Apparently, PMs are not the only people who can motivate the team. Godel Technologies sets a new example of a role-model in IT – an English teacher. Elena Buhatkina, English Instructor at GT, has recently visited Manchester to meet the company’s clients and make the BY-based classes even more effective. Using no other language but English in the office, she does her best to inspire the developers to open up and communicate better with an English-speaking client.
What is it like to be an English teacher in IT?
Oh, it’s fascinating. Really interesting and challenging. Though it’s not easy for me to get ready for the classes. Our guys’ level of English is really high, so just to keep them motivated is hard work. They love it though. I learn something new myself every day, which I find important. It keeps me going. It keeps my mind busy all the time. At nights when I get ready for the classes I always think of something new to keep the guys involved. I love English, I think it’s beautiful. And I would love Godel students to like it the same way, at least a little bit. Probably I will never make them be crazy about it, they’re IT guys and I’m a linguist. I do understand the difference, but I try to show how lovely it is to know the language and to speak it like native speakers do.
Do you have any technical background? How do you manage to make the classes effective in regards to IT specifics?
No, I don’t. Although, when I was studying at MSLU I attended a special course. We had computer linguistics and some additional classes dedicated to IT. If you ask me whether I’ve got any technical background – yes, probably I do. Even in my diploma it says that I’m a linguist plus a specialist in computer sciences, but it’s not like IT guys, it’s computer plus linguistics. Anyway, I do understand how everything works. Again the task is to teach guys to interact with the customers, not to build fancy architectures. The majority of the guys have no problems with IT vocabulary, they’re experts. I teach them idiomatic expressions, business expressions, some IT expressions they don’t know yet. I pay more attention to the communicative aspect of the language, otherwise they will be kind of misunderstood.
Developers are believed to be reserved people with lack of social skills. Does it influence the process of language learning?
I’m a teacher, so any teacher would understand, it’s like being a clown sometimes, you know. Especially if there is a newcomer joining the group. If this person is an introvert, they find it difficult. I ask some questions like “How are you?”, “How was your weekend?”. All the other students are open, because they’ve already opened up. It’s quite natural for them because we do it all the time. We talk about different things. I know about their families and hobbies. Otherwise what can you talk about? Whereas the newcomers can feel a bit shy. “Why is she asking me all these questions?”.
It’s often like this: “How was your weekend?” – “Good”. No more details. Nothing! Gradually they feel more relaxed, they open up. We can watch a video, start discussing it, I ask them about their attitude to this or that issue. And finally the ice breaks. It just takes time. Some of us are emotional and expressive. Some of us are quiet. I’m not going to change anybody, it’s not my task. I’m just trying to help him or her to feel more confident. Psychologically I try to have them to believe in themselves, to show how clever they are: they can speak English, they can do something. It’s extremely important. I'm happy to say that in the classroom the guys forget what positions they take and swap the roles easily! Juniors can be more confident, active and enthusiastic about the topic than seniors! Role-playing during the classes helps them a lot!
What is the most difficult aspect of language learning when it comes to teaching developers? (speaking/grammar/spelling/listening)
It’s rather individual. There are some guys whose communication is brilliant, but grammar is awful. I mean, they can discuss any topic, their vocabulary is good enough. But, oh my God, grammar! They make mistakes all the time and sometimes I don’t even want to interrupt, at the end I just tell them about the mistakes they’ve made. Sometimes it’s vice versa – their grammar can be very good, but they can’t speak English. They’re afraid because of having a psychological barrier. So I don’t think it depends on the sphere they’re working in. I truly believe it depends on an individual.
Your recent visit to Godel’s partners in the UK appears to be a great opportunity to find out more about the company business and make the classes even better. How was it?
I did the same thing 2 years ago, that’s why it wasn’t a new experience for me. It was my initiative and everybody supported it. When you work in the company for so long, and I’ve been working for Godel for 10 years, you look for something new, you need some fresh ideas in order to understand what you should draw more attention to. It was very beneficial of me to go and talk to the customers, to see which communication problems they’ve got with our teams. Some customers think our guys’ tone isn’t very good, it’s monotonous and flat. I start realizing I should pay more attention to the tone, not even the pronunciation itself. It gives you lots of food for thought and helps you to tailor the classes. Teaching English in general is one thing, but teaching English in order to have the guys to interact with the customers is an absolutely different thing.
