“I live in a country where there is a lot of bureaucracy and form filling, where a hundred words are used where we would only use ten. Is it OK for me to use my English course to show them that there is a better way?”

It depends how you do it.

I am Russian and a non-native teacher of English, now living in Finland. At my school back in St Petersburg we sometimes observed native English speakers teaching our students. I can clearly remember a few lessons with a native speaker who did not quite take into account the learners’ feelings and needs. One such was a lesson on Business English where the students had to come up with a list of items and their quantities for a purchase order.

Remember that there’s always more than one way of doing something

The lists that the learners prepared reflected their understanding of the typical format of a purchase order. To denote the quantities, they used words that expressed the units of measurement, such as ‘pcs’ (pieces) or ‘qty’ (quantity). Thus, a typical list looked like ‘pencils, qty = 6’ or ‘pencils, 6 pcs’.

Avoid cultural bulldozing

What the teacher did was to bluntly reject these or similar wordings. Instead, she just gave the ‘appropriate’ version: ‘6 pencils, 10 pens, 8 copybooks’, etc. I remember vividly the impression that this solution created. Everyone was surprised and thought that it was a deliberate oversimplification for some unknown pedagogical reason. Although no one was able to really come to terms with the teacher-approved version, she offered no variations or synonyms, and everyone was expected to take the authoritative version by the native speaker, because at the end of the day she knew better, didn’t she? Everyone felt confused.

Perhaps, the language of lists should be short and simple. Yet, some fundamental assumptions of the group about the format had not been addressed, and the teacher had apparently gotten straight to business a bit too soon.

Always give your rationale

Guess what happened later? This teacher’s lesson was the only place where the group used the simple wordings, such as ‘6 pencils’ and ’10 pens’. With no clear rationale behind the proposed solution, everyone seemed to simply stick to their preferred wordings outside of the classroom.

Lessons learned

  • English today belongs to everyone. You have no idea who your student will end up communicating in English with, but there is a very high chance it won’t be with a native speaker.
  • The ‘pencils, qty = 6’ formula is used in many languages and will thus be familiar with many of the 1.1 billion non-native speakers. It is not something simply to reject just because there is an apparently simpler format. Interestingly, a similar format was once used in English!
  • The ‘pencils, qty = 6’ formula is also something cultural. This is how some people have been doing things all their lives. You cannot just come into a lesson and tell them they are wrong. This is very demeaning and arrogant. Instead, you can say something like: “when dealing with clients who are native English speakers, students might want to opt for the “6 pencils” formula”.
  • Whatever you are teaching, you need to ensure that students understand why what you are teaching is useful for them and why your version may be ‘better’ on certain occasions. And if you feel you have to break a cultural norm, be humble and respect your students’ approach.

Mikhail Demidov (Михаил Демидов) has five years of experience as an external translator and terminologist with international organizations. He has also worked as a freelance conference interpreter (human and veterinary medicine) for 13 years, taught English to medical students, and trained postgraduate students in Consecutive Interpretation for about 2 years. Apart from CELTA certificate and degrees in Conference Interpreting and Human Medicine, Michael holds an MA in Education Entrepreneurship from Oulu University of Applied Sciences, which reflects his interest in interdisciplinary communication and practical tools for learning. In his free time, he builds prototypes of apps for learning and runs a website called virheellinen.com about the specific difficulties of early-stage learners of Finnish.

Photos by AW: national park in Hubei Province, China; Lapland, Finland