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:
- one you think is similar to you
- one who is different in a good way
- 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.