Feb 282014

jaybadguy300x250A simple rule of thumb for safety and security is:

safety: preventing accidents – security: preventing theft.

But in these days of  terrorism, organised crime and breaches in information security (not to mention Sarbanes Oxley, compliance and all the rest) life has got a lot more complicated.

We reasoned that if you were using technical English or English for business, you’d probably need to go a bit deeper, so we wound up making two videos. Here’s the first one which has a simple explanation that will hopefully answer key questions for most pre-intermediate students.

And here’s the second one for students who need a deeper understanding.

You may have your own thoughts on these words and if so, do please add them to the comments below. Who knows – maybe a third video is required here…

Both videos are available with clickable transcripts at Simple English Videos dot com. Hope you like them!

P.S. Many thanks to Stephen Charles for suggesting this topic! And don’t forget to tell me if you have any ideas for video topics folks.

 Posted by at 12:14 am
Jul 232013

A couple of weeks ago, Carl Dowse prompted me to start a Scoopit for videos suitable for technical English students. Carl has a great scoopit list for business English teachers, but there didn’t seem to be a techie English equivalent.

My techie scoopit doesn’t have many videos yet (please email me me if you have suggestions to add) and I’m not planning to publish it as a newsletter. But in case others are looking for techie class videos, here’s the link:














And as Scoopit turned out to be so easy for bookmarking, I started another one for odd videos I might want to use in class some day as well.


I must confess, I wondered whether I didn’t have better things to do with my time when I started these.
But already I’ve found there are videos that I’m sure I’d have forgotten about if I hadn’t scooped, as it were. Thanks Carl!

 Posted by at 11:49 am
May 302013

There are some great blogs around, but rather than just adding Teaching English to Engineers to my blog roll, I wanted to give it a special mention. The thing is it’s full of practical ideas and links that are tried and tested, and concisely put too. (Many thanks to Graham Tritt for pointing it out to me)
In technical English we struggle with meeting some very specific needs and it can be very time consuming to find the right audio and visual texts. That job can get a whole lot easier by checking out what Lisa is generously sharing here.

 Posted by at 9:38 am
Nov 072010

I can’t remember ever visiting (or even noticing) a nail salon in the UK, but there seem to be lots in the US. It took me several years to venture into one and then several years to go back, because the smell of the chemicals is powerful. But now painted toenails are a sign that summer’s on its way in our house. (I like wearing flip flops.)

The salons are generally staffed by immigrants. I’ve often wondered about their backgrounds and lives and some have answered my questions and chatted a little, but mostly they don’t. Many seem to have very limited English, although some have lived here for many years.

So I was intrigued when one of my students on an MA TESOL course chose Nail Salon workers for a needs analysis project. It was a tough assignment because the technicians didn’t want to talk to her – I’ll let you read why. But the results were fascinating and she’s very kindly agreed to let me publish them here.

So I’m delighted to share ‘English for Nail Technicians in New York’ by Connie Sargent:

Some things that struck me in particular were:

  • [The ESP need to] Teach American ideas of relaxation and indulgence
  • [That] Interaction is made more complicated by physical contact
  • Every [customer] interview referred to a fear that nail technicians are talking about them to other nail technicians

Did you find anything striking too?

 Posted by at 3:32 am
Feb 132010

The hard dish installs the manual by alistairmcmillan.

Technical manuals are clear, direct and precise, right? The content is factual. There’s going to be none of the pussy footing around and ambiguity that we’d associate with the ‘polite’ stuff that folks (like me)  usually write about, right?

There’s a great research paper here on ‘simple English’ that illustrates just how wrong these assumptions are.

Operating manuals contain a large number modals verbs

You must do an inspection of all the tubes

The handle should be folded inside the stabilizer trim

‘Should’ differs from ‘must’ in terms of the expectation of compliance – how confident we feel that it’s going to happen.

You must inspect it (and I think you will because I have told you to)

You should inspect it (It’s the right thing to do but perhaps you won’t)

And then there are some more ‘fuzzy’ modals like ‘may’ and ‘can’.

