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Multilingualism, Global Competency and Communicative Performance for Business

Ram Krishna Singh

(Indian School of Mines, India)

Abstract: The paper was based on the presentation to the National Conference on Sustainability and Development: Implications of ELT for Individual Society and Ecology at Indian Institute of Technology, Patna, 3-4 April, 2015. It focused on the theme of Sustainable Development, though basically concerned with saving Earth’s resources, environmental protection, green management, and social impact of development, and seeks to meet “the needs of the present, without compromising the ability of future generation to meet their own needs.”  It argues that the idea of sustainable development encourages us to make better decisions on the issues that affect all our lives. Therefore, make us think how to balance different, and often competing, needs vis-à-vis our socioeconomic limitations, lack of infrastructure, and manpower.
Key words: Sustainable development, multilingualism, global competency, communicative performance for business

I must admit at the outset I have reservations about what is sustainable in the environment of English Language Teaching in India, and specially in a privileged technical institution like the IIT or ISM where, like it or not, studying English is viewed as unnecessary obligation both by a larger section of engineering students and subject teachers, irrespective of their support for English in public. There is hardly any pressure on students from technical subject teachers for writing well. As I have observed, the subject teachers’ attitude towards students’ shortcomings or difficulties in English varies from tolerance to indifference to helplessness. According to a recent study conducted in a Swedish university, where the entire program is in English, with pressure from the central government to internationalize, as in our situation, Computer Science teachers take it for granted that their students already have the mastery of English. Similarly, teachers of Earth Sciences, which is an international subject, teach with the presumption that their students have no difficulty in following the textbooks written in English, while students of Natural Sciences and Medical Sciences consider competency in English essential for a career.  As English teachers, most of you must have noticed science and Engineering subject teachers acknowledging that English is important for international publication and job, but they hardly care about the students’ performance in their subjects, using English. 
Digital Culture
We all understand that most of the students’ productive skills— speaking and writing—are not good or satisfactory. Nor is there much formal feedback regarding the standard of their English for publication in scholarly or professional journals. Their ‘reading’ the printed page is now reduced to ‘viewing’ on the computer screen, and finding  ‘key words’ have changed the nature of the ‘old’ skimming, scanning, and skipping. Easily available artificially intelligent software check the spelling and grammar errors and facilitate academic discourse, in howsoever a limited way.  It is reshaping the traditional teaching materials, but it’s not clear what the new technology will take away from the learning experience, even if a UN document on sustainable development promises, “Information Technology based chiefly on advances in micro-electronics and computer science is of particular importance. Coupled with rapidly advancing means of communication, it can help improve the productivity, energy and resource efficiency, and organizational structure of industry.”
Against such a background, and relegated to the margin, the English teachers are now obliged to seek, perhaps in their own professional interests, to maximize the students’ potential as English learners and  as human beings, and understand and teach with technology integration, discourse sense, and locally relevant and culturally appropriate ways.
The changes over the last two decades have been so rapid that “it makes a completely different linguistic world to live in,” as David Crystal says. The internet has already altered all our previous concepts to do with language. For the generation born after 1985, the internet and mobile phones, for example, are not just media; they have become a social environment in which one settles and lets out one’s energies. It is a parallel world, with a lot of virtual alternatives.
We, in India, have yet to understand how technologies such as smart phones, social media, video conferencing, wikis, open online courses, etc are changing the relationship between teacher and student, and how the old concepts of ‘reading’ and ‘writing’ are now challenged. The vernacular of technology is shaping our language at an incredible rate. To speak and understand English today, students may need to know what ‘Google’ or ‘twitter’ is, and how these are used as verbs, just as we have to be sensitive to the needs of the average rural students most of whom do not have a computer or internet access at home.  Even if they may not be fluent speakers, they do use English words in the course of Hindi, Tamil, or Bengali etc. They may also use English swear words where one would least expect them. One is able to use the odd word frequently, perhaps to sound confident, modern, educated, or impress the neighbor. One can hear words like “miss call”, “tension”, “time pass”, “backing”, “adjust”, “VIP”, “shit”, “mobile” and scores of others.
