Feb 072011

A while ago I posted videos of Mark Powell’s plenary talk at the last annual BESIG conference. Mark responded today, and I thought it was so interesting and raised so many issues we didn’t have time to discuss in the webinar today – so I thought I’d post it here now as a separate post. Over to Mark…

Thanks to the people who said they enjoyed Carl’s video of the Bielefeld talk. The funny thing for me was that I actually started out as an ELF-sceptic, but, in the process of developing the talk, I kind of defected to the other side – at least, in part.

It’s true that nowadays we routinely heap scorn on the fixed expressions of yesteryear (‘If I could just come in here for a moment’; ‘We seem to be talking at cross-purposes’; ’I’m afraid we’ll have to agree to disagree on that one’ etc.), but a quick flip through even the latest BELT publications shows that functional exponents like these are very much alive and kicking. Problem is that most published materials seem to base their language input more on previously published materials than on the real thing. And those previous publications were similarly flawed. So the modern course book tends to be at least three times removed from any kind of authentic source and a lot of its syllabus verges on urban legend (eg. ‘I’m a bit tied up on Thursday’ – did someone somewhere, probably British, once say that?). This is not really the fault of authors, however. Until very recently, sufficiently large spoken BE corpora were rather thin on the ground. Now that we have a few such corpora emerging and growing, what we’re finding is that not only are such fixed expressions pretty much non-existent (as many of us predicted), but fixed expressions of any kind over three or four words long are incredibly rare as well (which we generally didn’t predict).

So there is an awful lot of flab in the published stuff to get rid of. I wouldn’t just slag it off as hopelessly wedded to the NS model, though, because most of it bears no resemblance to what either NSs or NNSs actually say!

What NSs and NNSs do actually say (so far as we can tell at this relatively early stage from corpora like CANBEC and VOICE) is a lot more interesting. Both turn out to be doing some highly innovative things (as well as some odd, communicatively unhelpful things) which course books have largely missed. As BE trainers, I think our job is to take ‘best practice’ from both and encourage our learners to adopt it (if they are not doing so already), whilst warning them off the NS or NNS model wherever it fails communicatively in an international context. This is what I call Lean Language – performance without waste. Some may now be calling it BELF.
In terms of what NNS are doing (ELF) there are roughly two kinds of things, I think – ‘errors’ and ‘innovations’. Errors like missing off third person –s, using the wrong relative pronoun, treating uncountable nouns as countable (‘informations’), dropping a morpheme in an adverb (‘terrible sorry’) or adding redundant prepositions (‘discuss about’) don’t seem to impede communication and may, in some cases, even facilitate it between some NNSs (because the errors are largely shared). These are the kind of typical ‘mistakes’ all EFL teachers are familiar with and these are what I’m referring to when I say ‘a lot of ELF is pretty obvious’. Barbara Seidlhofer mentions some of these in her writing on ELF and there was a very extensive list of them compiled by Christine Johnson and Cath Bartlett, based on their classroom research and published in the BESIG Business Issues Vol. 3 way back in 1999. No-one (I think!) is suggesting we actually ‘teach’ these errors. Our learners will make them anyway in spite of our best efforts. But what we can do is resist overenthusiastic correction in these areas when there are other more important things to deal with. An easily correctable error is never a communicative error. Think about it. If you can actually correct me, you must have known what I meant. ‘I have been here yesterday’ – totally comprehensible. And let’s be clear, it’s not just grammar errors we’re talking about. ‘I made an interview for the job’ is also OK by me. Lexical pedantry is just as bad as structural pedantry when our learners have busy lives and just want to do their job better in English. I sometimes think, in freeing us from the tyranny of grammar, the Lexical Approach has just landed us with another (much more arbitrary) set of rules to internalise.

Of course, some errors do need fixing because they are not shared across cultures. When a German says ‘in the moment’ (‘im Moment’) instead of ‘at the moment’, we don’t care or even notice the error. Maybe it’s better – aren’t we all supposed to live in the moment? When they say ‘I will’ instead of ‘I want’, there may be a problem. L1 interference may need robust correction.

