Language Coaching in the 21st Century

Language coaching

by Gabriela Kovács

This article aims to provide an overview of language coaching today and clarify its role in EFL. There is a buzz in the EFL industry, which can be seen in the increased interest the industry has concerning language coaching, which is gaining ground among training and communication companies globally. Language coaching also holds an interest for teachers and other language professionals turning their attention from the methodology of teaching to cater more for learner needs and expectations today.

What is language coaching?

Language coaching is an emerging approach complementing but not pushing aside or substituting language teaching practices. It is definitely not the one and only method to learn a language. Let us take a look into why language coaching is gaining ground as a process to complement EFL practices of today and the reasons why more and more language professionals are calling themselves language coaches. There are a number of parallels that run alongside applied linguistics trends in which a more personalized, less teacher-centric and more holistic, learning-centred approach is in focus which also takes into account the challenges language learners face, and also new opportunities now available in the 21st century in a VUCA world. 

Many fundamental practises in EFL are based on 20th century assumptions, theories and practices with the teacher as the only source of knowledge, a model and provider of feedback etc. This does not go down well with learners used to independent decision-making and control in their own learning in the 16+ age group, and adults in a corporate environment in particular. Curricula and syllabi, the cover-to-cover textbook syndrome crippling many language learning processes is born from the need to standardise, yet this is now obsolete in a number of – not all – cases in adult learning above the B1-B2 levels. This supports the work of large language service provider organisations and the publishing industry.

With a strong family background, language coaching is descendant of multiple parents in various branches of coaching: sports, business and life coaching, further relations include positive psychology and cognitive science. Research in neuroscience in particular has gained importance in the past few years concerning this area.

Coaching, in general, is never to be confused, never interchangeable with psychology, counselling, therapy, nor does it provide solutions per se. If anything, it is guidance and supports client goals.

Several language coaches have their own definition of what language coaching actually is, let me put forward my own version:

A conversation-based process the purpose of which is to map and create optimal language acquisition or language usage-related goals. The framework is based on strategies utilising intrinsic motivation and developing learning awareness, where both parties (coach and client) are equal partners.  It is important that clients claim ownership of their own development.

Language coaching is not a specific way of coaching language acquisition and usage issues. It is a general term encompassing a number of language coaching styles using a shared language coaching framework and methodology. There is no one good way of language coaching – many different practitioners of language coaching, myself included, will have each a working method created through years of work with learners, clients and have developed their own guidelines they apply to this field. This is similar to what can be experienced in language teaching. The time may come when  language coaches from various backgrounds might find it necessary to establish these common frameworks and a methodology suitable for all to work with.

The language coaching process in detail

To continue the discussion about how language coaching and teaching differ, it is essential to see that there are certain distinctions to be made where teaching and coaching do not correlate at all. In coaching, the student becomes a client in the coaching process, and the professional leading the process is in the role of coach. These roles do not mix, ie. if you are coaching, you cannot be teaching. (To make this a bit more clear, it is similar to when you are an EFL teacher, but mentor university or college Ss, then obviously you are not teaching, you are mentoring in that role).

I would now present the various scenarios in which language coaching can be applied.

1. Prior to the start of a language course, before or after assessment and assigning group members.

Aim: To prepare and/or strengthen the efficiency of courses. To create the foundation of a learning framework for the course teacher, with a higher success rate. In this sense it is a focusing, streamlining process.

Advantages of implementation: the teacher receives a strongly calibrated group, the members of which are aware of their language learning goals, and understand how they can reach results, making it much easier for the teacher to start working with the students.

2. Supplementing ongoing learning processes for groups or individuals.

Aim: To help groups, individuals who seem stuck to break the gridlock situation concerning their learning.

Advantages of implementation: removing blockages, inhibition, creating new focuses, reframing, providing opportunity to rearrange thoughts by creating inspirational terrain. New goals can be set within existing language learning processes.

3. Supporting specific events (public speaking or meetings, etc.) for language learners in corporate environments.

Aim: To make reaching goals of autonomous workplace learning far more focused and thus successful with short timeframes.

