The Need for Needs Analysis

Written by: Edward Richards

I start from the assumption that a Needs Analysis – of some kind – is at the basis of all ESP work.  What I hoped to demonstrate in the presentation was how a needs analysis which is well-focussed, but not too scientific or detailed, can sometimes offer more useful information than was at first expected.

Background

During the year 2003 – 2004 an English Language Training needs analysis (TNA) was carried out by the Military English Support Project in Bosnia and Herzegovina.  The TNA had several aims which were concerned with the current level of English competence amongst the BiH Armed Forces, the number of personnel who would be eligible on the basis of their English language skills to follow training in the Peace Support Operations Training College (PSOTC) which was to open subsequently at the SFOR (now EUFOR) camp in Sarajevo, and the current and future capacity needed to improve English Language training in the BiH Armed Forces.  The presentation looked at the investigation that was undertaken to assess what the language needs of personnel on Peace Support Operations (PSO) are.  Having assessed what these needs are, we looked at the implications of the findings for both language training and for the delivery of professional training through English.

The instruments used (ie. questionnaires) to collect the evidence were designed by Dr Chris Tribble who was the long-term consultant for this project.  My task was to collect, collate and report on the evidence relating to language needs on Peace Support Operations.  The final report, which was commissioned by the UK Ministry of Defence, was written by Dr Chris Tribble, Ian Pearson, then manager of the project in BiH, and myself.

The instrument used to gather information from the people we called “expert users” (ie. personnel who had experience of international operations) consisted of two parts.

The first part was a table to be filled in which asked fixed questions about which English language skills the respondents judged should form part of an English Language course for future PSO personnel.  The next part of the instrument was a series of questions that would constitute a structured, but very free, interview.

Because the findings of the interviews I was holding with international informants then in BiH who had served on PSO operations or were currently serving in SFOR were becoming interesting, I decided to widen the range of interviews and included some personnel then on active service on PSOs whom we were able to contact through various Peacekeeping English Project (PEP) managers.  The interviewing has been continuing since then, particularly amongst Bulgarian personnel returning from deployment in Iraq.  The data and evidence I have is now gathered from 41 expert users representing the armed forces of 16 countries

I was helped in gathering this data by Hamish McIlwraith who was then PEP Manager Bulgaria, Phil Dexter, PEP Manager Croatia, and Sheilagh Nielson both in her position as PEP Manager Albania and currently PEP Manager Bulgaria.

The findings.

The extent to which informants agree with one another is striking. All agree that operational effectiveness depends on effective communication through English. Even where interpretation and translation are possible, it is essential that all staff within the chain of command can communicate clearly and accurately in English.

The ability to use English on ordinary social occasions is considered to be important.  It is necessary for communication both with other troops and with civilians. Informants report that one of the best ways of becoming accepted as part of the professional community is to spend evenings with one’s peers.  Similarly, significant social language skills are needed in peace-support operations, for example on such ‘bridge building’ occasions as formal dinners, evenings in the bar, and during sports events.  Responses included:

1. If you don’t speak English, you feel left out and uncomfortable.

2. Informal gatherings at the Irish pub – this is the place where some of us actually started speaking English.

3. with the Polish and American colleagues we talked about cars, money and beautiful girls

Speaking and understanding are, naturally, important in professional settings. During morning briefings and on patrol, clarity is of paramount importance and an unfamiliar accent can cause serious problems. Military contexts require an ability to express oneself clearly and intelligibly and to deal with a very broad range of native and non-native speakers.  In a crisis, everybody needs to know what is happening, and when the prime objective is not to endanger yourselves or others, the differences between the needs of officers and other ranks becomes less important.

Responses included:

4. In a crisis, English is vital.

5. On missions, people need to understand what the task is and where the danger lies.  Planning, and your contribution to the plan is important. Spoken English is vital in emergency situations so you don’t endanger yourself or others.  Risk awareness is more important than task execution.  Staff officers (on missions abroad) need experience of similar situations.

6. During NATO meetings people are embarrassed  to say they don’t understand so often end up agreeing to something they cannot fulfil. 

All the respondents agree that a training course in which ideas, knowledge and skills are presented, discussed and recorded in English is a very demanding environment for non-native speakers. Both in the classroom and in the field, most training courses use oral presentations as the main method of imparting information.  Potential students worry most, therefore, about this element of their training.  The informants report overwhelmingly that ‘accent’ is not only a barrier to comprehension but is in fact the greatest stumbling block. This is equally true of regional accents from native speakers of English and ‘foreign’ accents from non-native speakers of English.

