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Controversies in Business English

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I began teaching business English in 1980 and have observed over the years huge differences in the way we teach.

Controversies in Business English - speaking article - guest writers

For one business English teacher, life is a cold trudge through the snow to a remote factory on the outskirts of a mining town. Over the year, she learns as much about mining as the students learn about language. For another, the students answer all the questions on the needs analysis in the same way: 'I don’t (phone) – I haven’t started working yet'. This pre-service group are all 18 and have no business experience. Yet another teacher works on writing skills in a purpose-built seminar centre. There are so many different scenarios that perhaps it is not so surprising that we end up teaching in wholly different ways, with different beliefs, methodologies and practice. This article explores six controversial areas in teaching business English.

The coursebook conundrum
'To use a course book on a business English course....or not'? Imagine a cline. At one end is the course book ‘adoption’. All students receive a course book, which is appropriately supplemented by the teacher. The choice today has never been better: from Market Leader (Longman) to In Company (Macmillan) via Business Basics (OUP), English 365 (CUP). Or a book from Summertown, Marshall Cavendish, a local publisher... the list goes on and on.

Who chooses the course book? Why? Does the course book define the methodology, or is it the methodology which influences the selection?

At the other end of this cline is the complete rejection of published materials (see Scott Thornbury on dogme) and an espousal of framework materials, epitomised by the (wonderful) Business English Teacher’s Resource Book.

Of course, there are pros and cons connected with both positions. There are many arguments for the use of a course book. Two of the most powerful are:

  • the breadth of research done by the writers – BE crosses into management training and beyond
  • the provision of graded listening material – how else do we provide such exposure? Mimicking 100 accents?

The most powerful argument against using a course book is shown in this famous lampoon, adapted here from Michael Lewis:

'You do an in-depth needs analysis… find out your students’ specific skills and lexical needs… and then you say… "by the most unbelievable co-incidence, we have JUST the book for you, written two years ago.”'

It was Lewis I believe who coined the term ‘confetti method’ for all those who slave over a hot photocopier: if the student stands up quickly and their file springs open, all the pages fall out, just like confetti. If you would like to see my list of the best six best business English books ever, visit Lindsay Clandfield’s blog.

Nowadays, I think the arguments are based on the wrong term – 'course book' - as the so-called course book has now expanded to a include a raft of components such as a DVD-ROM and a web-delivered e-lesson which helps ensure the ‘currency’ of materials.

The business skills conundrum
Imagine two training providers both delivering effective presentations courses.

Course A
Run by a ‘School of Languages’; the students are all non-native speakers.

Course B
Run by a ‘Corporate Training Centre’; the students are all native speakers.

Consider first which of the above teachers receives the highest salary. (Sorry – the second person is not a teacher: he or she is, of course, a ‘trainer’).

Now try this short task. Decide which course would include the following elements, a-f, writing down each letter only once.

Course A only:
Course B only:
Both Course A and Course B:

a. Using visuals aids
b. 'Firstly, secondly, thirdly… '
c. Body language
d. 'I’ve divided my presentation into 3 parts...'
e. Powerful PowerPoint presentations
f. Using prompt cards

When I wrote this exercise, I had a very precise answer in mind, which I add below. First, here are a couple of the many variants I have received in teacher training:

Answer 1
Course A:
Course B: a, b, c, d, e, f
Both Course A and Course B:

Answer 2
Course A:
Course B:
Both Course A and Course B: a, b, c, d, e, f

The person who wrote Answer 1 is 22, has just done a CELTA and never given a presentation. From his perspective, he’s a language teacher. All the rest is the domain of a management training organisation.

The person who wrote Answer 2 works at a long-established school of languages in Vienna, has given innumerable seminars on presentation skills and feels competent to deliver this kind of feedback.

This was my original answer:

Course A: b, d
Course B: a, f
Both Course A and Course B: c, e

I maintain many teachers offer feedback on c and e without having had the necessary training themselves. A very real controversy! Just what to teach in the area of business skills can pose a very real problem for teachers.

Do you know the name the Dutch author of 'Riding the waves of culture'? Do you know what the opposite of ‘monochronic’ is? What is ‘uncertainty avoidance?’

When I became a CAT trainer (CAT stands for ‘cultural awareness training’), I was lucky enough to have specialist training. It is my contention that most business English teachers do not have this input. Instead they find themselves in a situation where they must include a cross cultural element in order to deliver a successful Business English course.

A lot can go wrong. Anyone who has ever encountered the vitriolic resistance of someone who feels they have just been ‘stereotyped’ knows that this is an area which demands great sensitivity. Luckily, there is some excellent material out there, including ‘The Culture pack’, CUP, originally created by York Associates. On this site you can find articles by Barry Tomalin covering this area.

Your students ask you: 'What does X mean?' Try this short task:

Which of the following do you feel you can happily explain to students?

  • protectionism
  • deregulation
  • viral advertising
  • open source software
  • psychometric testing
  • equity
  • B2B
  • Sarbanes-Oxley Act
  • swaps
  • SCORM compliant

If you are able to explain all of them then, to quote the Yardbirds: 'Mister you’re a better man than I'. Of course, we cannot be expected to be experts in every field. Luckily, the more jargonny a term is, the more likely it is that the student not only knows the term but is able to explain it to you, the teacher. Just what lexis we should teach is often debated.

Try this task:

  • Which tense do you teach first? Present simple or present continuous? Why?
  • Is there a ‘future tense’ in English? 
  • Do you translate for your students?

There are huge methodological differences in what we tell students about language, and how we teach it. If you are lucky enough to be a Director of Studies or teacher trainer, you get to observe many lessons, often involving teachers saying totally different things.

For years course books had a syllabus which had the present continuous precede the simple present. We know now that the latter is massively more frequent. Linguists say there is no future tense; some CELTA course materials say there is. Teachers in monolingual groups abroad often use translation; those on multi-lingual groups tend not to. I come from the era where you never translated, and indeed, almost had to lie on the floor in order to teach the word ‘flounder’ (a flat fish). I believe there are easier ways of doing this now…

Teacher A loves blogs, wikis, DVD-ROM and web-based materials. Teacher B does not. Teacher A has Skype and Moodle. Teacher B does not. How different are their courses? Significantly...

I believe a teacher’s attitude towards technology will massively influence their approach to teaching business English. Indeed, there are a huge number of reasons why we teach differently. The many factors involved in these differences of approach include:

  • Experience
  • Context/situation (e.g. university/private language school/freelance, etc.)
  • Subject knowledge
  • Course book – yes or no?
  • Technology – yes or no?

This article has touched on a number of areas in which I think teachers particularly disagree. Controversies. In fact, when I reflect on how different all our situations are, perhaps it is a surprise that our business English courses are not, in fact, even more different than they already are!

Do you teach Business English? How do you feel about these issues? Leave a comment below and let us know.

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