.
  • Consider tailor-making your own role-plays and get your learners to contribute to creating their own scenarios to enable for more realistic simulations.

Remember that your in-company clients do not necessarily want to be treated like school kids. Games and role plays are great, and can be extremely motivating, but be aware that boring grammar gap fills and following coursebooks to the tee might be less tolerated.

Tailor your lessons to suit your students needs and make them relevant to their use of English.

Four Taylor mannequines.



Attendance can be sporadic. You might have two students one week, and then two completely different students the week after. This might make revision and recycling of language extremely difficult but bear in mind that there are many factors that could affect your learners’ ability to attend:  company trips, important meetings, annual leave, the odd days off sick are all part and parcel of in company classes.

For the same reasons, students could have issues with being on time for classes. Despite this, in-company clients are not always tolerant of the class overrunning, and a teacher not keeping to the specified times. Understandably, if you have urgent work that needs to be attended to, or a lunch appointment with your manager, you might be less likely to leap for joy when your English teacher gives you an extra 10 minutes of class.



With all their daily responsibilities surrounding them, you might find some students less inclined to revise or do their homework. Some might even find the idea of homework reminiscent of their yawn-inducing rebellion-encouraging school years.  Several trainers have found that re-naming homework ‘action points’ or ‘tasks’ and ensuring that homework tasks continue to be interesting and relevant to the client’s work could help get around this tricky issue.


What ‘geography’ can also mean

Finding your way to the company could require some navigation skills, especially if you are new to the country you are teaching in. But thank goodness for transport and navigation apps on smartphones, because now, a person with no sense of direction like myself can somehow make my way there.

Once you get there, you might need a visitor’s pass in order to enter the building, and you often have to make known to reception the person you are here to see. Taking the above into consideration, ensure that you allow for travelling time and for the time it would take for you to be collected at reception.

Making use of a company meeting room as your classroom could mean last minute room changes, or even interruptions during a lesson due to confusion in room bookings.

It is quite common for in-company lessons to run for 90 minutes to an hour without a break, emulating a company meeting. If you are scheduled for two different 90-minute lessons, back-to-back, this could mean teaching three hours straight without a break for you. Don’t be shy about asking your second lot of students if it’s okay you have a five-minute break. And make sure you keep it to five minutes.

Unlike intensive courses where you see your students every day for a short period of time, most in-company courses occur once a week over a longer duration. I know a trainer who has been with the same group of students for more than 3 years! Although, this might mean that students could take several weeks before they warm up to you, this also means that you are able to truly get to know them and their area of work, and to shape their progress in a way that ensures that they are indeed making improvements to the way they are communicating in English at work.

Portrait of business people discussing a new strategy


Most importantly, try not to be intimidated by the piercing stares of the men and women in suits that are your students. Make sure you dress smartly and look professional, and remember: You might not be an expert in their field, but you are certainly the expert in dealing with language and communication issues. And with your expertise, you can help them do their job better.

IATEFL Part 5 – Willy Cardoso on a dynamic ELT Curriculum

An introduction to Willy and his blog was followed by Willy taking us through the two types of lessons he has come across – the book lesson and the conversation lesson. He questions the falseness of the accuracy-fluency dichotomy that has been created, and might be even considered offensive due to the complexity of language and language learning.

Beginning his criticism of a ‘grammar mac nugget’ approach to a grammar syllabus, research has shown that language learning is non-linear and not unidirectional. When talking about curriculum, we tend focus on syllabus and scope of the content, but it is perhaps also important to look at the different views of language, including theories on comply systems and sociocultural theories.

Curriculum is often seen as a noun, and the focus thus on the product. Perhaps we could see it as a verb and a process.

‘While every course ends, the consequences of study are ongoing as they are social and subjective as well as intellectual’ (Pnar, 2011)

‘Educational institutions and the manner in which they are organised and controlled are integrally related to the ways in which specific people get access to economic and cultural resources and power’ (Apple, 2004)

But many coursebooks do not see the curriculum as an ongoing process. Here is perhaps an example of a global coursebook that exemplifies how language learning is often viewed.
They often claim:

‘The perfect balance of grammar, vocabulary, pronunciation , and skills to get your students speaking English with confidence’ (New English File Intermediate)
How have the coursebooks found this supposed balance? And how have they made it ‘perfect’?

At other buzzword used in coursebooks to promote their curriculum is the word ‘motivating’ and ‘confidence’.
But does the things that motivate one student necessarily be the sAme that motivates another?
Does a confine Japanese English speaker display the same behaviour as a confident Brazilian English speaker?

