ESP Project Leader Profile: Barrie Roberts

Hello, ESPers worldwide!

In this ESP project leader profile, we will take a closer look at the work of Barrie J. Roberts, who has created mediation as a second language (MSL). Here is her bio:

Barrie J. Roberts has been a public interest lawyer, mediator, ESL/ESP instructor, and Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) Director/Consultant for two southern California superior courts, working with judges, attorneys, and court staff to develop court-connected mediation programs.

She created Mediation as a Second Language (MSL), aka ESP for Conflict Resolution, and has taught a variety of MSL courses for undergraduates at UC Berkeley and LL.M. students at Chapman University’s Fowler School of Law in Orange, California.

Barrie has presented at TESOL, CATESOL, ETAI, the Global Legal Skills Conference, the International Conference on Conflict Resolution in Education, and most recently in Tokyo at the August 2016 Joint International Conference on ESP in Asia. Along with four UC Berkeley colleagues, she will be presenting a workshop at TESOL 2017 called Conflict Resolution and ELT: Win-Win Approaches for All.

If you have been reading the TESOL blog, you may already be familiar with some of Barrie’s work through the guest post by Sybil Marcus titled “Literature in ELT: Using Literature for Conflict Resolution.” In Barrie’s interview, you will see how her beliefs and experiences have shaped her approaches to MSL.


Barrie J. Roberts, B.A., J.D., M.A., LL.M.
Founder of Mediation as a Second Language (MSL)


Define leadership in your own words.

I haven’t had a moment’s peace since Kevin asked me to follow that instruction. Leadership is not a key vocabulary word for mediators; we tend more toward collaboration and facilitation.  But today I tried an old mediator’s trick on myself: “Tell me why this isn’t working for you.”

That I can do! A mediator’s job is to facilitate communication between people who are stuck in a dispute. Our goal is to help them understand each other in new ways so that they can solve their own problems.  To accomplish this, mediators “control the process,” providing a structured, fair and respectful session rooted in “active listening” designed to help participants feel relaxed, safe, and hopeful enough to start working together on the same team, often quite creatively.

Wait a minute! By describing mediation, have I described some key elements of leadership?

My ESP students certainly think so, as they rise in role-plays to greet the “disputants,” take control of the mediation process and lead the problem-solving session at the end. And if you walked into my classroom without knowing what was going on, you’d assume that the mediators were group leaders, and so they are.


Tell me an ESP project success story. Focus on your communication as
a leader in the project. How did you communicate with stakeholders to
make that project successful?

I’ll describe two projects, one small and complete; one big, endless and with room for you.

Negotiating for an ESP-Negotiations Course

Several years ago I was invited to teach a negotiations course for two groups:  native-English-speaking law students from the United States, nonnative-English-speaking (NNES) lawyers whose English was high-intermediate at best.

What a terrible idea! The role-plays alone would present linguistic, cultural, academic, professional, and ethical frustrations for professor and students alike. I wanted to teach a separate ESP–negotiations course for the NNES lawyers but (1) the school had never offered such a course and (2) the invitation to teach was not exactly in the form of a signed contract, so my leverage was on the thin side.

How could I get the dean to see why an ESP-negotiations course was such a good idea? And how could I accomplish my goal without worrying the current negotiations professors about threats to their own courses?

Instead of trying to persuade anybody about anything, I decided to try active listening to see how the current negotiations professors felt about having “foreign” students in their courses. Either they’d make my case for me or I’d learn that I had it all wrong.

Sure enough, and quite understandably, these law school professors described frustrations with papers, plagiarism, assigned readings, misunderstandings, grading, and, of course, role-plays, all of which they had swept under the rug because they didn’t seem to have any options. These professors had no experience with ESL, ESP or any other “E,” and if I wanted the very students that they were not equipped to teach, I’d be doing them a favor—as long as there were enough American students to fill their classes.

I brought this information to the dean along with another negotiation tool, a “yesable” solution, in this case my offer to teach an ESP-negotiations course for just one semester, as a pilot program, and to reassess thereafter.

These two communication tools, combined with a forward-thinking dean, created a win-win for all concerned, especially the students. I start teaching the fifth class next week.

ESP for Conflict Resolution : A Future ESP Project Success Story

One key element of leadership not discussed above is vision, which I will now attempt to demonstrate by sharing this vision for a new field. I envision thousands of English language teachers all over the world trained in conflict resolution and teaching variations of ESP for conflict resolution for their students’ various academic and professional purposes, from literature to law, with business, medicine, social work, engineering, aviation, tourism, international relations, and many other subjects in between. This project will offer teacher trainings, websites, videos, textbooks, workbooks, journals and international conferences and more!  To learn more, visit

There are several things that I have gained from reading Barrie’s responses to the interview questions.

  • The perspectives presented in Barrie’s profile and in Sybil’s article provide readers with a deeper understanding of what I consider to be the start of an MSL movement, and I see Barrie as the leader of that movement.
  • When I aim to give undergraduates leadership experiences, I focus on project leadership. I am now thinking that MSL would fit nicely into my leadership courses.
  • My introduction to negotiation comes from Fisher and Ury’s (1981) Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In (London, England: Penguin). I had used this book years ago when working with business persons in Japan, and I see the connection to MSL.
  • Finally, I see leadership in negotiation because negotiation is focused on creating a (hopefully win-win) vision. (See the related TESOL Blog “Teaching Negotiation in Leadership Terms to ELLs.”  In connection with the blog post, Barrie told me that in her MSL training, she has her own “orange” story that is based on Getting to Yes.)

I look forward to learning more about MSL. How about you? To learn more, please visit Barrie’s Mediation as a Second Language website. You can contact her directly on that website. Furthermore, in connection with Barrie’s vision of thousands of teachers (and their students) with MSL training,  take advantage of the opportunity to attend her MSL workshop at the TESOL convention in Seattle in 2017, where she will be joined by her colleagues Sybil Marcus, Melody Noll, Michael Clark, and Jennifer Burton.

All the best,

About Kevin Knight

Kevin Knight
Kevin Knight (PhD in Linguistics, MBA, MPIA) is an associate professor in the Department of International Communication (International Business Career major) and has also been working in the Career Education Center of Kanda University of International Studies in Chiba, Japan. In the TESOL ESP Interest Section (ESPIS), he has served as chair and English in occupational settings (EOS) representative, and he is currently the ESPIS community manager. He was also a member of the Governance Review Task Force (GRTF) appointed by the board of directors. In addition, he has been a TESOL blogger in the area of English for Specific Purposes (ESP). He has more than 30 years of professional experience working for private, public, and academic sector institutions including Sony and the Japan Patent Office. His doctoral research on leadership communication (i.e., discourse) as a basis for leadership development was under the supervision of Emeritus Professor Christopher Candlin and Dr. Alan Jones.
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