The study of business English relates specifically to learning and improving English ability for use in international trade. It is studied by non-native speakers who wish to communicate with companies in English speaking countries. In addition, it is used between non-native speaking companies who communicate using English as a shared second language.
In principle, the same structures are used to teach business English as other areas of TESOL teaching. However, the contexts and vocabulary will differ. Areas of vocabulary will vary depending on the needs of the student but will generally fall into the region of general business vocabulary, trade, finance and international relations. Besides specific vocabulary, there is often a focus on communications skills needed in the workplace. This may include English for presentations, meetings, negotiations, small talk, socializing, correspondence and report writing.
Teaching business English is less likely to take place in a traditional classroom setting, although language schools often run specialist business English programmes. Courses frequently take place in residential centres or within companies, and opportunities for one to one private tuition also exist. Many experienced teachers who move into the area of business English find differences in the dynamics of the classroom. Students (or “clients”) are often highly motivated as improving English skills will result in career progression. However, there are instances where students are required to learn as part of their job and are only attending out of necessity. In these cases, motivation may be lower; especially if classes are taken outside of office hours so are eating into employees’ free time. On the whole, groups tend to be fairly small or conducted on a one on one basis, although this will vary between companies and countries.
The teacher will have to deal with those responsible for sponsoring the course, so is answerable to a wide range of stakeholders. This means that the approach to the classroom can be slightly different as the teacher takes on more of a facilitator role, working with the client to identify needs, appropriate learning styles and sets targets for learning. As such, teaching business English is recognized as a specialist field so salaries are often higher where teachers are responsible for planning programmes and developing materials. Moving into teaching business English also opens up new opportunities for teachers to gain experience in the area of interpersonal and cross-cultural communications. It can eventually lead to consultancy work in the communications field.
It is not essential to hold detailed knowledge about the world of business in order to teach business English. Complex or technical vocabulary will arise that the teacher may not be familiar with, but the students are experts in their field so are likely to already know these types of words. Also, it is important to note that the teacher is teaching English, not business studies – the students are already business people and want to improve their English skills rather than their business skills. However, knowledge of business is useful in preparing materials and for general conversation in class.
The internet is an excellent source of teaching materials. Websites with specific materials for teaching business English exist, but corporate websites can also be very useful. These can be tailored to suit the needs of the students, for example reports into financial markets can be downloaded and adapted for those working in the area of banking. News websites such as http://news.bbc.co.uk/ also contain a wide range of articles and a searchable database that contains specific material in many areas of business and commerce. Keeping the material relevant will make the lessons more interesting and meet the needs of the students more fully.
Why use English when conducting business? It has been documented that there are more native speakers of Chinese than English native speakers in the world. And, until the second half of the last century French was the international language of diplomacy not English. The importance of English is not just in how many people speak it but in what it is used for. English has recently become the global language. It is the official language of many international organizations and important commodities such as silver, tin and hard currency are traded in English. News and information are disseminated in English throughout the world. It is the language of business and government, even in countries where it is not the official language. When a Swedish businessperson meets a Japanese businessperson they will probably communicate in English.
According to Alan McGee “The globilisation of world business, technology and trade has brought about a huge increase in the demand for types of ESP teaching.” An important area of focus is the teaching of Business English.
Having a work force capable of conducting business in English is crucial in today’s world. The need for top executives to communicate with their counterparts in other countries has been a requirement for some time. Now with the globalization of the economy it is becoming increasingly important for employees at all levels to be able to communicate with their counterparts. Therefore, an understanding and fluency in English greatly increases communicative powers beyond a company’s national borders. And as most in the business world know communication is the medium used to inform and persuade. Whether the needs of the company focus on international negotiations or product demonstration for foreign clients English has become an integral tool for success. Example: Madama Oliva, a small Italian company two hours outside of Rome (Carsoli) has recently begun export of its product line. Many of these negotiations are handled by a bilingual employee who is also responsible for assisting the company in starting an English language program for its employees. Their website is also currently constructing an English version making product information available to a much larger market.
