Eleanor Johnston is an English-for-specific-purposes (ESP) teacher at the University for Sustainable Development Eberswalde – however, she has also taught French and German to secondary-school pupils, does (and continues to do) translation work, and even once led a debating team to national glory. Here are some questions ELTABB members had about her life and work…
Was there any difference teaching in all-girls schools from teaching in mixed schools?
Yes, I do think that there were and are significant differences. In Ireland, about a third of secondary schools are single sex due to the historically powerful influence of the Catholic Church on the education system. I taught in mixed schools in Ireland and France for less than a year overall, and in all-girls schools for five. I found that in mixed schools, boys often try to make the girls laugh – to impress them – and that often involves disrupting class in some way. As a result, I needed to spend more time and energy on classroom management there than in all-girls schools, where there generally tended to be more of an academic focus. In fact, it’s been proven that girls in single-sex schools achieve better academic results than their counterparts in coeducational schools. I also found that boys had less intrinsic motivation to learn foreign languages (particularly French) than girls, so it was key to motivate them in different ways, such as by including their interests whenever possible when designing or adapting materials for the classroom.
You arrived in Berlin in 2019. When and why did you join ELTABB?
It’s a funny story. The night I met my fiancé on a boat in Berlin, in July 2018, I also met Sarah Brown (former Chair of ELTABB). I didn’t know ELTABB existed back then, though. We kept in touch sporadically after that. I moved to Berlin in July 2019, and a year later, I completed the Celta course. Towards the end of the course, the organisers emphasised the importance of networking – particularly when it comes to securing teaching jobs – and told us about ELTABB. Some time later, I looked ELTABB up online and found out that point that Sarah was Chair of the association. I got back in touch with her, we met up, and she told me a bit about what the association did and how it might benefit me. I joined in November 2020, shortly after starting to teach in Eberswalde. The main reasons I did so were to meet other English teachers in the region, share ideas and resources, keep informed of continuous professional development opportunities and events, and generally be part of an educational community.
How does your translation experience inform your teaching?
I’ve never really thought about it. I tend to see the activities as distinct from one another. I’ve done a lot of proofreading in my time too. I suppose that working with two languages at this kind of detailed level generally gives you greater awareness of how language works and how languages differ from one another, and it’s a great exercise in terms of understanding what the L1 means and putting that in stylish English. And of course it gives you awareness of the kind of mistakes students may make when trying to translate from their mother tongue into English – but I don’t tend to make use of translation in my classes and actively discourage it.
Having said that, I did once work closely with a French teacher in Dublin who used translation in her classes. She would take a descriptive English text and have her students translate it into French in order to check their ability to understand and use different past tenses in French. It did make sense in that context. However, I don’t think this kind of approach necessarily works in a Business English or ESP context. I think a more communicative approach is required.
What kind of translation work have you done?
I’ve translated a lot of different kinds of texts over the years (from French or German into English). When I lived in France, I used to translate texts in fields related to areas of French industry – for example, tourist brochures, descriptions of cheeses and wines, directions for use of cosmetics, descriptions of dairy products, recipes, etc. I also worked as a freelance translator for another three years and worked in-house in a Berlin translation agency upon arriving here in 2019. The Berlin agency had a lot of Swiss clients, so there was a lot of marketing materials to be translated for chocolate and cheese brands. They also had a lot of banking clients, but we tended to outsource those projects to translators specialised in finance.
Some interesting projects I’ve worked on have included promotional articles about political figures in various African countries, a text about a whale conservation project off the Chilean coast, captions for photo exhibitions, the script for a trainer of an improv workshop, advertising slogans and even descriptions of sex toys! Nowadays, I don’t have as much time as I’d like to translate, but when I do, I prefer to take on projects that are directly related to the environment or sustainability.
What was being a debater like? What did you have to debate to win the championship?
It was a fantastic experience. I started debating in English at the age of 14. I can’t remember the motion of the first debate I was involved in, but it had to do with The Merchant of Venice, the play we were studying at the time. I remember feeling really nervous but getting a real rush from it.
In my final year, our German teacher told us about a German debating competition that the Goethe-Institut was organising. Four of us put ourselves forward as a team. We knew it would be really good for our pronunciation and help us develop public speaking skills. But it also activated our critical thinking skills and boosted our confidence no end. With the help of our German teacher and another language teacher (who happened to be my mother!), we spent many hours after school and at weekends preparing for each debate. Our hard work paid off, and we battled our way through five rounds to reach the national final, debating topics relating to the education system, the media, and Ireland more generally. The motion for the final, which we were proposing, was „Schönheit kommt von innen‟ (“Beauty comes from within”). It was a tough and close debate and we were delighted to win.
