In 2020, English officially became TU/e's working language. The message was made clear by distributing jars of liquorice allsorts – which, literally translated, are called “English licorice” in the Netherlands - across the campus: from now on, English will be the dominant language at TU/e. Not only in education - all study programs would be offered in English from that point on - but across the entire campus, in official correspondence, and various announcements. This decision was made to create a close-knit international community where no one feels excluded, but also to prepare students for their careers in the technical sector where English is also the preferred language.
Switch to English
But what has this switch to English in the workplace been like for the (predominantly Dutch) non-scientific staff? Whereas students are subject to strict English proficiency requirements and most researchers and lecturers have gained enough experience throughout their academic career, there is no clear picture of the language proficiency of non-scientific staff, also referred to as OBP (Administrative and Support Staff). There are no fixed, standardized criteria regarding the (minimum) English language proficiency of these support staff members; it is therefore fair to assume that the language proficiency of these employees varies widely.
Although the level of English required and frequency with which it is spoken very much depends on the user’s position within the organisation, a good command of the English language is essential for everyone at a fully English-language university. For instance, important announcements from the Executive Board sent via e-mail - such as the recent ones regarding the situation in Israel and Gaza or press freedom at TU/e - are always in English. Additionally, the information on all digital screens in the buildings, the employee newsletter, the information on the TU/e website and intranet, most courses offered at TU/e, the majority of the Studium Generale program and all group lessons at the Student Sports Center are available only in English – and there are undoubtedly more examples to be found.
From pre-intermediate to proficient
For those who struggle with their English, feel insecure when it comes to using English in the workplace, or just want to take their language skills to the next level, the Language Center (TLC) offers a wide range of English courses for support staff. Cursor spoke with English language instructors Ann Groot-Chisholm and David Maytum who teach these courses.
“The English language courses are part of the HRM L&D Professional Staff (OBP) Training Program. The courses entitled “English for the Workplace” are taught at several levels from pre-intermediate to proficient,” says Groot-Chisholm, born and raised in Scotland, who is responsible for the English language courses at TU/e. “In addition, we offer a tailor-made course entitled “Effective Professional Speaking Skills”. The focus of this 8-week course is to improve fluency and learn English vocabulary relevant to the workplace. For example, participants will work on presentation skills, taking part in meetings and leading a discussion.
In addition to these courses, TLC also offers individual coaching sessions. “If you struggle with writing reports or giving presentations, you can sign up for a face-to-face session with a trainer, and get some feedback on that,” Groot-Chisholm explains. “And last year, I set up the English Language Club for people who don’t want to sign up for a course or lack the time to, but do want to keep practicing their English while interacting with colleagues.” These one-off conversation lessons take place monthly on campus and all OBP employees can sign up as often as they like. “It's a low-threshold way to get involved and learn in a very relaxed atmosphere. And it’s also proven to be quite successful,” she says. “So there's lots out there. We just need to make people aware of the fact that we are here to help.”
I much prefer the on-site sessions because the dynamics are totally different. You make real contact with people
David Maytum, a native Englishman, teaches the courses “Effective Professional Speaking Skills” and “English for the Workplace: Proficient” to TU/e employees. These courses last two and three months, respectively, and consist of weekly one-and-a-half-hour sessions that take place partly on campus and partly online. “I much prefer the on-site sessions because the dynamics are totally different,” he admits. “You make real contact with people. You can look at each other. You can see their reactions to certain points that are made. I really love that interaction.”
“I usually find that my job goes beyond just that of a teacher,” Groot-Chisholm says. “It involves understanding what each person in the class needs. Every time I'm in front of a group, I tweak things, making each session different. The content might be the same, but I'm always adjusting it to fit the needs of the people there.” And what is the most important thing that most participants lack? Contrary to what you might think it’s not knowledge of grammar, vocabulary, or sentence structure. “Definitely confidence,” both instructors say in unison.
It's very important that people feel that they can just let go of all their fear of speaking English
Groot-Chisholm believes that many people underestimate their level of English and are initially afraid to even open their mouths. In that case, the key is to boost their confidence. “I tell them: it's fine what you're saying. Yes, there's a couple of mistakes in there, but they’re only minor errors. You're doing really well,” she says. “And then, you see them grow. Within three lessons, you see them relax. They start initiating conversations, engaging in discussions, and expressing their opinions. That transformation is amazing to see.” It's about creating a safe environment, she believes. “I think it's very important that people come to these lessons and feel that they can just let go of all their fear of speaking English.”
“But I’ve also had people in the classroom who were overconfident and very dominant, but whose speech was riddled with mistakes,” Maytum adds, while Groot-Chisholm nods in agreement. “And then you have to be very tactful when it comes to correcting because you don't want to damage the ego.” According to him, you also have to be alert to that because someone with a lot of bravado might affect others’ insecurities. “You want everyone to improve as much as they can. So you want those insecure people to win confidence. And you want the people who already have that confidence to retain it but to reign it in, and also to improve their grammar or vocabulary skills,” he says.