So that’s errors. And some of them could even be seen as innovative in that they actually smooth international business communication. What about true ‘innovations’? I briefly mention some of these in my BESIG talk – explicit performatives (noticed in Germans), invariant question tags (noticed in Spaniards, no?), but there are many others – avoidance of the passive and tense backshift in reported speech, dropped auxiliaries in questions, conjoined rather than embedded clauses. None of these formulations is technically an error – NS make them too, though much more rarely. What they are is simpler (dare I say more efficient?) variants on the NS model. And, frankly, I’m all for these. Sometimes it may be helpful to point out to French speakers, say, that German speakers have a neat way of doing something in English that they might like to emulate. It might also be worth briefing a Swedish speaker on some of the features of ‘Chinese English’ if they are going to be doing business with China. But a surprising number of NNS innovations cross cultural boundaries, partly because all learners have some of the same difficulties with learning English and they either fix them or (a tribute to their ingenuity) get round them. When they get round them, they seem, more often than not, to do so in similar ways.

Now what about NS innovations? Within EIL, ELF and Global English circles the NS model tends to get short shrift. It seems to be the Great Wall of English the ‘Elves’ are trying to breach. On a structural, lexical and phonological level I sympathise with this view. NS English is (like most languages) unnecessarily complicated when your need for it is mostly utilitarian. However, on a communicative level NSs do some pretty neat and eminently learnable things which could be an excellent model for NNS users. In my talk I had no time to mention these, but they include things like the use of selective repetition – an amazing device that can be used for emphasis, agreement, disagreement and rejection in meetings, query and confirmation on the phone, empathy-building in social situations as well as rhetorical impact in presentations. We need a lot more research here. Much language in use consists of modified reformulations of what your interlocutor has just said rather than firing back fixed expressions. The better your listening skills, the less lexical firepower you need.

So that’s my take on where we are with developing BELF from both NS and NNS data. I do say ‘developing’ not ‘discovering’ because I am in favour of some prescriptiveness here. That’s not a popular approach in our business, I know, but I do feel we (who else?) should be trying to offer our learners a fast-track to communicative competence for business purposes and not detaining them unduly with the finer points of anybody’s English, least of all the Queen’s or President’s. Pending conclusive evidence from the corpora, can’t we come up with something better than the Business EFL we peddle at the moment?

But what if our learners insist on the ‘real thing’, as some of you point out in this blog? Well, far be it from me to deny my clients what they want, but I think we owe it to them to at least offer a more efficient alternative. Sure, some do want to be more than competent in English, to impress – but just who they are impressing when most of the people they do business with aren’t at a sufficiently high level of English to be impressed? NSs are in many ways some of the least understood in international interactions. Who would want to aspire to that?

But I appreciate there’s a problem of perception. All the Business Spotlight surveys show a strong preference in most learners for NS trainers, though I think that’s partly because they still wrongly associate NNSs with the kind of language teaching they’ve had in the past and the NSs with the newer more communicative approach they’re now paying for. And publishers with their essentially NS model both exploit and perpetuate this prejudice, however global they like to make their materials sound. But here are a couple of course book titles I found recently that unashamedly say what they mean: ‘Speak Business English Like an American’ and ‘Speak Better Business English and Make More Money‘. Both genuine titles, I swear! And, actually, when you think about it, though the first is clearly some kind of cultural assimilation programme no doubt larded with sports and war idioms and glossy Americanisms, the second could be, truth to tell, just what our learners want. But will the author mean the same thing by ‘better’ as I do? Hm. I think I’ll leave that a mystery.

Many thanks for this Mark and if you’d like to watch the original talk – click here and for the ELF Webinar video ad – click here. The actual webinar video will be posted later.

 Posted by at 5:45 pm

  9 Responses to “Mark Powell on ELF”

  1. The lack of fixed expressions over three or four words reminds me of my own language learning. I never knowingly use more than four words where seven or eight words will do, if you see what I mean. Rather than having four-word phrases which are a corruption of eight-word phrases, however, I would prefer to have direct access to more felicitous four-word phrases – at least until I learn the language better. I would also love to be able to offer the same to my own students. So does anyone know when this stuff is going to start hitting major course book series?
    Anyway, thanks for the concrete example here – it makes it all that much more clearer, and thanks to you, Vicki, for organising the whole webinar today – it was very thought-provoking.

