Teaching English for Communicative Performance and Business Communication

It is a challenge to us English teachers to manage with our own widely differing linguistic competence the large classes of mixed ability students. Non-availability or high cost of books and instructional material are the challenges just as tests and exams seem to have become the only goal in themselves. In addition, lack of students’(and even teachers’) motivation, administrative apathy, inaccessibility to electronic media, journals and books, balance between the use of mother tongue and English to ensure acquisition of communication skills, or perhaps, a better teaching-learning situation in the mother tongue and other languages, and dissemination of best English Language Teaching (ELT) practices internationally, with an e-culture interface are the new problems teachers have to cope with.

As teachers we need to work on our own affirmative action programmes, despite constraints of our situation. In order to do something new, we may have to give up the old. As John Swales says, “We may need to recycle not only our projects and our programmes but also ourselves.” In fact a practical teacher should be able to operate within, what may be called, “here and now” state of affairs. It is with some sort of inbuilt flexibility and utilitarian purpose that one can practice ELT in the days ahead.

NEGOTIATING DIFFERENCES

With sensitivity for the language (to me, language use is more a matter of pleasure and beauty than of rules and structure), I would like to assert that the yardsticks of the British or American native speakers, or their standards as reflected in GRE, TOEFL or IELTS etc, or their kind of tongue twisting, are simply damaging to the interests of non-native speakers. We have to develop our own standards, instead of teaching to sound like Londoners or North Americans. Pronunciation must be intelligible and not detract from the understanding of a message. But for this nobody needs to speak the so called standardized English (that makes inter- and intra-national communication difficult). David Crystal too appreciates this reality and favours ‘local taste’ of English in India and elsewhere. The problems of teaching, say spoken English, relate to lack of intercultural communicative competence.

Many of the misunderstandings that occur in multicultural or multinational workplace are traceable to inter-group differences in how language is used in interpersonal communication rather than to lack of fluency in English. In fact native speakers need as much help as non-natives when using English to interact internationally and inter-culturally. It is understanding the how of negotiation, mediation, or interaction. We need to teach with positive attitude to intercultural communication, negotiating linguistic and cultural differences. The focus has to be on developing cultural and intercultural competence, tolerance (the spread and development of various Englishes is an instance of grammatical and lexical tolerance), and mutual understanding. Rules of language use are culturally determined. I doubt all those who talk about spoken English, or communication skills, care to teach or develop intercultural communicative abilities. This presupposes a good grasp of one’s own culture or way of communication, or the language etiquette, gestures and postures, space, silence, cultural influences, verbal style etc.

Understanding and awareness of non-verbal behavior, cues and information is an integral part of interpersonal communication in many real-life situations, including business and commerce. Though research is needed to understand the role of visual support in our situations, it does seem relevant in making students aware of the context, discourse, paralinguistic features and culture. This can be advantageous in teaching soft skills which are basically life skills, or abilities for adaptive and positive behaviour, so necessary for successful living.

If one has to work abroad and use English with others there, one has to be sensitive to the culturally governed ways of speaking or talking to each other. The speech community’s (the language culture of the group of people) ways of communication cannot be taken for granted, when one seeks to learn or teach spoken English. People fail or suffer discomfort or embarrassment in negotiations in business or political affairs, or achievement of personal goals due to incompetence in persuasion, negotiation, mediation, or interaction. It is their performance, their intercultural interactional competence which matters; it lies in managing social interaction, and not just communication, in the narrow sense of the word, or use of right grammatical form, syntax, vocabulary, or even certain polite phrases. The goal is to enable one to express what one wishes to convey and make the impression that one wishes to make, using language with a sense of interaction and mutuality.

BUSINESS COMMUNICATION

In the context of Business Communication, it is not without a sense of social business for creating value and better business outcome. One needs to demonstrate social insights, too, in the use of, say, (social) networking sites, smart phones, mobile, tablet PCs, voice mail, electronic mail, and other e-business instruments such as computer network, teleconferencing and video conferencing that are being integrated to enterprise design. This means one needs to be able to share information, discover expertise, capitalize on relationship, and be collaborative in creatively solving business challenges. One needs to demonstrate leadership and management traits, innovation, and decision-making; one needs to be able to identify oneself with the shared values and beliefs of the organization one is associated with; and more importantly, one needs to demonstrate intercultural and interactive abilities with sensitivity for change and adaptation, if one is working in a foreign country or in a multinational company.

In short, one’s personal communication, both oral or written, needs to be in tune with the communication philosophy — goals and values, aspirations and pledges, beliefs and policies– of the organization one is working for, just as one should be able to blend with the host culture.