Tough and frustrating
Many people also compare themselves to others within their department or their team, which only exacerbates their insecurity, especially if they have to attend meetings that are conducted in English, Groot-Chisholm observes. “If there is a native speaker present, they might feel inhibited because they want to be able to come across as professionally as they would in their native language, but they're simply not able to perform at the same level in English”, she says. “That's really tough and very frustrating as well”, Maytum agrees. “That's where you need to maintain that confidence,” he believes. “There are certain tools that you can use, such as fixed phrases that will help you, rescue you. But it's also a matter of accepting those limitations and learning to deal with them confidently.”
However, not everyone manages to do so. Some people really struggle and even feel restricted in carrying out their work or they avoid certain situations, both teachers point out. “For example, during online meetings in a large group that included native speakers, there were people who didn’t catch some of the information. But they would never ask: 'Sorry, but can you just clarify that for me, or can I just check if I understood?'” Groot-Chisholm says. “No, they were like: 'Oh no, I'm not going to admit that I don't understand this’.“
Reaching out to people
Despite the fact that many employees could use a little help with their English, they are often unaware of the possibilities the Language Center has to offer them in that respect, the instructors believe. “I'm always up against this a bit, how do I reach the people who need the courses?” Groot-Chisholm says. “One of the problems is that even if you’re looking for an English course at TU/e, you have to do quite a lot of navigating through a complex website. And if people can’t find what they need quickly, they are likely to give up,” Maytum notes. “If you want your staff to be top-notch users of English, then you need to reach out to those people,” he believes.
“We now have a placement test that people can take online to assess their level of English”, Groot-Chisholm says. The “Pearson Versant Placement Test” is a comprehensive test to automatically evaluate language skills, with detailed score reports including current capabilities, and suggestions for improvement. “When I send out their score report, I always include an invitation for a personal consultation. And usually, they get back to me very quickly with a ‘Yes, please!’” She then meets with them online or on campus and they go through their score reports together. “We look together at their level and what exactly they want and need.” Taking all these things into account, she then successfully guides people to the appropriate courses.
But unfortunately, not everyone knows where to find the Pearson test. That’s why managers and supervisors should know about the possibilities and make employees aware of them.
Would you like to take the Pearson placement test? You can submit a request via English.Diagnostic.Test@. tue.nl
It also has to do with their workload, Groot-Chisholm believes. “A 12-week course is a huge commitment. Employees often struggle with juggling their workload and the demands of the course. They must get the space and the time they need for that.” Maytum agrees: “Whether the manager sees that as a necessity or not, is not relevant. If someone wants to develop their skills, they should be facilitated. The manager should say: ‘Okay, let's go and plan it!’”
Slipping through the cracks
When it comes to specific participant groups, Groot-Chisholm would particularly like to see more people with lower proficiency in English in the courses. “For some reason, the pre-intermediate course is less in demand than other courses.” That’s not because there are not enough people with that level of English, but because the threshold for these people might be higher, she believes. “They often feel like they couldn't possibly take a course because their English is so poor.” She wants to let them know it's always possible to take a course, regardless of your level. “You might just need a little bit of help to get started,” she says. What she also finds very frustrating is that sometimes, there are people who would like to take the course, but there are not enough sign-ups for it to proceed. “And that's a pity. These people then slip through the cracks.”
When you work within a multinational organization, you eventually get stuck in your little bubble of English
According to her, another problem is that PhD candidates are excluded from the English language courses. “They can't sign up for them because they're supposed to already have a C1 level of English proficiency (the second highest level, ed.) and therefore don't need a course. But what is a C1 level of English? You might be very good at academic writing, but your speaking skills are something else entirely,” Groot-Chisholm argues. “I feel that there is a certain group of people who are struggling. And it's affecting their mental health and also their ability to do their job.” That's one of the reasons why she insisted that the English Language Club should be accessible to everyone. In these sessions, anyone is welcome to join and work on their English.
The instructors also want to emphasize that even proficient speakers can gain a lot from taking a course. “When you work within a multinational organization, you eventually get stuck in your little bubble of English,” Groot-Chisholm says. “You're just trotting out familiar phrases and expressions day in, day out.” This is where a course can challenge you to expand your vocabulary, Maytum believes: “My students, for example, try to use as many phrases as possible to win brownie points, like ‘I haven't the foggiest (idea)’. If you're having fun with it and challenging yourself in advance, it's a great way to expand that comfort zone.”
You win confidence in the classroom and you take that with you. You become a more assertive and more confident person in the workplace
He also believes that participants not only improve their language skills, but also undergo personal development. “You win confidence in the classroom and you take that with you. You become a more assertive and more confident person in the workplace,” he argues. “It's a ripple effect. You never know what the positive consequences might be.” He also stresses the importance of maintaining the momentum even after the course. “I've seen so many people leave the course feeling great. And then they return to the workplace and it fades away. I would love for them not to stop there but to maintain that interest. And to move to a higher level and keep developing.”
Would you like to take the Pearson placement test? You can submit a request via English.Diagnostic.Test@. The next round of courses will start on March 4. For the full course offering and registration, please visit the tue.nlTraining Index on the Intranet.