Business English month brings you a guest post by John Allison, a teacher, teacher trainer, and lead author of The Business. John also enjoys writing music and speculative fiction, evidence of which you can see on his blog ‘John’s words and music’.
There was a time, not so long ago, when Business English (B.E.) and General English (G.E.) were chalk and cheese, at least if EFL publishers were to be believed. B.E. courses were staid, black-and-white affairs; G.E. books had colour, photos, role plays, jolly folk called Stan and Mary, and even games! B.E. students (and their often reluctant teachers) were expected to sweat over meaty texts with the occasional line drawing, soulless gap-fills, solemn discussions, and faceless business people named Mrs. Boothroyd or Mr. Arkwright. As for vocabulary, B.E. was all invoicing, margins, P.E.R.s, and C.O.G.S (cost of goods sold); there was no place for entertaining or away days, let alone business speed-dating or conference-tourism!
The world has changed, and strangely enough, today Business English has morphed into something increasingly similar to General English. In the global market-place, it is no longer a company’s technical know-how or financial clout that constitutes its competitive advantage: faced with copy-cat products and aggressive discounting, today’s exporters often have to rely on their networking and social skills to give them an edge. Again and again, students complain that ‘the meeting was fine, but afterwards in the restaurant I was completely lost!’ Together with changing demographics and the development of lifelong learning, this need to build rapport is having a significant influence on EFL publishing. G.E. learners are no longer just teenagers who are obsessed with music and dating, but also forty-somethings who enjoy TV shows like Dragons’ Den and The Apprentice and want to enhance their promotion prospects. Many B.E. students already know perfectly well how international trade works, but really want to learn how to wine and dine their Chinese counterparts.
Charting students’ needs for conventional B.E. vocabulary by language level provides a classic bell curve. From Beginner through Elementary, learners are too busy coping with the mechanics of the language to have time for more than very basic words to describe company and work routines. At Pre-intermediate level, things change; students’ communicative competence is still too limited to interact in more than a very superficial way with ‘live’ suppliers, customers or colleagues, but they can handle ‘off-line’ technical functions like processing orders, doing accounts, inventory, logistics and so on, mostly via email. Suddenly there is a real urgency to acquire the essential terms that have traditionally distinguished B.E. from G.E. As we move up through Intermediate however, this trend peaks, as the ability to take an active part in meetings and conference calls brings communication skills into play: features of G.E. such as register and emphasis become at least as important as ‘hard’ business vocabulary. By the time we reach Upper-Intermediate level, it’s all about persuading and influencing people. In the same way as engineers, scientists and sales people gradually stop doing the jobs they trained for to spend more and more time in management, B.E. learners stop negotiating volumes and delivery times and start focusing on getting other people to pull their fingers out. Advanced B.E. learners need metaphor, humour, irony, rhetoric and idiom; all language features hitherto the preserve of G.E. books.
Happily, publishers are responding to these trends with increasingly ‘adult’ G.E. courses; B.E. courses are also borrowing from G.E. and even managing to make B. E. fun! Of course, experienced teachers can always ‘stretch’ a coursebook from general to business, or vice versa, but considerable time and effort are required. Hopefully the growing availability of crossover products will result in fewer tired teachers and many more satisfied learners.Email this Post