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Business English
by Marlene Ringler, Ph.D.

In this article, I would like to share with you some observations, ideas, thoughts and trends associated with the development of the specific area of Business English as perceived by one who has lived, taught, and managed a professional English training institute in Israel over the past 23 years. I would like to think that much of what I have observed in terms of developments and trends here in Israel can be applied to Business English courses on a global scale.

In a notice which recently appeared on the Teachers of English as a Second Language (TESOL) platform, a call was issued to encourage discussions in the area of ESP/LSP - English for Specific Purposes/Language for Specific Purposes. Specifically, the members were suggesting to those of us enrolled in this interest section to consider such topics as needs analysis, program development and management, resources, methodology and cross communication for purposes of discussion.

Looking back over the past 25 years to professional interests in the area of teaching English as a Foreign Language, I was struck by how very focused, purposeful, and centralized in scope the discourse in this professional field has become. While once we concerned ourselves with some issues parallel to other subjects in the field of adult education, today we consider specific fields of work and research as reasonable and necessary areas to research, discuss, and explore. In addition, the training of teachers and our expectations of their subject interest and mastery have undergone concomitant shifts. The notice which included a call to discuss professional subjects relating to areas of interest in the domains of legal English, medical English, and technical English and of course, Business English, underscores the direction that English for Specific Purposes appears to be moving in.

In this article, I would like to share with you some observations, ideas, thoughts and trends associated with the development of the specific area of Business English as perceived by one who has lived, taught, and managed a professional English training institute in Israel over the past 23 years. I would like to think that much of what I have observed in terms of developments and trends here in Israel can be applied to Business English courses on a global scale. As a member of a team of professionals selected by the TESOL committee to review and select abstracts of presentations which will be delivered at the international conference in Denver, 2009, I will be even better able to comment about further developments and trends in the area once we have completed this process but perhaps that can be discussed in future articles.

Business English or English for Business Purposes is an approach to teaching English to non-native speakers of English (NNS) who wish to improve their level of fluency for purposes of greater language functionality in specific areas of business life including technology, marketing, manufacturing, management, finances, and business services. Topics included in a Business English curriculum may include areas as negotiations, meetings, socializing as well as writing discourse as emails and business plans. The skills associated with such topics parallel a General EFL/ESOL Course defined by proficiency levels - beginning, intermediate and advanced, though I might note that our students enrolled in Business English programs offered by my Institute tend to be identified as advanced to intermediate since many companies, organizations and associations understand well that much communication within the business setting will, at some point, include work with native English speakers (NS) or others whose common language for purposes of business communication is by necessity, English.

There are some distinguishing characteristics which may define the students enrolled in Business English courses as well as unique features of such a program. As Joan Rubin noted in her description of the "good language learner", our adults are generally highly motivated to succeed, good risk takers, aware of the need to improve their language skills to ensure job retention and/or promotion, and willing to make the necessary time and resource commitment to demonstrate their seriousness to their employers. The classes often become a leveling of the playing field as managers study with their associates or even subordinates in the same classroom, placed according to initial placement test results.

The courses often take place within the work setting and the advantages of such in-house Business English courses include accessibility to business documents and authentic material, time and location convenience, and transparency of population enrolment and attendance. A homogeneous business population also enhances the study program since the topics discussed in the class may present a good opportunity to share and exchange business information in a mutually supportive and comfortable learning environment.

Companies have also reported such positive spin-offs or value added as students learning more about other departments, projects, and trends for example, in multinationals located here in Israel as Intel, Microsoft, Toyota, Motorola, EMC, and BAE to mention but a few. In addition, the class itself may become a platform for students to practice role plays, present their professional power points to colleagues and peers, and elaborate and brain storm using business topics of mutual interest. The challenge to the teacher, of course, is to focus on language development using business vocabulary, concepts and terms as tools to improve communicative fluency. Thus, a grammar module can include business grammar subjects such as teaching imperatives for purposes of giving directions or instructions to a visitor or prepositions of time to organize a conference call. Teachers need to always be cognizant of the fact that the course focus is English presented within a business framework and in a business setting, consistently and firmly rooted in a business perspective.

David Gaddol in his book, English Next, presents some interesting thoughts about the teaching population. He raises the issue, for example, of native English speaker vs. NNS as teacher, suggesting that the demand for native English fluency as a requirement for teacher training programs should be reexamined in light of the fact that within 10-15 years, if the current trend holds, nearly 2 billion people will be learning English. Supply and demand may create a situation necessitating a relaxation of native speaker fluency as a criterion for professional teacher training programs, a positive development, I might add, as further noted in this article.

Writing in 1997, I observed that it is a widely accepted educational tenet that effective English for Specific Purposes training needs to go beyond the framework of the classroom in endeavoring to train students capable of competing in an increasingly competitive and demanding world trade market. When it is acknowledged that the teacher has to draw upon theoretical models to create teaching materials which would enable the student to move into the global employment market, it becomes incumbent on researchers and academics in a variety of disciplines to accelerate and promote theoretical research models which can inform teaching practice.

