Rliberni's Blog – Radical language

May 13, 2010

Business English – what is it you really need to learn?

Many years ago when I first started my own language training business I used to telephone language agents to have them include our courses in their portfolios.

I contacted such an agent in Germany one day about short business English courses and he replied

“What is business English? How is it different from English? Surely English is English and the only difference here is the context in which it is used!”

Being fairly inexperienced at that point I was quite taken aback! I made a feeble attempt to disagree but decided that although he had a point he was largely missing the point that Business English was the latest ‘thing’ and being so, to ignore it seemed a foolish thing to do when operating in this business.

I extracted myself deftly from the conversation and thought no more about it.

Lately,  I’ve been thinking about business English and other types of specialist English and I realise that the words of that German agent have remained with me.

What is Business English?

A few words spring to mind; expensive, elusive, a holy grail almost. The subject often feared by teachers who imagine pages of numbers and statistics, embraced by students who ride on its kudos and certainly put to use by smart, corporate-facing language training companies who reap its rewards.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not suggesting that this is not a valid way to approach the subject and I’m sure the schools are doing a good job and there are good results to report for ROI. I also offer Business English myself.

So, what is a  business English courses?

Typically (please correct me if I’m wrong and there are of course exceptions to this rule)

  1. It can be a course for novices delivered in English aimed at would-be business professionals. It explains how to do ‘businessy’  things like conduct an interview, make sales calls, or interpret data.
  2. It might be an introduction to the language of business – how to meet and greet, the language of marketing or sales, or business idioms in common parlance.
  3. It could be a real high-flying course in finance and banking, or an exam-based course for a qualification.

I wonder, though, if learning all those business idioms and six stock phrases for interrupting someone at a meeting is going to make anyone better at their job.

I have taught many relocated business professionals over the years and have observed two very significant things:

  • Firstly, almost without exception, their partners and children returned at the end of the posting with much better English skills.
  • Many seem stuck on a  plateau and don’t move very far away from this (it would be around FCE/CAE or B2/C1).

Why is this?

  • Most employees use English primarily at work, at home they speak their own language, they often watch tv and listen to music etc.. in their own langauge. They also socalise often (though not exclusively) with compatriots where they speak their own language. Their partners,on the other hand, have exposure to many different language experiences – school, shops, groups etc. They often get involved more in their neighbourhoods and communities. They study the language because their need is more pressing. The children – well it goes without saying, their need is greatest – fitting in with peers – so they generally thrive linguistically.
  • Business language (as is true of many other discreet lexical sets) is restricted to a number of utterances (comparing course books will show this). Work has become more solitary with computers. People email more and speak less. Speaking is restricted to formalised settings, meetings, presentations. Performance here does improve , it’s bound to but it’s a small pond. In my experience students often manage very well at work but don’t always develop skills beyond the work environment.

So, why is this a problem?

Maybe it isn’t if they are here to work and they are getting the work-related skills they need the rest is neither here nor there.

Although I am not an expert in ‘globish’ I suspect that this is, in fact, the language used by many business professionals.  It is a lingua franca and as such a powerful communication tool but is it English? It has a restricted vocabulary and some tolerance of sub or non-standard grammatical features. ‘Decaffeinated English’ was a term used in a recent article by Robert McCrum to describe ‘globish’. I have some sympathies with this description, though these may seem to be more chauvinistic than practical.

‘Globish’ or ‘International’ English works on a certain, albeit restricted level – but therein lies the rub, it is restricted and for my students who are living and working in the UK this can become all too apparent.

See Robert McCrum’s  article on Globish

Two executive students from France and Belgium respectively took short courses with me here in the UK. In both cases they were very fluent but also very inaccurate. We began to unpick some of the grammar and refine some of the rough edges to their language. They were both horrified and upset.

‘We all speak like this in Europe!’

‘I can’t believe that we all make so many mistakes’

From my past teaching experience I know that the benchmark was First Certificate many young twenty somethings came to London for a term took their FCE and then returned to get a job. This language level seems now to have gone viral across the EU and beyond.

It’s fine, everybody understands one another, the business terms are down pat and people sound fluent even if there are mistakes. But is it enough? Surely business is one field in which linguistic eloquence and the ability to manipulate language well can have great advantages – in presenting?  – in negotiating?

Maybe I’m just an old fuddy-duddy and think that everyone should strive to reach the highest level they can. There is some truth in this (not the fuddy-duddy bit!). All teachers want their students to do as well and go as far as they can.

I realise that there are restrictions on time and language needs practice, but who said that business professionals had to stick to business language? After all native speakers have a range of language from which they pick out the business element when it’s appropriate.

I have to say that some of my very best performing business students simply didn’t want to do business English exercises in class. They were curious about other things and we covered a range of reading listening and vocabulary about diverse topics like films, music (one student from Argentina wanted to know all about opera) poetry and food. These topics are not at all out-of-place in the canteen, during coffee breaks or in other social situations. The confidence to propose and discuss such topics is worth as much, if not more than an in-depth knowledge of business collocations.

I sing in choirs and a good piece of advice for getting those very high notes was to imagine you are landing on them from above – I love this analogy for language competence too – the more you know and can use, the more comfortable you will be in any situation.

