The challenges for ESOL in a language-positive company

The challenges for ESOL in a language-positive company

Ian Macauley

Having just completed an ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages) mini course for a factory in the UK, I have some observations which may surprise teachers and training providers of regular courses.

The situation when I started

The company employs a large number of non-British workers, mainly from one linguistic group.

In the current situation, the company manages very well. For example:

  • company manuals are picture orientated, written with non-native readers in mind,
  • some British managers speak the dominant foreign language,
  • the company is sympathetic to the needs of the non-British workforce generally.

However, there are present and prospective challenges:

  • Currently, relations between the native and foreign workers are good, but many non-British workers can come across as quiet and abrupt to the local workforce. This is due to cultural norms, which expect workers to be subservient to managers, and the non-English workers often lack the knowledge of “polite” language constructions which British speakers frequently use.
  • In the near future, there will be a new wave of foreign workers, which means that the current non-British workers can no longer expect to only use their own language at work, or in social settings.

The English language course I conducted

The mini-course went well; key objectives were identified by the teacher and the company and were used in the course.

However, there were individual and strategic issues: strategically, workers missed the course to keep production running, and tactically, individually workers were sometimes tired after long shifts.

I concentrated on speaking skills. The subjects were chosen to overcome current obstacles which were often cultural in origin. Some examples:

  • how to initiate conversations with managers
  • socialising with English speaking workers
  • common pronunciation issues
  • correction and practice of tenses

There were some differences between these and classes, and those for teenagers and adult solo learners of English, e.g.

  • because the learners were workmates, often senior, and from the same language group, there was often some amusement at being (back) in a classroom setting
  • for the reasons above, the common foreign language was used more than the ideal.
  • the type of English used by the workforce was often more vernacular than in other classes, which in itself is not a problem, but may cause raised eyebrows among some teachers!

Due to the age and background of the learners, I aimed to establish common ground with the learners, through common hobbies, knowledge of their hometowns, etc, so that it felt less of a class, and more of a coaching situation.

I was keen to use games, again, to throw off the potential stress of being in a classroom but was worried that the older students may see these as too juvenile. In fact, games were just as effective in breaking the ice as with younger learners!

Among the “games” I used were:

  • board games (devised by myself) which used everyday linguistic problems
  • storytelling, based on “random” pictures and words
  • ball games, which encouraged spontaneous speaking.

Where I will take this ESOL course in the future

The test course has finished and is now under review, for a possible full-scale course.

My proposal will build on the strengths, weaknesses and opportunities that this course has presented.

This will, in particular, be crafted around the following:

  1. This is not a course to teach English – its aim is to coach the students in improving their English, in part by envisaging the benefits that this will bring them.
  2. The classroom is not the sole focus of the course – I view it as the skeleton of a structure, which will include many non-classroom activities.
  3. The course will boost the confidence of the learners, building on what they have already learned and achieved
  4. It will spotlight the near future, when a new wave of non-British workers will arrive – and in this scenario, the current non-British workers will have a potentially vital role in smoothing the entry of the new wave of non-British workers.
  5. More research into the technical terms used in the factory and more research into the vernacular terms used socially in the factory. “See ya” may not appear on standard English courses, but it is the usual phrase used here instead of goodbye, and as such is key in helping new workers fit in.

Key takeaways from running this ESOL course

The keystone to the success here was, of course, the HR department.

Without a forward-thinking HR department and great communication with production managers, the course would not have been considered.

The initial meetings with the HR and line managers established the general aims, and these meetings allowed me to explain what was (and was not) possible in the course.

It is an example of language teaching not being a standalone fixed item. Rather language teaching is part of an ongoing process, intrinsically linked to the overall company plan.

This also provided a restatement of the truth that language teaching cannot exist in a vacuum.

Just as any course must offer a bridge to local culture for the students, so must the teacher learn from the local culture, and the students’ culture, to ensure success.


Ian became an English Language teacher after a first career in export sales covering the Arabic and East European regions, where he was also an expatriate GM.


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