These trips help me in general a lot. First of all, from the linguistic point of view, secondly from the cultural point of view. You know, the British have different mentality. So how can you teach any language without knowing the mentality of the population, without knowing their traditions, customs? They’re too polite. They also find our guys too straightforward and direct, and I teach them not to be so. Linguistically you can say “There is a problem, we need to fix it”, this is one way of saying. But also you can say “Oh, I’m so sorry, I’m trying to fix it, but there is a slight problem. But I will do my best to fix it as soon as possible.” And suddenly it sounds different. It’s a complex thing, not only the language itself. There are lots of components, which you have to take into consideration. I also take videos of the Manchester guys when I'm in the office and then we watch them at our English classes. It's so good for our Godel guys to have a chance to see their colleagues on video and listen to a variety of accents, so I'm really grateful to the Manchester guys for their help and participation in the films.
What do Godel’s clients think of such an approach to language learning?
Godel’s clients were very enthusiastic, they appreciated it so much. Now that I’m back from the trip I’m communicating with the teams sharing the feedback. As I’ve said the British are too diplomatic, it’s very hard for them to give a direct feedback. They will never say to the guys “You know, you mumble”. So it’s nice to have me as an intermediary person. I know the mentality of our guys, I know how to give this information to them so that they take it into consideration and change something. As I say there is always room for improvement.
I always try to explain to the customers that English is not our mother tongue, that they have to slow down every time they speak with our guys, they have to articulate properly, they have to try not to use idioms, or slang. Certainly we can’t know them all. You have to live in the UK in that area to get used to all this stuff. I ask them to use standard English, without any accent, because sometimes it’s a real nightmare for our guys to understand.
Was it a holiday or more of a business trip?
It's work. It was a pure business trip which I was ready for. It was kind of a holiday for me personally, because English is my life. I appreciate this opportunity. No way I take it for granted. I was trying to make the most of it. But no sightseeing. We were very busy, we had to visit lots of clients, sometimes we had to drive. So it was very hectic. I wanted to see as many customers as possible to make it useful and beneficial.
I would love to organize a workshop session. I’m going to summarize all the information from the customers and give it in general, without mentioning any names or any customers. For example, as I’ve said to you about the tone. They also mispronounce the words. For example, instead of [fikst] they say [fiksid]. Also some minor cultural differences, when they sit with a grumpy face, arms folded. “How are you?” – “FINE”. It looks as if they were arrogant. Though they are not.
You seem to speak no other language but English. Is this for professional reasons or do you simply enjoy it?
I think it’s both, to be honest. On the one hand it’s a professional thing. It is nice to teach English in the classroom, but it’s nice for the guys to have different situations, natural ones. When you are in the classroom it’s a bit artificial, whether you want it or not. It’s a teaching process. But when you speak with the guys in the corridor, or when we go somewhere on a trip the atmosphere is relaxing, I’m not a teacher, I’m just a friend, and we are just chatting. And having a chat in English is a rare case.
I think it started when I was a student. You study English at university and then you suddenly realize “Oh, my God, it’s my 5th year and I’m losing my English skills!”. I was trying to find any way to speak English. I don’t speak it when shopping of course. Though once when I was a student I went to a disco with my friend. We were not let in first, because there were no places or whatever, and I started speaking English. You know how it feels when you’re young and crazy. They suddenly found some tickets for me and my friend, we were let in! And the attitude, oh my God! Everyone was so hospitable and polite. I felt a bit guilty afterwards because I’d used my knowledge of English for my personal needs.
But yeah, in the company I speak only English. For the guys it’s important to use it in everyday situations, not just in the classroom. When they talk about holidays or weekends it’s much better for them to improve their skills.
Whether it’s working onsite or video-conferencing in nearshore partnership, it’s important to be in tune with the customer and the whole team. So next time you don’t feel like attending your English class, think of all the easy solutions you can come up with just because you understand each other.