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Humanising Language Teaching
Humanising Language Teaching
Humanising Language Teaching

The article first appeared in the Besig Newsletter.

When E for B is Wrong for a Business Learner: A Case-study

Mario Rinvolucri, UK

Let me start by penning a brief sketch of the learner this article is about. Z came from a francophone West African country to live with a brother in France when he was eleven. At sixteen he passed his school leaving exam, baccalaureat, (normally taken at 18-19) with twenty (top mark) in Maths, Physics and Chemistry. He was lucky that his English teacher awarded him a one (bottom mark) since a zero would have voided his other high marks. He proceeded , via a competitive exam, to a “Grande Ecole” without having to do the normal two preparatory years.

Why English in May 2009? Very simple, Z had had to turn down two major promotions within his IT job due to insufficient command of English.

My far and away worst lesson with Z was the hour in which ( 1-2-1) he explained his work situation to me. The task was too hard for his language level and his monologue was punctuated by long pauses in which he was clearly translating from French and probably actually translating from written French sentences up on his inner, mental screen. These were two clues that suggest this ( i ) his eyes were cast up as he prepared to speak the English which suggests he was “seeing” the French text in his mind and (ii) much of what came out in English had the structure of a French written text.

I could not have got him to do a more linguistically counter-productive exercise and I formally apologized to him for my professional clumsiness in my letter to him the following day. [ as a standard practice I write daily letters to my one-to-one students.] Clumsy and wrong though asking him to describe his IT work was, it provided my co-teacher and me with really useful linguistic information:

Z gets to work each day at 5.30 am. He spends 45 minutes TRANSLATING reports of meetings from ENGLISH into FRENCH so that his colleagues can deal with these linguistically efficiently. So S, my co-teacher, and I learnt that his daily contact with English was framed, structured and moulded by the needs to render it quickly into passable French. No wonder he could not open his mouth in English without translating from French.
All the way through his slow painful description of his work the discourse markers were in French: “Alors”, “Bienque”, “Bon”.

The clear message to S and me was that our main task over our week with him, ( S in the afternoon and me in the morning) was to wean him from his imperious and work-imposed translation habit.

In this task we had a powerful ally in the lady with whom he lodged. She knew no French and he wanted to get through to her. On the Tuesday evening of his week there he cooked salmon for her, following a French recipe.

My guess is that one of the best lessons S or I enjoyed in the week was when S took him shopping to buy stuff for another supper he cooked for his landlady on the Thursday evening. How do I know that this learning experience worked? Because on the Friday morning Z was determined to list for me all the ingredients he had bought with S. His pronunciation of words like GARLIC, THYME, BASEL, CUCUMBER was marvelously and ungallically English . Listening to these words felt mildly miraculous.

The general point I am making is that with a post-beginner, business executive language learner, normal E-4-B content may be inappropriate and the central plank for learning may well be relational. My sense is that Z made startling language progress over the 5 days through his 3 main relationships:


It was through these relationships that he smashed the mental cage he was in:

IDEA/ FEELING-------→-----------------FRENCH-----------→-------------ENGLISH

He reported that over the week he used less and less internal translation in the creation of overall utterance patterns, though he naturally fell back on mother tongue in the search for individual words, as is normal and efficient.

Apart from the disastrous “What I do in my work” lesson most of the content of my mornings with Z was personal.

  • I told him an “airport” story
  • He told me an “airport” story of his own.
  • I told him a story about me at age 4
  • He told me (fascinatingly) a false story about having been adopted [no false story can ever be false]
  • I told him a “parent” story of a child of mine nearly run over by a lorry.
  • He told me the story of his 4 kilo middle child losing 2 kilos over the post- natal week with his fingers going mauve.

When I did attempt to bring in external text I could feel the relative ineptness of this. My growing relationship with Z was all that was needed to produce text that we could then do relevant language exercises on. The language arose from his own affective, personal experience, triggered by my “modelling” similar experiences of mine.

In our final feedback session on the Friday Z told me that Monday had been an experience of speechlessness in English, Tuesday had been English from French and that the last three days had been more and more French-less English.

It seems that S and I must have done a couple of thing right in our midwifing of the birth of oral, communicative English in Z’s conscious and more importantly, unconscious mind.


The use of specialized language may be appropriate in teaching executive learners of English: it may be appropriate for down-to-earth commonsense reasons and it may also be appropriate as a way of deepening rapport with the student: content rapport can be very central to a teacher student relationship.

However in cases like the one outlined above, the central problem was one of a mistaken inner linguistic strategy ( constant translation) and aim of the course had to be a rectification of this. Teaching Z a few more technical terms in English was simply not a useful aim.


* I am conscious that by using the term “learner” rather than “client” I am being accurate, but am swimming against the tide of normal E 4 B jargon, with its sad de-humanising Thatcherian overtones.


Please check the How to teach English to Business People course at Pilgrims website.

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