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Aspects of Business English

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The term Business English can cover a multitude of things. When someone says they teach business English or they are studying business English it is quite possible that the speaker and the listener may have a different understanding of the term.

Aspects of Business English - methodology article

In fact, I recently did a training session with a group of 20 teachers and when I asked them to complete the sentence ‘Business English is.............' They came up with a diverse range of sentences, encompassing language, business communication skills needed for the world of work like telephoning, and aspects of culture. In this article, I will attempt to clarify the term business English and discuss some of the pros and cons of teaching it.

How is Business English different from General English?

In a broad sense, the content is different - topics will be related to the work place or world of business - so instead of family and friends, a business English course book may contain topics like global business cultures, or a day in the life at the office. The skills may be business communication skills like delivering presentations rather than speaking in general. This, however, is changing and very soon the difference between general English and business English may not be so easily demarcated. With new general English course books coming out with titles like ‘Natural English' and ‘Skills for life', the focus is changing as English's role as the lingua franca is reaching new heights. Publishers recognise that the demand for English is now more than ever an instrumental demand.

There is a demand for business English which appears to be growing because learners are becoming clearer about what they want to use English for and as I indicated the same is becoming true for general English learners. In today's global economy, learners want not only the skills to read, write, listen to and speak English fluently, they also want to be able to communicate in a way which will be recognised and appreciated by their counterparts in the international arena. They want their English language learning to be targeted to this aim and they often also want their success in this to be measured using an internationally recognised benchmark - hence the rise in demand for business English examinations.

The students may be different from those found in the general English classroom. More often than not, they work, are studying a business related subject like an MBA or are trying to get a job and hope that a business English course will help them. Those who work may be managing directors of companies or office executives. I will explore the implications of this diverse range of learners in my next article.

What time of day? Usually, business English is taught at a time convenient to working people. This also depends on where the course is being taught and the attitude of both the participants and the companies sponsoring them. At the centre where I work, business English classes are run from 7-9 am and from 7-9 pm. How long should each session be? This is something you may or may not have control over but if you can have some input I think it is important to ask these questions in order to get the best out of your students.
However, the in-company courses are run at times dictated by the client. This usually is also preferred either at the beginning or at the end of the working day.

This could be anywhere, as with general English, in-company, in the comfort of your own sitting room - I know someone who teaches business English through the internet in the evenings after she has finished dinner or at a language institute. Where you teach has implications for both you and the lessons you plan. Why? Because the place you teach has both limitations and potential. For instance, what resources are available? Is it far from where you live? How much extra travel time will you need? What expenses might you incur? With a general English course these are not normally things you need to consider.

Your style of teaching will probably differ and the methodology you use and that which you find in course books can be a little different from general English. For example, instead of pair work and group work, you might find that students learn more through case studies, role play and simulation exercises. You may assume different roles from the general English teacher. For example, you are more likely to be more of a facilitator when teaching meeting skills or a mediator when teaching monitoring a negotiation.

Advantages and disadvantages of teaching business English
Like any area of language teaching, teaching business English has its own set of pros and cons. In as simple a way as possible, I have outlined them in the table below:

Advantages Disadvantages
  • Get to learn new things about the business world and develop new skills as a teacher.
  • Students (usually) have a specific purpose for learning English and this is easier to cater to.
  • A huge bank of business-related authentic materials to choose from.
  • Get to meet a wide range of professionals and learn about the work culture of different countries and cultures.
  • May not be familiar with some of the more specialist vocabulary you may have to teach.
  • Hard to meet all students ‘specific’ needs.
  • Some business course books can be a bit dry and ironically, can take time to learn how to bring business English to life.
  • You may be younger than many of the students and can take time to establish credibility.

Some of these areas will be discussed in greater detail in my next article, Motivating business English learners.

As we have seen, business English cannot easily be defined and if someone asks you to teach a group of business English learners; you could be teaching from a course book which looks similar to a general English course book, with a grammatical syllabus or you could be faced with a skills-based course which has functional language as an add-on. Either way, the material and students can be challenging for the inexperienced teacher and you should give yourself extra time to prepare for a business English course until you are familiar with the content. And remember - there is a wealth of resources both on- and offline to help you.

Written by Helen Mehta