Corporate versus academic students when teaching Language for Specific Purposes

Written by: Mihaela Ivan, Lecturer
Roxana Ciolăneanu, Assistant Lecturer
Academy of Economic Studies, Bucharest

Abstract
One of the key elements of teaching a language for specific purposes is the tight relationship between the different elements of the teaching process: students’ needs, expectations and motivations, on the one hand, course’s aims, contents, type of progression, syllabus and curricula, on the other hand. However, this relationship is different depending on the type of students we teach and thus we build up the course accordingly. For corporate students (post-experienced learners) we have to take into account their concrete needs, which we can identify by investigating the business line they work in, the communication situations they are exposed to, and, consequently, the skills they need to develop or improve. When we deal with university students (usually pre-experienced learners), we have to obey academic constraints, we anticipate some of our students’ needs in their future professional activity and teach them at a less specialised level.

Teaching a language on specific purposes is the part of language teaching field that best illustrates the action-oriented approach conceived by the authors of the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages: LSP users and learners are not only “social agents”, but also members of a professional community who need/use certain communicative language competences in order to accomplish  a task “in a given set of circumstances, in a specific environment and within a particular field of action”.[1] We have thus a first perspective on our LSP student; it is on him that we have to focus the whole construction of the LSP course. The key to building up a successful topic-based course is to make a detailed analysis of the students’ needs, expectations and motivations and to establish the course’s main skills, its objectives, contents, syllabus and type of progression accordingly.

Needs, wants and motivations

Many researchers (Nunnan & Lamb, 1996; Vali et al., 1996; Shank & Terrill, 1995, Richterich, 1987) agreed that all language programs should be based on the assessment of students’ needs and wants. These two things are often different and the gap between them depends on the type of student we address our course to:

  1. Pre-experienced or low-experienced students have only a vague idea of what they will do after graduation. Therefore, their needs are difficult to define and their wants and expectations for the LSP course often go over the limits of the professional field. With this kind of students, the teacher as course designer should not only cover a wider range of language skills and go over more communicative situations, but he should also consider including less specialised topics in accordance with his students’ areas of interest.
  2. Post-experienced students are adults learning a language in order to communicate a set of professional skills and to perform job-related tasks. They know very precisely which tasks and which communicative situations they are exposed to. As Kerr[2] (1977) put it a long time ago: “We are dealing, then, with a person who is an expert in his own field and who can perform his various duties adequately in his mother tongue.” In this case, the teacher can easily make a list not only of the language skills to develop/reinforce and of the topics to include in the syllabus, but also of the speech acts for which he has to provide the student with the linguistic means of realisation.  When dealing with post-experienced students, needs and wants often cover the same areas.

In point of motivation, the balance inclines again towards post-experienced learners. They know precisely what their needs are, they know their learning style and they often have a deadline for reaching at least the threshold level, as they need to fulfil their job’s requirements as soon as possible. If we use Rogers’[3] (1996) adult learning terminology, we can say we are dealing with “participants” in the LSP teaching/learning process and the teacher can often find in them a trustable partner when building the syllabus for the course.

Pre-experienced learners are often (except the cases of those who are generally gifted for learning languages) at a low motivational level for the LSP process.  If we refer to L. Porcher[4]’s analysis, we can find some explanations:

  • they have only a narrow range of choices (or even no choice at all) concerning the courses to follow or their contents;
  • the skills and knowledge they get through those courses will be (partially) used only in a relatively distant future;
  • they are generally focused on acquiring the skills and knowledge required for passing the exams ; they don’t have a global perspective of the LSP teaching/learning process;
  • there aren’t concrete professional aims: “not knowing what kind of adults they will be, including on the professional side, students have only few means of analyzing the relevance of the learning process.”

Needs analysis

Needs analysis has been defined as the identification of difficulties and standard situations by combining different methods, such as student observation or testing, interviews and questionnaires.

With post-experienced students, things are quite simple when making a needs analysis project. They can become more complicated at a different stage, when choosing the contents preparing the materials and conceiving a progression, especially if the skills required are too specialised, putting the language teacher in a difficult situation.

There are two ways of starting the needs analysis project, with various advantages and disadvantages:

  1. by giving students a form to fill in;
  2. by asking them questions.
  3. The questionnaire approach is more structured and leads the student through all the elements of the learning/teaching process, but it doesn’t allow him to go into detail.
  4. The interview approach needs a lot of guidelines from the teacher’s part. It allows the student to give details about the professional tasks and situations where his use of the language is required, but it can be difficult to manage, especially with group classes. Even if they come form the same field of activity, they may have different tasks to fulfil and different perspectives on these tasks.

But for getting a more detailed view of what students need, teachers can combine the two methods: thus, students are first asked to fill in the questionnaire, the teacher collects the results, presents them to the class and them starts a group discussion in order to obtain more details and to negotiate priorities.

In point of questionnaire building, there are different options:

  1. By question word (what, when, which, etc) – less structured and less efficient for the teacher when summing up the results;
  2. By time – past, present and future (refers to the use students can make of the language in each of these three times). Past experiences can be misleading and some language skills can be forgotten. It doesn’t offer the students the guidelines he needs.
  3. By place (inside or outside work) – it has to be more specific for a LSP course and based mostly on situations and roles, not on places.
  4. By skills and language – it is structured on a linguistic, but action-oriented basis; under each headline, the teacher can ask details about the use students make of the specific skill.

