Interview: Bill Mascull

By Bill Mascull

Category: Interviews

How does C21 help students prepare for the workplace?

It’s well known that in many areas, the knowledge that people gain in their initial qualifications will be out of date after a few years. This means that the non-content-specific side of work − communication skills, collaboration, critical thinking and so on − will become increasingly important. So it’s essential for learners to develop these competencies, especially if they come from cultures where these skills are traditionally less encouraged. C21 helps them to do this.
Making predictions about the potential impact of artificial intelligence (AI) on various industries and professions is extremely difficult, but one would imagine that people equipped with C21-type skills will be able to move more easily from areas taken over in the future by AI into ones where the human dimension will still be crucial.

You’re interested in the relationship between teaching materials and classroom interaction, focusing on business English. What draws you to writing business English?

One of the problems in writing general ELT materials is deciding and finding input and activities that will be of interest and relevance to the target audience. In business English this is easier, as the material can be based on input inspired by the industries/jobs in which the learners are working (or, in the case of pre-work students, the jobs in which they might one day be working).
By definition, business provides a multitude of situations where professional skills (presentations, meetings, negotiations etc) can be developed in classroom activities that mirror real business life. Case studies can be written based on realistic business scenarios, and lead naturally into professional and language skills − the basic nuts and bolts of the language can be taught and practised in the context of these activities, in genuinely communicative contexts.
Good learning materials, in addition to being motivating for learners, also get teachers into good classroom routines – these two things often go together, of course, and hopefully create a virtuous circle! Teachers just starting out are in particular need of support, and tend to rely on published materials to a greater extent than more experienced colleagues, so good teaching materials will be especially instructive for them, as well as their learners.

How is C21 different from other publications you’ve written? What are the essential things you need for a good teacher’s book?

As I say, ‘soft’ skills will be increasingly important, and C21 is the first language course to give them such prominence, to embed them so completely into the material and to cover them so widely. In writing the teacher’s books for C21, I found myself admiring the inventiveness of the coursebook writers!
Teacher’s books should guide busy teachers through the material, by giving an overview of it, supplying background information on topics in it that teachers may not know much about, and then providing step-by-step instructions on how to ‘animate’ it. Answers to exercises and transcripts of audio should appear on the same page as the teaching notes, so that teachers do not have to look elsewhere, and, for exercises, the teacher’s book should where necessary give information on why particular answers are correct, as well as possible alternatives. In addition, teacher’s books allow space for extra activities that don’t fit into the coursebook. All this is particularly important for relatively inexperienced teachers who may have come to the areas covered by C21 via general ELT.

You are an expert in ‘corpus-based language analysis’. Please could you explain what that is, and why it’s useful when designing language courses?

A corpus or linguistic database is a large quantity of written text or transcripts of spoken language from a particular source. Specialised software can be used to analyse these corpora at very high speeds in order to find typical language patterns. The texts and analysis tools to do this are made accessible on specialised sites on the internet. (My first writing projects were corpus-based, for Cobuild – the Collins Birmingham University International Language Database. When I was based in Paris in the early 1990s, I brought back a specialised Unix computer in my car from Cobuild in Birmingham. As in so many areas, you wonder how we managed before the internet!)
For example, in business English, materials writers can look at business sources (e.g. articles from business pages of newspapers, specialised business publications, and transcripts of business meetings.) This allows us to see the words that typically occur with other words, particularly useful in business English. Take compounds for example, very frequent in business English. One can type in ‘market’ and see that the nouns that typically follow it are ‘share’, ‘growth’, ‘penetration’, ‘leader’, ‘pressures’ and so on. The corpus gives information on the relative frequency of these compounds, allowing writers to concentrate on the most frequent and therefore useful ones in their materials. And they can use the sentences (and longer stretches of text) as input to the materials, both in presentation and in practice. Compounds are just one example of how databases can be exploited to find typical word combinations. One of many other areas is typical grammar patterns associated with particular lexis, for example the fact that some verbs are used more in the passive than the active.

How have trends in ELT changed over the last 10 years?

As one of C21-type skills I’ve already mentioned, the intercultural dimension, specifically, has become increasingly key. Especially in parts of the world where many learners have reached upper-intermediate level and beyond, the intercultural element has become just as important or more important than purely linguistic ones. This is reflected in current ELT pedagogy and materials. Attitudes to power, hierarchy, time, information access, and politeness norms are extremely varied around the world, to say the least, and learners have to be made aware that there is not just one global culture, as many native English speakers make the mistake of thinking, even if English is the global language.

What are you currently working on?

I’m writing materials for another publisher, so it’s an industrial secret, unfortunately!

A business discussion with two women and a man communicating to solve a problem

What is your motto?

I asked a Japanese calligrapher to write the characters for kaizen and I have this framed on my office wall. As learners of both Japanese and business English will know, kaizen means ‘continuous improvement’. Ambitious perhaps, so let’s just say that the motto is aspirational!

Which words or phrases do you most overuse?

As a non-native speaker of French, I’m especially interested in Latinate vocabulary used in both French and English that sometimes has quite different meanings in each language. But one word that means exactly the same in both is ‘débâcle/debacle’ and I tend to overuse it to describe even relatively minor disasters.

Which living person do you most admire?

Following the recent fall from grace of some previously admired role models, it’s probably better not to venture down this route …

What did you want to be when you were growing up?

A cartographer for the Ordnance Survey. I’ve always liked maps, especially for walking.

What was the last book you read that you’d recommend?

My Struggle, a series of autobiographical novels by Karl Ove Knausgård. He’s Norwegian, but a lot of the action happens in Sweden, where I started my career in the 1970s. It’s been a good way to catch up with recent Scandinavian thinking and attitudes.

Tell us one fact about yourself that most people don’t know.

That I’m a fan of Japanese calligraphy.

A selfie of Bill in a dark jacket stood in front of a stone wall.

About the author

Bill has taught English and trained teachers in a number of countries. He is an expert in corpus-based language analysis and specialises in business English. He is the author of the C21 Teacher’s books for Garnet Education, as well as a range of books for Cambridge University Press on business vocabulary.

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