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What is Business English?


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Are we a big happy BE family, or are we separate tribes? This article suggests some clear differences between pre-work and in-work contexts, but draws no firm conclusion as to whether we are tribally different.

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What is Business English?

  1. 1. What is Business English? Reflections on in-work and pre-work BE. by Paul Emmerson What is Business English? A naïve question to be sure, but a good one to step back and ask from time to time. Below, in blue, is a nine-point answer to that question that I wrote along with my colleague Nick Hamilton back in 2000. It was going to be the Introduction to Five Minute Activities for Business English (CUP) but never made it into the book. 1. You start with a Needs Analysis. 2. The Needs Analysis leads on to a negotiated syllabus. There is no ‘main’ coursebook, although a selection of coursebook and other material may be used. The classroom tasks and texts are personalized, based around the interests and needs of those particular students. 3. The syllabus is designed around communication skills (telephoning, meetings, presentations etc.) and business topics (management, marketing, finance etc.), not the English verb tense system. 4. Language work is more lexical, including collocation and functional language, and less grammatical than General English. Pronunciation is another important area, especially the ability to break up speech into appropriate phrases (phonological chunking) and to use stress to highlight key information. 5. Teaching methodology includes much use of tasks, role-plays, discussions, presentations, case studies and simulated real-life business situations. Approaches and materials are mixed and matched, but there is unlikely to be a high proportion of conventional Present-Practice lessons where one grammar point provides the main thread of a lesson. 6. Much language work is done diagnostically following speaking activities. Feedback slots are used for checking, correcting and developing language (Output->Reformulate rather than Input->Practice). 7. There is use of a range of authentic and business material (magazine articles, off-air video, company documents). 1/5 This article is © Paul Emmerson but may be freely circulated.
  2. 2. 8. Delivery of the course is different: the students are ‘clients’ with high expectations, the teachers are professional ‘trainers’ (or perhaps even Language Consultants). Teachers and students sit together round a table like in a meeting rather than in the classic GE ‘U’ shape with the teacher at the front. Conversation across the table may develop its own dynamic far removed from the teacher’s lesson plan. 9. While teachers are expected to be competent as Language Consultants, classroom managers etc. they are usually not expected to be business experts. This is a language course after all, not an MBA. However teachers are expected to have an interest in business, ask intelligent questions, and slowly develop their knowledge of the business world. And we continued: The above principles represent a ‘strong’ version of BE, and we realize that there are some common situations where it is less appropriate:  Students studying BE in large groups in higher education – often called ‘prework’ students.  Students studying for a BE qualification (often pre-work as well). Such students will almost certainly be following a coursebook, with tasks, texts and language focus already included. Students will be less interested in or unable to personalize activities. They might want to be taught about business itself as well as business English. Looking back thirteen years later it still looks like a good definition (although ‘magazine articles’ rather than ‘internet articles’ shows how quickly the world has changed). But the final paragraph – about pre-work BE – needs a little more development. Back in those days I didn’t realize the simple fact that the overwhelming majority of BE students are pre-work. Publishers have certainly realized this: all major multi-level coursebooks that I know (except InCompany) are aimed squarely at pre-work students. Does your coursebook invite the student to talk about their own job? Unlikely. It would mean the majority of users of the book being unable to contribute much. Differences between Pre-Work and In-Work BE students So what can I add now about the pre-work context? My own teaching these days is in-work students coming to the UK for short, intensive courses. In the past I have done a little teaching of pre-work 2/5 This article is © Paul Emmerson but may be freely circulated.
