English for the workplace – looking for new answers – Evan Frendo (IATEFL Harrogate 2023 plenary summary)

These are my notes from this plenary. If you notice any problems, please let me know! They are one of a number of posts from this year’s IATEFL conference, all of which you can find by clicking here.

Evan’s opening plenary was inspired by Einstein. He set a test one year, and somebody pointed out to him that he had set the same test as the previous year. Einstein replied: Yes, it’s the same test, but the answers are different.

In 1914, there was an English school at the Henry Ford factories to cater for immigrant workers there. There was something called the ‘Melting pot’ – they entered it in their national costume, changed clothes in the melting pot, and left in American clothes waving and American flag.

What is English for the workplace?

Evan has been working in Maritime English for a quite a few years now, among other areas. Maritime English is a huge area – at any one time there are 50,000-60,000 ships at sea carrying cargo. There are not many people on the ships, but there’s also a huge industry behind the ships – building the ships, running them etc.

He’s been working in the Vessel Traffic Service (VTS), which is a bit like air traffic control but for ships. They built up a huge corpus of radio conversations to analyse and find miscommunications to be able to train people better in the future. Here’s an example:

When we heard the recording, it was quite challenging to understand. VTS people never know what accent will come at them. There’s a range of different levels of English. These are users of English, using it as lingua Franca to get the job done, not learners of English. It’s very context-specific and situation-specific. English in the Workplace is always context-specific – real people, real money, real stress, not like in the coursebooks!

Routine conversations with anchoring are below. Many of these are non-standard from an English teaching perspective. They work, and nobody worries about it, but it probably wouldn’t pass one of our exams! Once you get into the workplace, the criteria for success are very different: much more performance-based than we might want to / be able to test for.

Other jobs aboard a vessel: the crew might be from all over the world. Not everybody is university educated, not everybody has good English competence, but they still have to communicate and be able to do their job!

Here’s a great example of a research paper title, but based on a real quote:

Construction is an industry where mistakes with English can kill people. It’s very important.

‘Language brokering’ – for example, the children learn the language of a country, but the parents can’t speak it, so children come along to do the translation. On construction sites, you might design a team so that there is one ‘language broker’ can translate for the rest of the team.

When you work in ESP, you discover there’s a lot of specialist terminology.

‘Earnings calls’ are something you can listen to for financial English. Lots of them are available to listen to on the internet. Here’s an example from a corpus:

Sometimes you can see examples of how words take on specialist meanings in the workplace. Communities start using English in specific ways, for example ‘color’ in the image above.

Here’s an international meeting with examples of ‘non-standard’ English:

None of this stops communication, but it wouldn’t be successful in exams.

This compares to ‘native speaker’ English, people who think the meeting is in ‘their’ language. They use language at a different speed, and they also need training in how to speak international English:

Some problems people have in meetings:

– Native speakers always win. But implementation issue will be for non-native speakers.

  • I cannot understand the instructions.
  • I have become one crazy lady from Asia.

BELF: English as a business language Franca

‘Conformity with standard English is seen as a fairly irrelevant concept’

‘I don’t actually care whether something is correct or incorrect. As long as the meaning is not distorted’

‘BELF is perceived as an enabling resource to get the work done. Since it is highly context-bound and situation-specific, it is a moving target defying detailed linguistic description’ (p129, Kankaanranta, A., Louhiala-Salminen, L. And Karhunen, P.)

How have we traditionally approached teaching workplace English?

This is structured, top-down, and assumes the teacher is an expert. In a university class, the students expect the teacher to know what they’re going to do.

What do we mean by ‘proficiency’?

CEFR (2020) – ‘proficiency’ encompasses the ability to perform communicative language activities (‘can do…’)

But how much does this proficiency relate to actual job performance?

Here’s an example from the aviation industry:

It reminds us to ask ‘Are we actually focussing on the right things?

The ground-breaking Occupational English Test isn’t based on linguistic criteria alone. It has both linguistic criteria and clinical communication criteria, set up by people from within the industry. This sort of test is now attracting a lot of attention in the workplace.

Big standardised tests still have their place about talking about English levels, but they don’t tell us whether they have the English they need to do that specific job.

As teachers, we might be able to judge somebody’s English, but we might not be able to judge whether somebody can do their job in English.

