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Getting Your Engineers to Speak in English
Appeal to Their Expertise and Allow Them to Plan

Mark Pilling, of Qatar, agreed to have his comments, from a recent TESL-L discussion on teaching English to engineers, published for the readers of the ESL MiniConference Online. See also "Creating a Comfortable, No-Nonsense Environment for ESP".

How do I help adult engineers who want to improve their speaking skills overcome their inhibitions?

One method I use is to simply ask them to talk about something they know well (e.g. some aspect of their engineering work). This could be to a partner, a small group or to the whole set - I judge which would be appropriate. Crucially, I place an expectation on the listeners, e.g. that they will have to describe in speech or writing to others what they were told or fill in a table with the information they obtain. It's often useful to allow them to plan beforehand. Similarly, I ask them to bring along a schematic and then to talk about it with the others, with active listening integral - perhaps the others have an unworded copy of the schematic to annotate. I imagine that this approach helps self confidence, is relevant and inspires cooperative interaction. Certainly, I encourage them to speak to each other rather than specifically to the teacher. Given enough time and focus spent on these sessions and repeated opportunities, I find the developments highly rewarding.

Regarding the ingrained habits, incorrect patterns and stock phrases: if the object is to improve (communicative) speaking skills, I don't worry about them. If their colleagues don't understand them, they will together develop the important skills of checking, confirming, rephrasing, self-correction, explaining, etc. If their colleagues (and the teacher!) understand them, then there's no problem!

By Mark Pilling

2002 ESL MiniConference Online