Category archive

Professional Development

Find resources and tips for managing your time, money, career, and network to help achieve your personal and professional goals.

conference programme for iatefl brighton 2024

IATEFL Brighton 2024 – Highlights and Takeaways from an International Conference for an International Language

in Professional Development

English is an international language: us ELTABBers and our learners come from all corners of the map. But we all live and work together in our little Berlin -Brandenburg box.
ELTABB Chair and Journal Editor Sandra Roggenkamp visited Brighton for the IATEFL yearly conference, to help us all think a little more outside-the-box.

This year’s IATEFL Conference was enjoyable and rewarding in many ways – from a plethora of inspiring presentations and fresh teaching perspectives to networking and socialising with colleagues and friends, all against the backdrop of a charming beach silhouette. Here are some of my personal highlights and takeaways.

The Brighton Centre, where the conference took place

IATEFL Associates’ Day

I started off the week with the IATEFL Associates’ Day, a pre-conference meeting of representatives of associate members from across the globe (of which ELTABB is one). There were representatives from countries such as Spain, Israel, Panama, Belgium, Palestine, Bangladesh…

Once again, Germany was very well-represented, due to its many regional ELTAs. It was nice making new connections while also seeing some familiar faces from HELTA (Hamburg), ELTA-Rhine and MELTA (Munich).

Vincent from HELTA presenting at the Associates’ Day

We spent the day listening to presentations on ESL-related topics and doing group work on specific questions, such as finding effective strategies to increase and measure the visibility of teachers’ associations. After brainstorming and discussing ideas within our own groups (all composed of people coming from different corners of the world) we presented our results in the plenary.

Jean Theuma from the IATEFL Associates Committee did an excellent job leading us all through the day, providing the structure and reminding presenters to “keep it precise and keep it moving” to avoid listener fatigue.

To mix things up, there were poster presentations during the breaks, and my personal highlight was giving a presentation on my chosen topic of brain-friendly learning.

My first poster presentation – it was fun!

If you’re interested in the subject, you can download my poster here.

We rounded off the day with a reception at the bar of the conference’s Skyline room, enjoying the beach view and catching up with other attendees over a cool drink.

IATEFL Presentations

Over the next few days, I attended a number of presentations on different ELT-related topics. Here’s an overview of my favourite talks.

1. Sarah Plochl: “English for artists – between ESP, self-expression and control”

Sarah’s workshop on teaching English to artists was engaging and interactive. What’s more, it was surprisingly relevant, as it turned out that the challenges artists face are similar to the issues a lot of other learners experience.

She pointed out that, like any language learner, artists seek to make sense of the world, express themselves and share their perspectives for other people to (hopefully) understand.

Also, like other learners, artists constantly oscillate between “control” and “flow”.

While they aim to be precise, they also want to expresss themselves freely. Thus, “control” and “flow” are two sides of the same coin: you need control and precision to express yourself “freely and beautifully”.

Of course, lots of teachers focus mostly on flow, helping students get their point across, even if it’s not done very elegantly. But whether you’re a business person who wants to hold captivating presentations or an artist aiming to inspire, your language will need both thoughtfulness and creativity…

A positive mindset: know what you know and take it easy

Sarah went on to explain that in her work with artists, she focusses on cultivating a positive mindset and confidence. As most artists are perfectionists, they tend to ignore what they already know and underestimate their capabilities. So a good starting point is to show them what they already know with the help of brief exercises and conversations.

Sarah also uses simple drawings to explain things and to create a sense of relaxed imperfection. By sharing “crappy doodles”, she creates a welcoming space in which it’s okay not to be perfect.

Simple doodles: good enough is good enough

Another issue for many artists is that they feel like they are “showing off” when they talk, write about or present their work to others. This is something they share with many other learners of English, especially introverts. Sarah thus helps them realise that they help and inspire others when they present their work, and that their clients are grateful to them for that.

She then presented four case studies about different clients with individual challenges (e.g talking, presenting or writing about their work). She divided us into four groups and assigned each group a case study. We then developed strategies for helping the respective client improve their language skills.

A case study

My group considered how to help a sculptor talk and write about her work. She had a B2-level of English but would often let her partner talk on her behalf in international contexts.
Our main idea was confidence-building through establishing the specific vocabulary she needed to speak about her work. We suggested that she also write scripts and practise speaking while recording herself to simulate getting “out there” and making herself visible.

Sarah added that she would start by showing the student how much knowledge she already possessed, and that she was perfectly able to speak for herself without relying on her partner. She also shared a funny anecdote about a student who needed specific vocabulary to talk about their work, and it turned out the most appropriate expression was the word “thingy”.

Mix and match – fresh teaching ideas

Besides, Sarah encouraged us to “think outside the ELT box” to include more techniques, such as creative writing, design thinking, and even dancing – or to incorporate somewhat dated but fun and effective teaching methods such as Dictogloss.

Another tip she gave us was to help students get English out of the classroom and into their lives. An easy way for learners to do this is switching their phone settings and apps to English, for example.

