Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Linguistics Theory and Real World Training

I am not a linguist.  Most of what I have learned about the field comes from the Wikipedia Linguistics section and observation both in class and in the real world.  I'm always impressed by trainers and academics who work in the various subfields like Pragmatics or Phonology.  Without question, I owe much to their research and effort.  The depth of their analysis is simply breathtaking.

Nor am I an expert in Second Language Acquisition.  My initial education in SLA was simply by critically reading course books and asking, "Why did they write it this way?"  Now, I rely on Scott Thornbury for this, as I suspect many front-line teachers do.  My initial goal was to simply understand what he was talking about.  The real gold mine of knowledge is not his A-Z blog, but rather his list of written works.

All too often, it takes considerable trailblazing to link these theories to the reality of my learners.  The enhanced analysis produced by academia is often so detailed we can miss the forest for the trees.  We are now mapping collocations across two centuries (BYU/Google Books) and assessing the pragmatic meaning of utterances with conceptual nouns at such a minute level it leaves the trainer lost for clear guidance.  We are even left trying to define methodologies across a spectrum of distant names like Krashen and Lozanov.  Lives are spent specializing in these fields.

But as Business English trainers we cannot turn our backs on this range of knowledge.  The other extreme is just as fruitless.  There is a pull on our community to become experts in the "skills" such as negotiations, intercultural communication, and presentations.  This is a louder and more public group of experts.  There is a shine to these practitioners and perhaps more money.  But this is not my role either.  I believe our purpose is to link these two fields.

Furthermore, our knowledge base needs to be broad enough in both areas to identify the correct communication tool.  Sometimes it is skills, sometimes it is linguistic.  One thing is for sure, we cannot expect linguistic experts (e.g. published course books) to give us everything we need to know about skills and we should not trust skills experts to provide linguistic expertise.

Here are two examples of how this works...

Skills Problem

A participant in one of my courses recently asked me to help him with a problem with an American colleague.  He wanted a sentence he could say to show that he was offering help.  The colleague in the US always reacted unexpectedly.  Defensive would be too strong of a word, but he always seemed uncomfortable with the offer and rejected it immediately.  The learner here in Germany thought he had said something wrong and he had somehow offended his colleague.  The American would never accept his assistance and he wanted me to give him a sentence to make it better.

But this was not a linguistic problem.  The problem was instead with the team dynamic and the difference in organizational culture between the German and US departments (notice here it was not national culture). I sent the following email and we had a meeting to discuss the issue.  By the end of the meeting we had worked down to sentence level.


Unfortunately, there is no ‘silver bullet’ for this type of reaction.  Instead, it appears that the relationship is not the best.  His response to offering help is only a symptom of the real problem.  The question is then... what is the real problem?

To start, I would need more information to help define the issue.  Then we can formulate a strategy for dealing with this person and identify language which would resonate with him.

So here are some questions and feedback:

Trust is built on character and competence.  Do you believe he is competent?  If not, why?  What do you think about his character?  What does he think about his own competence?  Is he new in his position or field?  Is he stressed from the expectations of the job?  What does he think of your competence and character?  How can you tell that he feels that way?  Do you trust him?  Does he know you trust him?

Team building is not easy and goes through phases.  How long have you worked together?  Do the team members really know each other?  Does the team have a common purpose and result?  Does everyone know it?  Are the members committed to the team or are there other priorities?  What are they?  What is the definition for success for your team?  Does your team have a track record of successes?  Is there a reward for success?  Does your team accept and use conflict as creative/critical thinking?  How do you and your colleague fit into this team?  Do you have roles?  Did the boss give you those roles or did they evolve?

Everyone has goals and motivation.  What are his goals?  (e.g. Is he trying to prove himself to the team?  Does he want a promotion?)  What does he think your goals are?  Why?

Everyone has assumptions.  What does he think about the department in Germany?  What does he think about working with Germans?  Why?  Based on those assumptions, is he positive, negative, or neutral about working with your team?  What are his assumptions about you?  Why?  What are your assumptions about him?  Does he feel them?

Everyone has pride.  Clearly, you are proud of your children.  You talked about them on the first day we met.  You are also proud of your intelligence (and you should be).  You seem to enjoy the mentor role.  Do you want to mentor him?  What is he proud of?  Why?

You don’t have to answer these questions in an email, we can discuss it.  But I would like you to think about these questions.  When we have an answer to these questions then we can work down to sentence level.

So, I hope we can work together on this and develop a solution.

By the end of the meeting we had identified several team and trust issues and dealt with ways to handle them.  We also discussed the word "just" with the continuous form to show intent.  To give this type of training we need to know about trust, team building, working in virtual teams, and the effect of personal goals on communication.

Linguistic Problem

Most of my learners are using English in virtual meetings with native speakers, India, and China.  Their biggest concern is comprehension.  In this case the problem has less to do with the set phrases in the meeting or even running effective meetings.  The answer here is in pronunciation and phonology.  To help ease the communication problem I laid out a plan to tackle accents and connected speech.  The group is B1 and they are within a comfortable discourse community and lexical set.

Step one was to introduce sentence stress and reduction in connected speech among native speakers.  Then I could approach syllable-timed and stress-timed languages.  Additionally, I could dive into Learner English to identify certain phonemes which might be causing problems.  Mixed with a healthy dose of authentic listening, we might just be able to crack this nut.

The plan got off to a rocky start.  I started with reviewing the pronunciation of weak auxiliaries and short forms.  This was okay, but when I took it a step further and showed them "h" dropping, they were resistant.  In fact, there was nearly outright revolt in the class as suddenly they believed that I was teaching them some laughable dialect of American English.  One woman went so far to say, "No, no... this is not right.  My British supplier speaks a very good English.  He does not do this."  But I know this exists!  Mark Hancock and Sylvie Donna said so!  And I have heard it often first hand.

Clearly more research on my part was necessary.  In the end I found the answer by digging deep into the linguistic research world.  It turns out that the answer is in German, not English.  In Modern German Pronunciation, Christoper Hall points out that reduction and assimilation is common in everyday German (which I knew from my own problems in my second language) but that it is also rarely used in formal contexts.  He states,

"English weak forms are dictated entirely by the stress and rhythm of the sentence and are completely unconnected with differences in style, in other words, weak forms in English are used even in very formal speech. ... The use of German weak forms, on the other hand, depends decisively on the pronunciation style... The general rule is that in formal pronunciation weak forms are less frequent..." (p 154)

So, here was the key to unlocking the comprehension issues in the virtual meetings.  First, I had to show them that weak forms do not affect image as in German.  Then we could deal with sentence stress.  Then the plan could continue.

These two examples show how our profession is not a one-or-the-other field.  Instead it is a balance between the two.  To fulfill our role and expectations, we must be able to balance these two influences.  If we feel ourselves uncomfortable within the skills area or relying too heavily on course book 'expertise' we need to improve our business communication competence and relevance.  On the other hand, if we find ourselves drifting too far into the flashy world of TED talks and intercultural negotiations, we need to pull back and rediscover our linguistic roots.  Striking the right balance is not easy for me, but my learners benefit greatly when I get it right.   



1 comment:

  1. Great post Charles. AS you´ve probably guessed I´m more in the "skills" field but your insight "I believe our purpose is to link these two fields (skills and linguistics)" is very sharp and resonated a lot with my own experiences.

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