By Simone Neumann
Friday afternoon, just before 4pm: A stone’s throw away from one of the busiest places in Berlin, a peaceful atmosphere was greeting us as we entered the bright and spacious meeting room at the Berlin School of English: Ian’s appearance convinced us on the spot that we had taken the right decision after a hard week’s work — a first and palatable impression of his expertise was served.
About 20 willing listeners were taken on a tour of Ian’s findings on business communication, which he encapsulated in a slide presentation and a number of audio files.
We set out by looking at what could drive a learner of English to improve their communication skills (e.g. English as the first language in a in the business world, getting a grip on new technologies, etc.), to go on to what inhibits communication, such as unfamiliar accents/pronunciation (There’s been a rabbit increase in feeber use. –> rapid/fibre), idiomacy/colloquialisms (Once everyone is sat down, we’ll be on our way.; a Podunk town), or cultural barriers (attitude to time-keeping, silence, humour, etc.).
Ian also pointed out that a mistake may not always be a mistake. Some examples he came up with were: Please arrange our accommodations. / In the summer, we’ll often go out for a long bike ride. / I done it already. / We hope you are loving Outlook. Would you classify all of them correct, or incorrect? We, Ian’s audience, were not able to agree on all of them, which only showed us vividly how personal experience affects our perception of things and as a result, our attitude in class.
Ian went on to challenge our conception of trainer competence. Lack of business knowledge (could you explain hematochezia off the cuff?), linguistic prejudices (American vs. British vs. Australian vs. … accents), no/poor knowledge of foreign languages (What is it like to learn a foreign language, and how do I deal with communication obstacles along the way?) — these were but a few examples to illustrate that being a native/near-native speaker of English is by far not enough to do a good job.
In the second part of his presentation, Ian focused on how to overcome barriers in business communication by way of listening, listening and more listening. He gave us ample listening of authentic recordings. None of them were free from flaws, to make the listening even more realistic: background noises, dropping telephone lines, unfiltered accents and ‘mistakes’ (Italian people is really people with a good fantasy – happy people.), lots of um/uh/err and otherwise fragmented sentences, erratic pauses, idioms (There’s a whole mix of making sure you don’t drop any balls in the process, ‘cos you can’t let anything slip.) — all from real-life people in the real world; no studio, no actors.
A remarkable and agreeable side-effect of the listenings were the glimpses we had into the respective cultures. Ian pointed out that such information could be easily used in the classroom for further discussion and drawing on the learners’ personal experiences.
In conclusion, our attention was drawn to how we can become active listeners, such as asking to slow down, to speak up, to be more specific, to rephrase — all the kind of things we have all heard of before and, sometimes forget. Vice versa, we can help our listeners to do likewise: don’t speak too fast, leave out unnecessarily complex/idiomatic language, give time to think and respond, be clear in what you want to convey, and many more.
Thank you, Ian, for a presentation with plenty of food for thought!
Ian has uploaded the slides of this workshop on his website.
You’ll find references and sources there including audio links, along with a list of his authentic listening books for Collins. I’ve also had a closer look at Cobuild English for Business Listening, which looks very useful.