In fact, Gaddol suggests that a new paradigm including the declining "reverence of native speakers" as the gold standard or benchmark for teaching and learning English should be considered given the global business environment in which English is taught. One need only look at and listen to recent CD's available with Business English textbooks. We are seeing a trend toward using more NNS on such recordings as NNS communicating with NNS appears to be on the increase in global operations. He also suggests that a relaxation of the norms in the demand for greater accuracy may signal recognition of the value of increased fluency. Grammatical exactness, for example, as a target goal, may be replaced by greater communicative competence and student confidence given the tensions and pressures of corporate business exchanges of information for example, during business meetings, conducted where the lingua franca is English

Studying Business English, thus, may become a way to globalize the student who needs to function within a global business universe. Preparing such a student to feel comfortable with NNS as well as NNS instructors may be a necessary and integral part of that learning process. Extending the trend of working with NNS as Business English instructors may go as far as encouraging localization of staff recruitment and training since this population tends to be more familiar with local learning customs, norms, and traditions as well as share local language competence.

Global marketplace trends such as the recent decline of the dollar and reduced consumer confidence play a role in the determination by investors, managers, and directors to offer English to their associates. While these decision makers do not necessarily suggest a link between the decision to offer Business English courses and their financial situations, in fact, we often see these issues reflected in some of the questions raised during the initial phase of discussions centered on course structure, organization and content. Typical questions include the following:
  • What is the added value of offering Business English courses rather than general English?
  • Can you identify for us any return on our investment? (ROI)
  • Will the results of the level placement test be shared with us?
  • Will the material be work specific according to our corporate needs?
  • What might we expect in terms of improvement in work areas such as email writing or PowerPoint presentations?
  • How will the students respond to visitors in the class such as managers?
  • How is such training different from other programs such as Bagrut preparation?
  • Do the teachers have an interest or training in areas of interest to us such as finance or marketing?
  • How can we monitor satisfaction, progress and goal attainment?
  • Does attendance reflect a level of satisfaction?
  • Will we be receiving ongoing updates?
  • What evaluation tools will be used to determine student progress?
  • Will our managers have a role to play in determining course content?
  • What evaluation instruments will be used throughout the course to monitor student progress?
  • Will students be given an opportunity to provide feedback and at what intervals?
In conclusion, I would like to share with you some of my thoughts related to current trends identified in the field of Business English or English for Specific Business Purposes and how these trends may affect our choices regarding teacher training, materials, and the student population. It appears that the trend toward large classes with heterogeneous student populations has been replaced by greater selectivity in just who may be eligible for Business English training courses. In fact, more and more global companies located here in Israel are requesting training assistance for identified workers in management or other positions who will represent their companies on many levels and for multiple purposes such as travels abroad. Often these students are workers in the company who have been promoted or retained because they have been with the company for many years and share a loyalty and a depth of understanding of the company beyond even that of current managers; however, due to poor English proficiency, they are unable to function in critical areas such as global operations. In addition, more and more companies seem to be placing the responsibility for functional English proficiency squarely on the shoulders of the workers, often going so far as advertising good English proficiency as a prerequisite for employment. In the past, workers were often hired based on expertise in needed work areas and little or no consideration was given to the ability of the worker to function using English as a mode of business communication. Training courses were then offered for the population to help them to overcome this perceived deficiency.

Workers in both public and private companies who are multilingual may be even more attractive to companies than those with bilingual skills, such as Hebrew or Arabic proficiency as well as English. These associates may have a competitive advantage in the workforce of global companies. Thus, the shifts in the demand to study English and the frequently held position that mastering English is a guarantee of success in the workforce need to be reexamined in light of the fact that English has slipped to fourth place preceded by Mandarin, Spanish and Hindi-Urdu. Davis does a good job of presenting his case that English is not the only language used today in global business settings. He suggests that in many countries including those in Asia and Europe as well as in the US, Mandarin has emerged as the "must have" language. An estimated 30 million people are studying Mandarin world wide and according to Davis and others, this may signal a long term trend. Advances in communication technology has not created the demand to study English as had been anticipated as more languages and scripts are supported by computer software and the use of the internet is often as much for local as global information.

As mentioned earlier, fewer and fewer business interactions within such a speech community involve NS thus paving the way for a call for research in the area of just how communications move forward among NNS in a business setting. Reassessing a performance outcome in Business English courses such as improved pronunciation may be required in keeping with the current work reality. Gaddol goes so far as to challenge the widely held belief that NNS should try to adopt a native speaker accent suggesting that through their usage of English, native speaker accent may signal an identity more than signal a lack of language competence.

Business English as a professional subject has emerged as a rich field deserving future serious research. As we think about how best to prepare for the future demands of the global marketplace, we should be proud of our status as one of the top countries in the world, attracting international investors and investments. This status, however, demands that we take responsibility for continuing to ensure that our Business English training programs maintain the highest standards, reflect a recognition and an understanding of some of the trends as presented in this article, and provide effective learning opportunities as we prepare our adult population to influence the future in business, trade, commerce, and international negotiations.


Davis, M. 2004. GDP by Language, Unicode Technical Note #13.

Gaddol, D. 2006. English Next. British Council Publication.

Ringler, M. 1997. An Examination of Conversational Phenomena and Their Sociopragmatic Implications for Native and Non-Native Speakers of English Negotiating in an International Business Setting. Unpublished Ph.D. thesis, University of Liverpool.

Rubin, J. 1975. "The Good Language Learner". TESOL Quarterly, Vol. 9, Number 1, pp141-44.

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