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Are our courses suitable for non-native speakers of English?
Author : Catie Holdridge
Posted : 23 / 09 / 20
An estimated one billion people in the world now speak English as a second language. That number will only grow. Meanwhile, some big international companies have chosen English as their official corporate language – including Nokia, Airbus and Nissan. This despite the fact that they’re based in Finland, the Netherlands (and France) and Japan respectively.
So it’s not surprising that one question clients often ask is whether our business-writing courses are suitable for non-native speakers of English. So, are they?
Non-native English speakers with a proficient grasp of English will benefit from the course – including even in some ways that native speakers don’t.
Our courses aren’t ESOL (English for speakers of other languages) courses. They’re not designed to introduce new second-language speakers to the basics of the English language. They are about the best ways to use the English language to create effective writing in the professional world. But our experience does mean that most trainers understand and can support the typical challenges English-learners face.
Having non-native speakers on a course can be very beneficial not only to them but to the other delegates, leading to extra layers of insights for each.
At this point, thousands of second-language English speakers have taken part in our courses. We work all over the UK – and all over the world – meaning we’ve run training for both mixed groups and groups of exclusively people who speak English as a second (or third, or fourth …) language.
But our courses aren’t ESOL (English for speakers of other languages) courses. They’re not designed to introduce new second-language speakers to the basics of the English language. They are about the best ways to use the English language to create effective writing in the professional world.
And to get the best from the training, anyone attending should already use English as their day-to-day language of business. At least, they should be comfortable speaking and listening to it – this is especially the case for remote (online) courses.
Having said that, many of our trainers are trained ESOL or TEFL (teaching English as a foreign language) teachers. Most have a great deal of experience in running courses with non-native speakers taking part. So they know how to support those delegates during training. Not only that, many of them also particularly enjoy these courses. Having mixed groups can be valuable for everyone – more on that later.
It’s worth noting, though, that a mixed group will have a mixture of needs.
Native and non-native English speakers tend to struggle in different areas – especially when it comes to the technicalities of language, like grammar and syntax.
Common problem areas for second-language speakers include the use of prepositions (like in, on and with), verb tenses, and articles – the (definite article) versus a or an (indefinite articles), versus no article. It’s no wonder. Some languages, like Russian, Chinese or Czech, don’t have articles at all. Others have one kind or the other.
Native English speakers learn how to use these through hearing them used as much as from rules – which only help to a certain level. Are you, for example, writing that report for a client or the client – and what’s the difference? ‘It’s actually quite difficult to fully explain [articles] because so much of it for native speakers is just by ear,’ says our trainer Jack Elliott. (We do have specially designed worksheets on hand to help, though.)
As for prepositions, different languages treat them differently. ‘In English you can say “I’m on a plane”,’ says Jack. ‘But if you say that to a Russian, they’ll think you’re sitting on top of the plane.’
Meanwhile, recent English-learners who’ve had formal teaching are actually more aware of some grammar rules than native speakers. One example is verb agreement, where a singular or plural subject must be matched by a singular or plural verb. ‘You learn how to make things agree [on ESOL courses],’ says our trainer Kathy Gemmell. ‘So second-language speakers are amazed that those who actually speak English can’t always recognise a sentence that doesn’t agree.’
Most courses cover some key points of grammar – and the exercises here can highlight differences in the group. But our focus is on avoiding grammar pitfalls that get in the way of clear writing rather than those that typically trouble learners of English.
That said, delegates can always put any questions on these to the trainer (and groups are kept small to allow for this), who will not only offer support but also share helpful resources.
But our courses are already intensive and packed. So if a delegate has a more deep-rooted challenge, the trainer will be able to suggest resources and possible strategies – there just won’t be time to fully resolve it.
Tackling fundamental grammar issues generally requires ongoing practice anyway – these will never be ‘fixed’ in one day. This means coaching sessions can be a better choice for delegates keen to improve such technical areas or blind spots. Dedicated one-to-one time between trainer and learner not only allows for directed practice but, where needed, diagnosis.
Our trainer Wendy Ferguson describes coaching a Peruvian delegate who couldn’t differentiate were from where. ‘He would use one or other arbitrarily,’ says Wendy. Working together one on one, they eventually saw why. ‘In the end, we worked it out: he couldn’t hear the difference,’ Wendy explains. (This is not unusual, as some languages lack sounds found in others.) From there, they could devise a strategy to address this.
One way to lay the groundwork for realisations like this can happen during courses. Our training always includes analysis of a sample of writing from each participant, identifying both strengths and weaknesses. The trainer will talk each person through their results individually, and provide ideas and materials to address trouble spots.