When I mention intercultural interaction, I point to the need for adapting to differences in life style, language, business philosophy as well as problems with finances, government, cultural shock, housing, food, gender, family etc. Although many of the people sent on foreign assignment know their (foreign) market, they are often unable to accept another culture on that culture’s terms even for short periods. Sensitivity for intercultural business environment, or being aware of each culture’s symbols, how they are the same, and how they are different, is important.

COMMUNICATIVE PERFORMANCE

The staff development programme of this kind provides us with an opportunity to revisit the issues related to ‘communicative’ teaching, in general, and business communication, in particular. If communication is the aim of English (or any other language) teaching and ‘communicative’ syllabuses fail to develop what Dell Hymes called ‘communicative competence’ and Noam Chomsky mentioned as communicative performance, we need to reflect on our classroom practices, research and materials production from time to time. Chomsky’s focus was on the sentence-level grammatical competence of an ideal speaker-listener of a language, and Hymes, as a sociolinguist, was concerned with real speaker-listeners who interpret, express, and negotiate meaning in many different social settings; he brought into focus the view of language as a social phenomenon and reflected on its use as units of discourse. Socializing competence and performance, Dell Hymes also mentioned ‘appropriateness’, that is, “when to speak, when not, and as to what to talk about and with whom, when, where, in what manner.” This concept of “appropriate use” as ‘communicative competence’ was accepted by Chomsky and called “pragmatic competence” (i.e. rules of use). Thus, Dell Hymes ‘communicative’ is Chomsky’s ‘pragmatic’ and includes knowledge of sociolinguistic rules, or the appropriateness of an utterance, in addition to knowledge of grammar rules. The term has come to negotiate meaning, to successfully combine a knowledge of linguistic and sociolinguistic rules in communicative interaction, both oral and written.

Michael Canale and Merril Swain in various papers on communicative competence have referred to “appropriacy” in terms of ‘sociolinguistic competence’. In fact, they offer another term “strategic competence”, that is, the ability to use communication strategies like approximation (or paraphrase strategy, using, for example, ‘pipe’ for waterpipe or ‘flower’ for leaf to come close to the intended meanings), word-coinage, circumlocution (i.e. describing objects or ideas using “It looks like…”, “It’s made of…” etc when one temporarily forgets an exact word), borrowing including literal translation and language mix, appeal for assistance, ie. asking for information appropriately using “Excuse me,” “Could you…?” “What’s the word for…?” “I didn’t know how to say it,” etc). mime and all that. Their strategic competence(Canale and Swain) refers to the ability to enhance or repair conversations and means the same as Chomsky’s ‘pragmatic competence’ or Fluency. Brumfit and others too have used the term ‘pragmatic’ in the sense of fluency.

Thus, communicative competence consists of LINGUISTIC competence (ACCURACY), PRAGMATIC competence (FLUENCY), and SOCIOLINGUISTIC

competence (APPROPRIACY).

The Linguistic competence or Accuracy in communication is much broader than mere grammatical competence; it includes the linguistic domains of grammar, vocabulary and pronunciation as well as the linguistic skills of speaking, listening, reading, and writing, spelling, discourse (particularly interconnections and interdependence of the sentences and paragraphs), and the ability to contrast with the mother tongue.

The pragmatic competence or Fluency in communication relates to ease and speed of expression, i.e. how to keep talking, how not to remain silent because one doesn’t know the word (the skill of paraphrasing), and other strategies of learning, including how to listen to oneself and so be able to self-correct and self-edit at once; that is, the ability to monitor immediately.

The sociolinguistic competence or Appropriacy includes varieties of text types (stories, dialogues, non-fiction passages etc) and functions of the language, different levels/degrees of formality or informality, or appropriacy and use of language in authentic situations.

I doubt if we follow such a communicative curriculum with understanding of communicative competence in terms of linguistic ability, pragmatic ability and sociolinguistic ability. But its adoption should help students become independent learners; it should equip them with linguistic forms, means, and strategies that would help them overcome communication difficulties both inside and outside the classroom. From this perspective, communicative competence should be thought of as communicative performance just as a communicative syllabus should be essentially performance-based, that is, increasing the learner’s proficiency.

To quote Brendan Carroll: “The use of a language is the objective, and the mastery of the formal patterns, or usage, of the language is a means to achieve this objective. The ultimate criterion of language mastery is therefore the learner’s effectiveness in communication for the settings he finds himself in.”