My takeout from this talk was that it’s fine to use students’ feelings of perceived inadequacy as a starting point and take it from there, gradually building up confidence and skills – with the help of both conventional and creative methods.

2. Gerald Smith: “Engaging and effective exam preparation using audio-visual and digital resources”

This presentation on using digital materials for exam preparation was light-hearted and breezy. Gerald, who’d just had a less-than-civil encounter with a local seagull, kicked off his talk with a casual poop joke.

Watch your step – Brighton’s seagulls mean business!

He then explained that exams tend to have a “washback” effect, meaning that previous bad results can cause exam nerves, shame, guilt and generally low motivation. So any type of exam preparation should try to counterbalance this.

But why would digital materials be more effective than coursebooks then?

Some of the reasons Gerald mentioned were:

  • synchronicity: there is an abundance of digital materials that are timely and relevant, which is generally more motivating than using coursebooks dating back a couple of years
  • real-world situations: students respond better to authentic materials (e.g. street interviews or news), which are easy to find online
  • topics: digital materials allow the teacher to take students’ interests into account (could be anything from hobbies to politics)
  • high video literacy: learners are already used to watching videos and quickly grasping visual content, so it’s a “home advantage”
  • audio-visual materials are multi-sensory and often contain moving images that make them more engaging
  • authentic digital materials contain frequently used language

An example: using videos in the classroom

Gerald provided an example of how digital materials can be used to practise speaking. He picked a short video on art murals in crisis-ridden Baghdad, accompanied by questions and tasks.

The questions can be general (e.g. “What was the topic about?”) or more specific (“Who made the project and why?”) or personal (“Do you like it? Why/why not?”).
They can also be used to simulate exams or interviews, with one student being a test taker/interviewee and the other one an examiner/interviewer (there can be more roles – such as note taker or moderator – depending on group size).

Gerald added that it’s good to pick a topic that’s not only interesting but also a bit polarising, because if students have an opinion on something, they will naturally want to speak about it.

But what about coursebooks and exam relevancy?

He went on to explain that teachers may have reservations about exam relevancy and coursebook integration. Here’s an overview of the concerns and benefits when it comes to using digital materials:

While the pros obviously outweigh the cons, in order to ensure the exam relevancy of the digital materials in use, Gerald’s recommendation was to focus on:

  • fostering Higher Order Thinking Skills
  • building contextual language awareness
  • developing lexical storage
  • promoting learner autonomy

The idea here is that successful integration means helping students develop practical, transferable skills that will help them prepare for the exam, but at the same time go beyond exam preparation. If students can learn to recognise recurring patterns, improve their communication skills and develop lasting motivation, they’ll be able to apply their skills and knowledge in any given context. This will mitigate the “washback” effect and prepare them for real-world encounters.

I left Gerald’s presentation with a wider perspective on what it means to learn successfully and sustainably by shifting the focus from “exam-centred” to “student-centred”.

3. Sheila Thorn: “Designing listening and language practice materials to accompany authentic recordings”

This was Sheila Thorn’s farewell talk – after 25 years of speaking at IATEFL – and her witty, authentic delivery definitely did it justice.

The issue she addressed in her presentation was the mismatch between coursebooks and authentic language and how this affects learner motivation and progress.

The problems she outlined were the following:

  • coursebooks are scripted and graded
  • the audio sections are performed by actors who articulate and speak very clearly
  • coursebooks are good for learning a language and getting good grades, but they don’t help students understand authentic language and a variety of accents

Acccording to Sheila, this easily leads to a “washback” effect (again!) when students don’t understand native speakers despite being “good” at English and doing well in tests. As a result, they experience stress, which in turn makes it harder to learn.

The solution: listening to and learning from native speakers

Sheila’s solution was prioritising authentic listening. She presented short audio snippets that were accompanied by little tasks with questions about the content of the recordings.

Some simple yes-no questions to check listening comprehension

Sheila’s tried-and-trusted strategy is to regularly use audio materials in class. She lets her students listen to the recordings, work on the tasks and correct their own mistakes afterwards. Of course, she is there to help when they get stuck (also providing transcripts). She sees herself as a facilitator rather than a source of knowledge – which allows her students to acquire knowledge autonomously.

Self-correction is engaging for her learners, and they make good progress as a result.

Some advantages of authentic listening materials that Sheila mentioned were:

  • understanding from context works well for students
  • training listening comprehension is effective exam preparation
  • real-life content is far more motivating than scripted materials
  • not much preparation needed as the teacher can just show up with recordings and tasks
  • content is easy to find on the internet

What’s more, the recordings don’t have to be long – all of the examples Sheila gave were under one minute (e.g. interview snippets). Authentic materials will also naturally bring up a wide range of ESL topics, including grammar, functional language, vocabulary, etc.

