Eltabber of the month: Nick Munby

1. Question from Phoebe: How do you bring your theatre background into the classroom?

Maybe a bunch of micro-teaching skills: giving instructions, using your voice (presentations, lectures), improvising, an interest in lesson structures as storylines. Maybe, showing off? Seriously, if you’ve never come across Keith Johnstone (Impro from Methuen), there’s a lot to learn from some of his theatre training exercises, particularly in relation to the strange ability humans have to produce sentences they haven’t planned consciously – you know, “I never know what I think till I hear what I say.”

2. You’ve done training all over the world. Is there a particular place or class that is particularly memorable? How so?

A huge number of places and classes (almost always wonderful), and moments (good, bad and bizarre). I loved the way Turin violated all my stereotypes about FIAT city and Italian drivers (a huge elegant central area of 19th century colonnades through which cautious drivers move at 20kph). A 30-hour door to door sequence of three flights to China with two 6 hour stopovers, arriving to teach a group of university professors who wanted to be lectured on how to train EMI teachers (clue – not by lecturing). In a different country, learning 10 minutes before an EMI class started that one of the participants was the last Minister of Education.

In Germany I immensely enjoy working with Hochschule lecturers on EMI because they are fantastically motivated and extremely creative. As are my classes of Mechanical Engineers at the HWR, Berlin.

3. I really want to use more role plays in my Business English classes, but I’m not always successful at getting my learners to do them. Any tips you can give to help them relax and get into their roles?

A lot of people feel self-conscious about the idea of acting – being someone else (what I would call role play). It’s often easier to use Case Studies – here I mean a story line where participants are themselves but tackle fictitious situations. That’s one level of pretense removed.

There are other approaches which invite storylines or situations from the students themselves, where they are invited to play out contradictions or resolve problems. A good source of ideas here is the idea of Forum theatre as practised by and written about by the Brazilian theatre worker Augusto Boal (See Games for Actors and Non-actors, published by Routledge)

4. Given all the changes you’ve likely seen in the ELT world since you first started, what would be your advice to someone looking to build their career in ELT?

The ELT world is enormous and varied so it’s a bit risky generalising from one’s own experience. Although I’ve visited and worked in a lot of countries in Europe, Central America and Asia, I’ve lived only in Germany and even just here the changes have been dramatic.

It’s an economically precarious existence so I think a smart tactic is to accept every offer you get to when you’re starting out, then cut ties with situations which turn out to be exploitative or lack pedagogical support. You can only benefit from teaching in as many different situations as possible. You won’t know initially whether you like low or high level, group or 1 to 1, business or academic.

Later on you need to decide if you see any very meaningful distinction between the terms teaching, training and coaching (if so, act on it, if not, just keep trying new things out) and to consider whether you are attracted to teaching or teacher training. I’d be the last person I’d ask for career advice; a lot of opportunities seem to just present themselves. But I doubt you’d make much of them if you weren’t passionately interested in language, how we learn it, what we use it for and what its smartest features are.

5. You mentioned you teach EMI (English as a medium of instruction). What are the main challenges you face when teaching the teachers?

There’s a generic challenge with seminars. The course I run is 5 days, 7 hours a day, and that’s a lot of time for a professor or lecturer to dedicate, so they tend to make up their minds as to whether you are worth the effort in the first half hour, which means you haven’t much time to demonstrate a sufficient degree of gravitas (or levitas – Mark Powell’s joke, not mine).

Most teachers at tertiary level haven’t been trained as teachers so the focus is on encouraging them to introduce an interactive dynamic in their classes rather than just feeding information from the front, and this is of course vital because of the risk of miscommunication when a lecturer is using their L2 to speak to an audience with often different L1s. However, most of the students who arrive on my course elect to do so and they are almost all really open to different teaching tactics.

There is an obvious risk that a group of highly qualified theoretical physicists, anthropologists, theologists etc. may suspect that they know rather more about their subjects than I do, so the trick is to make it clear that I am responsible for assisting with the way the information is transferred, the eliciting and checking, and not the information itself.

6. Do you see the need for an EMI certificate (like the CELTA or DELTA for EMI)? Or is there one in the pipeline?

I believe there are several initiatives but they vary country to country. In Ukraine, for example, the British Council has been running a huge teacher training programme for secondary and tertiary level, and they use a cascading system whereby some of the students coming off EMI courses train up as trainers.

However, the expansion of EMI is so fast and the language level of the lecturers who are invited/instructed to teach in English in different countries is so varied that I can’t see any possibility or desirability for any kind of internationally recognised qualification. It’s far too early to see what will happen. Much of the process is an experiment, with all kinds of unanswered questions waiting to be resolved: Does EMI slow down the subject learning? How should it be assessed? Does it imply adjusted syllabi? Is EMI some kind of post-colonial outreach programme?

7. You’ve taught all over Europe, have you experienced any intercultural differences while teaching be it amongst the students or the location?

Both differences and similarities. There are so many more interesting groupings than national or even religious ones. Economically empowered or disempowered, for instance.

8. Having worked in several countries, how important is it to include intercultural competence training in your classes?

Gestures, signs, symbols, behaviours obviously vary geographically in the sense that they are signs with an arbitrary significance like a language, so that’s relatively factual. But I think that one of the most important things we use language for is to negotiate what we see as important values. And we do that within every macro or micro culture. Interesting as Hofstede and others are in suggesting areas of variance, I’m more interested in what works and what doesn’t work in terms of communication. When you think carefully about how language works, you are obliged to consider its, and your own, implicit assumptions, because unobserved assumptions are often what lead to miscommunication.

9. You mentioned you’ve taught in company for over 25 years, what changes have you seen in the needs of the students and the way business English is being taught?

When I first arrived in Berlin in 1994, a great number of business courses were with low-level students since many of them had grown up in the DDR and learned Russian rather than English. Nowadays, I rarely meet students of the Dual Studium programme at the Hochschule where I teach, on in-company courses or anywhere that are less than a high B1, and many are C2, which may suggest that language teaching in German schools has developed, as well as reflecting the increasing number of students that have lived or studied in English-speaking countries. Higher level language speakers need higher level cognitive tasks and an increased awareness of of all the meta-linguistic tactics that language deploys.

Do you know, I’m not sure Business English is a very helpful category.

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

Carol McGuigan. Which issues are most frequently cited by Business English students as being most problematic for them?

Contact: nmunby@gmail.com

Edited by Mandy Welfare