Practical approach to better workplace English

by Ella Lee

Linda Woo, head of corporate sales; Tony Lee, academic director, Wall Street Institute Hong Kong

Language skills have long been stated as one of the standard requirements of local employers hiring new recruits. In the past, that was generally understood to mean Cantonese and English, but the perception has grown that Putonghua should take priority as the second language. While this logic is sound, it has led some people to overlook the continuing importance of English in the workplace and, particularly, in the context of communicating effectively with international companies.

Therefore, to maintain Hong Kong's competitiveness as a centre for finance, trade and tourism, many companies are taking steps to improve the English skills of their staff.

According to Linda Woo, head of corporate sales for Wall Street Institute Hong Kong (WSI), employers in the fields of banking and finance, logistics, property management, and travel have all been investing in additional English classes for employees. "Many of them are multinationals in which internal communication with management and external contacts with partners, customers and overseas offices are in English," she explains.

Recently, Ms Woo has seen a new level of interest from companies in the logistics and property management sectors. She puts this down, in part, to the changing nature of those businesses. The former has rapidly evolved into a truly globalised industry, while the latter is intent on raising service standards so that staff in shopping malls and luxurious residential developments can communicate competently with people from around the world.

Proven results

WSI is the largest organisation of its kind and has taught English to more than one million students worldwide over the past 34 years. The Hong Kong operation was established in 2000, and there are now seven centres training approximately 30,000 pupils. The same teaching methodology is used for one-to-one sessions or larger classes. Students can decide the pace of progress depending on their needs and they only move on to the next level when the principles of the language have been grasped at the relevant level, says senior centre director Yannie Cheng.

Before starting a course, students take an assessment test to determine their general standard. They then begin at one of the 17 levels within WSI's main English language programme. A multimedia lab is available to practise listening and pronunciation skills, and there are frequent reviews to monitor progress. Tutorial classes are on offer for no more than four students of similar ability. These are conducted by native English speakers and are used to revise and consolidate materials and vocabulary previously introduced. If students want further opportunities to practise, they can always join any of a number of social club activities.

"This is a natural way of learning English," says Ms Cheng. "Students have the benefit of small classes, flexible timetables and more personal attention. The process is similar to the way a child learns a language, which is by day-to-day practice."

Ms Cheng emphasises that course content is up-to-date and tailored to cover things which local students come across every day. "We aim to make learning enjoyable and it is important for people to improve their English ability through listening, reading and speaking, rather than by memorising lessons."

Relevant topics

In the case of corporate training, Ms Woo says programmes can be specially designed to meet the needs of staff with varying standards of English or working in different roles. The topics dealt with will be relevant to their positions and, for example, might concentrate on how to handle complaints for members of a customer service team. Typically, such a course would last from four to six months. "These methods are proven to be effective and are increasingly accepted by today's employers," Ms Woo says.

As the academic director of WSI Hong Kong, Tony Lee notes that the trend in education is to focus less on the teacher and more on how students learn. He thinks that self-directed learning, supported by a reliable computer system to monitor activities, is the best method for language training. "This progressive approach allows students to enhance their skills at a steady pace and to gain confidence in their abilities," he says.

In a recent Asia-wide survey carried out by WSI into the use of the English language, it was found that only 21 per cent of Hongkongers take every opportunity to interact with native speakers. This was lower than the 23 per cent recorded for mainland Chinese. Also, just 19 per cent of Hong Kong people feel comfortable when dealing native English speakers, in contrast to 60 per cent of Singaporeans.

Dr Lee is a former senior research officer for the Education and Manpower Bureau and has 25 years' experience in language assessment and standard setting. He developed the Hong Kong Workplace English Benchmarks and is collaborating with the University of Cambridge to establish alignment of WSI's curriculum and assessments with the Council of Europe's Common European Framework for modern languages. He says this exercise, which should be completed within two years, will help to raise global recognition of the courses and allow students to compare the level of English they have attained with other international language qualifications.

Practical Approach Features

  • Students decide the pace of progress depending on their needs
  • Course content is updated and tailored to cover things that local students come across every day
  • Corporate training programmes are specially designed to meet the needs of staff with varying standards of English

Taken from Career Times 10 February 2006
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