  3. 3. groups, but not much. However, I do have contact with the pre-work BE world through teacher training (TT). The majority of teachers who I train have large pre-work groups in universities/colleges. On the TT courses we spend a lot of time discussing how BE ideas can be applied to the pre-work classroom. The table below is a short summary of the ideas that trainees most often contribute in discussion. Pre-Work Typical situation: large classes, mixed ability, following a coursebook. Lesson structure clear, coming directly from the coursebook. More on business topics, less on business communication skills. Need models before they can do an activity: an example email, an example presentation, an example meeting etc. Exam involved – course has to be designed around this. Few opportunities for personalization because Ss aren’t working. However they can draw on summer and p/t jobs, internships. T has to teach some business content – but remember that Ss are studying business in other classes. Ss want a hybrid general/business course with a fun, lively approach. Large class size presents some classroom management problems. The T has to think creatively and use pairwork, project work etc. Key T skills: classroom management of large, mixed-level groups. Ss accept what you say/teach. They don’t ask many questions and don’t challenge T or each other. T knows best. In-Work Typical situation: small classes or 1:1, more consistent language levels in a group, coursebooks and other material used on a mix-and-match basis. Lesson structure flexible and liable to change at any moment according to where the Ss take the lesson. Approximately equal balance. Less need for models – they have experience of emails, meetings etc. in their everyday lives. No exam involved – course designed around student’s needs (ongoing/changing). Personalization easy, necessary and important. Ss already know about business – in fact they teach you about business. Ss want a strong business/work focus. Happy with dry, information-dense texts that a PreWork student might find boring. Small class size allows more options for classroom management. Whole class activities are possible (discussions, RPs, presentations) and Ss will do them without being self-conscious. Key T skills: ability to respond to the changing needs of the Ss in real time and act as a group facilitator and language consultant. Ss question what you say/teach. They freely ask questions and challenge T and each other. 3/5 This article is © Paul Emmerson but may be freely circulated.
  4. 4. Motivation:  Ss have an exam to do  Ss need English to get a good job  Ss are young and can be immature, make silly jokes in class, keep checking Facebook on their smartphones, etc.. Ss are adolescents/young adults and bring into class personal problems, parents’ expectations etc. Motivation:  Ss have high expectations  Ss have paid a lot  Ss have voluntarily given up part of a busy work schedule  Ss can be tired at the end of the day  Ss are sometimes ‘sent’ by their company and don’t really want to be there Ss are more mature and tend to keep their personal lives out of class. Exception: one-to-one classes, where Ss often bring very personal things and you have to be a sympathetic listener/counsellor etc. Implications I think this raises some interesting questions. We think of ourselves as one big BE community, but are we really separate tribes? Think of these:  The pre-work teacher who stands up in front of thirty mixed-level, samenationality 18 year olds in a provincial university in Poland, Mexico or China.  The teacher in a Private Language School who stands up in front of a small group of similar-level, mixed-nationality business people on an intensive course in the UK, the US, Canada, Australia or Ireland.  The in-company teacher working in Paris, Frankfurt, Zurich, Sao Paulo, Tokyo or Seoul who jumps into taxis as s/he goes from office to office teaching 1:1 or small groups. How much do these teachers have in common? What unites them? What separates them? How much does it depend on the individual lesson? How important is the approach of the individual teacher? Perhaps the three teachers in the bullet points above are different tribes. But perhaps not: it might be that most BE teachers in the world are part of an in-betweeny tribe that exists somewhere between the pre-work and inwork poles. Under this in-betweeny scenario, teachers of pre-work students are inclined towards one pole, but at the same time are trying valiantly to incorporate more in-work techniques; and likewise teachers of in-work students are inclined towards the other pole, but sometimes rely a little too heavily on published material (especially at the start of their teaching careers) without offering the students the chance for personalization. 4/5 This article is © Paul Emmerson but may be freely circulated.
  5. 5. And yes, of course, every lesson is different. It is also possible that there is a ‘silent majority’ tribe. At conferences and teacher training courses we only come into contact with the best, most motivated, and most open-minded teachers. They did decide to come to the conference after all, while their colleagues stayed at home. Perhaps all those who stayed at home are just working through a coursebook, page by page and week by week, in difficult teaching situations, poorly paid and demotivated. Do they make a separate tribe in their own right? Paul Emmerson August 2013 5/5 This article is © Paul Emmerson but may be freely circulated.