Using The Economist’s covers to teach idiomatic language

Business English activity

The Economist, that venerable magazine that so many of my learners swear by and in all probability have never read. The Economist tends to have really creative covers with interesting allusions and clever word play. Here’s an activity that’s perfect for business contexts that exploits these covers to explore idiomatic language, practise speaking, and doesn’t require learners to dive into those sometimes dense articles.


Materials

You’ll need covers from the Economist and you can get them for current and previous issues from this site.  You could then either display it on a slide or print it out or as I prefer, take the print copies of the magazine in (but of course you’ll need a subscription for that).

Preparation 

You’ll find a variety of of interesting language features on the covers including idioms, allusions, word play, metaphors, and tongue in cheek subverting of all of these.  Choose ones that are appropriate for your learners. For some of the writing courses I teach on business thought leadership, I focus on covers that use allusions and metaphors. But the ones in this post are for exploring idiomatic language.

Procedure

  • Get learners into small groups and distribute the covers to them.
  • There are several ways of doing this. You could give each group all the covers you’ve selected or have each group look at the same cover and discuss it before moving on to the next one or you could do it like a jigsaw task and assign a different cover to each group. You could also assign the covers using slides without physically distributing any printouts.

The activity has four steps:

  • Step 1: Ask groups to guess the idiom being referenced by the cover image and text and what it might mean.
  • Step 2: Give groups the idiomatic language but with gaps such as “Paper ______” and then get learners to match the idiom to the cover.
  • Step 3: Ask learners to use the frame “The Economist claim(s) that _______________ + [idiomatic expression] because …” and complete it with what they think the Economist might be saying. For example, “The Economist claim(s) that India under Prime Minister Modi is a paper tiger because …”
  • Step 4: Ask groups to discuss what they  know about the subject and if they know enough about it, whether they agree or disagree with The Economist’s perspective.

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Key

  1. Paper tiger: something that seems very strong and threatening but is actually weak and ineffectual.
  2. To walk on water: to perform superhuman feats (this one’s also a Biblical allusion).
  3. To dig yourself into a hole: to get yourself into a difficult situation.
  4. Keep your fingers crossed: hope that things will go well or the way you want them to.
  5. A long and winding road: a complicated and difficult future path (strictly speaking, this might be a fixed expression but still useful for learners)
  6. This could either be “to go the way of the dinosaur” (not a frequently heard idiom) or “to be a dinosaur” in the sense of “your phone is a bit of dinosaur” but both refer to something that’s become outdated or past its prime.

How dare you tergiversate! | The problem with power words

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Many of the professionals I teach have a perception that their American colleagues and clients have access to vocabulary that is more ‘powerful’ than theirs. One of them recently showed me this book – Power Verbs for Managers and Executives which includes eccentric entries such as tergiversate, the goose hangs high (how is that a verb), and topline (as a verb, really?). All this, mind you, from just one page.

There’s a whole genre of self-help books, usually from the US, ostensibly written to enhance an individual’s ‘lexical prowess’. Power words, however, seem to be a thing. I just googled the term and it seems to be commonly used across sales, marketing, and even blogging. There are glossaries of decontextualised power words prescribed for all sorts of situations.

These books and word lists are designed for proficient users of English and I suspect they’re not of much use to them either. In the hands of a less proficient speaker or writer, a power word has the potential to do some serious damage in a business context because the user is probably not familiar with its register, appropriacy and less critically the collocations it appears in.

Does pragmatics have an explanation for why perceptions of words differ in how they are received by readers and listeners? Do power words have any basis in research? I’m simultaneously irritated and intrigued by the whole idea and it’s something I’m going to be exploring.

