The case for Technical English to be recognised as a serious branch of ESP with a formal teaching certificate.

15 April 2008

In this article I have tried to put over the argument for the title based on things which students have said to me, and my own observations within a teaching environment and the actual reality in the workplace.

It does not take much to notice that the majority of EFL teachers teach business English, which has a teaching qualification. Unfortunately, many believe that technical English is something anyone can teach, being merely another aspect of general language with different vocabulary. However, the reality is that engineers and technicians want to expand their technical English to a much higher level of competency, and to be certain that what they are being taught is correct. This latter sentiment is where competency by someone with genuine ability must enter the scene.

I present my argument firstly with an overview of the need for competent trainers, then offer some situations which I find disturbing, and end with possible ways forward. I trust that the reader will accept my criticisms in a balanced manner, and that perhaps those closer to the higher realms of authority might be willing to help with my suggestions.

Skilled people expect respect. Technical English is a branch of English for special purposes, just like legal English or financial English, which must have the same respect demanded by teachers of those subjects who regard themselves as experts with their professional knowledge. One has to be qualified to do virtually anything in Germany, and teaching technical English has one of the highest skill-demands of all branches of ESP.

German engineers and technicians most likely had to demonstrate that they could communicate in English to get their job, meaning that they will have had several years of English training already. These engineers tell me time and again that what they want, and need, is real, hands-on technical English, not endless grammar and business topics, or technical trivia. They may be trying to sell a complex product or be involved in an international collaboration specifying how something should be built, and discussing the inevitable problems and issues that arise.

The need for a qualification Technical English has many shades and depths, with its own style of language, just like any other ESP subject, all of which need to be understood correctly to teach it confidently. Such expertise should be formally recognised.

Having the necessary expertise ensures that a teacher is capable of accurately assessing a client's needs and will then be able to source suitable training material and plan a course curriculum. Such material can require much searching. There are also essential fundamental topics and language to be taught so that the technician or engineer understands the general technical language encountered in the workplace.

Oral activities form an important part of technical English. Exercises such as work-related technical text analysis and technical discussions, carefully monitored for correct pronunciation and language, develop the student's confidence when speaking to others. The teacher should be capable of holding a discussion with them and answering their technical questions. It is of little use shying away from these activities.

An engineer needs to know how to write correspondence, reports and specifications in good, clear, accurate technical language, requiring correct use of vocabulary and style for good readability. Where safety could be at stake, and in engineering it probably is, the need for accurate knowledge of what one is saying is important. A technical English teacher, just like a university professor, should have practical experience in the subject being taught so that the student is taught professionally and accurately.

The current situation Technical English seems to be regarded as a peripheral subject by language schools. The oft bandied notion that one does not need to know the subject because most of the time one is teaching the functions of language has little merit. On a technical English course the class should be learning and using the language of the profession in which they work, including all the essential general technical knowledge, with grammar wrapped around this. Anything else is not a technical English course.

A current trend that I am noticing is some language schools with little interest other than financial, are displacing reputable training organisations by making very low priced offers to larger companies, then they cut every corner possible, discarding course books for photocopies, and engaging, young, inexperienced teachers whose technical knowledge is trivial and domestic. Engineers and technicians quickly see that such a teacher is quite incapable of providing what they need for their work, and feel disappointed.

Of course, one will occasionally come across the teacher with a charismatic personality who can get by with keeping the class entertained. Is it right that such a situation with inexperienced teachers should exist - teachers who do not have a clue about anything technical, but state that they are experts to a school or client, and smartly divert the lessons to other things when they get to the classroom?

The way forward

Of course, everyone must begin somewhere. Anyone genuinely interested in developing their technical English skills needs to be encouraged and motivated. But it must not be just learning a few buzzwords in an effort to impress. Anyone considering developing their knowledge will most probably have some kind of background in a specific technical area already, and merely wants to expand their knowledge base. This is highly commendable.

Perhaps there is a need for dedicated training courses of competence in teaching technical English. Or perhaps it would be better to recruit persons from industry with a wealth of engineering knowledge to become technical English teachers, as in my own case. I would like to propose that a professional teaching skill acknowledgement certificate for every branch of ESP should be established, and would welcome any correspondence on the subject.

Teachers with special skills experience should be additionally rewarded financially. In the case of technical English a lot of costs are incurred and effort is needed to keep up with a technological skill, requiring constant reading, buying expensive books and magazines, and spending time at seminars and in libraries or the Internet, then having to spend more time preparing lessons from it all.

If anyone is interested in developing a professional career in teaching technical English, or knows of anyone from an engineering background who might be, my company would be interested in hearing from you.

© Lawrence Harris/TELS 2008.

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