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Language strategies

May 06, 2008

Hello again,

In teaching English for business, trainers normally organise the courses around typical business activities such as meetings, presentations, negotiations, telephoning, report writing and the like. This focus on activity has advantages...

... for both trainer and client. The trainer can break the activity down into its constituent stages and each stage can generate typical language patterns to revise with clients or introduce to them. A presentation might involve:
statement of purpose,
giving factual information,
statement of advantages,
statement of disadvantages,
interpreting factual information,
answering questions.

Such an analysis provides a framework into which individual clients can insert material relevant to their own situation: a banker can talk about the benefits of European monetary union, a computer designer can introduce a new product. In this way, clients feel that the language they are learning is relevant to their specific needs and they can practise the activity in the safety of the classroom. They also feel that their objectives are kept in focus and that no time is wasted on aspects of language learning that are not immediately useful.

Drawbacks of the approach

There are, however, some notable drawbacks. There is evidence that the rather structured and sanitised language we teach does not mirror the real thing (M. Williams, Language Taught for Meetings and Language Used in Meetings : Is There Anything In Common? Applied Linguistics, vol. 9 no 10, 1988). The activities also are somewhat stereotyped: in reality no two similar activities are ever the same. However, the greatest weakness it that the language choices offered are far too limited. Although there is usually an attempt to distinguish among language exponents used for different levels of formality, little impression is given of the subtlety of language or of the rhetorical features that contribute to different styles of language use and which provide the clues to the speaker's

To illustrate this point, I wish to take the stage in a negotiation at which the participants are reaching agreement. (See also Williams, p. 55.)

Textbooks would typically give learners choices of the following kinds:

I can accept that
I can go along with that
It's a deal
Let's shake on it

Recent materials have gone further than providing a list of typical language items and have analysed typical choices to be made within a particular kind of activity. Thus agreement might be seen as involving a stage of partial acceptance with conditions attached. But there is still no attempt to match linguistic strategy to the intention of the speaker.

Further examples are not difficult to find, but what they all have in common is a directness that may make meaning transparent, but which is not necessarily typical of actual linguistic behaviour. Rhetorical features such as irony are common in British English as is indirectness. A phrase such as "that's not unreasonable" has, I suggest, much more the flavour of British English than some of the items above.

Identifying the gaps

The solution is not merely one of widening the repertoire of language items that clients can learn. There are behaviour patterns in language use that give clues as to the real import of a message. There are conventions which require us very often to use implicit rather explicit forms. For many people self-praise, for example, is difficult as it seems like a breach of the 'Modesty Maxim' (Leech, Principles of Pragmatics, p132). If asked the question, "What has been your major contribution to this project?" a reply along the lines of "Well, I'm not too unhappy with the customer profiles" might seem to some to be damning with faint praise. In fact it reveals the speaker to be very pleased indeed with his
or her performance but too polite to say so. People will also very often say something, not because they mean it, but because they are expected to say it. The language learner needs to be able to recognise the difference between a sincere utterance and one made just for
the form.

There is also the need of the speaker to feel that in some way he or she is in control of the response that will ensue. All these pragmatic aspects of language use are more to do with tactics and strategy than just meaning or function. They require the speaker to be acutely aware of the situation in which the exchanges are taking place and of the effects they are
seeking to produce.

Finding real examples

All this suggests a different categorisation, or at least a supplementary one, from the now traditional pattern of set-piece business activities with which we are familiar. In particular we need to look at strategies for language choice and at rhetorical devices that are intended to produce a particular effect. While similar observations have been made before, by Williams, (op. cit.) for one, little has appeared to offer concrete suggestions for how to transfer these ideas into the materials we produce for English for business.

There is an interesting crossover point between linguistic strategy and the choice of a rhetorical device, for example, in techniques such as 'broken record', where the need to assert a point beyond doubt is conveyed through repetition. 'Broken record' is an assertiveness technique, (although it can cross over into aggression) used in recent history most effectively by Margaret Thatcher. It involves calm reiteration of what the speaker wants and helps the speaker ignore objections and diversions from any opponent. (Manuel J. Smith, When I Say No, I Feel Guilty, p. 323). Taken in isolation, the device
of repetition may be seen as redundant, even a sign of linguistic inadequacy. However, the client who can use this technique and understand that it is a tactical move, will be part of the way towards successful interaction. The client who can recognise the technique in others and yet not be deflected by it, is certainly in a winning position. It is this aspect of understanding tactical rules for language use that is currently lacking.

