Posts Tagged ‘bbc’

Oh Dear

I have a number of course books that I use to teach English, but one is particular favourite. It’s an advanced book and is quite old – old enough to have pictures of the twin towers of the World Trade Center in it. And a detailed chapter on letter writing. There’s some useful stuff in that section. When to use Miss, Mrs or Ms, for example. Ms often takes some explaining. Once a bit of a rarity, and made famous by Martina Navratilova, it used to leave a question mark with regards the lady’s sexuality. These days it’s not nearly so uncommon, and the implication it once carried has largely disappeared.

But this section does deal with something of a lost art. Letter writing was long ago replaced by email. When did you last pen or type a letter that was delivered in physical form, rather than by the organisation of bits and bytes on a computer screen? For me, it was in January 2005 – a letter of complaint to National Express coaches in the UK. There is something far more formal about letter writing in comparison to drafting up an email. So how has the format and formality of letter writing changed? I came across a very interesting article today on the BBC website about this very topic…

It’s time we ditched “Dear…” from work e-mails, according to a US political figure, who says it’s too intimate. So what is the most appropriate way to greet someone in an e-mail – hi, hey or just get straight to the point?…..

….”‘Dear…’ is a bit too intimate and connotes a personal relationship,” Ms Barry told the paper. And as she strives to maintain what she calls “the utmost and highest level of professionalism”, she sees no need for old-fashioned graces….

…”I’m fed up with people writing ‘Hi Jean’ when they’ve never met me,” says etiquette guru Jean Broke-Smith. “If you’re sending a business e-mail you should begin ‘Dear…’ – like a letter. You are presenting yourself. Politeness and etiquette are essential….

…But if introductions are a dilemma, sign-offs are a social networking minefield. “Yours faithfully” can’t be trusted. “Sincerely” feels insincere. And your “kindest regards” sound like anything but.

Where once there was correct protocol and certainty about how to address someone when writing a letter, there is now a minefield. It’s all too easy to give the wrong impression. So how to teach this tricky subject? I take a fairly simple approach. On many occasions, my students will be writing to people they have corresponded with before. They are often people who work for the same company in different countries. What format are they using? Play it safe and copy them.

What if they are writing to someone for the first time? If it is someone of their level within the company, and there is a format that is in general use within the company, then use that. This might be “Hello Juanita”. On the other hand, if the recipient is somebody senior, or an person not working within the company I always suggest using “Dear…”. It is possible that it might be viewed as being ‘too formal’ or even ‘overly polite’. I can’t see that ever upsetting someone though. And it’s far better than being perceived as being ‘too chummy’ or ‘overly familiar’.

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And this is why there will always be a need for native English speaking teachers around the world. In fact, the selection of signage abominations on a BBC page suggests the demand currently exceeds supply, in China at least. Alternatively, sign making companies are just too cheap and prefer to use Google Translate. On days when Google isn’t blocked in China, anyway. I regularly seem similar errors in Mexico City, often by organisations and companies who really should be able to afford a native English speaking proof reader.

I would love to know what the punishment is for a mentally unbalanced ragamuffin who’s a little the worse for wear, smelling strongly of effluviam and smoking in the wrong spot with a dangerous amount of bomb making equipment in his pockets.

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Touchy Subjects

There is, I’ve been told on many occasions, an unwritten rule when teaching English. Whilst conversation is an important part of the class, never let religion or politics creep into the chat. It’s dangerous ground. I must confess I’ve never seen this unwritten rule written down anywhere, and I’ve often had religious or political conversations in classes. Granted, there are some people who are particularly devout or politicized, and when they are present I will tend to divert the topic to safer ground. They aren’t paying me to provoke fist fights, after all.

But what to talk about? Not everyone wants to chat about football or food endlessly, unfortunately. I look for inspiration in all sort of places. And more often than not, a podcast comes to the rescue. The most recent was a two part BBC Documentaries podcast – Would You Kill The Big Guy? It’s a philosophical conundrum, based around the Trolley Problem.

The idea is simple. An out of control train is heading down the track towards five workmen, who will all be killed. You are standing next to a points lever, and with one pull can send the train down a side track. There is a man down there too though, and he will be killed. What do you do? Pull the lever, kill one man but save five? Let destiny take its course without your interference and allow five people to be killed?

The podcast plays out this idea with a number of different situations, and goes on to explore this idea in the context of real life. It’s worth listening too, regardless of whether or not you have a class to play it to. It is certainly a sure fire way to provoke interesting conversation.

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Getting students to do any homework is a fruitless task. One which I all but gave up on years ago. I don’t blame them – they all have exceedingly busy professional lives. But I do try and encourage them to at least try and listen to something in English. Now and again. Most of them spend plenty of time on buses, metros or in their cars, stuck in traffic. But all too often, my encouragement is to no avail.

And yet there is some fabulous audio content available these days. One of the biggest pluses of the existence of the internet is the podcast. For expat, student or anyone who just wants something reasonably intelligent and interesting to listen to. The BBC has dozens of fantastic podcasts, of which I must subscribe to about a dozen. Six of my favourite are in the image below and well worth checking out. It would be amiss of me to not mention the Guardians podcast offerings as well. Their science, tech and footy shows are the best of the bunch.

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