Review ~ English for Work and the Workplace

A whirlwind worldwide tour of English for Work and the Workplace (E4WP), with something for everyone. Even if not all teachers are researchers, when teachers do invest in research projects, the results are definitely worth reading.
Reviewed for Teflnet by Carmela Chateau

English for Work and the Workplace examines the communicative language needs of workers worldwide. There are twelve articles in this book, written by teacher researchers based all over the world (with the notable exception of North America). The focus is varied, from local case studies and workplace needs assessment to more fundamental questions as to the status of language education in lifelong learning.

What are the language needs of Austrian industries and companies in the 21st century? The first chapter in the book presents a well-documented overview of English language needs in Europe and more specifically in Austria, with data drawn from several surveys, including two small-scale questionnaire surveys conducted by the authors in 2003 and 2008 (so presumably another survey should be conducted this year). Surprisingly, although companies tend to focus on oral communication, the in-service business and engineering students who participated in the study overwhelmingly stated that both written and oral skills were necessary in their daily work.

What types of English do people need in the workplace? Chapters 2, 3 and 11 present studies from Saudi Arabia, Brazil and Oman, focusing on the type of language needed in three very specific workplaces: the surgical operating theatre, the IT service desk call centre and the RAFO airbase in Oman. These chapters will be very useful for ELT professionals facing the challenge of a specific type of English for the workplace, as many of the problems involved in the choice or even design of materials are discussed in depth. Needs analysis is necessary, and asking the company or workplace to provide access to authentic situations, documents and recordings is a good starting point for such an analysis. The greater the familiarity of the trainer with the language required for the job, the better the training course will be, even if trainers are encouraged to see themselves as students of the subject matter, as well as language instructors.

The task-based learning (TBL) approach is presented in chapter 10, in the context of teaching Business English in Yemen, in order to prepare students for the challenges of using English in the workplace. The only minor quibble here is that although the abstract states that the focus of learning is on listening and speaking skills, the task presented as an example is in fact a writing task. Whether or not a monolingual group will remain in the target language (English) while focusing on a written task is a problem that is not discussed by the author.

What are the needs of learners in Africa? Five chapters deal with this, with chapters 4 and 6 focusing on the situation of learners in South Africa. Chapter 4 discusses training police officers in report writing skills, using a communicative approach with portfolio assessment. The links between the strategies employed by the trainer and the task of report writing are not made particularly clear, but apparently the system worked well in the particular context of the study. In contrast, the study presented in chapter 6 is far clearer and provides a helpful overview of the different types of communication encountered in the workplace, with particular emphasis on inter-professional communication, and underlines the need to address the specifics of both purpose and audience when training students to produce usable documents. Chapters 8 and 12 present overviews of the English language situation in Nigeria and in Botswana, which may usefully be compared with the overview of the situation in Austria presented in chapter 1. One of the findings that underlie the conclusion to both texts is the tentative suggestion that although success in General English may not easily be achieved within the constraints of the educational system, a focus on more specific types of English might be welcomed in the workplace. Chapter 9 contrasts Nigerian English and Nigerian Pidgin with standard English, and suggests ways of drawing on learners’ competence in all three varieties through exposure to literature and the media. This chapter fits well with the issues raised in chapter 4, regarding the specificity of the African context.

Chapter 5 deals with the language of meetings and letters in India. The strategies for effective communication are clearly presented and the article also provides a “road-map” of the collocations and expressions needed for different types of letters. However, there is no identification of the sources of these expressions. The text would have much to gain from a corpus-driven approach, where useful collocations are identified from an appropriate collection of letters, rather than simply being presented by the author as useful or suitable.

Chapter 7 is to some extent the odd man out, in that its focus is on the communication needs of skilled migrants in New Zealand, an English-speaking country. A perceived lack of English language proficiency prevents many skilled workers from finding employment. Victoria University in Wellington has built a corpus of naturally occurring workplace interactions, and the analysis of the interactions between native speakers has been used to develop materials for a course to help skilled migrants improve their English language proficiency. The students will have already obtained an IELTS score of 6.5 as part of the entry requirements for migrants. The focus of the course is on the socio-pragmatic aspects of communication, and the results indicate that the project is highly successful, as between 70% and 80% of participants have found positions more suitable to their qualifications after taking the course.

Overall, this book provides many interesting ideas on the overarching theme of English in the workplace and English for work. Not every teacher is a researcher, but every teacher has something to gain by reading about current research, particularly when it is presented in such an approachable format.

Reviewed by Carmela Chateau for April 2013

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