Eltabber of the month: Carol McGuigan

1. Question from Nick: Which issues are most frequently cited by Business English students as being most problematic for them?

It used to be grammar that students would agonise about, although their inaccuracies rarely impeded communication. Now, increasingly, I’m hearing about difficulties understanding accented English from business partners, sometimes non-native speakers – Indian, Spanish and Chinese for instance – but also American and British. The remedy, as with other areas, is practice. Students can assume nothing can be achieved by repeat listening whereas the opposite is true. Finding footage of presentations or teleconference recordings on company intranets makes this easier or choosing the closest approximation on YouTube. Students are pleasantly surprised that even after a second listen, pronunciation and quirks of delivery become much clearer. Listening tunes the ear, especially when it’s authentic material.

2. How is working full time for a language school different to freelancing? Which do you prefer?

Working full-time can be physically and mentally demanding, with up to four classes a day in different parts of the city and you can’t really choose where and when. But the great advantage is the support infrastructure; all organisational factors are taken care of. Plus of course, one has the kinds of employment benefits that any contracted position brings. Freelance work is self-directed but intrinsically precarious. Both have their pluses and minuses.

3. Do you find there is a big difference between teaching ESOL and EFL, and hence teaching in the UK vs Germany?

The major difference is, of course, having a L1 in common or not. In Britain, most of the ESOL classes I taught were multilingual (students from Poland, China, Ukraine, Italy, Iran all in one group for example). Here, the overwhelming majority of my students are German. This can be an advantage in that they can help each other find linguistic equivalents, similarities and differences in the languages that can aid each other’s learning. In the UK, students are immersed in English language and culture. The need is immediate and all-encompassing, the opportunities to practise all around them. Here students often lament they have only our 90-minute lesson, despite the ubiquity of English in Berlin. I’d say people in ESOL classes often have a starker necessity. Things like local dialect can also feature in lessons, whereas EFL is primarily focused on a notion of standard English.

4. What are some of your favourite activities to develop a student’s voice in English?

This is a tricky one. Most non-actors become inhibited and self-conscious if you draw too much attention to how they’re speaking rather than what they’re saying. So this is best done in the context of a need and skill, such as presentations or moderating a discussion for instance. Getting students to slow down and employ silence strategically, getting them to become interested in the sounds of words, to enjoy the power of intonation and emphasis. Getting them to realise they have a palette of sound rather than just a text to memorise.

5. Lots of research suggests that you can’t understand a culture until you speak the language, or vice versa, but many of our students are using their English in ELF situations. Considering this, what role does culture play in your different teaching contexts and classes?

There is a difference between using a language within a native speaking culture and using it as a tool to facilitate global business. There’s a tendency to streamline in the latter. Having said that, students themselves are often eager to know more from me about Britain, learn idioms, etc. I think they find it an opportunity to enrich themselves and I’m sure it happens likewise to US, Australian, Irish teachers and so on. Germans also enjoy the historical connections the languages have, spotting common roots. There are also cultures within cultures that sometimes throw up interesting contrasts. I had a student at the DGB who was disconcerted by the way the leader of the TUC (their British equivalent) addressed the delegates of their annual Congress as “Dear Comrades” in the transcript of the speech we were looking at. It was more of a problematic word for her, historically.

6. You mentioned global understanding, how can we as EFL teachers help promote global understanding? Any tips?

Any language learning means you are stepping outside the frame you grew up with and having to encounter a different way of seeing and describing the world. It’s intrinsically illuminating, a step in the direction of interconnectedness as opposed to ignorance and suspicion. We’re all already fostering that. That’s the tip, keep doing it.

7. Do you use any techniques from your acting career in your classes?

I guess I have a lot of experience of what performers call “working the room”, drawing attention, directing energy and keeping an awareness of the collective dynamic. Being attuned to mood and interpreting character helps when working with different personalities. The older word for actor is player and I think playing is key to learning and discovery. Being playful with serious intent.

8. And as in question 7, what about techniques from being a lecturer in creative writing?

I would say this relates to confidence and risk-taking. Writing and speaking are productive skills and students of both disciplines can get frozen by fear of failure. I had creative writing students who were scathing about their first attempts because they weren’t “as good as” an author they most admired, which is like expecting to be Mozart in your first month of piano lessons. Encouragement to keep going and to trust the power of practice is my response in all cases, that mistakes are part of the process and that more proficient users can be analysed and learned from as opposed to being held up as impossible role models. At the same time, discovering your own strengths is important, making whatever you’re best at work for you.

9. Do you have any tips on how we encourage our students to develop and explore their identities when speaking and learning EFL?

This relates perhaps to the end of the answer above. A reserved, concise speaker in their native language isn’t going to become a chatty extrovert in English but they can be coached to explore and find their most effective communication style in the language. Sometimes students want to do it their way and resist the standard phrases, others want to sound as close to native speaker style as possible. There’s always a tension between moulding and allowing idiosyncrasy.

10. Who would you like to nominate as Eltabber of the month and what question would you like to ask them?

If he hasn’t been chosen already – Paul Hewitson. Question: What kinds of things have your students taught you?

Edited by Mandy Welfare