A Conversation with a Multilingual presents:
Ana Wu: Tell me about your teaching professional background. You had a Bachelor degree in Communication Studies (Broadcast and Electronic Media) and were an experienced actress in Singapore before you decided to go to London.
How did you get started in teaching and becoming a successful intercultural skills trainer, a Business English specialist and an EFL teacher trainer?
Chia Suan Chong: It’s kind of embarrassing but I literally stumbled into teaching. When I first went to London, it was with the intention of developing my acting career, but the move from Singapore’s much smaller entertainment industry to the UK’s more competitive acting world proved to be much more challenging than I had imagined. So I supplemented my income by teaching at a school where the Direct Method was their main teaching methodology.
I say it’s ‘embarrassing’ because it’s such a typical ‘native speaker journey’ into teaching. We assume we can teach English just because we are native speakers, and we do it not necessarily because we love teaching English but because it enables us to travel or to pay the bills whilst we pursue our real passion. And with minimal training, we start doing it professionally, feeling our way around in the dark, working things out through trial and error and depending on more experienced colleagues to help us out.
After nearly two years of being immersed in the Direct Method, I was poached by another English school that encouraged me to explore other teaching methodologies. I quickly realized how much I loved language training and decided to do the CELTA at International House London, where I ended up teaching and doing teacher training for nearly 10 years.
While I was at International House, I was given many opportunities to develop myself professionally, and I did my DELTA, my MA in Applied Linguistics, my Cert TEB (an equivalent of the Cert IBET, a Business English teaching qualification), and a Business Cultural Trainer’s Certificate.
My line manager introduced me to IATEFL by taking me to a BESIG (Business English Special Interest Group) annual conference and I was hooked. I started applying to speak at different conferences because it not only gave me a chance to learn from the expertise of different trainers, but it also allowed me to meet like-minded teachers passionate about their job. I ended up meeting my husband at a BESIG conference one year!
I left International House London to move to Munich, where my then-fiancé was based and became a free-lance trainer. In Germany, there’s a widespread understanding of the need for English in the business world and a corporate culture of in-house language training and communication training. I had done a lot of Business English teaching at International House London but it was in Munich that I started delivering in-company Business English training, intercultural skills training and exploring online English classes. I also began writing materials as it gave me the flexibility I needed.
A year later, we moved to York because of my husband’s job, and I now deliver communication training and teacher training in addition to blogging, materials writing and managing the social media of several ELT-related organizations.
Ana Wu: As someone who speaks English and Mandarin as your first language, and Japanese, Spanish, and Italian as second language, how do you define a multilingual? Is accent (or the lack of it) an important factor?
Chia Suan Chong: A multilingual is someone who speaks two or more languages, sometimes acquiring a language as an adult. The majority of people in the world today are multilinguals and a successful multilingual is able to translate and code-switch between languages (albeit informally).
Traditionally, when we are learning to speak a foreign language, success is measured by our ability to speak like a native speaker. This includes adopting native speaker accents and idiomatic usage, and achieving an understanding of the target culture. However, English finds itself in a very different position in that it is now the world’s lingua franca: it is the global language of trade, science, medicine, education and travel, used as a tool of communication between people with different mother tongues.
The majority of people learning English as a foreign language would be using it to communicate with other non-native speakers and so it is more important to speak intelligibly and clearly, and to communicate effectively. And sometimes, the usage of certain native speaker pronunciation features and localized idioms can get in the way of international communication.
Everyone has an accent (including all native speakers). Accents are also a part of our identity. It denotes our roots and who we are (or who we associate with). I believe asking someone to get rid of their accent is akin to asking them to change their skin colour. My husband lived in Germany for about 15 years and speaks German fluently. He chooses to retain his Irish accent when speaking in German, because he always says “I love Germany but I am not German and I’ll never be German. I’m Irish and I’m proud of it.”
More importantly, it’s about finding a balance between maintaining a sense of your identity and ensuring that your speech is intelligible and does not cause a strain on the listener.
Ana Wu: As an Intercultural Skills trainer and expert in Teaching Business, what advice do you provide novice or inexperienced non-native EFL instructors who feel they lack confidence in preparing their students to work with business native speakers?
Chia Suan Chong: It is important to understand that in the world of business, language is not the end goal. It is a tool used to achieve a particular end result: whether that is to negotiate a better deal, to complete a sale, to solve a problem or to improve customer relationships. And so business people are going to be less focused on whether you know the correct grammar form, are able to use a particular idiom, or are able to use connected speech. There is even research to show that in job interviews, the language level of the candidate is not what clinches the deal. What is important is the abilities and experience that the candidate has to perform the tasks that the job throws up.
So instead of being intimidated by possible encounters with native speakers in the business environment, trainers should focus on helping students develop good communication skills and strategies. This could include sufficient lexical knowledge to talk about a certain business topic, or fluency practice to help build the students’ confidence in speaking in English. But it could also include active listening strategies, clarification strategies, abilities to detect misunderstandings, and soft skills like presentation skills, social skills and negotiation skills. Being a good communicator is not about being a native speaker or the best English speaker. It’s about being able to listen without prejudice and understand what is being said and what is not being said. It’s about being clear and ensuring that your message is being understood the way you intend it to be understood. It’s about achieving the results you hope to achieve through that interaction.
Ana Wu: Congratulations on winning the British Council - Teaching English Blog of the Month Award for the thought-provoking blogpost "5 Reasons Why Native Speakers Need to Learn to Speak English Internationally." In your professional opinion, who are the worst communicators: monolinguals or monoculturals (including people who were mainly raised in a single culture, despite living in a called multicultural country)?
Chia Suan Chong: There are so many factors that contribute to the effectiveness of communication, and language ability is only one of them. It’ll be simplistic of me to say that all native speakers, or all monolinguals are poor communicators. Certainly, the knowledge of another language and the language learning process can gain us a lot of empathy for what non-native English users are going through, and it can make us more aware and more reflective of our language use. Communication training (whether you are native or non-native) can also help us better approach how to be more successful communicators in the communities of practice that we will be encountering.
As for ‘monoculturals’, I don’t think anyone is a true ‘monocultural’. Culture does not just refer to essentialist notions of national or ethnic culture. Culture is a dynamic and fluid concept and changes depending on the context, the place and the person we interact with.
We might have a certain ‘culture’ at the family dinner table and we would adapt to a different ‘culture’ at the workplace, and again a different ‘culture’ when meeting with our friends at the pub. Even our different groups of friends embody different ‘cultural’ traits.
Some of us might encounter more diversity than others (in the form of views of the world, communication styles, expectations, etc) but no two people are exactly the same. We are dealing with diversity all the time. And an effective communicator is someone who is able to be aware of the different norms and expectations, the possible challenges and misunderstandings, and adapt and accommodate accordingly so as to achieve a successful communicative outcome.
Ana Wu: Thank you for this insightful interview!
More About Chia Suan Chong:
Follow Chia on the following Twitter accounts: @chiasuan @etprofessional @BusinessEnglishUK @YorkAssociates