A diversity of traditional skills with novel objectives and approaches are now necessary to adequately prepare students for the global workplace. Like always, students need to develop strong listening, speaking, reading, and writing skills along with good pronunciation, grammar, and vocabulary, among others. However, “the how” and “the why” have changed drastically.
Listening Skills for the 21st Century
From beginning levels, students must develop their confidence and competence in deciphering a variety of dialects and accents from native and non-native speakers alike, across various mediums. It’s not enough that students understand their teacher when he or she speaks. One week in the life of my Argentinian-based English students illustrates this reality. While several students had to communicate by skype in order to manage a joint IT project with software developers in India, another attended a conference and gave a presentation (in English) in Germany alongside other English language learners from all over Europe and the world, while a third needed to successfully navigate a job interview and salary negotiation in Florida with both a Texas-native and a Pakistan-born U.S. resident.
From beginning levels, students must develop their confidence and competence in deciphering a variety of dialects and accents from native and non-native speakers alike, across various mediums.
In addition to this, because of the prevalence of skype, tele-conferencing and other remote communication tools, students today must also understand the target language without the benefit of reading body language and having the additional context provided by face-to-face communication. They also must follow conversations despite delays, interference, and disjointed or unclear transmission, characteristic of these mediums of communication.
Instructors can prepare students for this daunting reality by simulating these conditions in the language learning environment and explicitly teaching active listening strategies. We can also provide guidance and training to students in order to understand the sum as well as the parts of a wide variety of authentic audio resources.
Emails, chats, forums, and social media communication could represent the majority of global communication, which all require competent writing. Writing that is clear and adequately communicates the writers message and tone requires a working knowledge of organization, sentence structures, grammar, punctuation, vocabulary, spelling, writing conventions, norms, and typical phrases. Without the benefit of in-person clarification, poorly written communications can cause confusion and misunderstandings.
Assist students by discussing norms (for emails, for example) as well as providing resources, time-saving templates, and reliable tools to write more effectively and quickly. Help make students’ writing more reader-friendly by guiding them towards better organization and implementation of the structural conventions of the target language, which includes hi-lighting how these may differ from students’ native languages. Make email and written “homework” a staple and use strategic and consistent (self, peer, group, and teacher) editing to refine students’ output.
Agile Speaking and Clear Pronunciation
Although universally the most dreaded of all language skills, students must learn to overcome their fear and self-consciousness and speak in one-to-one and group contexts. The only way to do that is to suspend the “inner editor” and learn through the process–which obviously involves making lots of mistakes. Make it cool to make mistakes and prioritize large chunks of instructional time towards this end. Rather than sacrificing tons of time working on solitary grammatical exercises or the teacher doing all the speaking, double up by turning selective drilling into an oral activity, and grouping students up to get the maximum amount of talk-time from every session. Laurel Pollard and Natalie Hess’s Zero Prep book, is full of original ideas on how to effectively maximize speaking in language classrooms.
Language students and instructors must also focus on clear pronunciation as it is either an aide or impediment to productive communication. Teachers can assist students by identifying and targeting the problematic sounds that are nonexistent or different from students’ native languages, as well as students’ individual pronunciation challenges. When appropriate, instructors should learn and explicitly teach students about the mechanics of pronunciation (placement and movement of tongue, lips, teeth, and mouth along with origination of sound and breath) and give students ample isolated and integrated practice, along with consistent feedback. Students may have Merriam Webster-sized vocabularies, however, without decent pronunciation, effective communication is severely limited.
Need to know Vocabulary and Phrases
Global communicators need to know typical words and phrases for a variety of contexts. Telephone conversations, leaving telephone messages, introducing themselves and others, hi-frequency acronyms, meeting jargon, and presentation-speak are all important. Students should also increase their “technical” vocabularies-with words that describe standard functions like “googling”, “forwarding”, “copy and pasting”, and “attaching” documents, not to mention how to translate omnipresent symbols like @ and .(as in .com). Helping students engage in “small talk”, discuss politics, world events, and the economy in addition to their personal and professional stories is important for the global businessperson and world traveler alike. Also, helping them to navigate their way around a menu or an airport, give and get directions, and locate a bathroom in an emergency don’t hurt either.
Knowing how to discuss work specific tasks, experiences, and responsibilities, create resumes and cover letters, and survive a job interviews are essential for today’s global workforce. All students should have the experience of preparing and giving presentations in their field of expertise as well.
Reading for a Purpose
Strike a balance between no-reading and reading unabridged Shakespeare by using a wide variety of texts to help reinforce all the other language skills. Reading more in the target language can help build rich vocabularies, can be a useful crutch to stimulate hesitant speakers, can assist with pronunciation, and even grammar. Be sure to introduce readings at various difficulty levels, in a range of contexts, and challenge students to develop essential reading skills in the target language like scanning, reading for information, evaluating the credibility of the text, and defining vocabulary in context.
This is not your momma’s grammar class. Gone are the days of 400 page grammar books exhaustively filled in from beginning to end. Students still need good grammar, of course. But students need to be competent in producing (speaking/writing) hi-frequency grammatical structures more than they need to breeze through every grammatical nuance in the history of the language, never to remember any of them, for the sole purpose of checking them off on a syllabus. Think grammar for a purpose and prioritize grammar much lower on the scale than in the past, in order to make space for the other essential skills discussed above.
All in all, a balanced, but production-heavy program that minimizes isolated, grammar-banging and prioritizes authentic text usage in diverse contexts offers the best means to give students the communication tools they need to navigate our global world.
—What language skills do you think are critical in preparing students to be globally competitive? How do you best develop those skills?