  2. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Karenne Sylvester, BELTfree. BELTfree said: via @vickihollett Mark Powell on ELF http://ow.ly/1be4vS […]

  3. Many thanks to Vicki for the link to Mark’s great presentation and to Mark for this follow-up post. Like many other teachers I spent hours compiling or copying lists of “useful expressions” as part of my lesson preparation for teaching “Meeting Skills” or “Presentations” etc., and I felt rather guilty when, as time went on, I saw less and less point in doing so. As long as the practice contexts were sufficiently motivating, the students were clearly communicating perfectly adequately without them – or, perhaps, in spite of them! So thanks, Mark, for expressing so forcefully and entertainingly what many of us have been quietly thinking.

    Mark’s presentation sets up many areas for continued discussion. Here are just two:

    1. Is there is any point in using coursebooks on English for Business programmes? If so, what should they be like?

    My answer to this one would be we want books that set up contexts for realistic business interactions, not books that focus on bits of language.

    2. Is ELF/BELF a variety of language you can teach? Isn’t it rather a set of strategies for communication?

    I imagine this question will have come up in the the course of Monday’s webinar and I look forward to seeing the video.

  4. Hi David

    In answer to your very pertinent questions. I’d say…

    1. Coursebooks may still have some value in classes where the learners have no clear current or future needs. But where the learners have even the faintest inkling of why they want to learn to BE, the usefulness of CBs has become highly questionable. I genuinely believe the days of the General BE coursebook are numbered – particularly those which take a topic-based, as opposed to skills-based approach. Of course, I’m speaking here of the in-work not pre-work market. The tertiary education sector may still have a need for topic-based material, but with up-to-the minute business content so abundantly available online, even here the CB is, I think, fighting a losing battle.

    I agree with you that an approach that put realistic communicative tasks first and then dealt with the emergent language would be preferable. But it would be very challenging to incorporate that into a CB. When you go from language to task, the task focus is fairly clear. When you go from task to language, the language focus is much less so. Teachers would have to respond to the needs of their learners without much in the way of CB support, which kind of militates against the the whole purpose of a CB. Still, there might be a way of providing modesl of performance for learners to compare themselves with.

    2. (B)ELF is, as you say, more a set of NNS strategies for dealing with a useful but complex foreign language they have had no time to fully master. It’s a series of shortcuts, non-essential rule-breaking behaviours and, occasionally, innovations for getting round the problem of not being a functionally fluent speaker. What I call Lean Language is an attempt to a least partially codify what both NNSs and NSs do most effectively. Effectiveness and efficiency are the key terms here. Does what the learners are learning offer a good ROI? Have we, as teachers, done a cost-benefit analysis of the things we teach?



  5. […] A talk on lean language by Mark Powell and some later elaboration […]

  6. Hi David and Mark

    I think you’re right to question the value of coursebooks, particularly when we know a little about learners’ specific needs. But even with in-company training coursebooks have the huge advantage that they really help the less experienced (less trained?) teacher survive the rigours of a full working week. They may not be doing what is best for the learner, but at the end of the day you get what you pays for.

    Damm – I used some rare fixed expressions.

  7. […] of the BESIG pre-conference event at IATEFL with Vicki Hollett, Chia Suan Chong, Almut Koester, and Mark Powell speaking. I’ve decided to go and am very much looking forward to this. Have to sign up today, […]

  8. […] last day to get the early bird discount for that so sign up now if you can.) Chia Suan Chong and Mark Powell will both be speaking too, and what’s exciting about that is we’ll be trying to move the […]

  9. 15 years as a Business English teacher, trained in social anthropology, which give some idea of where I’m coming from – Which is that I’m not keen on course books. In reality I so rarely teach students involved in global market strategies or company set ups. More likely I’m teaching to students involved in laying pipes for petrochemical industry, research and development scientists, HR & Admin staff, or freight forwarding companies. In all these cases, the student is the best resource. Teachers need to become students, whilst students become teachers. It’s (almost) as simple as that! Producing coursebooks is, itself, a business option for the benefit of publishers, more than the benefit of students.

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