Whenever I hear the song “I am an Englishman in New York”, I fully identify with the singer, who is somehow lost, a little bit sad, but still poetic and emotional.
Oh, I’m an alien, I’m a legal alien.
What on Earth does it even mean to be a legal alien? Let me paint this picture for you. I am an English teacher, translator, and copywriter in a company, whose main area of expertise is software development. I absolutely love it! Or don’t I? At times, it’s difficult to decide what side I am at.
And why exactly do I call myself a ‘legal alien’?
I have been teaching the sweetest language there is — English — for six years now and I have had a chance to work with basically all types of foreign language learners. For the past three years or so, however, I have been teaching this gem of a language to software developers, testers, analysts, project managers — no worries, I do realize that those names do not ring any of the bells if you are a linguist.
I never expected to enter the enchanted world of software development. It definitely wasn’t written in the stars or anything more meaningful than that — people in IT do not believe stuff like that — I just got a job in Jit Team, a software house from Poland. Little did I know about the ways this job was going to change my understanding of foreign language teaching. I stepped into the unknown with my usual dreamy, creative, and otherworldly approach — this was when it hit me — I AM AN ALIEN. Nothing illegal about that, fortunately. It wasn’t like I needed to get a passport or something, I was a legal alien, one could say.
The alien becomes less green
So here comes the first day in Jit Team. I won’t lie to you — I was stressed, all shaky and tense. I was given a dozen or so groups made of not more than five people — teachers’ dream come true, am I right? Yes, this is where all the fun began.
My usual teaching self was absolutely sure that IT people would love making up stories about princesses, learning idioms, and remembering words and phrases such as charming or fine and dandy. Oh, poor me… It appeared, that I needed to learn a lesson before any of my students can learn something they could actually use in their everyday life at work. I started the process of dealienazing — I did my best to get to know programmers, testers, and alike well enough to grasp their way of thinking and learning, which, I can absolutely assure you, is astoundingly different from what I knew before.
Aren’t IT guys just regular language learners?
At universities, wannabe teachers learn about the special approach that adult learners need. They are one of a kind, mainly because they are aware of making mistakes, show countless inhibitions sometimes impossible to overcome, and what’s most obvious, but still worth mentioning — they have lives, i.e. responsibilities to bear, kids to take care of, dogs to walk, cars to insure. These all affect the learners’ motivation and willingness to learn a language.
Did all the above kind of scare you? Isn’t it enough that adults have to be adults and, like, do stuff after class? Can’t we just leave the fact, that they are more timid and shy than kids, aside? No, we can’t. And there is even more to come, because my beloved programmers, testers and analysts are one-one-one-of-a-kind (one ‘one’ just doesn’t show the scale of what I’m trying to tell you here).
Students become teachers
Sometimes people ask me if I teach technical language to software developers. Of course not! They teach me! Every single month I enrich my IT vocabulary greatly and you wouldn’t believe how wonderful that feels — to be able to learn something completely new and exciting, even though I will probably never use this knowledge outside the office.
So what do I teach to software development teams? Let me start with small talk. Language used when small talking can’t be difficult, right? Well, not for engineers — for them small talking even in their native language is a nightmare. Answering questions like ‘How are you?’, “How has your day been?’ makes them lose their confidence. Yes, that’s right — my upper-intermediate students do not know what to say when someone sneezes (trust me, I had some serious cases of belly laughs listening to their ideas of the proper response to that). Another perfect example of why I feel like an alien: I adore small talk and getting to know people!
‘What if we changed this to that and then assumed that the person we are talking about is dead, but had a dog in the past?’
Software is everywhere; even when you say you don’t have much to do with software, you are the (in)famous user — whether you like it or not. Not many people, however, know what exactly the process of developing software looks like. It’s complex, requires time and a lot of… analytical thinking — and so we have reached another very important conclusion: programmers, testers, and analysts are very good at analysis of all kinds. Shouldn’t that be a good thing when it comes to learning a language? Let me give you some examples.
Imagine you are trying to introduce second conditional. You give your students a sentence — let’s say: ‘If I were taller, I would be a model’ and you tell them that second conditional is used to talk about hypothetical situations, dreams, things that can’t be changed easily. You ask them if they grasped the main idea. They look at you and this is where all the overanalyzing begins:
‘You can’t say that it is impossible. What if this person goes to China or wherever and has a very long and painful, but still successful, surgery, which will make their legs longer?’.
Student: How do you know this person is an adult person and doesn’t grow anymore?
Me: I just know that, that’s an adult person.
Students: Ok, so you are absolutely sure that this person could never ever be a model? Even in the future when, maybe, short people will be considered more attractive than tall people?
And this is when I cave and just give up any further explanations. Hypothetical situations in case of engineers are not imaginable. An idea of something ‘impossible’ just doesn’t exist — at least one solution to every hypothetical situation can be found at any time.
Idioms and metaphors — these are just unacceptable!