How to write corporate training materials | Book review

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Title: How to write corporate training materials

Authors: Evan Frendo

Publisher: ELT Teacher 2 Writer | Smashwords edition

Year of publication: 2014

Companion resources: NA

Source: Complimentary ebook from the author

A couple of years ago, I met a teacher (let’s call her Meera) at a conference who’d been working with tertiary institutions on a freelance basis. Meera wanted to get into corporate training and was wondering if she could partner with me on a project. I didn’t really have anything for her at the time but a few months later I found myself on the phone with a client who desperately wanted a bespoke solution rolled out for an urgent need. My schedule was chock-a-block at the time and I didn’t have the bandwidth (as we say in corporate circles) to design the materials and deploy someone else to teach the course. So I asked them to take things forward with Meera (who I judged as fairly competent), which they did.

Little did I realise that I’d done them both a great injustice. Meera was utterly unprepared for the engagement and the client had assumed that she was on the ball because I’d recommended her. I know we often bandy about the bland encouragement to General English teachers that Business English and ESP courses don’t require them to be experts in business, management or a particular industry and that their expertise in language will help them sail through. I’m afraid it’s a claim that’s simultaneously true and false.

The uninitiated teacher or trainer risks missing the forest for the trees. Meera apparently did an intensive needs analysis but her focus was very narrow and the sorts of information she collected caused her churn out or select run of the mill language exercises with token nods to the business setting.  Her materials were completely divorced from the context that her learners worked in and required language for and the specific need that she had been called in to address.

Knowing what to look for and how to feed these insights into materials-design comes with experience, and it helps if you’ve spent time with a corporate setup in a business/operational role i.e., not training or teaching. In the absence of that kind of experience, Frendo’s How to write corporate training materials could be a useful primer.

A key strength of this book is the extent to which it aligns practices to what typically happens within organisations. The idea that we should “investigate discourse practices” instead of merely collecting language needs, strikes a chord with me. Beyond educating the practitioner about process and projects, and SOPs and SIPOC charts, Frendo offers a series of incisive tasks that raise awareness of language, strategies and issues we ought to consider when developing corporate training materials.

My favourites include task 6 which draws on research by Williams (1998) comparing the language prescribed by coursebooks for functions within meetings with actual usage.

Agreeing

Examples from contemporary textbooks:

  • You’ve got a point there.
  • I totally agree with you.
  • Absolutely. / Precisely. / Exactly.

Examples from real-life business meetings:

  • Mmm
  • implied by the function ‘accept (e.g., yes)
  • implied by not disagreeing
  • nods

Frendo goes on to state:

It is easy to see why St John described business English as ‘a material-led movement rather than a research-led movement’ (p15). It is writer’s intuition, rather than what we know about discourse, which has been leading the way. And many commentators feel that not much has changed since that article was written.

There are also several transcript-based tasks that draw attention to features of Business English as a Lingua Franca (BELF) including “code-switching, ellipsis, silence, incomplete utterances, repetition, deviation from ‘standard’ English” all of which Frendo suggests as worth exploring in the training room.

I found the section on techniques for gathering this kind of evidence interesting. There were some that I was familiar with such as language snippets, recordings, corpus analysis, work shadowing and questionnaires and others that I’ve never actually used such as simulated conversations and anecdote circles (sort of like an FGD but more informal).

Task 11 is another interesting one. It asks the reader to analyse an annual report and identify authentic texts that could be used for different roles and needs. I wonder how many Business English trainers have actually read an annual report.

There are also case studies of training projects Frendo has worked on and the solutions he facilitated. Again, we see a strong integration of what actually happens in organizations such as scrum meetings and how this might unfold in a training programme.

How to write corporate training materials is a useful compilation of practices for someone who is making the transition from General English to Business English/ESP and it’s particularly relevant to those who are working as independent consultants. However, it’s also full of insights for practitioners who have been consulting in corporate contexts for a while because it questions some of our practices, especially when we rely on intuition, rather than observation and research to inform our design.

You can purchase the book from Amazon as a direct download or through the Kindle and you can read more about Frendo’s work at his site.