A task for advanced learners

Throughout her talk, Sheila sprinkled in funny quips and anecdotes. She told us a story about a potential client whose English was so abysmal that she charged a horrendous fee for her services just to turn him away – but he came back anyway and she had to bite the bullet. Now, his English has improved dramatically and they are friends.

I thoroughly enjoyed this funny and inspiring farewell talk, which ended with a standing ovation from the audience and a visibly moved Sheila. I hope she’ll enjoy her golden years.

Brighton: worth a trip for sure!

Last but not least, another highlight for me was the “Introduction to Brighton”, a virtual walk through the city. The presentation was hosted by a local tour organiser and included little visuals and plenty of storytelling. It was fun to explore the history of Brighton, from the early beginnings as a small, sleepy fishing village to becoming the first seaside spa resort before turning into the cultural hotspot it is today.

The Brighton seafront, featuring the Upside Down House

I took a bit of time to explore some of the local attractions before merrily getting on my way back home, filled with gratefulness for the things I had learned and the connections and happy memories I had made.

I’m very much looking forward to seeing some of the inspiring speakers I discovered at future ELTABB workshops!


Making LinkedIn Work for You – Top Tips for ESL Teachers and Trainers

in Professional Development

Whether you’re a freelance English teacher looking for clients, a would-be new employee or somewhere in between, LinkedIn has a lot to offer. Find out how the platform works and make your profile work for you.

LinkedIn tends to be a bit ‘marmite’: Like the (in)famous British spread, you either love it or hate it. Those who hate it tend to see it as basically a glorified CV with lots of posts boasting that people are ‘delighted to announce…’

However, if you haven’t bothered with the platform much, you may well be surprised with how it’s developed in recent years. It’s now one of the fastest growing social media platforms – recently announcing one billion users – and has the advantage of being mostly professionally focused with very few cat pictures.

Because most people are on LinkedIn in a professional capacity, it’s easy to network, build relationships and collaborate with others. There is amazing community and support available, and there’s nowhere better to keep up to date with industry trends. The profile section is like nothing else on social media, enabling you to essentially create a mini website which is also findable through Google search.

Yet, LinkedIn is still massively undervalued and underutilised by most of the ELT professionals I talk to. In part, I think this is because it honestly isn’t the most intuitive or straightforward platform to learn to use. So let me give you some tips and suggestions that will help you to use it more effectively, and maybe learn to love it as much as I do.

The Top Card – Say Hello and Shake Hands

This is the part at the top of your profile displaying your name, a description of what you do (known as the headline) and a headshot of you. It also features a banner photo in the background.

Think of this section as your business card. You want it to be well-designed, attractive and clear. What is it that you do, and crucially: how can you help your ideal clients (or employers)?

Let’s start with the banner photo. Many people either stick with the default blue and grey background, or stick an out-of-focus photo of their last holiday destination there. But the banner photo is a massive opportunity to tell anyone visiting your profile the most important things about you and what you have to offer.

You can use Canva to bring up a whole range of LinkedIn banner templates, and then change them in any way you want. You can add your own words, describing what you do, or maybe even a short testimonial quote, as well as adding an image and using colours that fit with your personal branding.

The headshot is like that moment in networking when you make eye contact and shake hands. So, make sure that you’re looking at the camera, not wearing sunglasses, and that people will still recognise you if they meet you in real life!

The Headline – Bring Your Message Home

Then, there’s the all-important headline. Think of this as your ‘elevator pitch’. Imagine you’ve just met someone at a networking event, and they ask you, ‘What do you do?’

Which is going to be more interesting and lead to a better conversation?

I’m a teacher of business English.


I help international business professionals go from being anxious about their English to confident communicators in 12 weeks.

A good formula to use is something like this:

“I help X to do Y through/in/without/so that they can Z.”

So now you’ve said hello and briefly introduced yourself. What next? In real life, you would probably swap business cards and think about how you might be able to work together.

On LinkedIn, you also want this. If you switch on Creator mode, you are then gifted with a link in your top card, where you can suggest people book a call, sign up for your mailing list, or whatever you feel is the best next step towards becoming a client.

Creator mode is aimed at those posting regularly, which I also recommend. It does have the possible disadvantage that people are steered towards following you, rather than connecting. But you can always check through your follower list and request to connect with them later. I think it’s well worth it to get that well-positioned link.

(If you’re not sure, following means that they see your content, but you don’t see theirs, and they can’t message you directly or vice versa. If you’re connected, you see each other’s content, and can message.)

The About Section – Showcase Your Expertise

The About section is probably the second most important part of your profile. If the whole profile is a mini website, then the top card is the home page, and this is your about page and the sales page of your website wrapped up into one.

So, it shouldn’t be a summary of your CV (yawn). The About section really needs to ‘speak’ to your ideal client.

Unless they click ‘see more’, they will only see the first line or two of your About section. So you need to grab their attention, and make it clear why reading more will be helpful for them.

This is what you’ll see before you click ‘see more’ if you go to my profile:

Hi, I’m Rachael. I’m here to help ELT/MFL/ESL freelancers work less, earn more and live more fully, through optimising both your business model and your business mindset.