In VTS commmunication, assessment is now carried out by a team:

  • English teacher
  • Experienced VTS operator – say whether they’ve done the right thing
  • Legal expert- all conversations are recorded, but they can have legal implications

This is one way to assess workplace English. How do we judge if somebody can do the job?

What is the perspective from outside ELT?

Modern learning mindset – learning and development / HR:(Dillon, 2022, The modern learning ecosystem: A new L&D mindset for the ever-changing workplace)

  • Make learning an essential part of the work(flow) – it’s not a separate thing
  • Take advantage of the full ecosystem – what’s available to them, not just hiring a trainer
  • Apply data to accelerate decision making – not based on intuition
  • Provide a personal experience at scale – trying to make things unique for everyone
  • Drive clear business impact – why would you invest otherwise?
  • Foster persistent organisational agility – how can we react to things which are changing so fast?

Duncan is a young project manager at a company based in Denmark, and partly manages the German team:

This is quite an extreme perspective of where we are with English – in this situation, they hire anyone they can and people will learn English.

Here’s another perspective from Kasia from Electrolux:

The World Economic forum in 2020 said ‘94% of business leaders report that they expect employees to pick up new skills on the job, a sharp uptake from 65% in 2018’.

In BELF research, Ehrenreich (2010) says ‘Learning…seems to happen most effectively in business ‘communities of practice’ rather than in traditional English training’. M Takino (2019) looked at how people become users of English – Evan says this is a very useful article to look at.

Informal learning is what’s really happening:

  • Advertising
  • Film, songs
  • Social networks
  • Games
  • Travel
  • Coaching from peers
  • Micro learning
  • Learning on the job
  • Translation apps
  • Social media

The last 10 years have completely changed how technology can be used to learn languages, and you don’t necessarily need to pay a teacher for it.

‘Microlearning’ is a key feature of HR conferences now. 10 minutes of learning languages on the train, in a queue, etc. Bite-sized chunks, and it’s happening everywhere.

Gamification is another example. By playing a game, people learn surreptitiously, but also learn in a fun way.

‘Learning cluster’ – surround the learner with ‘meaningful learning assets’. It’s not just organising courses for people, it’s doing more.

Three learning touch points, like marketing where the customer touches the product.

For example, project interviews are where you interview a customer to work on a project with them. Useful phrases people can use in the business. Curating is the aim, rather than creating new materials. The social side is mock interview partners – L&D is responsible for this.

Nadzeya says:

Teachers and trainers need to work together with other people within the company. There is a huge system here, supported by different aspects of people in the company. ‘Almost all of our trainers are full-time employees. Our strengths are our well-developed learning ecosystem and corporate learning culture’ – people who are part of the company as in-house trainers.

Content is developed based on in-house case studies.

Seunghee Miriam Choi is an expert in Maritime English. She says that language training will become more specific, for example teaching English for VTS in Busan port. General English you can get online for example.

LCD = Learning clusters. To be truly applicable, they need L&D to really surround the learners with English. It’s a new area and not everybody is able to do it yet. This is where professional language training is changing.

Informal learning is changing: ‘Dressman, M. (2020). – Evan says it’ll change your ideas of language learning and teaching:

Formal and informal learning should be retired as a distinction. People are moving away from formal learning, and moving towards learner experience.

Learnship is an online language company:

There’s a shift to outcome indicators, and away from effort indicators.

Work is changing, communication is changing, and therefore training needs to be different.

This is where we are:

L&D = learning and development

LCMS = learning content management systems, curating assets

So what?

To remain relevant we need to learn a lot more about how people in the workplace learn languages. We should be researching it more, as this is what we’re training our learners to use. A need for research.

To remain relevant, we need to think about teacher training, education and development. ‘Marinating teachers’ – put them into a context and they will become an expert within that context.

To remain relevant we need to learn to use the new technologies. This will help with pull teaching, rather than push teaching.

4 thoughts on “English for the workplace – looking for new answers – Evan Frendo (IATEFL Harrogate 2023 plenary summary)

  1. Hi Sandy

    Have you found a narrow AI which articulates, in writing, what you listen, read and think? 😂 The speed at which you are producing these blog posts is phenomenal. My reading is finding it difficult to keep up with your writing.  

    On a serious note, thanks a ton for sharing these. It feels like I am connected to the conference. 


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