How is Business English being taught? Business English courses developed by both British and American schools/companies are available in many formats. An examination of several Business English course books found several similarities. The language level was consistently Low Intermediate – Advanced, making the assumption that a basic knowledge of general English was necessary before entering into the study of the specifics of Business English. The course content was theme based and covered topics such as job applications/interviews, greetings and presentations, marketing, finance, management, product development, office politics, problem solving, cultural sensitivity, etc. The activities were student centered and ensured that the students engage with the language and interact with each other. The use of authentic materials played a major role and increased potential for fluency. The best of these course books combined basic through advanced business concepts with general and business-oriented communication skills.
However, a comparison of two of the course books revealed major differences in approach. Business Matters had a lexical syllabus with articles at the beginning of each unit relating to international business. Emphasis is on terminology, phrases and expressions, which are the basis of Business English. Another course book entitled Skills For Success integrated English language instruction with the teaching of competencies essential for succeeding on the job and /or in an academic setting. Each unit has the dual purpose of building language skills and developing an awareness of appropriate workplace and academic language and behavior. So, approaches may vary but the common goal is to provide business students with tools to increase their understanding, fluency and communicative powers.
The demand for this specialization grows daily and will provide many opportunities for teachers of EFL/ESL. I hope to be one of them.
Business Matters /Mark Powell
Thomson Heinle, 1996
Skills For Success /Donna Price-Machado
Cambridge University Press, 1998
Let’s Talk Business /Joni Vetrano, Elizabeth Whalley, Laurie Blass
Tomson Heinle 1995
Speaking Up At Work /Catherine Robinson, Jenise Rowekamp
Oxford University Press, 1985
Linda Heine Cooper
The study of business is a study of communication. The most important goal a graduate business student can have is to acquire good grounding in the principles of business and finance, sufficient technical knowledge and an adequate understanding of the role of an M.B.A. to serve as a bridge for communication between the strategic decision-makers and the science and management people who implement the strategic plans.
Just as students in a formal business education program have the goal of acquiring a base of knowledge to make them better able to function in the business environment, most students of business English seek to acquire tools to function in a business setting. Learning English for a special purpose results in a dual focus, development of language skills and learning content. In the study of business English, where the student is improving command of English as well as becoming familiar with business-related vocabulary and content, there is the danger that the development of language skill may suffer if too much emphasis is placed on the business vocabulary and content when course syllabuses and lesson plans are designed. The optimal solution is to devote adequate time to language skill development and not to be pressured by the fact that it is the business-related content and vocabulary which is driving the students to take business English courses. There are two difficulties to be overcome. First is a long-term one of developing a knowledge base that will be efficient in combining the acquisition of language skills and learning of business content for students who have limited English proficiency. Another, and more immediate problem, is recognizing tools and techniques a teacher might use when currently teaching a course where adequate provision has not been made for language coverage to deal with the level of content material. Some useful techniques can be adopted from business education as it has been taught to native/fluent speakers of English.
Lau confronts the issue of teaching students where there is a mismatch of language competency and level required for the content material. He takes the position that, in spite of a limited time-frame, the teacher should not neglect the grammatical and linguistic issues and suggests that feedback obtained by e-mail from students concerning problems they are having can be an important tool in recognizing where problems might lie and revising lessons plans prospectively to address those problems. He also suggests using transformation drills of reported speech in the business environment. Another technique he has used-although it might of limited use in most business English settings-is giving his students lesson in note-taking in their native language to develop skills to be applied in the English medium.
Adamson suggests using a tool called frame-working, which is a method commonly used in making oral presentations. Two boxes are framed to use key words and phrases to describe a situation as it was at some time in the past and as it is today. Arrows are drawn between the two to explain the changes between the two points in time. This enables the students to break the process down into simple conceptual steps and may make it possible to absorb the content with more limited language proficiency than might have otherwise been possible. This technique can be useful in more general English classes in eliciting specific verb tenses.
There is often a mismatch between level of language competency and language required to cover the content material. There are techniques that may be adapted from business education that can help bride that gap and which can even be of use in general English classes.