Jul 152010

If you want to teach someone to sing a tune, you could write down the notes and give it to them to play (providing they can read music, of course). Or you could play it yourself and get them to sing along after they’ve heard it a few times. Or you could do something rather magical like Bobby McFerrin does in this 3 minute video. Do you think teaching a language can be similar?

 Posted by at 7:48 pm
Jan 032010

Mars et Venus by AndyRob.If you’re a company or government agency and your organization is having some communication problems, who do you call for help: a management consultant, or an occupational psychologist perhaps?

I’ve just come across a paper by Joanna Channell explaining why a linguist might be a better bet. She provides concrete examples of  valuable help linguists have provided using approaches such as needs analysis, genre analysis, pragmatics, conversational analysis and corpus linguistics.

You need to scroll down to page 13, but the paper is freely available on the web as part of the University of Surrey’s 2003 Language for Special Purposes conference proceedings.

Joanna notes a culture gap between Language for Special Purposes practitioners and non-linguists:

Helpfully, she also suggests ways we might bridge the divide. Her advice seems very transferable to business English trainers, consultants and schools pitching to clients to me too. And as Joanna aptly puts it:

I believe there is a need for a major international effort to raise the profile of applied linguistics and within this, the LSP [Language for Special Purposes] perspective. Currently much organisational consultancy is carried out either by people applying psychology or applying management sciences. I am clear that applied linguistics has a legitimate and needed place alongside these two.

 Posted by at 6:49 pm
Sep 112009

There’s a famous experiment where you show a three year old kid a smarties tube and ask what they think is inside. They’ll probably say ‘smarties’. (Smarties =BrE chocolate sweets, rather like M&Ms) Then you open it, and show them there are pencils inside. Next you close it up again and ask, ‘If Mummy saw this tube, what would she think is inside?’ The three year old will probably say ‘pencils’. It won’t occur to them that Mummy might be fooled by the packaging in the same way that they were.

Try the same thing with a five year old and ask the same question, and most likely they’ll say there are smarties inside. So somewhere between the ages of 3 and 5 kids seem to work out that other people can have a different set of beliefs and understanding from their own, and they develop the ability to think about another’s thoughts.

I’m intrigued by how this theory of mind develops – or doesn’t develop. It has often been studied in relation to people on the autistic spectrum who may interpret remarks very literally. So for example, if someone asks ‘Is that your jacket on the floor?’ they might just think it’s an enquiry about whether the jacket belongs to them and fail to recognize a request to pick it up. Before we can begin to understand another speaker’s intentions, we have to understand that they can have beliefs and desires that are different from our own.

Scientists have identified the bit of the brain we use to think about the thoughts of others. I’ve just watched a video where I’ve learnt that this bit of our brains is also involved in making ethical judgments. It’s a talk by a neuroscientist, Rebecca Saxe, in which she describes how applying a magnetic pulse to the right temporal parietal junction can change our normal moral judgments – largely for the worse it seems. Here’s hoping Rebecca continues to refuse calls from the Pentagon.

 Posted by at 6:54 pm
Jul 302009

A curious issue emerged as I was writing some grammar notes today.

We generally pronounce years before 2000 in two parts. So 1999 = ‘nineteen ninety-nine’

But when the century turned, we began talking of thousands. So 2008 = ‘two thousand (and) eight.’

We don’t do that when we’re talking about previous centuries. So 1908 is usually ‘nineteen oh eight’ rather than ‘nineteen hundred (and) eight’.  

So how are we going to pronounce the next decade?

I thought I’d ask a few folks and emailed around. I discovered that Brits include the ‘and’ in the ‘thousand’ expressions and Americans usually don’t – no surprises there. But in my teeny survey, there was a mix when it came choosing between:
a. Two thousand (and) ten
b. Twenty ten



So currently two systems are in operation. Should we tell students to take their pick? I’m not sure that’s helpful because one’s bound to win. Think of 2001. It’s ‘two thousand and one’. ‘Twenty oh one’ is not an acceptable alternative.

A situation of ‘no change’ would be speakers  maintaining the one-number current system. But we have Brits talking about the twenty twelve Olympics and Obama’s 10 year health reforms are discussed in relation to twenty twelve/thirteen/etc. There’s language change in operation here and the movement’s back towards the two-number system.

So happy twenty ten folks, and if you’d like to add your voice…Click Here to take survey and I’ll update the stats later.

