Of work and idioms

A couple of years ago, Damian Williams wrote a post explaining why he doesn’t like teaching idiomatic expressions. I wrote a response to that, as I strongly disagreed with him. However, a recent conversation with another teacher made me rethink that a bit.

Here’s the situation: I have two private students, both of whom work for multinational companies. One of them works for a German company, the other for a Dutch company. As you’d expect, English is the international language used for communication between workers but, and this is key, neither company is based on an English speaking country.

Both of these students speak English very well (C1 Level) and besides revisiting vocabulary and grammar points that have been presented before, a lot of the new content that comes up tends to be more formal grammar/vocabulary or idiomatic expressions. So far so, good.

Some weeks back the student who works for the German company told me he was preparing a PowerPoint presentation with his boss, which they would use to discuss a new project with a team in Europe. With a disappointed look on his face, my student tells me that his boss would change the words he had written, making them simpler. He said his boss was worried about the Germans not understanding what he had written.

Just a few days later the second student, who works for a Dutch company, complained about doing a CAE  writing task. She argued that she wouldn’t be able to use that kind of language in her email exchanges at work, lest she wrote something her clients might misunderstand.

Now, neither of these students is learning English solely because of work and one of them has a company-mandated goal of becoming a C2 speaker. However, I have started to think how to strike a balance between keeping teaching them new things and edging them towards becoming a better English speaker and making sure they are still able to use English in a non-native work environment. Would reducing the number of idioms do the trick?

I don’t have an answer to that yet, but I’d love to know if other teachers have been through a similar situation.

Ricardo Barros

Ricardo Barros is a CELTA tutor and freelance teacher trainer based in Jundiaí–SP. He has taught English since 2003, working as a teacher, teacher trainer, academic coordinator and Cambridge examiner. He holds the DELTA, CELTA and a BA in History from Unicamp. He is a moderator for the BrELT facebook group and advisory council member for BRAZ-TESOL. He also blogs at ricardobarroselt.wordpress.com

8 thoughts on “Of work and idioms

  1. Perhaps they need to work on ELF/translingual strategies instead of native-like nuances. “translingual practice” by Canagarajah might make for an interesting read if you’re interested in pursuing that.

    And congratulations on being open to rethink your views. :) You’re a star!

  2. Ricardo, I’ve been thinking about that a lot lately. I’ve recently come across an article from 2007 from the Financial Times (https://www.ft.com/content/e621ff38-8e1c-11dc-8591-0000779fd2ac) that mentions that “Global English” was/has been somehow debunking the English we teach at schools. It is not an article about education at all, mind you, but it does mention the fact that its “internationalization” has become as strong as the language itself. Hence the grammatical changes and the feeling we have that sometimes dictionaries are getting too “permissive” (I know I do). Being an international language, English becomes affected by other cultures and it changes quicker than we can see it, and I think in the end the “official”, “original” English loses some of its importance.

    This would explain the feeling that your students have, as they use it more as an international language and less as the English we teach. The thing is, should we take into account the kind of English students need when we teach? And, if so, is there a limit? Are they ready before idioms take place? Should they not learn the English spoken in English-speaking countries, being their purpose to use it for something else entirely?

    I second your former disagreement with Damian. And I will add that a good teacher also teaches register, and a good learner will know its importance and will value the nuances of language and the richness that goes beyond its practicality for international meetings and e-mails. Language can be functional but it is also culture, pleasure, identity. We teach that too.

    • Those are difficult questions and there are many factors to be considered. First and foremost, in the case of my students, is their level. They are C1 speakers of English and in order to get to C2, idioms are bound to come up. Both of them also learn English because they intend to travel to English speaking countries, because of work or otherwise.
      My gut reaction is that a ‘simplified’ global English would be more useful to an A2-B1 student who needs to use English at work and talk to other non-native speakers. You may be able to do that in one-to-one classes, but in a group of 12-15 adults students, how many will be in that situation?

      • English as a Lingua Franca is not necessarily simpler than General English. If on one hand we may be rid of many idioms and regionalisms, on the other hand with ELF we need to be able to understand a variety of accents, forms of expression, and even cultural influences. Also, there all these translingual/negotiation strategies that help communication in that context. In other words, even highly proficient speakers in English need to learn how to communicate in ELF contexts. For instance, I already had my CPE when I found myself in an ELF context and I struggled to communicate at times, even though I was already a teacher and knew — in theory — how to accommodate to speakers with lower proficiency. There have also been reports of native speakers who failed to communicate in ELF contexts, while other native speakers did wonderfully. It all depends on a slightly different set of skills, attitude and view of language…

        According to Canagarajah (2013), there are fewer miscommunications in ELF than in native contexts, so looking into those strategies is definitely worth it, especially if our students are saying they face this problem in their daily lives.

        If our students are really aware of register and the situations they’re in, they should be able to know when to use CPE-like English and when to ditch it in favor of ELF (or in favor of pub English, informal chit-chat, etc.).

    • “should we take into account the kind of English students need when we teach?” => If not their needs (and lacks and wants), what would you suggest we take into account?

  3. I know what you mean. I myself, as a teacher, struggle to learn/memorize/use idioms with my students, because they are not part of the basic content I am used to teaching. Reading this article made me rethink the strategies and what my students really need/want.

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