– Maybe you’re working as an online teacher or coach, but clients feel hard to come by, or ….

If you are self-employed, you should know inside out and back to front who your ideal clients are and what they’re looking for. Your About section needs to demonstrate this understanding. Only then lay out how your experience and expertise can help them. Check out my full profile to see how I’ve done that:

Rachael Roberts | LinkedIn

If you are employed, you may think this doesn’t apply to you. But actually, companies and organisations also have needs, struggles and aspirations. The more you can make it clear how employing you will help with these, the stronger a candidate you’ll appear.

The Featured Section – Spread the Word

This is one of my favourite sections, and yet it’s so underutilized that many people haven’t even activated it on their profile.

People often assume it’s just for you to pin featured posts, much as you can on other platforms. You CAN do that, but you can also pin links to anything external that you like. This could be your website, your lead magnet landing page, a video on YouTube, a podcast you run or appeared in, or an event you’re running or appearing in.

This means that LinkedIn gives you pretty much unlimited links, without having to use something like Linktree, as you do on Instagram. What’s more, for each external link you can add a thumbnail image (1270 x 720 works well), meaning that your links look professional and enticing.

(For more help with this section – and other aspects of LinkedIn and your ELT/MFL freelance business, check out my YouTube channel.)

Recommendations – Stand Out and Shine

The fourth and final section I’m going to talk about is the Recommendations section.

Whether you’re looking for clients or employment, the primary reason behind creating a LinkedIn profile is to help people see what you have to offer, how you can help them, and why they should trust you. Your content will do a lot to build this trust, but testimonials are even more compelling. And those on LinkedIn have the added benefit that they are attached to real people who the reader can check out.

You need to request that someone gives you a recommendation (there is a button to press). I would suggest that you contact them separately first and explain the kind of thing you’d like them to write. Remember that this is about reducing risk for anyone considering working with you. So anything about any hesitations they may have had which were removed, the process of working with you, and the results they got, will be super useful.

If you work on these four areas of your profile, that alone will hugely benefit you and your business. And imagine the impact if you’re actually posting regularly, too. I look forward to seeing some new shiny profiles popping up on LinkedIn. Do take a moment to say hi while you’re there!


If you found this article helpful, you may also be interested in authentic branding for ESL professionals.

Workshop Review: “Assessing Speaking Performance Using the new CEFR Framework” with Kirsten Wächter

in Professional Development

To what extent can the CEFR framework help English teachers provide more detailed and personalised assessments of speaking performance? In our October workshop, we looked at the features to consider for an effective assessment of our learners’ speaking competence.

The participants of this workshop worked in very different English-teaching contexts. Some taught one-on-one, others to small groups and then there were teachers of larger groups of university students. The English taught ranged from conversational and general English to English for business or academic purposes. Some teachers assessed formally as examiners, whilst others used only informal assessment as part of their progress monitoring.

So the question arose: how can the (new) CEFR – Common European Framework of Reference for Languages – help fine-tune students’ speaking performance in such different contexts?

The key lay in being able to provide nuanced feedback. In doing so, teachers could help learners better understand their own competencies. Learners would then benefit from identifying where they are improving and where exactly they needed additional support.

What is speaking competence anyway?

First of all, we discussed what speaking competence actually entails. We divided speaking competence into core aspects.

  1. Linguistic aspects included those such as vocabulary and grammar.
  2. Phonological aspects included pronunciation and intonation.
  3. Sociolinguistic aspects covered what is appropriate language in different contexts and what can be cultural influences in a speaking situation.
  4. Finally, pragmatic aspects focussed on topics such as flexibility, fluency, and coherence.

Generally speaking, there is now the shared insight that language cannot be separated from communication and context. In other words, we have to consider the purpose, usage, and functionality of language in linguistic utterances.

For speaking competence, this means that we can divide speech production into two parts (or ‘topics’):

On the one hand, there is language production, for example:

  • addressing an audience
  • making announcements 
  • giving information 
  • putting a case

On the other hand, there is the field of interaction, including topics such as:

  • conversation with friends
  • formal meetings and discussions
  • compensation strategies to make sure one can express things clearly

After this initial presentation, the participants worked in breakout rooms to discuss how the production and interaction descriptors (or “can do” statements) of the CEFR are able to help teachers in a needs analysis with their learners.

Table of CEFR dscriptors for the levels B1/B2
Example of CEFR descriptors for spoken interaction

Using ‘Can Do’ statements for assessment

The group focussing on production had a look at the different descriptors for certain topics (such as making an announcement or addressing an audience). After picking those relevant to them, they engaged in a discussion:

  • How can these descriptors be used to create a self-assessment questionnaire?
  • How does one set tasks to assess whether the students can actually achieve their goals? 

Examples of these tasks included short presentations, topical debates and personal or job introductions.

