Published on May 19, 2015


Crystal_Clear_app_package_networkMany engineering schools, both in English speaking and non-English speaking countries, have had to come up with strategies for improving the English language abilities of their students.  Schools in predominantly English speaking countries with increasing non-domestic enrolments have begun to see the importance of language support for student success. And given the developing role of English as the lingua franca in a global economy, many universities in non-English language speaking countries have begun instituting English language training into curricula otherwise conducted in a foreign language.  Their experiences shed some light on key practices for successful language learning and language learning programs for engineers.

In “Seeking an Effective Program to Improve Communication Skills of Non-English Speaking Graduate Engineering Students: The Case of a Korean Engineering School,” published in the March 2014 issue of the IEEE Transactions on Professional Communication [1], E.G. Kim and A. Shin examine the necessity and challenges of developing English language skills and training programs within the context of a Korean engineering school.  Their literature study explains how this education is important to success as an engineer in a globalized economy, showing that English has become the language of international publications as well as the language of operation for global teams.

But it is their survey of faculty and student perceptions of English language instruction that provides the most interesting results. Three of their key findings have strong implications for both those learning and teaching the language:

  1. Needs Analysis: Good training programs and positive learning experiences start with a strong understanding of the language abilities of the prospective student or trainee. Students without the requisite skills placed in immersion classes – those conducted with English as a native language – will struggle, since a threshold level of language proficiency is required before functioning well in immersion-based classes.   Performing a needs assessment prior to training provides a key opportunity to tailor both type and mode of instruction to an individual student.
  2. Individualized Instruction: Classroom instruction is efficient, allowing multiple students to learn from a single instructor, but only to a certain point. Individualized instruction via tutoring takes into account individual student needs and learning styles. Students can develop a level of fluency through class, book, or online instruction, but individual engagement with instructors, with feedback on their speech or their writing, will develop both their knowledge of language rules, and their ability to improvise faster. While more expensive, one on one interaction with others familiar in the language, capable of reacting to personalized language needs and responding to the student’s unique challenges, is essential for fluency in the language.
  3. Disciplinary Integration: Extracurricular English communication activities can be an important part of an English language training program, but they cannot produce a working expertise in the language and vocabulary of the discipline, an ultimate  goal for most English language learning engineers. Language instruction integrated with engineering and on-the-job content, for students ready for immersion, is essential for students, driving both student motivation and engagement, two keys to learning.

Kim and Shin’s more comprehensive set of recommendations provide a clear path for developing a language training program for universities: to see their full recommendations and rationales, please visit IEEE Explore.  But their research also has strong words of advice about language learning for working engineers: understanding the needs of the learner, providing individualized instruction to meet these needs, and integrating the job into language learning are all keys to success.

[1] E.G. Kim and A. Shin“Seeking an Effective Program to Improve Communication Skills of Non-English Speaking Graduate Engineering Students: The Case of a Korean Engineering School.” IEEE Transactions on Professional Communication, vol. 57, no. 1, 2014.