Advantages of implementation: needs and expectations of clients, their existing knowledge capital and expected competencies at work are an integral part of the process. Performance levels increase at a fast pace. Stakeholder interests are also taken into account.

4.  Mixed training process – with a max. 3-month framework

Aim: Full exploitation of learning, calibration and development of individual learning paths. Building strategies. Knowledge capital, goals and (client’s own and workplace) expectations are harmonised.

Advantages of implementation: providing true premium service for employees with key language user functions in the corporate world. This framework can serve team communication development as well.

As can be seen from the categorisation above, there are many ways to utilise language coaching processes, as it may be used on its own (1, 3) or as part of a teaching/training framework (2, 4).

The question that obviously comes to mind is why should language coaching be better than teaching/training, how could it improve learning processes for the language learner? To set things straight: it is not better, it is an extra dimension to support and increase the efficacy of the language learning process in specific contexts with certain learners.

Background, theory

Language coaching, due to its nature of focusing on language learning and usage of the target language, has a wide range of frameworks it can turn to during the coaching process: theories, approaches, models, tests, activities, tools and techniques to support a positive transformation in motivation, personality, communication, goal-setting, learning, even emotional intelligence  taken from the domain of business, management and leadership skills development, social-psychology, to name but a few areas.

As language professionals we are well aware of basic ideas relating to SLA/EFL:

I have chosen references with easy to follow descriptions of the models and work listed.) This list is not exhaustive but may point the reader to further explore avenues of thought language coaching shares basic concepts with. I have also omitted references to the extensive work coaching as such has contributed to language coaching, as have those of positive psychology and cognitive sciences in general – these may be the theme of another article.

Working with reliance on the critical thinking skills and experience, professional background, personality and general approach to life of the language learner will support the Piaget constructivist approach to learning, namely that we construct and interpret the world, and thus the new language through what we already know and either use assimilation or accommodation techniques to utilise them.  (https://www.learning-theories.com/constructivism.html)

Learner styles (techniques and strategies you choose to employ that enable you to learn according to what works best for you, cf. VARK model etc.) are not considered  truly effective, yet I would argue in favour of bearing in mind that we do have preferences in our learning. If you wrote a journal to monitor the methods you applied and the strategies you made use of next time you participate in a training or learn a language, acquire a new skill – and we read the journals of other learners, would we get the same results…? (Obviously comparing the exact same skills and trainings, levels etc.) Teachers may respond: learner styles, or rather, learning preferences exist, each approach learners take to their own learning will be different to varying degrees. When we are in a classroom of 10-30 students, instruction should cater for all styles, I agree, but in mini-group settings, with one-to-one learning, accommodating for preferences of the individual is a must, particularly with adults. There is little empirical evidence, matching the teaching/instruction to the learning is not a good idea, this can be concluded, as there is no evidence that supports better learning through this. The language of instruction when teaching may not necessarily be tailored to suit these preferences, but other input (texts, visuals, audio materials) may. Nonetheless, the metacognitive factor needs particular focus in a language coaching process: the more aware someone is of their preferences/style and the options available to them concerning their learning, the more informed the decisions will be that support their learning. In this sense it is highly recommended to pay attention to preferences that prove rewarding in the learning process of the client.

Application

Applying language coaching in a teaching framework works because the focus is all about the learner and issues they face while learning/being taught, it is the dialogue that there is usually little time for, yet it is essential for the appropriate amount of learner awareness to be created. Do you really know what goes on in the mind of a student of yours when you give them homework or tell them there will be a new reading text to study in the next lesson? How do you handle the situation when a learner feels their workplace communication lacks drive and they need a confidence boost? Do you provide them communication panels and confidence tips…? Does it really do the trick?

Having spoken with many language teachers in the past years there is a common acceptance of the fact that there is so little time to spend on issues ‘secondary’ to the materials to be ploughed through during lessons, training hours, and yet it would be critical to develop a relationship with students based more on collaboration, sharing and partnership and balanced conversational dynamics so as to have more mutual trust and less interdependence on both sides. These conversations enable responsibility growth and increased accountability towards the learning process on the part of the student, which are often a heavy burden for the teacher. I often ask language teachers: who prepares more for language lessons – you or the student? The answer is mostly accompanied by a smirk or sigh: the teacher. Is this all right? Have you as a language teacher accepted the fact that students may say they have no time to learn, they can only set aside the time spent in the lesson for pursuing their language goals…? Once again, let me emphasise the fact that language coaching in its pure form or applied as an approach will not be effective on its own: it supports before, during or after language learning/teaching processes.

