FB: Welcome, Liam, to the Business School HQ inaugural interview. I’m pleased to have you open this interview series. I’d like to have teachers, authors and even learners share their experience in teaching and learning Business English.
Liam Hickey is a writer, editor, English teacher, and career coach. After a 15-year career in technology in Washington, DC, started teaching EFL in Mexico, where he taught for more than two years. He is a specialist in CVs and interviews, technical writing, and academic writing for essays and theses. He is also a Toastmaster and public speaker.
FB: You’ve been teaching EFL in Mexico to business professionals. Tell me about your teaching experience.
WH: When I started teaching EFL in Mexico, I was already a writer and editor, so I knew English well. What I did not know was the ESL students’ perspective. I had to adjust my speed, pronunciation, and choice of words. I learned to speak in cognates, the words that are basically the same between the languages, and I learned to slow down and enunciate. I taught classes completely in English, and one day, one of my students said, “Teacher, your accent is better this week.”
FB: What kinds of writing skills did your learners want to improve?
WH: Honestly, there is a huge emphasis on conversation in teaching EFL in Mexico, to the point where general English classes will only use written exercises to drill grammar, like new verb tenses. However, many people are in English-speaking careers and need to write CVs in English. I also found a need with specialized writing. Some graduate school programs require their students to write theses and dissertations in English. I also spoke with professional translators who wanted to learn the nuances of English writing.
FB: Were there any particular documents, such as emails or short reports, that learners wanted to write better?
WH: We did a bit of that in the classroom with our business English program. Those assignments really give the student a chance to practice and succeed, because they are typically one page or less with a particular structure. Those are the keys to any successful writing exercise for English students.
FB: What are one or two writing activities that learners found effective?
WH: One of the seminars I delivered was on writing cover letters for job applications. Specifically, I used what is called the “T-style” cover letter because of its structure. A T-style cover letter includes a table with the left side having requirements from the job announcement and the right side containing the person’s experience that matches the requirement. So, part of the cover letter, they get to copy from the job announcement, and that gets them started. As any writer knows, starting is the most difficult part.
FB: Do you have any favourite book or online resources that you used?
WH: Oh, sure. I think everyone has their favourites. The school director showed us EnglishClub.com, which has some very good explanations and examples of grammar. Another good one for both teachers and students is Paul Brian’s book, “Common Errors in English Usage.” It quickly explains word that get commonly confused or misused. For a more advanced version of this type of book with more content and grammar, I recommend “The Columbia Guide to Standard American English.” For advanced English students, editors, and translators, “The Blue Book of Grammar” is the American standard.
FB: Tell me about the business writing book you are working on.
WH: My book is about career skills and job searching, so I focus on writing resumes (CVs), cover letters, and practice answers to interview questions.
FB: What is the number 1 tip you would give teachers of Business English writing?
WH: Accent training is becoming more and more in demand. Your students need to learn to speak to other people in English who are also learning English as a second language, and they come from many countries.
FB: What is the number 1 tip you would give learners for improving their business writing?
WH: If you need to use translation software, I find Bing.com is better for common conversation, and Google Translate is better for formal language, but it is interesting to look at both translations together. When you write something for someone else, shorter is better, and organize your ideas.
FB: How about a tip for me too! I’m in the process of creating an online Business Writing program geared to intermediate to advanced non-native English speaking business professionals. What are two or three points I should keep in mind?
WH: One of my PhD students in Mexico taught me that Spanish speakers express ideas very differently. They take their time getting to the point, giving lots of context first. As one of my colleagues teaches in Mexico, “English is efficient. Get to the point.” Also remember to keep repeating the two fundamentals of any communication: audience and purpose. Who is your audience? Why are you writing to them? Why are they spending time to read what you wrote?
FB: Can you summarize the three main ideas you’d like viewers to take away from our conversation?
WH: For teaching, remember structure. Structure your exercises. Structure your students’ thinking. To clarify vocabulary, I think “Common Errors in English Usage” is going to be a great resource for teachers and students. Accent training is becoming huge. It’s why our school rotated teachers among our classes, to expose the students to different accents. The Indian accent tends to be the most important to train right now.
FB: Any final thoughts you’d like to leave the Business School HQ community?
WH: I believe that the word “get” is the central point of the English language. We use “get” in so many ways and in so many phrasal verbs. I made an activity in class about it that I called “Get It?” Everytime people spoke, they had to incorporate some form of “get” into what they said. To master the English language, master the use of “get.”
FB: Thanking you for participating.