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Correct English not enough

Published Jun 21, 2010

It is not sufficient to have good knowledge of the language to manage Master's studies on an English-based engineer programme. It is more important to use communicative strategies to make yourself understood. This is shown by the first study of its kind into how well English-based teaching works at a Swedish university of technology.

It is more important to speak and be understood than to speak grammatically correct English. Even those who are good at English must work a lot with the communicative process on English-based programmes, says Beyza Björkman, who teaches at the KTH language unit and has recently defended her thesis on English as the language of tuition on engineering programmes.

Beyza Björkman has carried out field studies at a Swedish university of technology for one year. She documented all oral communication between lecturers and students during 21 lectures and 24 group sessions in total.

The students had 19 different mother tongue backgrounds and were studying Master’s programmes in electrical engineering, industrial economics, ICT, chemical engineering, energy technology and mechanical engineering among others.

“A person who speaks fluent and correct English perhaps believes that she does not need to focus on making herself understood, but rather sees it as others’ tasks to understand. This is not the case, however. Effectiveness in learning is determined by how one speaks and what communicative abilities those involved have,” says Beyza Björkman.

The importance of the communicative process applies to teachers and students alike, maintains Beyza Björkman. Teachers must be able to listen and adapt their language to the knowledge levels of the group. Students, on the other hand, must find strategies for communicating with other students who have different mother tongues.

“The most important thing is not to speak correct English but to find ways to communicate based on so-called pragmatic strategies. This may involve different ways of clearly signaling and underlining the most important messages, and having the ability to explain what is important. These aspects are more important than pure linguistic skills,” she says.

Works well in group sessions

According to Beyza Björkman’s study, English works well as a language of tuition in different forms of group work. The reason is that students can then interact with each other and so more easily understand each other.

However, on the basis of this study she is not able to draw any conclusions on whether the lectures which she has documented work in a satisfactory way:

“We do not have sufficient information on that at present. To find out about that we must test students’ understanding immediately in the lecture situation. That type of research is being carried out in Uppsala,” she says.

Beyza Björkman believes that teachers and decision-makers at the universities of technology can draw advantage of her study.

“To make further progress with this issue is important to consider carefully what type of teaching should be used with Master’s students in English-based tuition. For example, my study shows that workshops are successful,” she says.

Further training may be required

It is also important to increase awareness and raise competence levels of teachers, she claims.

“It is essential that they are aware of the significance of communicative strategies. Further training may be required to raise teachers’ competence levels,” she says.

The TOEFL test is traditionally used by the universities to test foreign students’ English language skills. The purpose is to gain an impression of how well equipped they are for their studies. But the TOEFL test is not sufficient in itself to establish the level of their English skills, explains Beyza Björkman.

“The test does not provide much information on students’ pragmatic capacity, which is a crucial competence for teachers and students who need to use English as a lingua franca in linguistic environments where nobody has English as a mother tongue. So those tests need to be supplemented,” she says.

Beyza Björkman works at the KTH language unit, but has defended her thesis at Stockholm University. The KTH language unit gives courses in languages and carries out research, among other things into aspects of English in higher education in the subject of Applied linguistic science.

Text: Christer Gummeson