Teaching English for the Workplace: Finding Authentic Listening Materials

Teaching English for the Workplace: Finding Authentic Listening Materials

By Dorothy Cleary

As I said in my introductory blog, authenticity of materials is one of the key elements in supporting learners to feel confident in New Zealand workplaces.  It is relatively easy to find authentic written materials, and learners who are employed may be able to supply these from their own workplaces.

However, finding, and using, authentic listening or watching materials is a very different story. As the transcript below will quickly demonstrate, authentic conversations tend to be messy, complex and difficult to understand. Nevertheless, EAL (English as an Additional Language) employees must deal with conversations like this on a regular basis, and we cannot ignore or sanitise this crucial aspect of Workplace English.

The conversation below is taken from a staff meeting at a smallish (15 + employees) multicultural IT company in Auckland.

A sample of authentic workplace language

Context: A ‘prizegiving’ ceremony at the end of detox June, during which everyone had volunteered to give up something for the month. Fines for failure went to charity. Robert is the CEO of the company.

Alex:

OK, Arjun

Belinda:

He was doing so well.

Alex:

And it is true that you caved on the 30th?

Arjun:

Umm … last week

Alex:

So, what are these ticks here? (laughter)

Belinda:

But he did pay his fine and he even put in an extra donation.

Alex:

Very good … very … good OK OK – Ben

Ben:

Well I remember ticking the boxes.

Alex:

Ben. Ben (reproachful) So have you paid your fine? So is it true? So how did you? was it worth it? What did you have? Some sort of taste? Was it worth it? …

Charles…so Charles had coffee and shaving and he’s been drinking nothing but Red Bulls for the last month and shaving … well who would know? (laughter) But Charles, as as you have officially made it all the way through… (clapping)

And then finally we have one last certificate, one last prize and this prize is for the person … who caved first (laughter) the person who effectively is … the biggest loser (laughter) Robert … (laughter) you lasted three hours! (clapping) You made the biggest contribution to charity.

Belinda:

Yeah, the City Mission are very happy with you.

Consider what comes out of this short piece of text. Here are a few possibilities.

Intonation

Identifying how Alex and Belinda use intonation in context to indicate:
•    a new topic (in this case, mostly a new person)
•    sarcasm
•    ironic versus genuine congratulations
•    support and consolation

Language

•    using ‘had’ as a synonym for ‘chose’
•    to ‘cave’, in context (also to pike, to give in, to give up…)
•    the meaning of ‘well, who would know?’ in context
•    to ‘make it all the way through’
•    ‘paying a fine’ versus ‘putting in a donation’… and so on

NZ Workplace Culture

•    the boss suffers the most teasing – he is ‘the biggest loser’, who also, immediately afterwards, makes the biggest contribution to charity.
•    the workers are actively encouraged to laugh at the boss.  (in THIS context!)
•    there is a prevalence of good-humoured sarcasm throughout the conversation – the more you are teased, the higher status you have and the more of an insider you are.

Discussion

This conversation has been considerably tidied up from the original, which was very fast, with lots of incidental noise and small interruptions, and where the laughter often overlapped with the speaking. In one sense it is relatively simple, because of its repetitive structure, and because Alex holds the floor more or less throughout. In every other sense, it is enormously complex.

Truly authentic texts, out of context and not tidied up, are often inaccessible to L1 English speakers, let alone L2 ones. It is not practical to use these as staples in a classroom, both because of difficulties in acquiring and getting permission to use authentic samples, and because of their complexity.

Nevertheless, tidied-up real-life conversations like the one above are a wonderfully rich resource for developing and understanding of both workplace language and culture.  What we need is a range of semi-authentic listening and video resources, based on real workplace communication.

Googling “Workplace English NZ” results in a short promotional video with scripted voiceover for an English for Employment programme, an Immigration NZ website with useful scenarios and language but no audios, and a 2-minute English programme from … the USA!

Available Resources

So, we are left with textbooks and other published resources, many of which are USA or British based, and many of which include unreal, stilted ‘conversations’. Here is a partial list of NZ/Australian based ones that I have found and used.

  1. Victoria University has published some well-structured and job-specific resources based on authentic workplace conversations. Some of these are available free online (try VUW workplace English classroom resources). They include several building site and eldercare facility conversations. There is also a fairly academic general course book available: “Workplace Talk in Action’.
  2. Australian workplace resources (available to order online from NSW AMES – publications) generally use at least semi-authentic audio/video material, and this is the closest we get to a wide range of NZ-suitable material.
  3. “Listening to New Zealand,” (also published by AMES) has some useful texts, but it is originally Australian, and not workplace focussed, and thus limited.
  4. If you are lucky, your workplace will still have a copy of an old but wonderful gem – “Off the Cuff.” It is out of date and the activities are perhaps not so useful, but the listening texts are authentic.  Again, however, it is not workplace focussed.
  5. The Careers New Zealand website is an unexpected source of video material.  Under the ‘About the Job’ tab in the Careers database there are many ITO (Industry Training Organisation)-produced introductory videos, some of which are gems of semi-authentic communication and all of which come with transcripts. This is an excellent resource for learners to use at home, and for the classroom.

Please add to the list, all suggestions gratefully received…

What can we do with these resources? I will explore this in my next blog.


Dorothy Cleary has over 25 years TESOL experience, as a teacher, academic manager, curriculum designer and, over the past 10 years, as a resource and curriculum developer for Asia and New Zealand. She has an MA in Applied Linguistics from Victoria University in Wellington (2005) and is an IELTS examiner.

Image source: shutterstock.com/Rawpixel.com

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