Teaching English to Business people Business English.

By Linley Bignoux

As an English Teacher, I have often wondered why there was sometimes a clear divide between what business people need to learn as opposed to what they want to learn, this is a known fact among teachers for any type of student, but more so for people or individuals engaged in business or commerce related activities, teaching Business English is not only interesting but challenging.

So how do you practically and effectively resolve issues adult business-related students learning English face? This is how I approach it.

One aspect of teaching English is that you are imparting cultural information not just teaching English. This is because many business people travel to other countries and English being predominately the de facto language of the business world and the world, they also need to learn the cultural norms when speaking in different countries and some of the topics covered in one country may not be talked about so openly in another, all the while speaking English, which may not be their native language.

Now if they go to a native English speaking country that’s another aspect to consider, the informal and formal use of language is quite different, written vs spoken English is quite different again, students need to be exposed to the informal language and be taught about the formal situations which involve informality vs the informal situations that invite formality.

To illustrate this point, I am Australian, if had someone come from Japan lets say and they were talking politics at a conference in Melbourne that might not be considered “small talk” or “breaking the ice” small talk.

In Australia it would be more relevant to talk about the weather or sport as small talk, Australians don’t talk about politics to break the ice, some do, but its more about sport in Australia. There are many examples, but you get what mean.

Not only are there cultural conventions or norms, the fact that many native English speakers use idiomatic, colloquial and slang in informal settings just as much as informal settings depending on the country and situation is another consideration for business English students.

Native English speakers use a lot of phrasal verbs and prepositional phrasal verbs as well for example but it is not limited to that of course. The use of Figures Of Speech such as Metaphors and Hyperboles and other forms of figurative speech of language is quite common and innate amongst native or mother-tongue English speakers.

This needs to be taught with situations and context within role plays for business English students to be exposed to both the language elements and cultural differences while speaking.

The first problem they face is a general everyday conversation or small talk, since this may be out of the scope of their normal business type conversations that they have grown used to which centres around business or commercial type vocabulary. They lack the maybe more spontaneous informal conversation which commonly pops up, such as idiomatic speech or the use of idioms for example.

The occasional or irregular use of the English language and that they may have learnt it a while ago leads to another issue of them lacking practice in a particular scenario or situation, may it be personal or day to day generalised conversations such as small talk make it difficult for them to ease into such conversations.

Another issue is students may have difficulty in speaking or conversing in commonly found business type scenarios such as meetings, video conference calls, phone calls and even some email correspondence. They may typically struggle with business idiomatic speech, colloquial phrases and overall business related jargon since students may have not been exposed to it.

Resolving these issues I believe requires that students are exposed to scenarios and/situations that build upon their existing vocabulary, however introducing them to more appropriate language that they can use daily within small talk situations that are found when socializing or outside of their normal workplace functions. Frequent use of business idiomatic speech, and phrases and jargon found in workplaces is important.

Role-playing activities that involve idiomatic speech will aid the student since it is quite common in business conversation. For example, scenarios found before and after a business conference, things that may come up at restaurants with colleagues, suppliers or clients and talking about sport or the weather, or just daily life and what’s in the news currently.

Breaking the ice scenarios is important as well since they often have a lot of slang or colloquial language, introducing students to these type of situations will help them in both understanding the vocabulary and being confident in carrying on a conversation at an idiomatic speech level.

Giving students examples via role plays in lessons will expose them to real-life situations that they can interact in and use. By doing this they will be learning the varying expressions for different contexts, different situations and some of the mannerisms and vocabulary found in particular situations and cultures.

Now, helping a business student who is going to attend a conference is all in their preparation of the actual scenarios they will face and what bits or parts of the language they may come up against or encounter.

Helping them prepare would involve lessons that revolved around commonly found scenarios or situations at conferences such as:

Introducing yourself, asking about the weather, talking about sport, talking about current affairs as small talk, apart from the more functional language of business responsibilities and tasks, but there are many examples I could give.

Meanwhile, in each of these modules or lessons that are role-playing lessons, incorporating the use of idioms, literal meaning and giving examples, which the role play will demonstrate. Extensive but focused dialogue practice is crucial for students to grasp.

For example, a lesson can have a scenario such as Small Talk, where modelled and then repeated questions are practised along with responses to the questions such as :

“So where are you from in Australia?”
What does your firm sell in the UK market?
Have you worked in that department for a while?
How are sales going so far this year?
How is the weather in your city currently?
How is it going?

The frequent practice of idioms will be used in both the responses and in questions worded differently. A focus on practical expressions that involve agreeing and disagreeing and confirming a decision etc etc.Lessons should take a functional real-life situation that students will actually encounter is key here.

You need to include elements of conversation that have useful phrases for small talk, useful phrases for starting a conference and useful phrases for ending a conference. What is being taught here is how a conference is done in sequential order, so modules can focus on the same order when you are teaching English speaking and listening skills.

This may include getting to and from the conference via transport such as a taxi or train and accommodation, so role plays may need to be done on these topics or scenarios.

We need to mimic real-life conferences with key vocabulary, that typically follow how a conference takes place again in sequential order.