Potential students are also worried by what they call ‘terminology’, claiming that in the training context problems often arise simply because the trainers do not define the terms they use.  Another complication is that terms vary. Similarly, the same term can have different uses or meanings in different systems, and the same idea or object can have different names in different systems. The use of acronyms also causes significant problems.

Responses included:

7. Native speakers speak too much.

8. Native speakers appear to show disrepect and ignorance of NNS’s problems.

9. Acronyms are a problem.

10. I had problems with understanding when my colleagues were using abbreviations, and differences between British and American English.

The amount and type of reading and writing undertaken on a mission is linked very closely to role. A lot of writing on a mission tends to be with the use of a template, mainly involving filling in forms such as reports and the daily occurrence book.  Somewhat surprisingly at first glance, no real problems seem to emerge (unlike listening and speaking).  This may be because it seems to be standard practice in international communities such as SHAPE, OSCE and SFOR for written texts to be ‘filtered’ through a native speaker of English, someone who can check grammatical accuracy and vocabulary use.

However, this sensible-seeming procedure is not always possible, e.g. in the Polish sector in Southern Iraq, where for some time there were no troops whose native language is English.  In such circumstances ‘multi-nationality’ language issues can give the commander serious problems.

Responses included:

11. Reading and speaking are more important than writing because somebody will help with writing.

Three perceptions emerged as to which personnel were likely to be successful in using English.   Those who learn English as a Foreign Language in primary school are seen to have an advantage.  Officers and men from countries where English is more or less a second language (Nordic countries, Germany and Holland) and where television is left in the original English are seen as always having a good command of English. Those who have lived a significant length of time in countries where English is the first language (mainly UK and USA) are seen as having an advantage because they become familiar with a variety of accents.

Responses to the question as to what helps members of PSOs who are successful in using English included:

12. Living in an English speaking environment 

13. People from Nordic nations use English well because TV programmes are in the original language: they are brought up with English all around and become acquainted with the sound of the language.

14. Those who are already good at English become the point of contact.  The good ones get better.

15. A wide general vocabulary is more important than good pronunciation and grammar.

Practice in using English, not knowing English (this is a reference to traditional methodology and traditional textbooks)

The fixed set of questions relating to the type of English language skills that should form part of a pre-deployment course was also given to members of the Bosnia and Herzegovina armed forces who were likely to be offered training at the Peace Support Operations Training Centre but who had not been on any kind of international mission.  We then compared their answers with those of personnel whom had served on a PSO.  Those who have served on PSOs rate “writing and reading emails” very highly, whereas those who haven’t been on a PSO see it as the least needed literacy skill. Those who have served on PSOs place communication by radio and telephone much higher than those who haven’t.  However, everybody is in agreement that Microsoft Word is the most important software package.  Powerpoint is in second place for those who have been on PSOs, because it is used extensively in briefings and presentations.

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Implications for training: ELT course design

The expert informants point out that modern armed forces on peace-support missions are frequently involved in complex roles that include supporting fragile communities and interacting with civilian agencies.  The informants see it as essential that language training should prepare the military to meet these challenges, and that it should do this by moving the focus of the training away from subject-specific terminology to a set of broader communication skills.  The informants also stressed that the everyday use of English for social and professional purposes is now as important for military personnel as it is for business professionals.  Building these communication skills should be the focus of future training courses. No course can prepare everyone for everything, and international peace-support missions can involve a massive range of tasks where success depends on being able to communicate through English.

Programmes specifically designed for personnel preparing to enter a training course or to join peace-support operations, should therefore include:

  • writing and reading e-mails
  • completing official forms
  • communicating by telephone and radio
  • dealing with a wide range of different accents
  • communicating socially
  • the use of English versions of Microsoft Word, Internet Explorer and Powerpoint.
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Implications for training: professional training delivered through English

Parallel to the need for appropriate English language training, our expert informants also made it clear that serious thought has to be given to how information and ideas are presented and discussed on the professional course itself. As a minimum, and no matter whether native or non-native speakers of English, trainers need to ensure that:

  • spoken input is supported by suitable graphic (and not text-filled) visuals (e.g. through hand-outs, OHP slides, or PowerPoint).
  • the rules of good practice for presentations are adhered to (e.g. the spoken text should never simply be a reading out aloud of the text on the screen).
  • it should never be forgotten that the trainees are using a foreign language and, for example, that communication can be totally destroyed by unfamiliar cultural references (eg. “about as long as a cricket pitch”) or attempts at humour.
  • space and opportunity are built into the presentation to allow for serious interaction between trainer and trainees, and to allow for clarification and confirmation of understanding.

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