The group focussing on interaction started by selecting those descriptors that they thought were relevant to their learners. For example, “Learner is able to explain why something is a problem” and “Learner can give brief comments on the views of others” – both B2 descriptors for formal and informal discussions. Furthermore, they discussed descriptors for expressing an opinion or appropriate response to others.

Assessing audio recordings

Following that, we moved on to the more practical part, the analysis of two recordings. Recording One had a person introducing a speaker and the topic he was going to talk about at a company meeting. Recording Two was a group discussion focussing on agreeing and disagreeing, centred on an article the speakers had read. Both were authentic recordings from my teaching context.

A list of common criteria for assessing speaking performance

The participants listened to both recordings and assessed the recordings based on a number of criteria. For Recording One (production) these criteria were accuracy, fluency, clarity and coherence. For Recording Two (interaction) these were active listening, checking for understanding, appropriateness of conversation, and the presence of turn-taking or communication breakdowns.

Assessing production

Regarding production – the introduction of speaker and topic – the participants reached agreement on an assessment. The speaker was B2, phonology, formality and fluency were quite good (if a little fast-paced) and speech was coherent and easy to follow. The group concluded that the speaker achieved the goals of the task. However, some thought the speech was too long for an introduction, containing pauses between thoughts and lacking connected speech.

In addition to that, I gave more background on the different features of speech that learners used, such as signposting and addressing the audience, argument presentation (including talking about challenges, giving examples and using rhetorical questions), and making announcements. The speaker managed all of these successfully. This background helped to achieve a more structured feedback that the teacher can give to the learner regarding the impact of the speaking performance.

Assessing interaction

In the interaction situation, participants assessed the way the speakers handled agreement and disagreement respectfully yet clearly; taking note also of the use of typical phrases and softeners to achieve this. Furthermore, the group analysed the reasons that the speakers gave to support their opinions and the language that they used to make comparisons. It was concluded that both speakers had reached a B1 level. Finally, it was agreed that both had achieved their main goal – expressing themselves clearly and politely.

Once more, I gave some background to help further structure the assessment. We looked at the phonology – how speakers used their voice to emphasise important points – and compensation strategies such as using the first language or defining words to avoid communication breakdown. There was also a discussion on clarification methods – how the speakers related back to what each other had said and how they helped out when the right word couldn’t be found.

Digital tools and final thoughts

The workshop was supplemented by looking into tools that can help our learners check on their own speaking performance. There are video recording tools that use automatic captions in the playback loop and examples of speaking performance can help teachers design tasks for their students. Vocabulary profiling tools can help assess student level, and an interview assessment conduct sheet is useful to check in a more detailed and formalised way what student performance looks like.

We all agreed that the most important point for our learners is to be intelligible when they communicate in English, and the participants gained some insights on how to support their learners better in this regard.


You can download a PDF of the CEFR with the new descriptors via this link.


If you found this article useful, you might be interested in this article on rubrics and feedback methods.

You might also enjoy this post on focussing on the positives and giving motivational feedback to your students and clients.

Think Translation Sounds Like a Good Side Gig? Here are Some Things to Consider

in Professional Development

Many language teachers think of translation as a way to earn extra cash, or even as a route out of teaching. In this article, I’m going to go through the discouraging and encouraging things to consider when contemplating translation work.

When I was president of the MiTiN, the Michigan chapter of the American Translators Association (pronounced “mitten”, get it?), I would often get e-mails like this:

i wanna no how i gonna get certfy like traslater i no my linguij and my englsh perfect

As is frequently repeated in the translation industry (which is larger than the music industry!) not every bilingual person can be a translator. Knowing how to drive a car doesn’t make you a mechanic, and being able to jump doesn’t make you a gymnast.

But let’s assume you are a linguistically talented person, and are looking to find out more about the encouraging and not-so-encouraging aspects of the industry.

Encouraging: there’s no shortage of words

The good news is that there is more stuff in the world that needs to be translated than there are humans capable of translating it.

The internet, increasing globalization of markets, and the growing expectation of people the world over for their media to be properly localized — not just translated — have created a great deal of demand for translation and localization, which should result in a lot of opportunity.


Discouraging: there’s no shortage of translators either

More universities and other institutions have started translation degree and certificate programs, and they’re turning out masses of fresh, temporarily optimistic translators. This is glutting the market and helping drive rates down. And many of these graduates can’t find work as translators.

A friend who owned a boutique translation agency recently told me that when he started out, he got a few applications from aspiring translators a week, and he could answer them all. Flash forward to the 2020s, and he got as many as 100 applications a day – of which he obviously couldn’t answer more than a random handful.

Encouraging: networking still works

With the market so flooded with hopeful translators, it might seem futile to look for work, but it’s not as bad as it looks. Think of how most people get their first job. It’s often not from filling out applications:

At 16, I was approached by a friend and told, “The children’s home needs maintenance crew for the summer. Wanna come?” So I did, and that was my first job. The second one came because a factory owner told a nun he needed to hire someone and she called me.