Does your debating experience influence your teaching style or classroom practices?
I’ve actually never thought about it that much, but I suppose that it has done at times. I remember working as a language assistant in France a few years after they had introduced the smoking ban in Ireland. It hadn’t been introduced in France at that stage, and I remember thinking it would be a great topic for a debate with the students. In the end, we ended up doing something much less formal – I made role cards for the students to play, making sure they would cover different points of view – and then asked them to have a free discussion on the topic, making sure they got into character.
I like to encourage and leave time for discussions in class, explore advantages and disadvantages, and focus on spoken language over written language. I think that certain areas of language learning involve similar skills to those required of a debater, even at the level of pronunciation and diction.
When you think of something like negotiating, for example, it involves using persuasive language to convince the other person of your argument. Of course, you need to be able to anticipate what they are going to say too, and offer counter arguments, the same way you need to prepare a rebuttal in a debate.
What are the differences between teaching in a school and teaching business English?
I think the main differences are shaped by the context. In a school you have a syllabus that is set out by the Department of Education, and at the end of the day, there is a specific form of assessment for each subject. You are still free to a certain extent to choose your own methods and resources. The groups I taught were large (25-30 students). It was important to have fixed routines in the classroom to establish a sense of purpose and order, and for pupils to feel comfortable and happy in class. I would frequently use games and music in my lessons, particularly to motivate younger learners.
I think that Business English is different from that in so far as each context is different and most learners are adults. You need to get to know your students and what they need to be able to do with English (needs analysis). Depending on the situation, you might have students who have not yet worked in business and/or those who have experience of the working world. So I think you need to adapt your approach as you learn more about your students and decide whether you’re going to focus on English for doing business, for talking about business, or a mix of both.
What do your business English clients want to get out of their lessons?
I don’t have any private Business English clients – I teach third-level students at the University for Sustainable Development. There is a large emphasis on sustainable business and we try to include this angle whenever possible. I think that apart from this, the students want a combination of things. It’s the faculty in question that gives teachers a list of topics and techniques they would like to see used in class. This includes things like case studies, role plays and discussions on general business topics. On the other hand, the students realise the importance of writing and good grammar, and they want us to focus on teaching this too. And they really want to improve their speaking and presentation skills. They want to speak as much as possible, so this involves them doing a lot of pair and group work while I act more as a facilitator than a teacher.
Do you find your teaching methods vary based on the specific language you teach?
Well, I find that it varies depending on the learners and the context. You need to tailor your methods and resources to your students. I taught French and German to secondary-school students (aged 13-18), whereas now I’m teaching young adults (aged 18-28, approx.). I used to teach large groups of up to 30 students, sometimes even more – now I have only around 10 in a class. With the younger students, particularly those in their early teens, it was their first exposure to a foreign language, and it was important to keep the students motivated and engaged and to make the lessons fun, whether that was through games, music, kinesthetic learning, etc. But the same would probably be true of a teacher in France or Germany teaching English to a similar age group. I don’t think it’s language-dependent.
I think that my English teaching here in Germany is much more goal-oriented, whereas teaching French and German in schools was more about the learning process. For my Business English class, for example, I considered what the students should be able to do by the end of the course – email writing, negotiating, small talk, sales pitches, presentations, etc. – and planned a course and methods around that.
How important is it to know the L1 of your students? (And is this the same for business- and general- English and English-for-specific purposes)?
I think it can be both a help and a hindrance. On the one hand, it’s an advantage because you have greater awareness of the typical mistakes students will make, even at a micro level, such as why they are putting commas in the wrong place. It means that to a certain extent, you can anticipate the problems they’re going to have with a certain task.
On the other hand, when you know the learners’ L1, it can be tempting to use translation when explaining the meaning of a word. And students can get a bit lazy and ask you how to translate a German phrase into English and vice versa. In my opinion, it’s better to strive for maximum use of English to get meaning across, whether that’s through the use of drawing, mime, pictures, etc. I try to do that in my Business English class. However, in my ESP class (English for Agriculture and Conservation), this isn’t always possible, as certain concepts can be more difficult to explain in a simpler way that remains scientifically correct. Because my students often know more than me in these fields, I tend to ask individuals to explain concepts in English in their own words. I also encourage the use of (monolingual and bilingual) dictionaries.