business English

When is Business English General English?

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.

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John Allison


  • Great post – I totally agree.
    As a (tired) trainer I can testify that finding a good GE material for adult professionals is probably the hardest part of my work. Too many of the books out there are intended for young adults or teens with other interests. Moreover, I think the distinction should be made between what is professional and what is “private” – many trainees want to be fluent and be able to socialize without having to talk about there personal lives (especially in France). .
    He who has ears, let him hear!

  • In about 1988, I took a business writing course, offered on Saturday mornings, at Phoenix College in Phoenix Arizona. The professors who taught the class were two women who were both full faculty staff at ASU. These professors wrote our text, making the class quite interesting. They taught that business writing should be clear, concise, and not full of cliches and the jargon that dominated most business correspondence. Armed with my newly found information, I slowly proceeded to educate my coworkers, from partners to secretaries. The partner who was in charge of me gave me the task of writing all of his complicated correspondence including IRS letters and various agencies. He told me that I wrote the best business letters he had seen. What wonderful motivation!

  • In my humble opinion, choosing the resource is only half the battle, a “good” teacher/trainer is able to make it come alive and use the material to inspire the trainee/learner. Of course it certainly helps if the content is attractive and up to date. With technology and social trends changing so quickly these days, resources become out of date before you can say Reginald Arkwright. This surely means the publishers need to be ready to edit more frequently for popular series in order to keep them fresh – One year’s “My Space” soon surrenders to this year’s “Facebook”.. if we’re talking strictly come business then we may afford a nod to “Linked in”.. In truth BE can include “anything that happens whilst at work”, “whilst looking for work” or “whilst changing jobs”..and since “at work” could be on a trip, at lunch or even on a football pitch, the possibilities are endless..

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