In fact they use English without any interference from those whose native language it has been. Knowingly or unknowingly, they nurture the Indian variety of English just as we notice the world varieties of English diversified with a variety of political, economic, and cultural consequences. The patterns of the past linguistic history, as John Algeo noted twenty years ago, may not be repeated. “New factors of electronic communication and air travel are likely to prevent the fracturing of English into mutually incomprehensible languages. Locally divergent forms of English may drift off into separate languages, but the core of English is likely to remain a varied, diversified, but recognizably ‘same’ language.”
For teaching English in such a situation, we would need to know more about, and understand well, the various connections between language use and successful communication, about lexical tools of communication, about the potential of various Englishes in the present age, and the selective information needs in today’s society.  We also need to think, individually and collectively, the strengths and weaknesses of the digital learning material and its prospective impact on how humans learn. Many digital learning materials completely overhaul how classes are conducted, how students are tested on knowledge, and how teachers fit into the picture.
Cultural Fluency
There is also a distinct cultural aspect to the use of English today. Cultural fluency is important in effective English learning. Students need to become active and culturally aware communicators. Which means they must be good not only in their mother tongue but also intangible aspects of communication, including body language, cultural fluency, and diplomacy. Social scientists estimate that over 90 percent of what we communicate is non-verbal, so if the body language is giving wrong message, it won’t matter how well you   speak a language, people may still not get a positive impression of you. They might even feel uncomfortable talking to you. By becoming aware of and working on your body language, you will experience an immediate impact on how you feel about yourself, how others perceive you, and your overall communication. So how you hold not only yourself, but also your posture, your openness, and your self-awareness matters a lot.
The teacher’s success, thus, lies in managing the learning strategies and promoting practice and use, or what the linguists have mentioned as pragmatic function (language as doing) and mathetic function (language as learning).
Even as we talk about globalization, tertiary educa- tion in every discipline needs scholars and researchers who have good international perspective and ability to work in diverse settings. The common concern facing us is: cultivating globally-minded graduates, with abilities across cultures and boundaries.
Needless to say, language competence is basic to acquiring global perspective via the graduation courses. It helps to learn a couple of regional or foreign languages for expanding professional networks and gaining cultural experiences which are vital for global learning. As far as English is concerned, teaching the pragmatic, inter- actional and creative uses of English in our academic and professional context is important.
Multiple Englishes
In his stimulating exposition of the spread of English, Braj B. Kachru emphasizes that English has not only acquired multiple identities but also “a broad spectrum of cross-cultural contexts of use.” During the last twenty five years or so, scholars have progressively acknowledged the reality of multicultural aspects of English a la linguistic interactions of three types of participants: native speaker and native speaker; native speaker and non-native speaker; and non-native speaker and non-native speaker. Resultantly, as Kachru points out, there has been “a multiplicity of semiotic systems, several non-shared linguistic conventions, and numerous underlying cultural traditions,” paving way for English as an International Language (EIL), which provides access across cultures and boundaries. The focus has shifted to the diverse users and language activities within a sociolinguistic context which is often localized rather than native-speaker oriented as far as aspects such as communicative teaching or communicative competence are concerned.
Taking cue from international diffusion of English, we should recognize the institutionalized non-native varieties of English such as Indian English, and concentrate on English used in South Asian and South East Asian countries for reviewing the pedagogic developments in language teaching with an ESP bias as also for trying to integrate language and culture teaching.  This is significant in that despite decades of activities in the name of communicative teaching or communicative competence, not much has been achieved in terms of methods and materials for international competence in English. The European parochialism continues to dominate the academics’ reasoning even as discourse organization, both literary and spoken, reflects a certain regionalism.
Negotiating Differences
With sensitivity for the language, I would like to assert that the yardsticks of the British or American native speakers, or their standards as reflected in GRE, TOEFL or IELTS etc, or their kind of tongue twisting, are simply damaging to the interests of non-native speakers.  We have to develop our own standards, instead of teaching to sound like Londoners or North Americans. Pronunciation must be intelligible and not detract from the understanding of a message. But for this nobody needs to speak the so called standardized English (that makes inter- and intranational communication difficult).  David Crystal too appreciates this reality and favors ‘local taste’ of English in India and elsewhere.  The problems of teaching, say spoken English, relate to lack of intercultural communicative competence.