If we return to the language area of agreeing, we might look in greater detail at how agreement is in fact signalled not just by certain types of language use but by accompanying gesture and body language. The overall message is a combination of unspoken signals and carefully chosen words. Merely voicing agreement is not enough. In fact someone who is really committed is likely to take off into other types of linguistic behaviour such as asking questions and summarising. There will also be aspects of gesture and expression that reinforce this. The problem for our clients is that by relying on the explicit meaning of the message alone, they are likely to misinterpret apparent agreement as wholehearted agreement and they are themselves in danger of appearing half-hearted by taking too literal an approach.

Defining areas for consideration

To take the need for concrete proposals further, I would suggest that categories like those below are worth including in training for business clients. Each category involves strategic language use rather than functional or structural use, and has associated rhetorical devices with a range of expected effects on the listener.

Aggressive language styles: excessive use of 'I' statements; stating
opinion as fact; threatening; blaming;
using 'ought', 'should.'

Agreeing: summarising, questioning, volunteering to help, eye contact, leaning forward, willingness to commit to writing, reformulating.

Disagreement: merely saying yes; leaving others to question; avoiding eye contact, leaning back with arms folded, resisting written agreement.

Appraising: encouraging the seeking of feedback; looking for real evidence; suggesting and agreeing areas for improvement.

Asking and answering questions: (see discussion below)

Asserting: brief statements that are to the point; statements of personal opinion; open-ended questions; distinguishing opinion from fact; seeking opinions of others; looking for solutions.

Brainstorming: statement of problems; seeking 'how to' suggestions, suspension of judgement during the gathering of ideas.

Controlling: exaggerating; interrupting; denigrating; repeating.

Counselling: offering reassurance; asking open-ended questions; reformulating and playing back; encouraging disclosure; supporting
solutions; agreeing action plans.

Criticising: describing a situation; analysing causes and effects; offering constructive suggestions; reaching agreed solutions.

Difficulty stating: avoiding direct disagreement by pointing out the problems in a course of action.

Empathising: using non-threatening small talk; using other person's name; using humour; matching interest with appropriate non-
verbal behaviour (eye contact, leaning towards other speaker); showing
willingness to take the other person's perspective.

Helpful behaviour: making listening noises; using the other
person's name; asking open-ended questions; summarising what other
person has said; building on the other person's ideas; giving reasons when
disagreeing; matching body language towards.

Manipulating: (see discussion below)

Persuading: stating benefits; providing evidence; diffusing objections; summarising.

Praising: being specific; not mixing praise with criticism; confining the scope of the praise to the present and not linking it to
targets for the future.

Reviewing: listing what went well and what needs improving; selecting issues to focus on; generating ideas for future strategy;
selecting ideas; planning action.

Seeking ideas: genuinely inviting suggestions from others instead of proffering one's own; brainstorming.

Submissive language styles: using long rambling sentences; using qualifying statements and fillers; putting oneself down; understating the
importance of the situation.

In examining categories of these kinds we can furnish learners with the modern day business equivalent of a medieval (or classical) treatise on rhetoric. The rhetoricians atomised the means by which speakers and writers could persuade or influence others by manipulating devices such as repetition, exempla, description, irony or by taking up particular attitudes, such as false modesty. Many such modern-day devices descend into cliché: it's not for me to judge; with great respect; as we all know - phrases that usually imply the opposite of what they say, the language of the 'scurvy politician' and, very often, the wily businessman/woman. The importance of such devices, however, is their underlying manipulative intention, intentions of which learners need to be aware.

A study exploring just such rhetorical use of language is Joanna Channel's Vague Language. Vagueness may appear to be a linguistic disability, a sign of not being able to express oneself appropriately. However, Channel argues convincingly that vagueness is more likely to be used intentionally. Far from being a sign of inadequacy, she claims it is an important aspect of the "language users' knowledge of their language" (p.194). She goes on to claim that (vague expressions) "are deliberately chosen for their contribution to the communicative message" (p.195). The importance of such a study to the field of English for business is that it reinforces the importance of moving away from explicit language use, to language use governed by tactical rules.

Asking questions, is another activity that could be placed into the category of rhetorical devices. In other words, by questioning we are seeking to influence the hearer in ways beyond the apparent intention of seeking information. We can ask questions:

to show we are actively listening to what someone has to say in order to encourage them to elaborate and expatiate;
to draw timid or less confident people into a conversation (open ended questions);
to interrogate (yes/no questions).

Yet, if we really want information, then techniques for eliciting, such as re-formulation or invitations to explain further are likely to be more effective than direct questions. People may become defensive or resentful if questioning techniques are too obtrusive. Activities to help the client use questioning techniques more effectively and match them to an appropriate communicative strategy involve listening to, viewing or reading conversations in which different questioning techniques are used; analysing the different uses of questions; and a practice stage in which they select the questioning techniques appropriate to a particular activity.

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