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How different?

July 09, 2008

Hello again,
I was back in France recently and basking in the lovely sunshine: a bit different from the non-stop downpours here in the UK. Anyway, I met up with some former colleagues and students and one teacher told me she teaches her business English...

... students in the same way as her general English class. In her view there was no difference. I wasn’t particularly surprised, it was an attitude I often met among my French colleagues but it had an unfortunate effect on the learners. Most of them were so hung about being unable to use the present perfect tense properly that they learnt nothing at all. So how do I think business English is different?

In fact it takes my five-module course to explain this in detail! But let me give two main reasons and in my next post I will put some more detail on it. The first reason lies in the needs of the learners. Working people want to use English as an effective tool in their businesses. They are not learning because they are particularly interested in the language and they want to have a quick return on the investment of their time and money. This means that the present perfect is largely an irrelevance. They get it wrong, so what? Ninety—nine times out of a hundred that will make no difference to the meaning they are trying to convey because there will be many other clues for their listeners. Of course, every learner would love to be error free but that is just not realistic. And, my goodness, native speakers make plenty of mistakes themselves.

That brings me on to reason two. As these learners have specific needs, we concentrate far more on effective communication than on the nuts and bolts of grammar. Inevitably we feed them lots of useful vocabulary and idioms; we focus on the business activities that they carry out on a daily basis and help them improve their performance. All this entails creating a course in which we sift all the possible components to find the essential items that our learners need. Had we but world enough and time, of course we would pay attention to the fine details but we just don’t.

Concentrating on communication paradoxically also means widening the syllabus in some ways. We need to understand how others try to manipulate us through their use of language, in other words they use language as a special kind of behaviour. And we need to understand the intercultural implications of communications in international business. Inevitably too we need to look at new technology in international business. Netmeetings, email, and Internet advertising now play an important part in global enterprise. This all impacts on the way business uses English. I had never thought, for example, about the possibility of English pop songs imitated and broadcast on You Tube as a means of advertising. Yet this is exactly what one of my former clients, French watchmaker LIP, has done: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-dVC1Pdc2BQ/.

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  1. Franklin Orosco Says:

    Thank you for this post, and I look forward to reading the following two. I teach general and business English courses, so this is of great interest to me.

    Some of my Istanbul business students are overworked managers with families who come in late evenings. They say they haven't any time at all to study outside of class. Could you offer any recommendations on how they can remember lexis in this situation? They don't feel that they are progressing fast enough, naturally.

    Thank you for your column.

  1. Bob Toomey Says:

    Greetings, Brenda,

    Once again, you are right on target. I have never understood any teacher who believes that basics are not important, and to let students make mistakes because the teacher really wants to show himself/herself off by teaching higher levels of the material. That's a big mistake. The students go out into society and speak badly, and all native speakers walk away from them. That is a fact! When I taught in California schools I often found that entire classes had not learned their basic math facts. This may seem trival, but it was affecting all of their math work at higher levels. Several other teachers noticed this too, so we devised some quick drills to help students learn the basic facts, and I want to tell you that some of them had a lot of trouble learning them. Therefore, anyone who tells me that teaching basics is not important has lost all credibility as a teacher with me. Many people seem to loose sight of the fact that they students are the most important people in a classroom. Teachers egos can get in the way of learning.

    All of China is hot to learn business English, and 95% of them can't speak English correctly at all. It is a rather a joke in my eyes.

    Keep writing the good words, Brenda,

    Robert H. Toomey
    Director of Education @ REC in Beijing

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