Many of the misunderstandings that occur in multicultural or multinational workplace are traceable to intergroup differences in how language is used in interpersonal communication rather than to lack of fluency in English.  In fact native speakers need as much help as non-natives when using English to interact internationally and interculturally.  It is understanding the how of negotiation, mediation, or interaction.  We need to teach with positive attitude to intercultural communication, negotiating linguistic and cultural differences.  The focus has to be on developing cultural and intercultural competence, tolerance (the spread and development of various Englishes is an instance of grammatical and lexical tolerance), and mutual under- standing. Rules of language use are culturally determined.  I doubt all those who talk about spoken English, or communication skills, care to teach or develop intercultural communicative abilities.  This presupposes a good grasp of one’s own culture or way of communi- cation, or the language etiquettes, gestures and postures, space, silence, cultural influences, verbal style etc. 
Understanding and awareness of non-verbal behavior, cues and information is an integral part of interpersonal communication in many real-life situations, including business and commerce. Though research is needed to understand the role of visual support in our situations, it does seem relevant in making students aware of the context, discourse, paralinguistic features and culture. This can be advantageous in teaching soft skills which are basically life skills, or abilities for adaptive and positive behavior, so necessary for successful living.
If one has to work abroad and use English with others there, one has to be sensitive to the culturally governed ways of speaking or talking to each other. The speech community’s (the language culture of the group of people) ways of communication cannot be taken for granted, when one seeks to learn or teach spoken English. People fail or suffer discomfort or embarrassment in negotiations in business or political affairs, or achievement of personal goals due to incompetence in persuasion, negotiation, mediation, or interaction. It is their performance, their intercultural interactional competence which matters; it lies in managing social interaction, and not just communication, in the narrow sense of the word, or use of right grammatical form, syntax, vocabulary, or even certain polite phrases. The goal is to enable one to express what one wishes to convey and make the impression that one wishes to make, using language with a sense of interaction and mutuality.
Business Communication
In the context of Business Communication, it is not without a sense of social business for creating value and better business outcome. One needs to demonstrate social insights, too, in the use of, say, (social) networking sites, smart phones, mobile, tablet PCs, voice mail, electronic mail, and other e-business instruments such as computer network, teleconferencing and video conferencing that are being integrated to enterprise design.  This means one needs to be able to share information, discover expertise, capitalize on relationship, and be collaborative in creatively solving business challenges. One needs to demonstrate leadership and management traits, innovation, and decision-making; one needs to be able to identify oneself with the shared values and beliefs of the organization one is associated with; and more importantly, one needs to demonstrate intercultural and interactive abilities with sensitivity for change and adaptation, if one is working in a foreign country or in a multinational company.
In short, one’s personal communication, both oral or written, needs to be in tune with the communication philosophy -- goals and values, aspirations and pledges, beliefs and policies-- of the organization one is working for, just as one should be able to blend with the host culture.
When I mention intercultural interaction, I point to the need for adapting to differences in life style, language, business philosophy as well as problems with finances, government, cultural shock, housing, food, gender, family etc. Although many of the people sent on foreign assignment know their (foreign) market, they are often unable to accept another culture on that culture’s terms even for short periods. Sensitivity for intercultural business environment, or being aware of each culture’s symbols, how they are the same, and how they are different, is important.
Communicative Performance
Let’s revisit some of the issues related to ‘communicative’ teaching, in general, and business communication, in particular. If communication is the aim of English (or any other language) teaching and ‘communicative’ syllabuses fail to develop what Dell Hymes called ‘communicative competence’ and Noam Chomsky mentioned as communicative performance, we need to reflect on our classroom practices, research and materials production from time to time. Chomsky’s focus was on the sentence-level grammatical competence of an ideal speaker-listener of a language, and Hymes, as a sociolinguist, was concerned with real speaker-listeners who interpret, express, and negotiate meaning in many different social settings; he brought into focus the view of language as a social phenomenon and reflected on its use as units of discourse. Socializing competence and performance, Dell Hymes also mentioned ‘appropria- teness’, that is, “when to speak, when not, and as to what to talk about and with whom, when, where, in what manner.” This concept of “appropriate use” as ‘communicative competence’ was accepted by Chomsky and called “pragmatic competence” (i.e. rules of use). Thus, Dell Hymes ‘communicative’ is Chomsky’s ‘pragmatic’ and includes knowledge of sociolinguistic rules, or the appropriateness of an utterance, in addition to knowledge of grammar rules. The term has come to negotiate meaning, to successfully combine a knowledge of linguistic and sociolinguistic rules in communicative interaction, both oral and written.