To sum up, I don’t think you necessarily need to learn only business English, just get a good exposure to a wide range of English then you too will have a bird’s-eye view!

Some exercises to try to broaden your skills:

Top 10 best films ever – this works well as a discussion topic at lunch or in the office you have to get a consensus

Jokes and humour – very important in a business environment (don’t forget to learn where and when it’s appropriate to use jokes). Try these:

Poetry – don’t dismiss this as a language exercise,  poems often short and easily accessible (and you never know, your next potential client might just be  poetry buff!). Here is an example:

Look at these posts on improving skills:

10 ways to improve your vocabulary

10 goofy ways to practise speaking skills

How to keep motivated in language learning

Do you need help getting to your English goal? Contact me.



  1. Nice post Berni

    Yes, learning stock phrases and “exercises” are definitely not the best thing to do in a class – as you say, it’s all about context (we had a good discussion about this a couple of weeks ago – see On context. I’m a great fan of TBL methodology because I think it is so relevant to the BE classroom – people use language to solve problems, and only then focus on the language itself. I’m glad you mentioned poetry – persuasive language is an important part of successful business discourse, and is full of things like metaphors, rhythm and other poetic techniques. You’re also right to emphasise the importance of
    relationship building language.

    Just wanted to add my two favourite definitions of business English at the moment:

    1 English for THEIR workplace
    2 The English that adds value to the company

    I often use these when I do teacher training, and they never fail to get discussion going.


    Comment by Evan — May 13, 2010 @ 7:55 pm | Reply

    • Thanks Evan for your comment some interesting points here. I have to say I was a little worried about putting cats among pigeons, but maybe most teachers in the work language arena feel the same. I do feel often that things are too restricted and a lot of great opportunity is missed. I love your comments about poetry – not thought about it like this but you’re absolutely right! Thank you 🙂

      Comment by rliberni — May 13, 2010 @ 10:34 pm | Reply

  2. English is perceived as the universal language in any place. Particularly in Asia where you will find commonwealth countries such as Singapore and Malaysia which also follow parlimentary systems in state administration. However, people are not English nor are they natives. Through intermarriages, the new generation of Asians are actually native English speakers.

    Because Asian culture is far too rich and remote to be described just in one language, thinking business only in the English language will not get anyone further than a foot in the door and a handshake.

    Comment by Hanifa K. Cook — May 14, 2010 @ 12:08 am | Reply

    • Hi Hanifa, thank you for your comment. You point out an important point about language and that is that it is tied to culture. With the growth of English as a lingua-franca I think two problems arise; firstly it has no culture tied to it and secondly without a culture tied to it, it is in many respects superficial. Business is primarily about building relationships and these cannot be built well on something which has limited substance. Other languages must not be subsumed under something which is created merely for convenience.

      Comment by rliberni — May 14, 2010 @ 2:18 pm | Reply

  3. Thanks for a very stimulating article.

    I was also confronted with this “Business English is still English” comment when I started teaching in Germany. I actually found it very reassuring at first and it helped me to build my confidence.

    I have found that in general business English courses that vocabulary and jargon are not much of an issue as the participants often know that already. One of the most important aspects of such courses is teaching language management strategies – how to cope when you really don’t understand, how to deal with language bullies, and how to deal with people with much lower levels of competence. One really important grammar aspect that needs attention is the misuse of the “will” future. Businesses are mostly dealing with plans for the future and signalling a spontaneous decision to a native speaker, who may well not realise that a mistake has been made, can lead to a significant misunderstanding.

    In 1 to 1 lessons, predominately with managers, skills practice comes to the fore. Presentations, phone-calls and negotiations are often the major part of the content. Intercultural competence is increasingly popular, as is the chance to learn about new developments in their field. New ideas are frequently published first in English and this gives the English teacher the chance to offer a significant added bonus to the English lesson. It does mean, however, that the teacher has to spend a lot of time keeping up to pace though that will pay for itself in the increased reputation of the teacher. Word of mouth advertising can bring a lot of high-paying customers here!

    There is a course book from CUP called English 365 which takes the attitude you put forward in your article by mixing business and general English. Although it doesn’t often fit the type of courses I offer, it demonstrates a very modern attitude to the content of a Business English course.

    Thank you for making me think about what I do for a living!

    Comment by Olaf — May 14, 2010 @ 11:40 am | Reply

    • Thank you Olaf, some really interesting observations. I am at present creating some online modules for business users and it has been this exercise that has got me thinking a lot about the topic. I have included ‘interesting’ things like jokes and poetry and slightly ‘offbeat’ ways of looking at traditional business topics but worry that they may not be seen as serious enough!
      I know English 365 and have used the series. For my students here course books are very difficult – they are using English every day in their work and course books can’t keep up. I also find more and more that what they lack has nothing to do with their work per se. One student recently dreaded every meeting because of the banter that happened prior to the business beginning. Another avoided English colleagues at lunch because they simply didn’t know what topics to discuss (usually football, last night’s TV and politics). Not difficult, but things which had been overlooked in their previous job-related English training. Lack of vocabulary always looms large as does fluency (often equated with speed of delivery). I’m interested in your thoughts on the future tense – I’ll pay more attention to this! I actually enjoy teaching the future tense it’s quite fascinating in its range of options.
      I personally like the idea of an EFL Renaissance Man/Woman in the work-related language arena – with everything at their finger tips they will never be found lacking!
      I think it’s good to stand back sometimes and I’m happy to have facilitated this!