Use of long range cruise may be appropriate

Mercury vapors can be toxic

Something interesting about ‘may’: if I say you may do something, it also implies you may not. It suggests that I am not fully committed to the instruction, so if it turns out that it wasn’t appropriate to use long range cruise, I can’t be held responsible. And there’s a similar lack of commitment if I say ‘can’. In some way, I’m less responsible for the outcome.

Macintosh User Manual - Chapter 1 by peterme.

The language of technical manuals aspires to be plain, straightforward English, so we might expect that all manuals would be similar in their use of these modals – irrespective of their audience.

They’re not. The study shows that operations manuals written for high status pilots, have fewer uses of ‘must’ and many more uses of ‘should’, ‘may’ and ‘can’. In repair manuals written for lower status technicians, there are more uses of ‘must’.


Like the authors of this study, I reckon that it’s about status. I can’t see another sensible explanation for the disparity. We might like to imagine that technical language is socially neutral and free of fuzziness, but in practice, that’s not the case. Writers of manuals attend to politeness issues – like the rest of the human race – and if they are writing in Anglo-English, they will attend to a social requirement to pretend like the other person has a choice.

And I’m not suggesting that this is good practice or bad practice. I’m just saying it exists. And I think that if these politeness issues are there, we need to address them and teach them – to everyone, including (and maybe especially) our techie students. All thoughts welcome, so please chip in if you have ideas on this.

Other postings related to this that you might be interested in:

 Posted by at 8:21 am
Aug 092009

Here’s a video of the world’s air traffic over 24 hours:

Find more videos like this on Virtual Round Table  (Thanks for this, Heike!)

Important things are happening in Aviation English. The International Civil Aviation Organization has introduced global language proficiency standards for pilots and air traffic control staff. Everyone’s  supposed to comply by 2011 and get up to a ‘Level 4’ so the race is on to meet the deadline.

There are problems with the standards (and their application) but lots of effort is going into getting pilots and ATC staff trained up and there are some very committed people in the field. Heike’s link above leads to videos of Henry Emry, the author of Aviation English, who is a good example.

I think Keith Morrow was right when he said:

“The really big idea of the CEF – more revolutionary in its implications than anything to do with descriptors of language levels – is that learners should be helped to think about their own learning, and that teachers should be helped to think about their own teaching.”

Who knows where a process of  thinking about learning and teaching could lead us here. But my hunch is it’s towards a deeper understanding of the nature of decision making and people skills  and I find that very exciting.

 Posted by at 9:03 am
Jul 102009

It’s 1970. You’re the first officer on board an aeroplane and your captain has just made a lousy decision. What’ll you do? Follow your orders or speak up?

It wasn’t an easy choice back then. Captains were expected to be decisive, take charge and command. Here’s an extract from an airline’s procedure book from that era:

‘All crewmembers must realize that the captain is in complete command of the airplane and his orders are to be obeyed, even though they may be at variance with written instruction…’

I guess the merit of the system was everyone knew who was boss. But what if the captain’s decisions were wrong? John Wayne had had a different approach, but it had never caught on:

But there’s a very serious side to this. A 1979 NASA safety workshop reviewed a series of crashes and concluded that many resulted from failures in interpersonal communication, leadership and decision making in the cockpit. Had captains used all the resources available to them and sought and listened to input from their crew, more than 70% of the crashes could have been avoided. Airlines began to acknowledge that:

 …although pilots were technically competent, their people skills were deficient.

It took a while for it to become mandatory, but training in cockpit resource management – the human factor in aviation – was born. It has since been expanded to include everyone in the crew, and more.

There’s information about the communication aspects of the training on several sites, like this one. Some of the issues it covers are –  wow – powerful. I’m struck by the importance it lays on relationships – so encouraging others to talk and listening to them, and not ignoring their feelings or ideas. Politeness issues matter.

And as for John Wayne – well, he was ahead of his time in challenging his captain, but his people skills would be questionable today. A respectful communication style is vital.

 Posted by at 3:35 am