Michael Canale and Merril Swain in various papers on communicative competence have referred to “appropriacy” in terms of ‘sociolinguistic competence’. In fact, they offer another term “strategic competence”, that is, the ability to use communication strategies like approximation (or paraphrase strategy, using, for example, ‘pipe’ for waterpipe or ‘flower’ for leaf to come close to the intended meanings), word-coinage, circumlocution (i.e. describing objects or ideas using “It looks like…”, “It’s made of…” etc when one temporarily forgets an exact word), borrowing including literal translation and language mix, appeal for assistance, ie. asking for information appropriately using “Excuse me,” “Could you…?” “What’s the word for…?”  “I didn’t know how to say it,” etc). mime and all that.  Their strategic competence(Canale and Swain) refers to the ability to enhance or repair conversations and means the same as Chomsky’s ‘pragmatic competence’ or Fluency. Brumfit and others too have used the term ‘pragmatic’ in the sense of fluency.
Thus, communicative competence consists of LINGUISTIC competence(ACCURACY), PRAGMATIC competence (FLUENCY), and SOCIOLINGUISTIC competence (APPROPRIACY). 
The Linguistic competence or Accuracy in communication is much broader than mere grammatical competence; it includes the linguistic domains of grammar, vocabulary and pronunciation as well as the linguistic skills of speaking, listening, reading, and writing, spelling, discourse (particularly interconnections and interdependence of the sentences and paragraphs), and the ability to contrast with the mother tongue.
The pragmatic competence or Fluency in communi- cation relates to ease and speed of expression, i.e. how to keep talking, how not to remain silent because one doesn’t know the word (the skill of paraphrasing), and other strategies of learning, including how to listen to oneself and so be able to self-correct and self-edit at once; that is, the ability to monitor immediately.
The sociolinguistic competence or Appropriacy includes varieties of text types (stories, dialogues, non-fiction passages etc) and functions of the language, different levels/degrees of formality or informality, or appropriacy and use of language in authentic situations.
I doubt if we follow such a communicative curriculum with understanding of communicative competence in terms of linguistic ability, pragmatic ability and sociolinguistic ability. But its adoption should help students become independent learners; it should equip them with linguistic forms, means, and strategies that would help them overcome communication difficulties both inside and outside the classroom. From this perspective, communicative competence should be thought of as communicative performance just as a communicative syllabus should be essentially performance-based, that is, increasing the learner’s proficiency.       
To quote Brendan Carroll: “The use of a language is the objective, and the mastery of the formal patterns, or usage, of the language is a means to achieve this objective. The ultimate criterion of language mastery is therefore the learner’s effectiveness in communication for the settings he finds himself in.”
Poor Communicative Performance
Work-related skills such as team work, cultural awareness, leadership, communication and I.T. skills are as vital as academic achievement for Business/ Management students.  It would be poor communicative performance if, for example, someone makes a multimedia presentation without knowing how to use the equipment and experiences technical difficulties, or “tries to liven up a dull topic merely by adding flashy graphics rather than by improving the content of the presentation.  People who attend meetings unprepared waste others’ time. People with poor listening skills frustrate those who have to repeat information for them. Those who make inappropriate grammatical or vocabulary choices embarrass themselves and those around them.  Incompetent communicators hurt the organization they represent. This has especially been the case with hastily sent emails composed in a moment of anger.”
