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Company language-training: How to motivate, empower and engage learners

Thousands of companies across of Europe pay for their employees to improve their language (most often English-language) skills. While getting language training for free would seem like a huge source of motivation, training learners who have been forced to attend, or worse, have to attend during inconvenient times including at day-break, during their lunch-hour or at the end of a long work-day, can present challenges when trying to keep them engaged, motivated and empowered in their learning. Informed by my own experience training in various companies in France and Spain, here are a few points about how to do just that.

Limit the course-books.

Language academies and heads of company-training are right that published course-books can add structure to training sessions. Not only that but they are of immense help to novice trainers or ones pressed for time when dashing between companies. On the other hand, in my experience learners in company classes view course-books with the same zeal as one would view any good domestic appliance manual – with a yawn, or worse, a curled upper lip.  Course-books are designed for a very broad, general audience (whether they are Business-English oriented or not) making it difficult to take into consideration the personal learning preferences or interests of learners. Course-books also effectively disempower trainers and trainees, removing their input and instilling a top-down approach, where we teach and do what the book says, in the order the book says, and how. This can be especially demotivating for learners who already face this in their jobs – not a great formula for effective learning. Thanks to our infinite curiosity, humans have a built-in capacity for learning – and I would say that capacity is strongest when we control what and how we learn. So how do you get past the course-book conundrum?

First, get to know your learners. Survey your learners on a semi-continual basis to inquire about personal and professional interests, needs and objectives. Learn about what it is they do in their job and what they want to do in the future. What fires their passion for life? As language-learning can happen no matter the content, why not make that content of acute personal interest to those it’s directed to?  The data collected can inform your choice of content you use as input for language training, and the methods you use to bring it to life. Ask them directly what and how they want to learn. At lower levels, this could translate into having them decide what they want to learn to say or write, and in what situations– since we are all different with varying personal interests, this might not be as obvious as you think. At higher levels, we can start delving into more complex topics and content, again tailoring it to the learner. Agree on a plan-of-action or syllabus with learners after collecting enough information and revise it as necessary.

People flourish in situations where there is freedom to shape one’s own destiny and learning, and language is no exception.

Personalize it.

According to a recent Training Magazine article, what Millennials (including those in leadership positions) want most in formal training is a personalized learning experience. A one-size-fits-all, now everyone turn-to page 4-please approach can rarely satisfy in the age where social media and even online shopping is becoming highly adapted to the individual requirements and preferences of each client. How can we apply this lesson to language training? Again, learn about your learners, and make sessions relevant to them. Now you might say that’s an easy task when you’re dealing with someone in a one-on-one training session, but what about a large group? I’ve trained in situations with as many as 12 individuals in a single company-training class, where it became challenging to remember learners’ names from one week to the next, let alone keep track of personal preferences and tie them back into classroom content. But it can be done.  According to Janice Burns (Vice President of Global Practices, DDI), personalized training can be enhanced by encouraging technology and mobile-phone use in session and offering a variety of “learning stations” that offer individuals different approaches or skills-focus depending on their learning needs or styles, allowing learners to work with others who have the same needs or have complimentary skills. On the other hand, you could also have all learners working together while simultaneously catering to more personal choices. Imaging a training session where two learners are giving a presentation on a topic of their choice, while another more tech-savvy group produce an online quiz based on the content of that presentation, and another group prepare questions to ask the presenters and assess different aspects of the presentation. The point being, there are innumerable ways allow learners, whether alone or in whole-class situations, to use their own interests, knowledge and experience, contribute to and create their own learning materials, and work on the skills that they see relevant to their lives. What it boils down to can be summarized in one word: Freedom. People flourish in situations where there is freedom to shape one’s own destiny and learning, and language is no exception.

It’s a fallacy that language improvement comes primarily through a being told what one did wrong, and then correcting it. Rather, it will come from being given repeated opportunities to learn and do things in the language that are relevant and motivating to that person.

Encourage learning, not formal assessment.

There is no doubt that language-improvement needs to take place – otherwise what’s the point of spending thousands on training sessions.  From the perspective of the trainer, language-improvement is measured through assessments, but I would say this doesn’t require a formal test or even something trainees are conscious of.  After all, as native-speakers of a language growing up, we picked-up new language all the time without it ever being our focus. And for most language-learners, language improvement is primarily a means to an end, so even assessments can and should be a learning opportunity for trainees. Role-plays and simulations, for example, can help you see whether learners have picked up the language you introduced them to. Ask learners questions about the content of the class, rather than the language itself, or have students write (and then take) their own Socrative-quizzes, based on the content that you’ve brought. If participants are learning about conflict-resolution in English, participants walk away with the fulfilling sense that they’ve learned something new or relevant to their jobs, while you might be focused on how they spoke or interacted, or whether they used a particular verb-tense correctly. You might be subtle about how you feed back to them. After all, it’s a fallacy that language improvement comes primarily through a being told what one did wrong, and then correcting it. Rather, it will come from being given repeated opportunities to learn and do things in the language that are relevant and motivating to that person.

While there are learners who see language-improvement as an objective in-and-of-itself, and they will have to be catered to, I believe that depending on what language or skill you want to assess, the assessment itself could be entirely invisible to learners, relegating any fear of making mistakes, of not progressing (or worse, of failing a test), to the far reaches of their mind. And don’t forget to repeat! A learner might have fumbled through a role-play the first time, but a second or third go at it was progressively more confident and successful. With a bit of focused advice from the trainer between each take, learners come to realize that learning took place through “growing-confidence-in-use”, not a score on a test.

Finally, remember that “success” in a language is defined differently for everyone. For one person success might mean assimilating a long list of new vocabulary, while for another being able to schmooze clients with greater confidence is, and for yet another it might be being able to help their children with their homework. While a company might want to bring a certain group of employees all up to C1 level, we can avoid being too prescriptive on what that C1 means by letting individual learners focus on what success means to them.

In conclusion, modern language-training techniques must take into consideration, and might I say, respect, the individual learner. It’s not enough just to say “yes, there are different language-learner types, visual and kinaesthetic and what have you, so I’ll include activities that cater to each of them”. If we want training that is truly effective and produces better language users, we need to really focus on learning about who we are training and give them the freedom to be who they are. The apparent cost-savings of training large groups of learners together could actually be offset by keeping it un-individualized, translating into higher costs in the long-term. But if we take the time to learn about our trainees, who they are and where they want to go, the data collected can inform content and methods that will produce happier learners and more positive learning outcomes.

About the author: 

Pierre Herman is a language-trainer with many years of experience in companies, universities and language academies, and the founder of Barcelona-based STELLAR Language.

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