Language coaching finds remedies for the following student challenges:

  • low motivation/self-esteem, low engagement
  • time and priority issues
  • expectation of all resources to be coming from teacher/being passive
  • experience of stress and blocks when trying to use the target language
  • negative attitude due to bad experiences with target language learning
  • difficulties with learning
  • strong misbeliefs regarding language learning
  • little awareness of realistic language goals etc.

The solution is usually a coach-supported, client-led conversation where the coach asks a number of questions based on input by the client, with reflections, summaries of what has been said during the process. All communication on the part of the coach is objective and aims to guide the client to realisations concerning their language learning process, goals and strategies, ways to reach them. Practicalities: who to coach and how

A typical sort of client may be the language learner who

  • has reached a plateau in their learning
  • wishes to find the best way to reach new goals
  • discusses language learning-related issues that had come up previously at work and needs to identify goals until the next session
  • is looking for increased motivation and the possibility to commit to the process of language learning
  • is having a slow learning experience and needs to catapult and increase results to benefit more
  • has a particular event at the workplace (presentation, meeting) where expectations are high and boosting self-confidence and language skills is a priority

All in all, for some clients finding realistic language goals is the reason for working together with a language coach, because they are uncertain and feel that their current goals or needs and what is expected of them are not in alignment. Then again, a client may know exactly what they want, yet cannot seem to find the right path to take to reach it and needs guidance with that.

The language professional when coaching will not be performing teaching: if a language coach combines teaching and coaching: then we have what is called the language coaching approach with lessons and application of coaching techniques when needed, but proceeding with the teaching goals and using the teaching materials. I have spoken to and worked with a number of professionals and very often this is what is labelled language coaching, yet this, as I see it, is a mixed application. When there is input (materials brought in to be taught) on the part of the language professional, then that cannot be called a pure language coaching process. Sometimes 1-2 occasions in a pure language coaching process are enough to identify goals and put together an action plan and the client may then find a language teacher to work together with to reach these goals. In my experience giving learners the time to reflect on issues whenever possible is key to increasing learner-awareness and learner-control in the learning process. With mixed processes the language coaching components filter the complete language teaching/learning process. I can’t learn this language and I don’t know how to proceed turns into I know how to go on now and I believe I can do it. What a difference in mindset that is.

How can a coaching process be achieved – what can you find in the regular toolkit of a language coach? Fundamentally the following:

  • using metacognitive communication: using summary, reflection and feedback
  • being supportive, objective, having a non-judgmental attitude
  • making strong use of active listening skills, non-verbal communication
  • working on issues directly related to responsibility and accountability
  • being well-grounded in coaching and using various coaching models and tools
  • having an aptitude for business thinking, models (in a corporate setting)
  • building on intrinsic motivation, not extrinsic
  • working with a challenge-, not problem-approach
  • mastering questioning techniques
  • having a growth mindset, working with a positive outcome in mind

A coach will always believe that the client/language learner can reach their goals. There is of course assistance in exploring ways to reach these goals but the process is always client-led. Language coaching is about the time, energy and focus spent on discussing the client’s language learning and usage situation in a forward-moving manner through a positive lens, with which you will support your learners to their become the best language learners, communicators they possibly can.

These processes have proved to produce tangible results with a number of clients in pure coaching/mixed approach hours in various settings, primarily with adults in a corporate context. However, details of that is the topic of another article.

Summary

In this article, the definition and basic concept of language coaching has been described, providing information on its connection in relation to EFL/SLA and language training. The ideas were put forward to shed light on clarifying how language coaching can be incorporated into existing teaching contexts, how it can supplement and add to processes to benefit both language professionals and language learners, communicators in concrete learning contexts.