Every language in the world has its own characteristics, such as: grammar, vocabulary, symbolism, historical background, and cultural heritage. Unfortunately enough, meanings of some phrases and words cannot be understood by translating them one to one to our native language. What do I mean here? Idioms and metaphors, of course! Now, let’s try to think if there could be anything more annoying for the analytical minds I teach every day, than something that can’t be translated or compared to, in this case, Polish?!
If I were to tell you how many times I had to defend my worldview which states that: yes, people use idioms all the time, without even thinking about it — I would need a couple more pages here, so let’s just cut to the chase. Regular or so-called ordinary learners (do ordinary learners even exist?) accept idioms without much consideration and overthinking — this idiom means this — OKAY. But not developers… They will tell you: ‘I will never ever use this idiom. Why should I know it?’ or ‘I have never heard anyone use one of those’. If you ever have a chance to talk to a programmer, try to count the number of metaphors or idioms they use; the average number used yearly will probably be something around eleven, twelve tops! There are numerous benefits arising from this: programmers, testers and analysts are just honest and straightforward people, which makes the communication easy and unproblematic.
How do I manage to be a legal alien?
Let’s forget I’m a teacher for a minute. At work, five days a week, I cooperate with people who have quite a different way of thinking and looking at things. I am an extremely open person and discovering alternative approach to life and understanding the world makes me more than happy. However, I am only a human, and every now and then I can feel the alien inside of me. I managed to figure out what kind of learners developers are. The battle between me and the alien is finished — we reached a compromise. I am a teacher, who knows her students well. I went the extra mile (Oh, my. That’s an idiom, isn’t it?!) to study their way of thinking and learning. I created a whole new teaching technique, which seems to be working. I am happy with what I do, that’s what counts.
How should you teach English to software developers?
We know something for sure already — making IT specialists create stories about princesses does not work. Luckily, I have had some time to develop techniques which actually enhance the learning process of engineers, who develop software. As in the case of any other type of a learner, we (and by ‘we’ I mean English teachers) should be able to use the skills, abilities, and interest of our students to make the process of learning easier and nicer. Let’s just ponder on the ways we could use the tremendous analytical skills of software developers in the classroom. Games, riddles, puzzles — all of these require some degree of mathematical thinking and analysis. That is what makes developers, testers, and analysts more eager to participate in the class and acquire new grammar and words. I’m not talking about simple dominos here. No, no, no. I mean games which have many layers of interpretation, complex rules, and can be played using thought-through strategies.
The topic dreaded by many comes back — small talk. Talking to people about the weather or a meal they had in a restaurant is just as important as talking about technologies and architecture of applications (I know it is an unpopular opinion). For the past three years I have managed to persuade my ‘special’ learners, that they should be able to have casual conversations in business situations. What’s my approach? I teach them very specific phrases — if I tell them that maybe one day in the future they will need to have small talk with, let’s say, a Norwegian client, they will not feel motivated enough to practice it. If, however, I give them a specific situation like: ‘Imagine you are the one to welcome a group of client’s representatives. What do you say after saying ‘hello’?’ — they suddenly become interested in solving that puzzle. The context used in the classroom cannot be vague or indefinite. Everything has to be clear, logical, and based on real-life situations (that’s why second conditional is this big enemy to defeat). I can proudly say, that my students are now confident when having casual conversations at coffee breaks.
By the way — the answer to ‘What do you say after saying ‘hello’?’ was: ‘How was your flight?’, which in Jit Team has become an inside joke, since at some point every day people asked this question to their friends upon arriving at the office on a regular day of work.
Grammar: loved by many, hated by plenty. I strongly believe, that without learning grammar, people are never able to communicate properly. One could say that grammar is something highly logical and can in many cases be understood as mathematical equations waiting to be solved. Yes, that’s right! Teaching most aspects of grammar to developers is not problematic — unlike some types of learners, they want to know the rules and they pay much attention to the detailed contexts we use particular structures in. Great! There has to be a ‘but’, of course. Conditionals, structures using ‘I wish’ and ‘If only’, the position of adjectives in sentences, countable and uncountable nouns — lessons on these can be painful.
What about words? IT people love words! They are curious about weird words, their meaning and usage. Interestingly, they hate adjectives — they find them unnecessary and useless. If they could, they wouldn’t use any sophisticated adjectives. Sticking to ‘good’, ‘nice’, and ‘bad’ is perfectly enough. If we talk about nouns, on the other hand, they love them! All of those specific words from many characteristic areas are the hype of them all.
Alien or friend?
I have grown to understand and appreciate the very unique industry I work in. Cooperation with people, who deal with designing complex software and business solutions is absolutely delightful. Although I could think of many jokes starting with: ‘A developer meets a linguist…’, I truly believe that language teaching and engineering have a lot in common and with just enough effort teaching English to developers, testers, and analysts can be a great adventure!
Here, I would like to send many thanks to my lovely students (who will probably have a giggle about me calling them ‘lovely’), who have taught me a lot about teaching itself. You are my inspiration.