Karen's Linguistics Issues, February 2002 | This Month's Articles | Previous Months


Slaying Dragons & Debunking Myths: The Truth about Teaching Business English

 by John Hughes, Cheltenham, UK

Danny the Dragon is a character out of the children’s EFL course book Storyland.  In one unit Danny goes to the shop and asks how much the items in the shop are.  Finally, he asks to buy something.  Many EFL teachers would feel comfortable with teaching this material to children. Strange then that the same teachers often balk at the prospect of teaching business English since Danny the Dragon could quite easily step out of Storyland into the pages of a business English course book asking “How much is it?”,  “What’s the difference between the two models?”, “I’d like three please.”, “Is there a discount for cash?”.

Of course business English course books do not feature Danny the Dragon but a suited business executive negotiating a contract or placing an order and suddenly the real world of buying and selling threatens the teacher as they cry, “I can’t teach business English, I don’t know anything about business.”

That we claim ignorance of business is at odds with our experience. “Buying and selling” which is one of three definitions that the Oxford dictionary gives to the word BUSINESS must be familiar to us all. The second and third definition includes: one's usual occupation; profession and commercial establishment or firm.  Since an EFL teacher’s line of business is teaching and many of us work for a business we are anything but ignorant.

One way to discover that you may know more about business than you think is to consider a product such as can of coke. Give yourself two minutes to ask as many questions as you can about it. From workshops I have lead, trainees have come up with a whole range such as:

1.      Where is it produced?

2.      Who supplies the ingredients?

3.      Who owns the company?

4.      How much does it cost?

5.      Where can I buy it?

6.      Who designed it?

7.      What company manufactures it?

8.      When was the company founded?

9.      Who invented it?

You may not be able to answer the questions but the task shows that you already have the vocabulary yourself to ask the students questions about their business which they will be more than happy (and need to be able) to answer.

To be fair to the poor beleaguered teacher who is thrown in at the deep end with a business English course, it is true that some language schools simply do not equip teachers to deal with this new context. Often teachers receive no prior training in how to approach business English beyond listening to the tiresome, unhelpful and untrue comment “Business English is just EFL with a tie on.”

One improvement on recent years is that there are many good resources on the market to help you run a course. You may also find that much of this material contains language that is not a million miles from what you might find in a general English textbook. To demonstrate this, read the following tape script taken from a business English textbook called Getting Ahead (CUP). Underline any language which you think you would not teach in a general English class but would only teach in a business English class. In other words what language is not general English: 

Dombradi:    Dombradi speaking.

Shaw:           Is that you Gabor? This is Frank Shaw.

Dombradi:    Oh hello Frank. Nice to hear from you.

Shaw:           Listen. I’m coming to Budapest in October and I’d like to call in to discuss the marketing of the XJ3.

Dombradi:    Great. When are you planning?

Shaw:           Well, either the fourteenth or the sixteenth. What suits you best?

Dombradi:     Let me check my diary. Right. Here we are. Er...I’m afraid I can’t make the fourteenth. I’ve got to see a customer then. But I’m free on the sixteenth.  

What you have underlined probably comes to maybe 5% or less.

Perhaps then it is true that the chasm between general and business English is not so wide. However, to suggest that there is no need to know terminology would be flippant and therefore teachers are heard to say, “I can’t teach business English, I don’t know the terminology.” The response to this is simple. Learn it. The issue was nicely illustrated in a training workshop I ran consisting of 11 native speaker teachers and 1 non-native speaker teacher.  The training session was an introduction to Business English. Having surveyed some of the textbooks on the market, some of native speaker trainees commented that in some of the more advanced level books they didn't know the business terminology themselves and wouldn't be able to teach it. Finally, the non-native teachers spoke up: "But I teach English and I had to learn all of it."

Inevitably you will come across vocabulary that may not even exist in your everyday dictionary. In such cases your students are experts in their field, will probably know the word anyway and be able to provide you with definitions of the more technical points that only a person in that profession would come across.

Aside from what you might consider as business, it is quite possible that much of your teaching will involve talking about the weather, sport, the weekend, food. Because so many business English classes include these topics you may find yourself agreeing with the statement that, “Most business people don’t want business English, all they really want is general English.”  However, when you consider that around 80% of your student’s business probably comes from 20% of his/her customers, building social relationships is a crucial skill. Social English is therefore one of the key requirements of many business people and forms a major part of the scope of business English.

If you remain in search of training and support beyond learning on the job you could participate in a teacher training course preparing teachers to run a business English course. The course content should range from needs analysis, course design, communication skills (which would include telephoning, presenting, negotiating), setting up effective role-plays and simulations and giving feedback. It should also prepare you with basic knowledge of the basic concepts and practices in business such as how an order is processed or the rudiments of marketing.

There are various training centres now running such courses and some also offer the option of taking an examination validated by The London Chamber of Commerce and Industry. Successful candidates who pass the 150-minute long written examination will receive The Foundation Certificate in Teaching Business English.

If the idea of business in your English teaching is still off-putting you might want to talk to teachers who have moved into the field. Few of them began life as stockbrokers or economists but many of them have discovered that teaching English with a real purpose and measurable outcomes is so much more satisfactory than English for dragons.

John Hughes is a freelance teacher trainer and author. His books include 'Lessons in your rucksack' (MEP), 'Telephone English' (Macmillan) and 'Business Focus Elementary' (co-author, OUP). Email: jhnhghs@msn.com. Visit his website for more articles: www.johnhugheselt.com



©John Hughes 2002. All rights reserved.