We will analyze further this type of questionnaire, as we consider it the most efficient for LSP learners. It starts with an enumeration of the skills and language competences (Reading, Writing, Speaking, Listening, Grammar and Vocabulary) asking students to indicate, in order, the areas they most need to improve their communication skills in LSP. This first question also allows the teacher to assess students’ learning styles: there are analytical learners who feel safer when studying grammar and need guided activities and drills, but there are also communicative learners who learn faster when using audio and visual materials, when listening and conversing and there is also a most difficult type – the teacher centred learners who want teacher to explain and write everything on board and who reject modern teaching materials.

Under each language skill and taking into consideration the students’ field of activity, teachers can draw a list of communication situations learners can be exposed to asking them to thick and order the ones that apply to them. For our case (Business English and French teaching), we can think of a list of business related text types, asking them to order the ones they read and the ones they have to write in English or French:

  • Contracts
  • General interest articles
  • Specialist articles (specify the area)
  • Formal business/ E-mails
  • More informal e-mails
  • Reports
  • Memos
  • Business letters (name the type)
  • Faxes
  • Official notices
  • Agendas
  • Minutes
  • Websites (give example)

For the oral skills, they may be asked only to listen to conferences or presentations, or they may have to participate actively in such a situation, to make phone calls (to whom) or attend meeting (having a certain role to play and a certain goal to meet). Another issue related to the use of oral skills would be the speaking partners. And here we have two sides of the problem: their status (customers, potential customers, direct boss, subordinates, colleagues, etc.) and their nationality (native or non-native speakers).

While post-experienced learners can participate in the process of establishing the course’s objectives and contents, pre-experienced learners have very seldom this opportunity. Their learning process is constrained within the formal education system and they are not allowed to express their needs personally. The syllabus is also based on needs analysis , but we have an one-sided process this time: it is the teacher who tries to assume which will be the students’ professional needs after graduation. This assumption is also based on questionnaires and interviews (with students, with persons who already graduated and work in the field the course is designed for, but also with employers who may state what they need from their future employees), but we don’t have a negotiation of the course’s goals and of the syllabus.

M. Martin-Baltar’s analysis, quoted by L. Porcher (1985)[5] established three needs levels:

  1. Which is the aim for learning a language? What can/want the students do using the language after graduating?
  2. For reaching these goals, which are the language skills they have to acquire? What communication skills do they need?
  3. For acquiring these skills, what kind of linguistic means do they need (vocabulary, morphology, syntax, etc)?

Taking as starting point the scheme offered by the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages and the results we get form questionnaires, we can conceive a different syllabus for each business field our students are trained for, but they will remain at a more general level than in post-experienced learners’ case.

Thus, for an International Economic Relations graduate, we can state as objectives, the following skills and competences:

  • communicate within the international business environment;
  • identify and synthesize the information concerning the international economic processes;
  • participate in negotiations;
  • manage business and discuss contracts;
  • identify the opportunities, but also the risks of international business;
  • get informed, interpret and apply the rules, laws, stipulations and common practices of the international business environment;
  • get integrated and adapt to professional requirements of multinational companies;
  • get integrated, adapt to, but also manage international teams;
  • write reports and other types of documents specific to international business;

We can see that, although field-oriented, these course objectives do not specify particular communication situations or types of documents. Although oral skills seem to prevail, reading and writing cannot be left aside.

On the contrary for the Accounting section, we have to focus more on reading comprehension, on writing and understanding accounting documents and we deal this time with a more specialised field where precise knowledge and terms are required. However, we have to include oral skills in the syllabus, as discussions, attending and participating in meetings can also occur.

Bibliography

  1. Common European Framework of Reference for Languages, Cambridge University Press, 2001
  2. Kerr, L. (1977) ‘English for specific purposes’, in holden, S. (Ed.), English for Specific Purposes, MEP/Macmillan.
  3. Rogers, Alan. (1966).  Teaching Adults (2nd ed.).  Buckingham: Open University Press.
  4. Porcher, Louis (1985): L’intéressant et le demonstrative: à propos de la didactique des langues et des cultures, in ELA, no.60
  5. Richterich, R. (1987): Besoins langagiers et objectifs d’apprentissage, Hachette
  6. Galisson, R, Coste, D. (1976): Dictionnaire de didactique des langues, Hachette
  7. Salloum, Jihad: Définir les besoins langagiers en contexte scolaire, in Le Français dans le Monde, no. 324


[1] Common European Framework of Reference for Languages, Cambridge University Press, p.15
[2] Kerr, L. (1977) ‘English for specific purposes’, in holden, S. (Ed.), English for Specific Purposes, MEP/Macmillan.
[3] Rogers, Alan. (1966).  Teaching Adults (2nd ed.).  Buckingham: Open University Press.
[4] Porcher, Louis (1985): L’intéressant et le demonstrative: à propos de la didactique des langues et des cultures, in ELA, no.60
[5] Idem

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