Jigsaw caselet | A QR code activity

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My learners often get bored with traditional text-based case studies. Presenting it as a jigsaw task explored using QR codes is one way of making it more engaging.


Objectives

  • Transform staid case studies into active, jigsaw tasks

Materials

  • Printed QR codes which you can stick around your classroom using Blu-tac or similar
  • Focus questions
  • Learners will need to have downloaded a QR code reader on their smartphones

Prep

  • Select a case study that you can condense into a caselet narrated preferably from different perspectives. For example, if the caselet involves a manager and her team member, chunk it so you have 4 bits of information from the manager’s side and four from her team members. Eight is a good number in terms of chunks for this exercise.
  • Copy-paste each chunk into a QR generator (I like using QRstuff). Select plain text from the panel on the left and paste the text into field. Download the QR code that’s generated.
  • Print the QR codes. I prefer to use coloured paper so they’re easier for learners to find.
  • Prepare some focus questions that learners will answer incrementally at they uncover the text in the QR codes.
  • Stick the QR codes randomly around the classroom.

Procedure

  • Signpost your focus questions and tell learners that the answers are hidden within the QR codes posted around the room.
  • Learners work in pairs to scan the QR codes and analyse bits of the caselet.
  • They need to answer a question after scanning and reading an odd number of QR codes (for example after the first QR code, the third one, the fifth one, and the seventh one). Make sure they write their answers down.

Debrief

  • Ask learners to share their reaction to the caselet. How did their perception of the issue change as they uncovered the perspectives of the people involved and got a fuller picture?
  • How do the different ‘agents’ feel?
  • How might this relate to their own work?
  • Get learners to discuss other context-specific questions based on the caselet.

Example

The caselet I’ve used is adapted from Bob Dignen’s session on Leading International Projects at the recent BESIG Annual Conference in Munich.

Focus questions

  • After scanning one QR code: What do you think is happening?
  • After scanning three QR codes: Who is at fault? Why?
  • After scanning five QR codes: What should be done to resolve the issue?
  • After scanning seven QR codes: How could this situation have been avoided?

Image attribution: QR_Code_in_HandCropped by @GwynethJones -The Daring Librarian!  | Flickr | CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Facilitating the development of a credible business-like persona | Conference talk summary

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This was one of the simulcast talks from day one of the IATEFL BESIG 2016 annual conference in Munich. The speaker, Sylvie Donna, happened to headline my Delta Module 3 submission and why ever not – she’s so eminently quotable with respect to all things BE.

Her session yesterday was really rich and full of recommendations that some might frown at or find controversial. Donna argued that just as different business people have different business personas, we ought to help our learners develop an appropriate English-speaking personality. She asserted that our personalities differ when we shift between languages, providing her own example of how she exhibits varying behaviours and personality attributes in Japanese, English, German and French.

I know it seems a bit wacky but to her credit, she did support what she was saying with research. She suggested that there are prosodic differences between speakers (intonation, stress, rhythm, tone of voice, use of silence) and word choice; and that perhaps learners of English haven’t thought through how the use of these attributes in English may lead them to be perceived. Donna correlated this with what Silvana Richardson spoke about when she said that the goal was no longer near-native competence but pluralingual identity.

Some of the examples she presented of high competency learners being unaware of their persona in English included a Japanese student who spoke too directly only using simple forms such as imperatives; a German student who used ‘like’ far too frequently; and a Korean student who reckoned he’d developed an American persona but was actually completely unintelligible.

I think what Donna is proposing isn’t that learners ought to change their personality when using English. In fact, she presented research that she was horrified about where Chinese learners seemed to think that acquiring English required them to acquire a new culture and personality. She’s suggesting that learners may subconsciously project a very different persona in English as opposed to L1 and they may unaware of the unintended consequences of this persona.

In terms of how this could happen, Donna recommends a focus on the length of utterances, the use of lexis (level of formality, choice of words associated with specific socio-cultural groups) and features such as comment clauses, interjections and tag questions.

