I spend a lot of my time talking to people about the tasks they have to complete in English and supporting them to carry out those tasks competently in English. I’ve recently started teaching in a number of large organisations based in very small towns and villages in Bavaria (Germany). Unlike many of their counterparts in bigger cities, these companies and their staff avoided language learning for a long time and employees struggled on with their ‘school’ English, trying to make themselves understood with the language skills which they’d acquired as teenagers – largely grammar-based – but hadn’t then practised for several years. Now that their employers have seen the light and have recognised that they need to brush up their language skills, we are in the position of negotiating what participants want to cover in their English course. When asked what they need they almost always respond ‘good grammar’. Of course as trainers we realise that a) it takes many years to get close to perfecting grammar and b) good grammar alone is not the key to carrying out one’s job competently in English. Inevitably we then go through the process of discussing what tasks they conduct in English, via what kind of communication channels and then we analyse what is missing in their communication, which would help them to be more effective. Inevitably this isn’t actually grammar but a knowledge of standard phrases which help them work more quickly, a recognition of the correct tone which helps them build better relationships, or the ability to spontaneously use suitable lexis which helps them have more professional conversations.
Grammar can’t be ruled out completely though, and of course there are tasks which can be performed better with a sound knowledge of certain grammatical structures. Last week I worked with a group of German secretaries who need to give instructions to their business partners in the UK. Some collect offers from suppliers, others coordinate photographers who produce the annual company calendar, while a number of the students coordinate travel arrangements with their counterparts in other countries. All of them need to explain obligations, whether that be defining deadlines, listing the necessary paperwork to apply for a visa or politely explaining the steps in a departmental process. In case you’re also teaching learners who need to discuss work-related obligations and processes you can try out my lesson plan which you’ll find here. Have fun with it!