      Comment by rliberni — May 14, 2010 @ 2:37 pm | Reply

      • I begin just about every lesson with a stock phrase: “What’s new in the world?” I know full well that many of my learners dread this – it’s nothing to do with language competence. They simply don’t know what to say. For cultures where small talk plays a negligible role this trivial question is incredibly difficult. The French and Italians often have less trouble. Germans nearly always find it impossible to refer to a superior and sometimes even a colleague by their given name. While I have never heard of a British manager with a Phd referred to as “Doctor”, leaving it out in Germany is unthinkable. Small points maybe, but for me an important test as to whether the learner is interested in or capable of becoming culturally aware.

        Your point about the course books is important – although I’ve little experience dealing with incoming learners, I guess that there are very few books that have a suitable pace for those living in a native-speaking environment. In such circumstances I could imagine that a well-informed teachers adopting a dogme approach might well keep the learner enthralled.

        The lack of vocabulary issue is something which seems to worry my learners more than it does me. As a remedy I regularly use “Just a Minute” from Radio 4 as a drill for getting round vocabulary problems. (I was gutted when I discovered that Mario Rinvoluccri had included it in his “Grammar Games” long before I started teaching – I thought I was so damn clever to have adapted it for language learning.)

        Keep up the good work providing us with stimulating posts.

        Comment by Olaf — May 14, 2010 @ 7:19 pm

      • Thank you again Olaf.
        I tend to ‘follow my nose’ a bit when it comes to how to progress students. I try to put myself in their shoes and see what it is that they need to learn in order to make an impact (after all it is about their job and career and not about the language really). They are all individuals and have different interests, ‘needs’ and foibles. I think it is also important to provide a different ‘space’ from their usual routine. Myself and other teachers often find ourselves acting as ‘social workers’, listening to their problems working in the UK environment and we all go with supplies of tissues. I think this is because we have a foot in both camps – being native Brits yet able to stand back and see things from a non-English speaking, non-British point of view.

        I imagine our role here is very different. Getting away from the humdrum and engaging in English in a non-threatening way makes the lessons we give (when they have the time to attend) a release and also an opportunity to check and try out things.

        German students I’ve taught here are sometimes a little disarmed at first if things are not as they expect but the proof of the pudding is usually in the eating and as long as they can see value it is fine.

        I think the vocabulary question is largely to do with idiomatic usage that they haven’t come across before. Also regional accents and the fact that in ‘real’ language we don’t articulate well and often truncate sentences.

        Your ‘just a minute’ (& Mario’s :-() isn’t one I’ve tried, although I am very fond of role-play games and find that as Evan says in his comment, anything with a problem to solve brings the language in subconsciously almost. I usually take the role of recorder and then we have the feedback afterwards.
        This has been a good discussion – thank you!

        Comment by rliberni — May 17, 2010 @ 9:22 am

  4. […] Business English – what is it you really need to learn? […]

    Pingback by Englischlinks der Woche (KW 20) - Englisch lernen — May 16, 2010 @ 1:47 pm | Reply

  5. Globish reminds me of another project called “Basic English” Unfortunately this failed, because native English speakers could not remember which words not to use 🙂

    So it’s time to move forward and adopt a neutral non-national language, taught universally in schools worldwide,in all nations.

    As a native English speaker, I would prefer Esperanto

    Your readers may be interested in the following video at http://uk.youtube.com/watch?v=_YHALnLV9XU Professor Piron was a translator with the United Nations in Geneva.

    A glimpse of Esperanto can be seen at http://www.lernu.net

    Comment by Brian Barker — May 19, 2010 @ 1:05 am | Reply

    • Thank you Brian for the comment and the links. I found the first one very interesting with surprising statistics. I suppose tinkering with something which is already formed and developing in its own organic way is always going to be tricky. The beauty of Esperanto as a lingua franca is that it was designed to be just that. I wonder if it has taken on its own life yet – I don’t know too much about it to be honest.
      The video does raise serious and pragmatic questions about the use of English but I suspect there is already too much money involved in this industry to allow for much change in heart.

      Comment by rliberni — May 19, 2010 @ 8:33 am | Reply

  6. Hi rliberni

    Just a quick note to confirm, by this link http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=-8837438938991452670 that Esperanto is in fact a “living language”

    Best wishes


    Comment by Brian Barker — May 20, 2010 @ 2:18 pm | Reply

    • Thanks for the link Brian. I guess this answers my question about it being a real, organic language – interesting.

      Comment by rliberni — May 20, 2010 @ 5:21 pm | Reply

  7. […] Business English – what is it you really need to learn? […]

    Pingback by How to be a good language student! 10 suggestions « Rliberni's Blog – Radical language — August 27, 2010 @ 10:30 pm | Reply

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