She also shared some awareness raising activities:

Activity 1: Visualisation

Visualise three people:

  1. one you think is similar to you
  2. one who is different in a good way
  3. one who is very different in a bad way

How does each person speak?

Follow up: Find an audio or video clip of each person

Activity 2: Word-association

Think of a situation for each phrase. Role play mini-dialogue for some or all the phrases:

  • perennial problem
  • absolutely wicked
  • you ain’t seen nothing yet
  • considering this from another point of view
  • I need to know
  • Would you consider

How does your accent or intonation change each time? What about other prosodic features (volume, pitch, speed of delivery)

Activity 3: Draw some pictures

  • the person you were when you were 13
  • the person you were at 21
  • the person you are now

Add some words and ideas in a mindmap of how you used to speak at these ages

Activity 4: Linguistic analysis

Record clips from a few soap operas/comedy series/films

Identify some of the key linguistic features. Look for:

  • prosodic features
  • body language
  • level of formality of the words
  • standard or non-standard forms used (slang, dialect?)
  • use of comment clauses (you know) or fillers (er, like)
  • sentence length

Activity 5: Sorry wasn’t paying attention for this one

Activity 6: Mindmap in L1

Draw a mindmap/diagram representing yourself.

  • Is there anything you would feel embarrassed to say?
  • Is there any language you would definitely not use?
  • How do you feel about swearing?
  • How do you feel about using slang or very colloquial language?
  • How do you feel about using language associated with a particular region or variety of English (not dialect)?
  • What impression do you want to make when you speak?

Activity 7: Vocabulary notebook

  • How do business associates you admire speak? (Record specific instances of remembered or observed speech)
  • How do they ‘do’ small talk?
  • How do they negotiate? Which specific phrases do they use?
  • How do they write emails? Keep some examples in a folder.
  • Review the notebook before meeting anyone or emailing.
  • Add to the notebook on an ongoing basis.

While I don’t think this concept is completely there yet, Donna is definitely on to something. Several years ago, I was asked to work with an Indian manager whose boss felt he was not very effective when presenting to and speaking with senior stakeholders from the US. Having worked with him over a few months, I knew the issue wasn’t language. It was something else that I couldn’t articulate at the time. I often found myself focusing on prosodic features while coaching him although in my mind I was thinking that this might have been snake oil because what he needed was to be perceived as more dynamic and engaging. I have experienced similar situations with others as well. I have also recommended activity 7 to my learners although I’m not sure how many of them have ever followed through on it.

Lots of food for thought in this talk. If you’re unfamiliar with Sylvie Donna, you might want to look up her seminal book on Business English.

 

English as Business Gobbledygook (EBG) | A comic strip activity

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If had a dollar for every time my business participants said “deep dive”, I’d probably be able to retire from teaching and open up a boutique selling bromeliads in the Andamans. This activity is inspired by a Fast Company article with the finger-wagging title, You’re using business jargon to avoid solving problems – here’s how to stop. In the article, the author articulates the following message:

Jargon … usually prevents you from seeing problems clearly, let alone deconstructing them.

 


Objective 

  • Develop an awareness of the overuse of corporate buzzwords and their potential impact.

Materials 

  • You’ll need printouts of the comic strip below. Eco-friendly options including projecting it so that the whole class reads it on the screen or sending it as a JPEG over Whatsapp or Snapchat so participants read it on their own devices or hosting it online and sharing a link.