Other role plays will be centred around giving an opinion, describing a product, complementing and advising using business idioms and phrases: Under the weather “Up in the air, Stick to the plan, Get the ball rolling, Keep your eye on the ball, Its a long shot etc.

You may need to pre-teach specific vocabulary that a student will need to know before the role-play, giving them the chance to use it during the role play then reverse roles to practice answering and questioning. This elicits both understanding and context when repeated.

However remember not to introduce too many words in one given lesson,5 to 6 words are enough, don’t complicate it make it simple so students understand both the words and where they are used in a situation or scenario, don’t overwhelm them.

Another issue to be mindful of is ensuring your business students build up their vocabulary, not just their technical language expertise in a way that is simple and practical to the student’s needs.

You can do this by exposing your students to a variety of listening and reading activities involving news articles, radio and TV programs about a wide variety of topics that focus primarily on their interests outside their business-focused or workplace activities. Newspapers and magazines help immensely here.

Reading is going to help here a lot since reading comprehension will build upon their existing vocabulary, but one which is more focused on maybe some of their hobbies, such as sports or news articles they like reading. Reading and listening regularly from a variety of sources will introduce more and more words and word families as well.

Learning vocabulary with the aid of audio and reading comprehension that is personally relevant to students in a business-related field is important, engaging with word families they can use daily and as soon as possible, giving proximity and relevance simultaneously.

Expanding their vocabulary via reading will involve listening as well to radio and watching television, this will give them more words to use since it exposes them to vocabulary in context, it’s natural, it is relevant to them.

So let’s say I was advising a student who is attending an international sales conference that is from Japan, representing their firm abroad in the UK.

Firstly you need to establish the differences in British and American English since both the pronunciation of words will be different and that fundamentally the idiomatic speech will be particularly different, so you need to preface that and explain where and how they may differ, so they are prepared for the UK, and if they ever go to the United States or even see written informal work.

Choosing audio or text material with a relevant grammatical explanation about present and past, which is quite good for a student to know, specifically adverbs and verbs and prepositional phrasal verbs in a sentence for example.

This is important since spelling conventions are quite different among the Anglophone countries. Students need to know this when they write or put their thoughts on paper, British and American conventions on paper differ especially with vowels at the end or double vowels in the word and this causes an issue when writing reports or corresponding via email et etc.Words that end in -ize or -ise are another issue for students.

One key area I like to focus on with teaching Business English is to focus upon how idiomatic speech, figures of speech and phrasal verbs, for example, are structured grammatically when speaking. The reason for this is that students need to know how native speakers of English talk and in which order, meaning in which grammatical order when speaking or spoken grammar.

Let’s look at an example on Phrasal Verbs: A phrasal verb is a Verb +Adverb Example: Look Up
A verb is a “doing” word. Verbs express an action.
An adverb is a word that describes or gives more information about a verb, adjective, adverb.

Next, a verb + adverb + preposition Example: Put up with.

Resources which focus on listening as there is an extensive range of podcasts over the internet which are relevant and have a wide range of accents and “British vernacular” and idiomatic language, informal to formal, which has a variety of subject matter and is up to date. Students should be exposed to this a primed listening activity, and its UK based, quite British and has various forms of dialect.

Relevant learning materials for students that have a key element “Negotiations” for example in scenarios and situations role plays which happens often in a business environment shows learners scenarios and situations that they will likely face, with relevant vocabulary in dialogue.

Building speaking confidence in a business student is key here as well. Just like any other student, I need to explain that the benefits of learning English for business purposes will have many rewards, selling the idea that they will improve their negotiation, sales and onward contacts gaining more prospective leads, leading to sales etc, will be important for them.

Business people tend to be quite motivated, however, painting a positive picture by explaining that both their career and career prospects will be improved by expanding their vocabulary, practising role-plays, being introduced to business etiquette and idioms etc will be highly beneficial and can propel their careers, they will have a “leading edge.”

These type of students are driven by objectives and realistic goals, giving them real situations and providing lessons that have aims and targets will be explained if ever they lack the motivation at some point, to continue with learning English.

Now that leads me to how you make a connection with a student and why this is particularly important, making a connection with students will depend on a mindful approach to teaching delivery.

Taking interest in their wants and needs is crucial to winning respect,(this happens in suppler negotiations, management and sales all the time etc). If I am courteous and professional to my students and I acknowledge their needs and wants that’s a start, this same business culture or etiquette is found in the business world as well.

Secondly, as a teacher, I need to provide a good environment in which I can be both trusted and show confidence in teaching, teach what is relevant and what they will need to know in many business formal and informal settings or scenarios (Dealing with suppliers, dealing with corporate negotiators, associates, managers, financial controllers, the sales team Rugby match after-party )et etc,

Lastly having industry-specific knowledge and that you can relate to some of the difficulties they face in the business world, knowing you have have been through it before helps as well.
If a student knows that you took time to understand or relate to the industry they are in or that you come from the same industry background, you can gain a lot of respect up front, making it easier to win their respect making teaching a lot easier.


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