How to empower your teams to improve their English skills

Are you responsible for others who are learning English, or who want to improve their language skills?

English is becoming more widely used as a common language in business, either because businesses are doing more international work with English-speaking countries, or because English is the easiest language for everyone involved to use for communication.

As a result, some teams have been changing the way they work, because more conversations are taking place in English. Many companies identify the need for training, but the courses they sign their staff up for are not always best suited to the needs of the staff. In other cases, good training is provided, but there are no opportunities for employees to practice what they’ve learned before using it in business-critical situations.

It’s true, I am a language service provider. I’d be happy if anyone wants to speak with me about what I can offer them after they’ve read this post. However, this isn’t just a sales pitch. I genuinely want to highlight some of the things that haven’t been working for my private customers in their companys’ external training programmes, so that anyone in the position of sourcing training can be aware of issues they may not have previously considered.

1. Find out what people need

Before you can find an appropriate solution, it’s good to look, on an individual and group level, at what is needed, and where the knowledge gaps are. Do people within the team need the same thing? Are their learning levels or preferred learning styles the same?

One of my favourite managers sent me on a course that nobody on my pay grade had been on because the things that they were learning just weren’t relevant to my role. You can get better deals for group bookings, but if the training isn’t adding value to the whole team, they might not be the way to go!

There are additional things to consider with mixed group language courses. If the material is too easy, people will get bored and disengage. If it’s too difficult, they may easily feel left behind and not want to participate, because doing so would show colleagues and peers that there is a knowledge gap.

2. Consider individual training assessments

Some companies have prescribed learning for all staff. Others allocate a budget for each member of staff and encourage staff to be involved in identifying and sourcing training to meet their individual learning needs. This gives the staff the sense that they are involved in, and therefore more invested in the process.

I have worked with a number of employees from one company that works in this way. The staff identify the training, then the company reimburses them afterwards.

3. Consider whether group training is the answer

Group training can be good in that it can also involve elements of team building. However, members within the same team may have very different reasons for using a language, and it can be difficult to meet all of these individual needs in group training. Senior members of staff may not want to feel vulnerable by making mistakes in front of their teams, and if someone’s goal is to reduce their anxiety about speaking, a big group setting is probably not the most ideal place to do that anyway.

4. Look at the range of methods on offer

Language teaching providers work in very different ways, so it’s important to find out what staff need, and what kind of approach is likely to give them the best results.

I can’t tell you how many people have come to me because the instructors on the courses that their company is paying for can’t or won’t use German. I’m clear that I do use German in my lessons – – you can find out why here.

Some courses are structured and follow a book – others are more specific to individual needs. Sometimes it’s not enough just to find a reputable language school without looking a bit further into methods and outcomes.

5. Give people opportunities to put the theory into practice

It’s not all about the training though. People can pick up a lot of useful skills and information in training, but not everyone can hit the ground running. Often it’s good to give people the chance to use what they’ve learned in low-risk situations so that they can build up their confidence through every-day interactions before it really counts.

6. Consider a buddy system

This works better in larger organisations, especially if you have native English speakers who are also using the local language. Language exchanges at work can be a way for people to practice their skills in a less daunting environment, such as going for a coffee with a colleague, and this is more likely to happen if they know that company time can be set aside for a reasonable amount of these activities. There are also benefits to learners working together – they may not be able to correct one another or answer questions, but they could still work on their fluency.

7. Give people the chance to try something new – with support

Sometimes people just need some help to get out of their comfort zone. Rather than throwing them in at the deep end, you could ask them to do a joint presentation, or take responsibility for leading part of a meeting, knowing that you or another colleague will be there to offer support if it is needed. This can feel like less of a challenge than taking on individual responsibility for delivering something in another language, especially if it’s the first time that someone has done this.

8. Give people alternative ways to contribute

The person who won’t stop talking at meetings doesn’t always have the best ideas! If you can find alternative ways for people to contribute ideas, give updates, and generally play an active role in the team, you won’t only favour those who enjoy group discussions and public speaking. This is true in any language, but especially so when people are not working in their first language.

9. Confidence isn’t a sign of competence

Being yourself in another language is hard. Try to make sure people aren’t overlooked because they don’t push themselves forward. When thinking about the best person to speak to customers or write a document, you may have staff who tend to hold back more, but who would actually be better suited to a job that requires a higher level of accuracy.

10. Make it “fun”

This is often difficult because people have such different ideas of what actually constitutes fun. But if you can build using English into your team activities, where appropriate, this might also give people the chance to use their language skills in an environment where they feel less under pressure. The best way to find out what people would enjoy is to ask them!

More from English with Kirsty

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Kirsty working with students

Author: Kirsty Wolf

I am an English teacher and a language enthusiast who also speaks German and Romanian. I help motivated professionals to improve their English so that they can communicate confidently and authentically.

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