Procedure 

  • Ask the participants if they know what buzzwords are. Give the participants an example of a buzzword you tend to use very often at work. For example, I sometimes catch myself using ‘leverage’ as a verb (quite a controversial usage).
  • Get participants to work in pairs and create a word cloud of business buzzwords they use frequently.
  • Introduce the comic strip. Use any prediction exercise to help participants to anticipate content such as “Here’s a comic strip about a gang of four super heroes – what do you think they are discussing?” OR “Here’s a comic strip where four people are discussing their brand – what kind of people are they?” OR more contextually “Which of the buzzwords from your word cloud might appear in this comic strip?”
  • Participants read the comic strip and validate predictions.
  • Ask them to review it again, underlining any buzzwords. Pair share.
  • Ask participants to identify the superhero who uses a lot of buzz words. Elicit that it’s the woman with the goggles on her head.
  • Get participants to discuss why she might be using so many buzz words and what the impact is on other people and the discussion.

Debrief

  • Ask participants to read and discuss this quote from the Fast Company article. Do they agree with the statement?  When do they use buzzwords most often?

We tend to fall back on corporate buzzwords when we feel a need to demonstrate we’re in control. Of course, we do that most often when we don’t feel in control, and jargon ends up communicating the opposite: ironically enough, its hallmark is the lack of resolution that vocabulary conveys, not its clarity.

Ted Leonhardt

Action planning 

  • Have participants discuss their responses to the following questions:
    • When might it be okay to use buzzwords in your business conversations?
    • Would you like to cut down on or eliminate the use of any buzzwords? Which ones and why?

Variation 

  • You could run a similar exercise for a group of teachers using ELT jargon and learning buzzwords.

References

The comic strip was created using Comic Master

This is crap | An intercultural competence activity

This activity is based on an article by Erin Meyer titled How to say “this is crap” in different cultures. Meyer recycles some material from an old Internet meme about British-Dutch cultural differences. Nevertheless, it demonstrates differences in how people convey feedback linguistically quite well.

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Image attribution: Meeting by Howard Jefferson | Flickr | CC BY-NC 2.0

Objective 

Raise awareness of the cultural gap caused by direct vs. indirect approaches to giving feedback  and allow learners an opportunity to discuss ways of mitigating risks arising from these differences

Materials

Make copies of and cut up the table titled ‘Anglo-Dutch Translation Guide’ in this article. You don’t need to use the entire table as participants might take too long to unjumble it. Select four rows that your learners might find interesting.

Procedure

  • Board the phrase “this is absolute crap” and ask participants if they would ever use this phrase while giving feedback to a colleague about some work they’ve done. Ask them to discuss the reasons for their response with a partner.
  • As you take whole class feedback, you’ll find some participants articulating a softer response such as “this is sort of what I was looking for”. Board these.
  • Derive that some cultures are more explicit or direct in communicating feedback.
    • Upgraders: These direct cultures tend to use upgraders such as absolutely, strongly, or totally before negative feedback to strengthen it such as “This is absolutely inappropriate”. In these cultures, “this is absolute crap” may be perceived as acceptable.
  • Point out that other cultures are more implicit or indirect as perhaps with the utterances shared by the participants for softening the message.
    • Downgraders: These indirect cultures tend to use downgraders such as kind of, sort of, a little, a bit, maybe and slightly to soften the blow. They might also use a type of downgrader called an understatement such as “We are not quite there yet”.
  • Ask participants to categorize some national cultures based on whether they are relatively direct or indirect (bear in mind that indirect cultures like India often perceive themselves as more or less direct).
  • Board participants’ suggestions and circle the UK & the Netherlands.
  • Signpost the cutouts and state that the cutouts belong under three headers: What the British say, What the British mean, and What the Dutch understand. Ask participants to work in groups to put them in the right categories.
  • Get participants to identify the gap between what is being said/meant and what is understood and the problems this might create.

Action planning

  • Ask participants to think about the kind of culture they come from – indirect/direct – and consider their own personal orientation to giving feedback. Do they use upgraders or downgraders?
  • Have them imagine a situation where they are working with someone who has a different preference to feedback than them, what could they do to ensure that they are not misunderstood or don’t end up damaging the business relationship.

Reference: Meyer, E., How To Say “This Is Crap” In Different Cultures in the Harvard Business Review, Feb 2014.