Interview with Kenneth Beare of About.com
About.com’s ESL Guide Kenneth Beare discusses the growing need for teachers and materials in English for Special Purposes.
Tara: You have been the ESL guide for About.com since 1997. Describe your work at About.com and tell us how you became one of the first ESL experts on the web. Is it true that you were in the right place at the right time?
Kenneth: About.com is a fantastic workplace. There are about 800 guides, mostly in the United States, who cover a specific niche. As a matter of fact, I was in New York last week for our annual conference. The meeting was held at the New York Times building as About.com has been part of the New York Times Company since 2005. The event was a great chance to catch up in person with my editor, old friends and colleagues from the network. We’re a big family!
I’d say that it’s absolutely true that I happened to be in the right place at the right time. Of course, the fact that I can type 70 words a minute helps a lot as well! Seriously, I was looking for a way to build out my teaching career when I came across an article in Wired’s online site that spotlighted The MiningCo’s (About.com’s original name) new approach to a distributed workforce. I liked what I saw, got in touch because they were looking for a guide to ESL, and went through the training program. That was in October 1997. It’s been a wild ride, but I’ve learned so much and have had the good fortune to be in touch with so many English learners and teachers since then.
Tara: In your About.com bio you call English the “common tongue of our global village.” You also state that English is the “passport to success” in our “quickly changing world”. This is so true for learners, but also for teachers. Where in our global village have you taught and where are you currently based?
Kenneth: I taught off and on in Cologne, Germany from 1983 to 1992, then in New York City from 1993 to 1995, and finally in Tuscany in Italy from 1997 to 2005. Since then, I’ve focused on developing online resources at About.com, as well as a number of other development projects.
Tara: How has being the ESL guide for About.com helped you hone in on your interest in English for Special Purposes?
Kenneth: Over the years at About.com I’ve noticed how each time I put up a resource for English for Special Purposes – for example, dialogues at the doctor’s office, English for tourism, etc. – I receive numerous responses asking for more. There seems to be quite a lot of pent up demand for more specific English language learning resources. Let’s face it, almost all countries around the world require students to take a number of years of English during their public education. Most learners already have a relatively firm grasp on the language when they come into private English schools. Many of them are looking to improve their career prospects through English.
Tara: Can you comment on how the demand for ESP inspired your latest venture?
Kenneth: English Next (2006), a report commissioned by the British Council, points to continued growth in English language education by estimating that there will be two billion English learners around the world over the next 10-15 years. One line from this report really caught my eye:
“In an increasing number of countries, English is now regarded as a component of basic education… English teaching for older learners is likely to become focused on subject specialisms.”
Having been contracted to write approximately 10 courses for English for Special Purposes for E-ducation.it (based in Florence, Italy), I certainly was hearing from the market that there was real demand out there. My new venture Lingofeeds is going to focus on providing English for special purposes for a number of professions. I’ve started off by templating a basic English language guide of about 80 pages which provides industry specific contextual examples. Now that it’s up and out – I launched in August – I hope to quickly build out the various professions. I started off with English for Business and Commerce as a prototype. There’s quite a bit of interest from a number of third parties in partnering with Lingofeeds, so I’m hopeful…
Tara: I’m intrigued by the Portland Ten project. Can you explain what it is and its role in helping you fill the ESP gap in our industry?
Portland Ten is a ‘tech incubator’. The purpose of Portland Ten is to help tech entrepreneurs in the Portland, Oregon area bootstrap, learn the ropes of angel and venture financing, as well as get a grasp on good business practices such as market validation. Working with a group of entrepreneurs such as myself has provided an excellent source of feedback. It’s really helped me avoid a number of mistakes, as well as inspiring me to get something up and out. Finally, Portland Ten puts me in touch with an incredible network of local tech talent which I can access as needed.
Tara: Lingofeeds mentions English for Medicine, Marketing, and Business and Commerce. Which other special fields do learners typically seek English materials or courses for and do they need a certain level of English before they decide to specialize?
Kenneth: I definitely think everyone needs a basic level of general English before they branch out and focus on their profession. But, as mentioned earlier, many people – especially young professionals – have already attained a solid grasp of English by the time they seek help in an adult educational setting. As far as other specialties are concerned: I’ve had a number of requests for English for Service Industries, English for Aviation, English for Nursing and English for Tourism.
Tara: In one of your articles you state that a common problem for ESL teachers is that students expect them to be “incredibly knowledgeable about everything”.
Kenneth: Yes, one of the greatest advantages to teaching English is that you learn an incredible amount about diverse industries. Of course, you can’t be expected to know the ins and outs of each of these industries. However, you can access the internet, find white papers, technical jargon and other profession specific media. The next step is to take these resources and help students teach YOU about the subject. They improve their communicative abilities in the profession, and the lucky English teacher picks up some knowledge along the way.
Tara: In your opinion, what is more important in an ESP teacher, a TEFL background or work experience in the special field, such as business?
Kenneth: Wow, good question. I’ll hedge on my answer. I think an ideal ESP teacher would have industry experience and have taken a TEFL certificate to brush up on some of the grammar.
Tara: What advice can you offer teachers who are interested in teaching ESP?
Kenneth: I think it’s best to try to get a position in a company that matches your skill set. As far as the teaching goes, I’d go through each of the expected tasks in a given profession and get a good idea of what type of grammar, typical chunking, and language functions go into fulfilling those particular tasks. Once you’ve got a linguistic road map of a given profession, you’ll be able to leverage in-house and online resources to not only provide “real world” context, but also build a strong linguistic framework.
Tara: Great advice Kenneth! After years of consulting the ESL resources on About.com, it has been a pleasure to learn more about the expert himself. Thank you for taking the time to share your wisdom with us. Best of luck with Lingofeeds.
October 2009 | Filed under Interviews
Tara Benwell is a Canadian freelance writer and editor who specializes in materials for the ELT industry.