So you can put together a pretty good clientele through personal connections, by visiting trade shows (salespeople whose companies send them unreadable Germlish brochures from headquarters are particularly eager), and using other more direct approaches.

You need a subject matter specialty

When I was in my 20s, a friend’s sister graduated from a prestigious university with an English writing degree and confidently went to a job fair for writers. To her shock and dismay, nobody was interested in someone with a high-status English writing degree. They told her,

We don’t need writers; we need people who know other things and can also write.

The same thing goes in the translation industry. Language has to be about something. The language skills are just a cup, and if the cup is empty, it’s got no purpose.

Discouraging: you’ll need to learn about your target industry

This means that to do decently in a translation career, you need to know something besides how to write in another language. It means you have to know at least one field like business and economics, manufacturing, medicine, or some other high-demand subject matter.

The specialty doesn’t even have to be something for which you can get what Germans like to call “a qualification”.
I read of one man who had spent years working as a disc jockey on the Reeperbahn, and he was the only person a publisher could find who not only understood all the obscure German obscenities in a series of hit novels, but could render the text smoothly in English.

So sometimes your speciality is something you just picked up along the way, even something from your first job as a kid.

Encouraging: you can teach yourself – and it can be fun

You can train yourself in a specialty. I know a young Japanese woman who went on an all-out assault to teach herself everything there is to know about automotive engineering, and with a lot of effort, she became an expert translator for the US and Japanese car industry.

One man I know had learned scuba diving and that surprisingly became useful. Some people develop a habit of reading picture encyclopedias from DK Publishing, National Geographic and others — often in more than one language.

Sometimes you can’t predict your future specialties; they just find you, and you learn them through your own research while doing the projects.

a colorful yogurt cup
Who’d have thought you could make a career out of this?

I would never have imagined I would become the go-to guy for French yogurt packaging lines or hay balers, but that’s what I developed into. However, to get there, I already needed some kind of technical background.

The flip side of having a technical specialty is knowing the importance of turning down work that’s not in your specialty.

Do you think, “The Ford salesman conquested a Toyota intender,” is a horrid, ungrammatical sentence with misused words? Then don’t take work having to do with car retailing, because in that field it’s a perfectly grammatical way of saying a salesman convinced a customer to switch car brands.

You’ll need a lot of software

The days are gone when translators propped up an original document on their desk and looked back and forth as they typed into Word. If you want better work than just the occasional dance school certificate that happens to waft by, you’ll need to set yourself up technologically.

The most important thing you’ll need is at least one computer-assisted translation tool, or CAT tool, as they’re called. The three most popular are Trados, MemoQ and Wordfast Pro, but there are many others.

Many laypeople mistakenly think that these are automated translation programs, but they’re not. They allow you to import the document and show it to you as a two-column grid, with the source language on the left and an empty column for you to type the target language on the right.

They keep track of what you’ve already translated, so you don’t have to type it again, and they also allow recycling parts of translations that have already been done by someone else. The programs also help you keep a glossary and concordance, among many other functions.

Most of the tools are developed in Europe, Quebec or Utah.

Discouraging: CAT tools are expensive

CAT tools typically cost about $600 or $700, but that’s actually good, because they used to cost around $2500 twenty years ago. There may also be an annual fee that provides you with updates and support, but it’s worth paying.

a cat being groomed
No skimping – this won’t cut it!

Encouraging: CAT tools come in handy in all kinds of ways

Having and knowing how to use a CAT tool can greatly increase the amount of work you get, and it also improves your quality and efficiency, especially with the quality assurance tools built into them.

The tools also save you the cost of owning other expensive software. You don’t have to subscribe to Adobe Creative Cloud for big money in order to translate InDesign layouts and other files, because your CAT tool will import them easily and spit them back out perfectly formatted.

You may say, “I already do some work as a translator, and the work I get doesn’t require a CAT tool.” That’s because you don’t have a CAT tool — just as the guy with no lawnmower never gets lawn mowing jobs.

Other types of software you’ll need to have and know how to use include optical character recognition (OCR) programs, transcription software, etc. (Adobe Acrobat is terrible at OCR, so don’t try it.)

Make sure you haven’t gone too native in your non-native language

Once I berated a project manager in the Czech Republic for sending me an English document to edit that was translated by a Czech. She replied that, “She’s American, but she’s lived here a really long time.” The woman was writing strange things like “cars BMW”, “electronics Sony” and much of her syntax was odd.

It is possible to get so absorbed in your host country that you lose your feel for your native language. If you have gone native to that point, translating into your native language might not be a good idea. Meanwhile, it’s generally considered unethical to translate into your non-native language.

Isn’t AI putting translators out of business anyway?

Yes and no. Artificial intelligence is putting some translators out of business but keep in mind what I said before — there is infinitely more material needing translation than there are humans to do the job. So some technological solution to the problem is necessary and inevitable.

Discouraging: yes, it is

However, artificial intelligence is definitely putting some translators out of business.

