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)
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.