Empowering the “Empowered”: Facilitating Language Learning in Firms

As teachers of adult language learners, from time to time, we are confronted with situations in which a barrier to learning is thrown up and there seems to be very little we can do about it. These barriers are no less challenging when teaching adult professionals.

One would assume that “self-actualized” professional types would have fewer confidence issues in their learning than those who have not attained the same level of professional and academic achievement. When there are varying levels of seniority or position within a group, the higher-ranking individuals sometimes dominate the lesson, but their dominance is not always a result of their confidence. On the contrary, it may be a result of their lack thereof.

While it is certainly true that the disempowered need special attention to bring them out of their shells, we also must be sensitive to the affective needs of adult learners who we may consider to be socio-economically empowered. On occasion, their issues may have a negative impact on their own learning and on that of the entire group.

As I have written previously, trust is essential. It is not wise to jump into potentially risky or threatening learning activities without building sufficient trust and knowing the learners’ cultural and personal boundaries (see My Biggest Mistake as a Language Teacher). Sometimes, though, simply establishing teacher-student trust is just not enough – there can be trust issues that are deeply seated amongst the learners. When teaching firm courses, we should be aware of power structures, or corporate cultures, that can negatively affect group dynamics.

I remember being invited to teach a course for a small group of local civil servants. The group comprised three or four middle managers and the director of the organization, all of whom seemed to have excellent interpersonal relationships. Despite having known all the group members before I even began teaching them, there was a trust barrier that we were never able to break through. I felt that my own performance was mediocre at best and, as time went on, I began to dread that lesson and I’m sure the learners felt the same.

Ironically, I have always suspected that the barrier could be at least partially attributed to the esteem everyone had for the director. He was kind, he had a soft-spoken demeanour and he was a very educated and experienced man. The problem was that he seemed to be unable to take a risk in English. Perhaps he did not want to lose face with his colleagues by making a mistake and, conversely, they did not want to “show him up”. The mutual respect they all had for each other may have prohibited them from taking risks and as a result there was very little communication during the lessons. We tried for two years, but with little success – we were unable to find a way around the personality issues.

Since that time, I have taught many executive types and their employees. Although it is always difficult to predict how these courses will turn out, the negative experiences lead me to believe that the option of separating senior managers from their subordinates should always be on the table. After 25 years of foreign language teaching, I still have not found an effective way to prevent corporate culture from smothering the culture of communicative learning.

It would be interesting to hear how others deal with these issues. Please feel free to comment or share.

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