Using an example text from a coursebook using the context of family but in fact focusing on a particular language point, sacrificing in-depth discussions on culture in favour of minute language point. The texts we bring to our classroom are a reflection of a reality, and are inevitably value-laden. Yet, many books choose to use language activities that generated unreal sentences and discussions e.g. Find someone who is meeting their brother/sister this weekend. Find someone who isn’t going on a family holiday this year.
Real life conversations flow from topic to topic, with one generating talk of another.
Real life conversations deal with taboo topics and global issues – things that sorts coursebooks do not deal with.

The teacher and coursebook often define and transmit the concept, the students then study and reproduce the desired concept. But we could consider a framework where teachers and students create concepts together, exploring the origin and nature of knowledge. But the curse of the negotiated syllabus is that students come up with topics that are the same as ones in the coursebooks, as that is what they are used to.

Instead, Willy suggests asking complex questions and allowing students to discuss them, allowing for the space for Open Space Technology. As a result, students start to create their own questions and formulate complex opinions.

‘In general, the way we structure the curriculum – the experiences that are included and the relationships that are or can be established among them – will shape the kinds of knowledge-in-action that students ddeavelop. At the beginning, their understanding of the conversational domain may be partial and incomplete, but it will grow as the conversation continues.’ (Arthur Applebee’s, 1996)

Willy ends his talk about trying to see language and language use/learning simplified into the four skills (reading, writing, speaking and listening) and systems (lexis, grammar, phonology, discourse), but as a complex system to be explored.

IATEFL Part 2 – Jim Scrivener on Demand High

Jim’s talk started by looking at a quick definition of demand high teaching.

Demand High is a meme, an idea that gets passed from person to person. It is not a new methodology. The question asked is ‘Am I engaging the full human learning potential of the students in my class?’


Modern language teaching seems not to push students to achieve and focuses more on being fun and entertaining.

Starting with the following questions:


  • Are my learners capable of more?
    Am I under-challenging my students?
  • Would my students learn more if I demnded more of them? How could I do that?
  • Have the tasks and techniques I use in lass become rituals and ends in themselves?
  • How can I stop ‘covering material’ and start focusing on the potential for deeper learning?
    What small shifts can I make?


The evolving manifesto of Demand High

It is okay to ‘teach’.

The word ‘teach’ seems to have got a bad rep over the last few years and learning is expected to emerge. There is value in explicit teaching, which is not equivalent to the teaching ‘yapping’ in front of the classroom.

We need to focus on where the learning is

You have permission to be active interventionist teacher

Learn the classroom management techniques that make a difference

Work at everyone’s pace – not just the fastest few

Risk working hands-on with language

Don’t expect the book to do the teaching for you.

Expect more – Demand High


One way of being more ‘demand high’ is by looking at one common stage in many lessons:

When students have done an exercise  (individually and in pairs) and the teacher leads a feedback stage to check answers.


What are some things that one could do to extend this stage to last 60 minutes.


Here, Jim suggests

  • probing and expanding on the students’ answers e.g. ‘Do you agree with her answer? What do you think?’ and playing devil’s advocate (this blogger likes this!) rather than simply rubber-stamping the students’ answers;
  • exploring what’s behind the answer e.g. ‘Why is that the answer?’ and ‘Why do you think the person said that?’;
  • getting students to listen to you or the speaker is saying it and replay the voice in their heads and ‘Can you hear that voice saying it in your head? Can you change that to a different voice? Maybe a voice of a relative?’;
  • thinking about the paralinguistic features that go with phrases/sentences; working on the pronunciation e.g. stress patterns, speed, intonation etc;
  • practising the target language through drilling and playing around with the phrases;
  • remembering the target language by promoting recall;
  • raising awareness of mistakes;
  • playing with the grammar and lexis e.g. can you change the verb, can you drop a word, change the formality, context, relationship, etc.
  • ensuring that you keep the whole class engaged and pitching the challenges to the individual’s needs, yet avoiding ‘yap’ mode but intervening with authority, etc.

After lots of fun practicing some of these practical techniques with the audience, Jim emphasizes that the presentation stage of a lesson might not really be the most important part, but it is in fact that practice stage that allows students to really internalize the new language.


Communicative and fluency activities are fine and good but we should also not forget structured grammatical practice.


Fixing mistakes does not lead to insight and awareness. It merely puts paper on a crack. It should not just about collecting the right answers, but we need to start looking further.