Positive   Attitude Needed
Academic or professional communication skills , both written and oral, have to be imparted in such a way that students in their  contexts are able to identify their own language learning needs and to set their own language learning goals. At college and university level, teachers may act as facilitators, just as they would need to teach with positive attitude for inter- and intracultural communication, the skills of negotiating linguistic and cultural differences.
It is with this sensibility for English language and its teaching in various contexts that I speak to you. Yet, as I say all this, I keep in mind the ground reality:  that is, poor literacy skills, fluency, and even comprehension; poor communicative ability, with limited experiences in writing, speaking and listening unless, of course, teaching of English as a Second,  or additional language,  improves from school level and need for a supportive classroom climate and positive student attitudes towards learning at postsecondary level is recognized. Also, both teachers and students need to be aware of what to do, how to do it, and when and why to do it, as part of practicing self-regulation strategies.
The ELT community as also the other stake holders in the country should, therefore, revise and reformulate appropriate strategies and policies, with tolerance and multilingualism at the core, to remain relevant in the coming decades. The objective of looking back is  to move forward with a reasoned perspective for taking  measures to develop communication abilities and higher discourse competence, with a broadened inter- and cross-disciplinary bases, for learning to understand (rather than memorize) and apply in one’s own contexts.
Communication in Business
The digression apart, let me now come back to teaching communication in business. In terms of ESP, we should be aware of the ‘specific purposes’ of what we do in the classroom, just as we should do it in terms of students’ specific needs. For example, if we teach written communication, we teach it in the specific context of Business, maybe, where applicable, in terms of ‘rhetorical functions’, with a sense of logical organization of knowledge or information, as noticed in actual use.  Students need to be exposed to a range of authentic report material from business, commerce, finance, administration, marketing, production, personnel etc. They need to understand the logical steps in writing a report, from ‘collecting the information’ through to ‘summarizing’ and ‘appendix’.  In short, they need to be presented with task-oriented activities that are both challenging and authentic in the field of business: they need to be forced to read and think about the content of the report; they need to be made to think about the structure and organization of the report; they need to think about the language used to express the content; and they have to be made to apply this knowledge to the skill of writing a report. The variety of writing exercises may include paragraph writing, expansion of notes, completion of paragraphs,  sequencing of sentences into paragraph, and using the right punctuation marks, connectives, sub-headings, presentation of non-verbal information or transfer of information from text to diagram (graph, chart, table, outline etc); linking findings, conclusions and recommendations, extracting main points for making descriptive and evaluative summaries etc.  We teach all this in terms of what the students already know and what they need to know. They unlearn, learn, and re-learn, both formal and informal expressions, within the conventions of the discipline they belong to.
As already pointed out, their career success depends on good writing and speaking skills, along with proper etiquettes and listening skills and understanding skills.  Skills that need particular attention are informational and analytical report writing, proposal writing, memo writing, letter writing, oral presentation, and a sense of grammar, punctuation, word, sentence and paragraph.
The methodology should encourage students to learn from each other via activities both of a productive kind and of a receptive nature. We may exploit developments in the case study approach, use role plays and simulations that place the students in realistic and stimulating situations to create spontaneous personal interaction and creative use of the language in a business context.
A mix of the task based approach, group work, and simulations should help the future business people develop the skills for meeting and negotiating as also for the necessary mastery of English for functioning autonomously in the field. The challenge is not to teach a descriptive course on discourse, but to provide for a pragmatic and custom-tailored input, ready for processing by the learners in an authentic learning environment.
In other words, in stead of mere  ‘business communication’, the emphasis has to be on, what I already mentioned, ‘interaction in business context’. It is not merely the language of business, but also the cultural conventions of meetings and negotiations in an intercultural setting that one has to be aware of, and learn. As far as teaching is concerned, it is rather helping  students with learning how to learn, how to create the learning opportunities for themselves, and understanding  the ways in which language and business strategies interact. If we follow a learner-centred approach,  a three-step procedure could be: first, to illustrate (=a good model), then, to induce (=induction for effective learning by the learner), and finally, to interact (=the outcome).