About five or ten years ago, the machine translation industry changed its model to something called neural machine translation, where the software teaches itself, rather than humans trying to teach it. The result was such a jump in quality that all those online translation engines people used to make fun of are now doing as well as a mediocre human translator, so there’s not really work for translators who are below average.

In fact, many in the translation business wonder how new, inexperienced translators are going to get practice. If a computer can accurately come up with a translation like, “Music lovers can get their groove on at the adjacent nightclub,” the whole game has changed.

Encouraging: only the bad ones

Artificial intelligence is not very intelligent.

It makes a lot of mistakes, so there is a lot of opportunity in what’s called “post-editing”, part of which involves fixing the language. Machine translation uses “carry out” too much, and it will use the preposition “via” more times in a short document than you’re liable to see in two years reading original English writing.

It often forms “of” chains, which is also a common problem with weak human translators: “the A of the B of the X of the Y of the Z”. Also, it can’t tell who’s doing what to whom, so working from languages with ungendered possessive pronouns, like French, it makes mistakes: “The man blew its nose.”

However, as artificial intelligence comes more into use, its weaknesses are becoming more and more obvious:

Artificial intelligence can’t see

If there are visuals, AI can’t see them and can’t take them into account when translating text related to them.

Artificial intelligence can’t deal with structural ambiguity

You still don’t know which meaning of a sentence like, “He saw that gasoline can explode,” or the headline, “TEACHER STRIKES IDLE KIDS” the AI is going to deliver.

Artificial intelligence has no sense of humor

AI can’t see or interpret a sight gag in a video, for example, so it can’t translate any text related to it appropriately. And it will just translate verbal jokes literally most of the time.

Artificial intelligence has no culture

In many translations, it’s not the specifics of someone’s words that are important, but the speech act, i.e. what the utterance is doing. AI doesn’t know the difference in how an American versus a German orders a pizza. It can’t say to itself, “This guy’s ordering a pizza,” and make the cultural switch. AI doesn’t know what an American says to chase frisky teenage boys away from his niece compared to what a Frenchman would say.

One time I realized that the AI was translating a famous line from the movie “Casablanca” back into English from a foreign language. AI can’t know that, of course, so it came up with, “It is a shock, a SHOCK!” rather than the real line:

Encouraging: humans are still indispensable

All this means that companies using machine translation are realizing that post-editing doesn’t just require a warm body to edit at a fraction of the translation rate.

Rather, it often requires an experienced, seasoned translator to do the editing for real money. It also means that translators get less and less of the translation work machines can do (Swiss real estate listings and the like) and more of the work that requires human understanding and ingenuity.

This sounds like too much. Why not just become an interpreter?

Bilingual people who don’t want to sink the money and effort into becoming a translator (someone who types) often think an easier route would be to go into interpreting. That’s just talking, after all, right?

Careful! This path is also fraught with danger.

You also need a specialty, and because, as with translation, one slip-up could get someone killed, you have to know it well. One famous case involves a college basketball player whose family brought him into emergency and told the interpreter he was “intoxicado”. Based on the interpreter’s translation, the young man was treated for intoxication, and ended up a quadriplegic. “Intoxicado” in Spanish means poisoned.

Interpreters have to follow different sets of ethics for different contexts. In court, they are supposed to act as neutral translation machines, whereas in a medical setting they have to advocate for the patient if they see something starting to go wrong.

Interpreters have to be trained to deal with “vicarious trauma”, which means taking on the emotions of the person whose speech they’re interpreting. If the interpreter breaks down crying in court, or if she faints in a medical setting, she can’t do her job.

Court interpreters have to know all idioms and even all obscenities in every dialect of their two languages. Simultaneous interpreters for conferences have to know how to work the booth technology, which is getting more and more sophisticated.

Simultaneous interpreting: easier said than done

At MiTiN we had a question on the registration form that asked if the new member did simultaneous interpreting, and 99% of them answered “yes”. After all, it’s just talking, right? Then at training seminars, when we put them in the booth with the headphones on, 85% of them couldn’t do it. Their attempt would break down in 60 to 150 seconds. This is because they weren’t trained.

Simultaneous interpreting requires extensive training, particularly of one’s short-term memory. Additionally, the brain has to be divided into at least three sectors. The first sector takes in what’s being said now, the second sector says what was just heard a second ago, and the third sector takes notes. Moreover, one has to learn the skill of not dwelling on one’s momentary mistakes, because if you’re thinking about the mistake you just made, you’re not aware of what’s happening now, and you’re a dead duck.


All of these things are things you can learn. There are proven programs, often with various government approval, that will teach you all the skills necessary for interpreting in various contexts.

You can do it, but it will be work

The moral of this long bahn of blather is that if you are a language instructor, and you’re fluently bilingual, you may be able to work as a translator or interpreter. But you can’t just walk in and do it on a lark. Even if you teach yourself (which I mostly did), it helps to have mentoring, and you’ll have to learn a lot of technology, ethical codes and more.