 Posted by at 10:13 pm
Jul 242009

Have you ever heard statistics about communication like 55% of your message is conveyed by facial expressions and 38% by tone of voice and only 7% comes via words? And it sounds so scientific, so perhaps it might be true?

Well here’s a delightful video that explains the roots of some of those curious statistics. In this case it was a scientist who was specifically focused on how we convey feelings and attitudes rather than facts and information.


Many thanks to Chris Adams who knew I’d love this great link.

 Posted by at 12:34 pm
Jul 112009

Chris Sollett raised an interesting question about non-verbal communication (thank you so much, Chris) . He was referring to a crew resource management (CRM) training site I’d linked to that claimed:

7% of all communication is accomplished Verbally.

38% of communication is the result of unconscious signals and readings, such as tone or sound of voice

55% of all communication is achieved through Non-Verbal And Symbolic means (body language.)

Chris asked:

What does this mean for a teacher, should we be putting less effort into verbal communication and working more on the other 93 per cent?

I don’t understand how anyone can quantify how much information gets communicated verbally and non-verbally. So I feel very skeptical about the stats on that site. That said, we never stop communicating whether we’re saying words or not, so for example, silence can speak volumes. I love the way that site challenges some common assumptions about communication. eg.

Assumption #1

Do you assume that the message sent is the same as the message received? …

Assumption #2

Do you assume that you communicate only when you consciously choose to do so? …

Assumption #3

Do you assume that meanings are inherent in words? Or do you assume that meanings originate in people? …

Assumption #4

Do you assume that the communication process ceases after the message has been received? …

Assumption #5

Do you assume that if a communication breakdown occurs, it is invariably the recipient’s fault? Or do you assume that a communication breakdown may be a function of your own communication style? …

How more meaning gets conveyed than with just the words spoken is central to pragmatics. Helping people convey meaning is central to ELT /TESOL. So   pragmatics needs attention in my view. That said, vocabulary (and other stuff like grammar and pronunciation, obviously) is important for meaning as well, so we can’t sling the baby out with the bath water. They all seem inextricably entwined to me.

I think CRM is very revealling about ‘best practice’ in communication. For example, CRM indicates that message abandonment is a serious problem in conversations amonst NSs. Here’s a cockpit conversation from a plane that wasn’t going fast enough at take off:

First Officer: Ah, that’s not right.
Captain: Yes, it is, there’s 80 [referring to speed].
First Officer: Nah, I don’t think it’s right. Ah, maybe it is.
Captain: Hundred and twenty.
First Officer: I don’t know.

It wasn’t right, and the First Officer’s muting his concerns led to the plane’s stalling and crashing into a Potomac River bridge, killing all but five people on board.

Message abandonment problems are likely to be amplified in intercultural communication (see here). So how to address this stuff in class seems like a really important question to me.

Oh, and another lesson to draw from CRM is that language to do with building relationships really matters. But that’s something for another day…

 Posted by at 6:15 am
May 162009

pavement_paintingI had the good fortune to hear Daniel Pink speak at Wharton this week on why right-brainers will rule the future. In essence it was a talk about how we can educate learners to ensure they have the skills they will need for what lies ahead, rather than skills learners needed in the past.

His argument ran that, while remaining important, the skills afforded by our logical, linear, sequential, analytical left brain will become less important. Meanwhile, right brain activities to do with artistry, inventiveness, empathy and big picture thinking will matter more and more.

Six abilities he cited as important:
Design         Storytelling         Synthesis          Empathy          Play         Searching for meaning/significance

Without exception, they strike me wonderful topics to explore in business English classes.

He backed his theory up with some interesting statistics and facts. A few snippets I found interesting were:

Medical students at Yale have a compulsory art criticism course where they are required to describe what they see in paintings in art museums in order to improve their observation skills and make better diagnoses.
Another one re medical students – targeted training in empathy for doctors has been found to improve  recovery rates among their patients.
In 1993, 61% of McKinsey’s new hires had MBAs. By 2003, the figure had fallen to 43%. They’ve been increasing the number of students accepted from other disciplines.

There are lots of video’s of Dan around, such as this one: Dan Pink on vodpod

You can also ‘click inside’ to see extracts from two of his books here:
A Whole New Mind: Why Right-Brainers Will Rule the Future

The Adventures of Johnny Bunko: The Last Career Guide You’ll Ever Need

 Posted by at 1:09 pm