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  • Writer's pictureShelley Purchon

How English Unlocked got started.

Updated: May 3, 2020

This is a very exciting time. It's become apparent that I'm really onto something - the skills gap I've identified is real, and the solution I've come up with gets a great response. Word is spreading organically about English Unlocked, and demand for my training is taking me in all sorts of directions I hadn't anticipated. Today's article explains how I came to be a pioneer opening up a brand new sector within workplace training.

Why I use Spanish

My favourite part of the training session is the surprised silence that comes when I finish speaking Spanish. I can see them thinking "hang on a minute, I can't even speak Spanish but I think I understood that." It's almost as though I've performed some kind of magic trick.

It's a powerful moment, and that is precisely why I use a foreign language. Attendees can see for themselves that there are so many things a person can do to help a listener who doesn't share their native tongue. If you'd like to see for yourself, this web page contains videos.

I used to be bad at this too

The first time I ever taught English was at a Catalan summer camp in 1991. My Spanish was zero and so were my communication skills in the classroom. I cringe now to remember my frantic gesturing, eager facial expression and endless circling around the point. No word boundaries, sloppy enunciation, and every gap was filled with chatter because silence made me uncomfortable. I received training on how to teach, but never on how to modify my speech, because no such training was available.

A taste of my own medicine.

In 1994 I moved to Madrid and set about learning Spanish.

The local people were kind and patient but (like me) they had little idea how to change the natural flow of their speech to make things easier for a learner. Their Spanish sounded to me like a steam of noise. It was a sharp learning curve - I learnt Spanish quickly, and now I also knew how my students felt when I spoke natural speed English. In the subsequent years I have got better and better at speaking in a way that non-Anglophones can understand.

Discovering how to use silence.

Have you ever thought about 'using' silence? Counsellors do it. Letting a silence stretch out allows difficult feelings to surface during therapy, and when I trained to be a counsellor in my 30's I soon made this an essential part of my 'tool kit' for communicating with non-Anglophones. As I explain during English Unlocked training sessions - when you're speaking to someone who needs a lot of extra processing time, sometimes the kindest thing you can do is to shut up.

The first time I surprised someone with Spanish.

In 2005 I was the lead tutor of a busy ESOL department in Bridgend College. Potential students would arrive at reception for level testing and the front desk staff struggled to direct them to my office, so I was asked to train the receptionists. I took a deep breath and spoke Spanish to them. Would they understand me if I slowed down enough? I felt pretty silly but to everyone's surprise it worked.

Teaching interpreting- what an eye opener.

After moving to the North East in 2010 I was asked by TyneMet College to teach an introductory course on public service interpreting. It gave me an appreciation of the difficult job interpreters do, and what an imperfect solution our interpreting sector currently provides. Did you know that qualifications and accreditation are not mandatory for interpreters in the UK? The National Register of Public Service Interpreters does a great job, but registration with them is optional. If you add to this the fact that interpreters are costly and in some cases finding one who speaks the right dialect can be difficult, it becomes apparent that some kind of plan B is necessary. I began to wonder whether I could provide that plan B.

Why on earth are you speaking to them like that?

Over the years I’ve worked in a number of different organisations, and I have come to realise that I am good at something which most people are routinely doing badly.

Time and again I've listened to my co-workers speaking to people who have Limited English Proficiency in exactly the same way that they speak to me. These are competent people who I like and respect but they lack the ability to modify their speech for those listeners.

My solution.

I set up English Unlocked Training and Consultancy in 2018 to pass these skills on to the people who need them. At the time of writing, arts organisations and charities within the North East are starting to find me and I am really enjoying training their staff.

If you would like to find out how I would tailor English Unlocked training to meet the needs of your staff, please send me an email or give me a ring on 07786 003429.

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