Interview: The challenges facing non-native speakers of English when teaching in business schools

Peter Daly, Associate Professor of Business Communication, Director of MSc in Management Studies and Dennis Davy, Associate Professor of English have just published an academic article entitled "Language boundary-crossing by business school faculty using English as a medium of instruction" in the European Journal of International Management included in the special issue on: Working Across Language Boundaries: New Perspectives on Language-Sensitive International Management Research. The paper looks at the challenges facing non-native speakers of English when teaching in business schools. 


Why did you decide to work on the specific topic of the teaching in English by non-native speakers? What questions does your article answer?

English is now the lingua franca in international business and global business speaks English, hence the need to internationalize business schools to prepare future managers for business environments. Over the past decade, we have seen business schools transform linguistically and we can now talk about the Englishization of the management academy. More and more programmes are taught in English, we have a growing number of exchange students whose common language is English, teaching and research output focuses more on English-language indices and graduate employability requires English proficiency. In light of this increased Englishization within business schools, we set out to explore the challenges faced by non-native speaking faculty when they use English as a Medium of Instruction (EMI). 15 faculty members were interviewed to ascertain 1) the challenges faced when they cross the language boundary from their native language into English; 2) their perceptions of what is lost and gained by teaching in English; 3) the strategies they employ to deal with the challenges faced; and 4) how they describe their EMI teaching experience.

Do you think that professors at French business school face the same challenges as professors in other European business schools? Is there a French case?

We believe that there are commonalties across all non-native speakers who have to teach in English but professors at French Business Schools face particular challenges that are particular to the context of France and the French language. Most non-native faculty experience anxiety, question their identity and must become more aware of their teacher selves when they teach in English.  They adopt strategies to deal with their lack of English proficiency and often report a loss of spontaneity in interaction with their students.  French native-speaker faculty at public universities have been more reticent to adopt English as a medium of instruction (EMI) as some view this as the undermining of the French language. However, at business schools EMI has been much less problematic but has resulted in certain faculty feeling excluded from teaching at Masters-level or from conducting high level research that requires advanced proficiency in English.


What did your study reveal? Please sum up your findings.

The linguistic challenges faced by faculty included a variety of problems, such as telling effective stories, anecdotes, jokes and using irony and humour in class, performing speech acts appropriately such as suggesting, complaining, giving directives, reprimanding and other aspects of day-to-day classroom management. They also experienced difficulties expressing modality (with 'could', 'should', 'would' and 'must') and cited a lack of sufficient lexical dexterity to handle emotional or colloquial language appropriately, as well as problems with certain culturally bound concepts. Although they referred to challenges with English phonology and levels of formality, respondents did not experience problems relating to grammar or to the language for specialised purposes (LSP) of their specific disciplines.  As regards non-verbal behaviours, they sometimes found difficulties in reading facial expressions of students from cultural/linguistic backgrounds that they were not familiar with.

What they felt they lost most as professors is their spontaneity, their ability to improvise, to use small talk, automatic routines and ready-made formulae, to employ a range of vocabulary and paraphrase as well as their awareness of register and style.  What they gained is that they prepared more and rehearsed more than they would have to in French, students found that their restricted vocabulary was clearer, they brought extensive cross-cultural knowledge to the students as they used French cultural examples and illustrations in class, they developed greater linguistic flexibility and accommodation strategies in their use of the English language and the gained increased respect from most students.

French faculty used a range of strategies to cope in the English-language classroom such as paraphrasing, thorough preparation and rehearsal, avoiding certain language structures, appealing for help by asking students for clarification, switching back into French where appropriate, using ‘literacy brokers’ (other faculty and experts in their field), online resources and keeping notes of the language they use when teaching.

Professors describe teaching in English as taking on another personality or putting on a mask prior to going on stage. Some felt they become another person as they cross the linguistic boundary. Others said they mimic specific native speakers and develop chameleon-like skills to adapt to a diverse student audience.

When summarizing your research findings, you wrote “faculty [reported] both linguistic loss and cultural and pedagogical gain”. Could you give further details on both of these aspects?

French faculty evoke varying degrees of anxiety regarding their language proficiency and feel that, compared to native speakers, they lack the linguistic flexibility in English to respond to all situations such as spontaneous student interaction, general chit-chat and the metalanguage required in everyday classroom management. However, many professors feel that they gain significantly as they can leverage cultural examples and illustrations from two or more cultures (both their own and from English-speaking culture) and that the fact that French faculty have to prepare their classroom content in English makes them more pedagogically aware and confident as teaching in English requires that they cross the pedagogical boundary as well.


What can be done to help Business School professors to “cross” this language boundary more effectively?

Business schools need to carry out an audit of those who can teach in English and those who cannot, prior to helping those who experience difficulties. We suggest that novice EMI faculty observe native faculty and more experience EMI faculty members. Some faculty will require both linguistic and pedagogical training. The linguistic training aims to develop their language skills in the classroom to boost their comprehensibility, establish their credibility in the English language and hone their verbal flexibility so that they take pleasure and gain confidence in teaching through English. A language coach or mentor can help faculty to work on the various speech acts required in a classroom situation (such as paraphrasing, complimenting, reprimanding and directing), as well as enhance their in-class communicative and strategic strategies. As regards pedagogical training, educationalists can help faculty to design content directly in English all the while acquiring the language of education. EMI coaching that integrates both linguistic and pedagogical training is increasingly being made available at many business schools to help non-native English-speaking faculty to cross this boundary more smoothly.


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