I would like to quote Christopher Brumfit from his opening speech to SPEAQ Convention in Quebec City (in June 1982): “…Being communicative is as much or more a matter of methodology as of syllabus or materials, and methodology is something that teachers are uniquely qualified to contribute to. We should, therefore, be willing to use our expertise, to innovate, to improve, to inform each other, and to criticize.” What we are doing here, friends, is just to make a beginning, the beginning of a process of communicating, of understanding, that we can start but cannot finish.
Eclectic Approach
I am aware that there is no universal teaching method or ideal teaching material suited to many contexts of language teaching. Whatever didactic techniques one knows without excluding the behavioristic drills, and practice and use of mother tongue, where appropriate, are all valid at different points in the teaching process. I stand for an eclectic approach as different methods for different students have always worked and there has not been one best method any time. With our freedom to choose and adopt any notion that serves our teaching ends, with a reasonable degree of historical sense, flexibility and adaptability that allows us to select among a variety of approaches, methods and techniques, we can meet the challenges of today and tomorrow. I see teaching communicatively essentially consisting of an eclectic methodology which incorporates what is valuable in any system or method of teaching and refuses to recognize bad teaching or defective learning. In any educational setting, sensitive and sensible application and continuing evaluation of the chosen practices should be inbuilt.
English has been practised in a social, economic, political, educational and philosophical “hot-house”, to use Peter Strevens’ expression, and the hot-house in India differs in quality from state to state. It is necessary to create an enabling environment – managerial, administrative, institutional, academic, and curricular—to promote not only quality education and effective learning with exposure to lots of natural, meaningful and understandable language, but also genuine communication. This means learners should read and listen to live language; they should speak and write it in ways that can be understood by educated speakers everywhere. Moreover, they should eventually be able to produce and comprehend culturally appropriate natural discourse.
Summing Up
To sum up, we as teachers need to recognize the  changes that have shaken all human conditions with new technology, new social structures, new values, new human relations, new functions.  As Young Yun Kim notes: “The complexity, diversity, and rapid pace of  change makes us ‘strangers’ in our own society.” The challenge is, to understand the “sameness in differences” for international/intercultural exchanges, or learning business negotiations and written communication. Language teaching alone may not develop communicative abilities in business English unless we realize that learning the language implies learning the culture also—one’s own culture and other’s culture. It is language and culture teaching together and sharing the “us” and “them” differences to reflect on one’s own culture from the viewpoint of an outsider, and thus, become less ethnocentric and more tolerant of the values of the foreign people and their ways. 
The ESP of business communication seems highly culturally biased and value based, even as Western ethno-centricism, including the North American, may not be the answer to our communicative difficulties. But we have to be OPEN to all local peculiarities to communi- cation and interaction. If we view English as the lingua franca for business negotiations, we should also not forget that it is NOT the mother tongue of any or most of the negotiators. To that extent, the English used is commonly a variety in which the mother tongue interferes not only phonetically and phonologically, but also in the cultural norms and attitudes expressed by the speakers.  To quote Susanne Neimeir, “Their non-verbal behavior, for example, does not automatically switch to an ‘Englishized’ non-verbal behavior but normally stays rooted in their home culture.  Thus, even when they think the negotiation partner should have understood (verbal and non-verbal) signs they are using, misunderstandings still occur because signs may be differently encoded—and decoded—on the other’s cultures or may not  be noticed to be signs at all.”
Therefore, we need to sensitize students to cultural richness and cultural diversity for developing mutual understanding and using individual and group knowledge constructively, and not stereotypically, in learning skills of business communication, both oral and written.  It also seems imperative to integrate discourse analysis, decision-making and generic patterns of meetings and effective conversation and the role of cultural influences for success in actual business situations. In fact, it is significant to provide professional students with opportunities to experience what it means to communicate and to do business with different people who obviously are alike in several basic ways.
In today’s globalized business context, while teachers of business English have to be aware of various analytical and practical approaches to business communication, especially as intercultural understanding and strategies of flexibility, adaptability and tolerance are some of the keys to make the best of economic opportunities, students of Business communication have to learn to find their own strategies, or use of structural and stylistic devices for successful business interaction. Their verbal communication in the ‘ESL’ context, to my mind, would be largely ‘EIL’ to be able to work together, using English as the common language.
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