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A purposeful academic

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Melanie Butler asks Andy Otaqui, International Science Foundation co-ordinator at King’s College London, about the challenges ahead

You are an unusual beast in EFL – a science graduate who became a language teacher. What made you make this change and what was your biggest challenge when you did?

Actually, I didn’t ‘graduate’ in science but started a medical/physiology degree when I was eighteen. I decided to switch focus and got into English teaching, like a lot of people, with the idea of being able to travel with it. Over time, I did the obvious Celta, Delta and eventually an MA Tesol, which was about the time I switched from EFL to EAP teaching.

I do think there is significant overlap between languages and sciences. I take a social science approach to linguistics, which I think is a very broad church – ranging from psycholinguistics and computer modelling of languages at the ‘hard science’ end to the more descriptive grammar-type linguistics associated more with humanities departments and general social sciences in the middle. I think ‘language’ studies can and should influence and be influenced by these different disciplines. One of the many reasons I have enjoyed studying and working within the applied linguistics discipline is the range of other disciplines it connects with, and this is obviously reinforced by teaching across different faculties in an EAP context.

You now work in EAP at King’s College London. What are the three main differences between general EFL teaching and EAP teaching, and what other skills do you need to teach English for Specialist Academic Purposes (ESAP), such as science?

I would say the three main differences are:

1. Needing to focus on overall academic quality more than individual features of language – students can get by with more surface errors if they are able to communicate their overall academic arguments and evidence effectively.

2. Needing to focus on specific subskills associated with studying in university – listening to lectures, participating in seminars, reading academic texts, and writing academic essays all require skills which to some degree overlap with general language ability, but there is a clear need to tailor teaching to meet these requirements.

3. Many EFL classes can and should be driven by what the students want. If all the students want to focus less on reading and more on conversation skills, then that is what can drive the classes. In EAP there tends to be more onus on the teacher to make it clear what students need in order to succeed in their academic studies and focus teaching on those skills.

In terms of other skills needed to teach ESAP, clearly an understanding of the topic will help. Also, familiarity with the genres associated with the discipline is invaluable.

Our last two British Council inspections have resulted in excellent results for our department, which reflects the outstanding team we have here and everyone’s dedication to provide the best classes and overall student experience we can.

Many universities we speak to complain that the British Council inspectors’ classroom observation is looking for things that are more germane in a general English environment. Pronunciation is a particular bugbear. Your masters was on accent and pronunciation, and you’re working on a PhD on the impact of mother tongue on the performance of non-native speaker lecturers. Why do you see pronunciation as so important?

To be honest, my PhD is not exactly focused on pronunciation of international lecturers. I’m looking in slightly more general terms at how their varieties of English, including pronunciation, grammar and vocabulary, affect their working lives and the carrying out of their duties. I’ve read a lot about World Englishes and to a great extent agree with the idea of allowing non-RP or non-‘standard’ pronunciations and other linguistic features in language classes, as long as communication is effective. However, I am also aware that language is socially situated, and power relations between people are affected by language varieties, of which pronunciation is often one of the most salient features. Thinking from a student’s perspective, I am less convinced that pronunciation needs to be drilled and taught British Council style. Thinking from an international lecturer’s perspective, I also don’t think pronunciation classes are necessarily very useful, but perhaps some awareness of the ‘baggage’ that can come with one accent or another. I also strongly believe that more needs to be done at an institutional level to make UK universities more valuing of international staff and students, which would go a long way to reduce negative perceptions of an individual’s accent.

Where do you stand on the EAP versus ESAP debate – all academic English is fundamentally the same versus specific academic fields have different needs? And how is that reflected in the decision to merge the science foundation programme with the separate programme for humanities and social science?

There have been strong moves in EAP research and literature to argue for a discipline-specific approach to EAP classes, often drawing on corpus linguistics to evidence certain features associated with different disciplines. This can be a challenge when an EAP teacher is expected to give classes in a particular subject area they are less familiar with.

Having said this, academia in general is starting to value interdisciplinary approaches more and more, resulting in less certainty as to where the boundaries between different disciplines lie. Additionally, I think experienced EAP tutors are in some ways the ideal people to facilitate a push for more interdisciplinary research as they are likely to have worked across so many different academic departments.

My own view is that there can be useful distinctions made on this, but the boundaries are fluid and becoming more overlapping, which despite some challenges is an advantage for EAP teachers generally. In terms of the merger of foundation programmes at King’s, the distinction will still be made as students will take modules based on their academic subject choices.

You are about to embark on a whole new experiment with your integrated foundation year. What is your biggest challenge and what are you are most looking forward to?

The biggest challenge of the King’s International Foundation Programme will be developing and delivering a variety of new modules under the new foundation programme structure. All students will now take four modules rather than three, with new modules such as business and society, science and society, or an introduction to social sciences. The thing I am most looking forward to is pushing the increased academic rigour of the programme overall, a challenge I think all of the EAP teachers at King’s are also excited about.