If this article has not deterred you, one of the best books for getting oriented in the translation business is “How to Succeed as a Freelance Translator” by Corinne McKay, which has been translated into a number of languages. Corinne has also written other books helpful in the profession.


If you enjoyed this article, you might also be interested in this post on teachers’ secret side jobs.

Workshop Review: “Trends in Corporate Language Learning” with Evan Frendo

in Professional Development

In this interactive June workshop, Evan Frendo cast light on current developments in corporate language learning. He discussed the implications of these for business English teachers, and talked about possible ways of adapting to new trends and requirements.

Evan kicked off his talk by painting a picture of the typical present-day corporate workplace. His main observation was that formal learning is increasingly fading out, largely due to faster and more agile work environments. Increasing time pressure often means no time for full courses. Instead, ‘microlearning on the go’ is rapidly becoming the new normal.

From Prescribed Learning to Learning on Demand

Evan pointed out that this new type of learning means that the learner actively “pulls” whatever knowledge is needed at any given time (‘learning on demand’). Traditionally, students would attend a full course, with trainers “pushing” all sorts of knowledge on them.

This general shift of focus from teacher to learner-controlled instruction means that the learner no longer sees the trainer as an all-encompassing learning resource. Rather, the instructor is one of an abundance of resources.

As digital content allows learners access to knowledge 24/7, tech tools are no longer an optional add-on. As a part of mainstream culture they are well-nigh essential at this point. This also means that informal learning (learning outside the classroom) is very much part of the equation, and that it’s part of the teacher’s job to help students optimise it.

Curating vs. Creating

Due to learners’ needs frequently changing in agile environments, we can increasingly see the role of the teacher as a curator – not creator – of materials. Providing personalised, bite-sized bits of information at the right time is key. With performance taking precedence over proficiency, teaching is no longer about imparting linguistic knowledge and Shakespearean eloquence. It is about ensuring that the client learns whatever language is needed to get the job done.

But how does a teacher or trainer best go about offering personalised content at the right time?

The Embedded Trainer

One of the ideas that Evan presented was that of the “embedded trainer”. In order to create an immersive learning experience, it’s best for the trainer to be part of the learners’ work environment. Evan talked about his own experience teaching maritime English to an intercultural group of learners.

Instead of teaching generic lists of vocabulary online or in a physical classroom, he visited his students on a ship. On board, Evan taught them exactly which vocabulary was required in different situations. This very effectively furthered their real-time capabilities.

As good as it gets: learning by doing

Other examples of embedding include frequently asking for and implementing feedback, the “shadowing” of other teachers and learning from them, and keeping in touch with management for company-related information and resources. On the technical side, Evan recommended using Learning Content Management Systems (LCMS).


In a nutshell, LCMS are extended data repositories for learning content. Traditional Learning Management Systems (LMS) include materials and organisational information, such as course details and dates, book recommendations, seminar facilities, etc.

LCMS go beyond mere course-related information and materials. For example, an LCMS may include all work-related emails a student has written in the past year. Trainers can then use these materials in class. It may also contain information on past and current company projects and lists of people involved. So if a client starts a new project, the teacher may track down a colleague with previous experience and bring them together for an informal interview as part of the learning experience.

LCMS are thus very hands-on teaching resources, as they contain relevant contacts and realia. Of course, the trainer needs to be in touch with and working together with management in order to gain access to a company’s data repository.

To get started, Evan recommended using free training courses on the internet to practice using LCMS.

Teachers’ Thoughts

We discussed Evan’s points in breakout rooms and together in the large group. While everyone saw the benefit of a hands-on, immersive approach, most teachers reported that there wasn’t much of a possibility for them to “visit” their students in work-related contexts. Moreover, management is usually inaccessible to individual trainers. Shadowing colleagues isn’t impossible, but still requires negotiation and networking, which is why most trainers refrain from it. Evan admitted that teachers are often part of a system that creates roadblocks, and one suggestion to remedy this was to work with smaller, more flexible companies if feasible.

The group agreed that while some kind of structure is necessary, flexibility is essential. Responding to individual learners’ shifting needs is crucial for trainers. Several teachers also talked about their experience with microlearning, which turned out to be surprisingly effective. They reported that a trainer can do a lot in a straightforward thirty-minute lesson, when the student doesn’t have more time. One trainer told the story of a student who, due to personal circumstances, missed most of his class. Although he only had a ten-minute lesson, he thoroughly enjoyed those ten minutes. Feedback was another thing we all deemed essential. As one participant put it, “You can only be as good as the feedback you get”.

The Takeaway

The biggest takeaway was that corporate language training is rapidly moving from a formal course setting to a learner-centred jigsaw puzzle approach. Curating fitting materials from all sorts of different sources, listening to and adapting to learners’ needs and facilitating an interactive, realistic learner experience are the best ways to stay ahead of the game in a rapidly changing corporate environment.


If you liked this article, Evan Frendo’s take on teaching English for Specific Purposes (ESP) may interest you.

1 2 3 11
Go to Top