And while this can be a chance to zero in on weak areas that need work, it can also be a confidence builder. ‘Somebody who is not confident in their English may not end up contributing so much in a group,’ says trainer Chris van Schaick. ‘But when you look at that sample, it may well demonstrate that they’re better than they think they are.’
At least as important as technical accuracy in business English is the style of the writing – and this is central to the courses. (‘Style’ sounds fanciful but essentially means things like tone, word choice and sentence structure or length.)
The concise style we teach can be a surprise to non-native speakers, whose own language and culture may favour something different. ‘Things about style will be very important to [speakers of other languages], as it’s often new,’ says Jack. ‘It’s also more subjective than “This is right and this is wrong”. I would never say it’s wrong to do what you would do in your own language. But I can say that style is more about getting to the point in English these days.’
While the trainer’s influence is important, second-language delegates will often learn almost as much from other attendees throughout the day. Group discussions about the exercises provide not only feedback but a great source of new vocabulary and ways of saying things. ‘The readability exercises tend to take longer because people want to share more of what they’ve done,’ says Kathy. ‘As well as hear what others have done – often you’ll find someone saying, “Oh, what did you say? Can I just write that down?” So they’re looking at different ways of rewriting something in English. That works brilliantly.’
But it’s not only the non-native speakers who benefit. ‘Having EFL [English as a foreign language] speakers in the room is really valuable for everybody else too, because so many people are trying to reach a global audience,’ says Wendy. ‘It seems kind of artificial to have all native speakers, as that’s not how the readers are for lots of organisations.’
And both empathy and humour arise from comparing cultural norms – as well as the type of communications that come out of them. It can help to learn, for example, that a British person’s idea of respectful tact (‘That’s an interesting point…’) may seem to a Dutch person downright dishonest, as they consider being plain-spoken a courtesy. ‘It’s not so much right or wrong,’ says Wendy. ‘It’s all about the reader and what’s going to work with them.’
Delegates in mixed groups often land on key insights among themselves. One example took place during a course for London Business School’s MBA cohort, which includes students from all over the world.
Two non-native-speaking delegates from different countries were comparing their very different approaches in writing a letter of interest to a prospective employer. One letter was short and direct, the other ornate and elaborate. ‘They had this brilliant conversation,’ Wendy recalls. ‘One said, “I know what it is. You’re thinking ‘These people are important, so I must use my best words and say how much I love their organisation.’ And I’m thinking, ‘These guys are important, so I mustn’t waste their time.'” And it’s a really different mindset.
‘That is the beauty of having people from different cultures in your classroom,’ says Wendy. ‘You can have these exchanges which are beyond price.’
Trainers running courses for groups of exclusively second-language speakers in their home country often find the delegates are especially engaged. Jack Elliott found this when he had the extraordinary opportunity of going all the way to the tiny country of Bhutan. His task there was to train the staff of the Royal Institute for Governance and Strategic Studies, a young leadership institute established by none other than His Majesty The King of Bhutan.
‘I’ve never had a group that’s been so passionate – passionate about how they were presenting arguments in English,’ says Jack.
For these delegates, the link between the techniques they were learning and what they could achieve with them was crystal clear. ‘It’s such an isolated country – way up in the Himalayas – with very powerful neighbours, principally China and India,’ notes Jack. ‘So they have to be able to present arguments at places like the United Nations or the World Bank in a very cogent way. So all this was really important for them.’
It may be most accurate to say that non-native speakers will usually have a slightly different experience of our courses. It is vital that they’re comfortable enough with English to listen comfortably and take part during the course – if they are, they will get a lot out of it.
And because language-learning is such a layered activity, a day with this one focus (and an expert on hand) can be a great opportunity to enrich their current English skills, alongside their business writing. ‘I hear a lot of “I’ve always wanted to know” and “I didn’t know that.”‘ says Jack. ‘Even little details they pick up can kind of expand and make a lot of other things clearer.’
And as we’ve noted (and as Jack likes to say when he introduces the beginning of the course), both native and non-native speakers will have plenty to learn from each other.
Catie joined Emphasis with an English literature and creative writing degree and a keen interest in what makes language work. Having researched and written dozens of articles for the Emphasis blog, she now knows more about the intricacies of effective professional writing than she ever thought possible.
She produced and co-wrote our online training programme, The Complete Business Writer, and these days oversees all the Emphasis marketing efforts. And she keeps office repartee at a suitably literary level.
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