Real-World Impact: English Skills for Today’s Job Market

Insights from English as a second language instructor Brett Yokom

As most who work in higher education can attest, an increasing amount of international students are studying in the U.S. each year. In order to be successful learners, these students come with specific needs—first and foremost having strong English-language skills.

I sat down with instructor Brett Yokom who works extensively with international students and teaches our Business English course, which is geared toward UC Berkeley Extension international program participants and other English as a second language (ESL) learners. In the class, students focus on fluency, accuracy and communication skills to build the confidence necessary to be more effective and successful in the business world. Seeing his students progress and succeed in the course and in their careers has reinforced Yokom’s decision to pursue teaching. I wanted to find out why.


Why teach English?

Teaching is actually my third career. I began my working life in Silicon Valley. After receiving my M.B.A., I started my own Internet company, Kill The Silence Music Productions, which was a royalty-free music library. This was during the first dot-com boom.

It was during that time I realized I could run my company from anywhere in the world, so I moved to Spain. I thought teaching English abroad sounded like a good “plan B” for my time there: It could be a way to meet people and earn a little extra money. What I found was that I really, really enjoyed teaching. When I closed down my company several years later and returned to the U.S., I decided to pursue teaching full time.

My tendency to root for the underdog is what attracted me to teaching English in the first place. I’ve always considered myself an “outsider” for many reasons, from being bullied as a kid to having grown up in the East Bay, in the shadow of San Francisco. By helping English-language learners here in the U.S., I feel like I’m helping people who—in some way—are like me. They are outsiders and underdogs trying to make their way in a highly competitive, monolingual society.

Brett Yokom Berkeley Extension ESL course

Why do you think English skills are important in our world today? How does this impact the English-language learners in your class?

Like it or not, English is becoming—or in many cases has become—the world’s first language. In business and technology fields, where I’ve spent a lot of my career, this is even more important than in society in general. If you want to succeed in any type of business enterprise that reaches beyond the borders of your country, English is going to be the language you will use. If you are going to participate in technology in any meaningful and scalable way—the world of gadgets, apps and social media—English is going to be the language you use.

The individuals I teach want to improve their competitiveness, usually for one of two reasons: They want the knowledge, contacts and prestige that comes with earning an advanced degree in the United States; or they want to participate as equals alongside native English speakers in the competitive job market in the Bay Area. My students clearly see the way the world is turning linguistically, and they know what they need to do to stay ahead.

How can an ESL student advance from being a good English speaker to a great one?

As a second-language learner myself, I can easily think of three differences between a “good” Spanish speaker like myself and the great one that I aspire to be.

  1. Fearlessness and confidence: Even if your language skills aren’t perfect, you have to be fearless to become a great communicator. When we worry about and hesitate over every little possible grammar mistake, we hold ourselves back. There’s a certain point where fluency becomes far more important than accuracy.
  2. Common sayings: North American English uses common sayings and idioms so much that communicating with a high degree of fluency can depend on these. Using common phrases around native English speakers puts them at ease; they subconsciously feel more relaxed listening to you because now you’re speaking “their” language.
  3. Humor: In my mind, humor is the final frontier of language acquisition. If you can understand jokes, you are now proficient in English. Putting humor to use—via jokes, commentary, sarcasm, etc.—is even more challenging and more indicative of how well someone can communicate in the language.

Why take an ESL course with us?

I can’t speak for other instructors, but my aim is to have the “real world” at the center of my class content. I am always looking for examples and lesson ideas that draw from everyday situations, key communication opportunities and scripted language environments to highlight and teach the English that students will actually use and hear in the real world.

The advantages of focusing on “real-world” English are that it is actually applicable and useful outside of the classroom for years to come. It is typically more challenging but more interesting than something you would find in typical textbook English.

Describe the most surprising experience you’ve had in your course.

I think the most surprising thing is when I assign important group projects based on a business case study. My students always surprise me by consistently turning in work that’s not only commendable in its use and application of English, but that can also hold its own in a real business sense.

Any advice for those who want to improve their English skills?

Aside from the obvious response (“Take my class!”), I think one area that oftentimes gets shortchanged is writing. Good writing is hard work, even in your own native language. In my experience, focusing on improved writing not only creates a better writer but also creates a better listener and a better speaker. I don’t think that’s as true the other way around. Because all three of those skills are vital, it seems like a writing course really could give a learner the most “bang for his or her buck.”

Learn More

Find out more about any of UC Berkeley Extension's courses for English as a second language students.