Teaching English for Business

Teaching English for business intimidates some instructors who don’t have a business background. Instructors have told me they feel it seems like making language “fancy” or “putting on airs” unnecessarily. Where there can be a certain amount of posturing involved in business, that’s more the culture than the language itself. So, to try and demystify some of the ideas around teaching English for business situations, let’s answer a really basic, but important question:

What is Business English?

“Business English” is just an easier way of saying that we are teaching English that’s specific to professional situations. With that in mind, we see that it’s actually just three simple things: 

Topic

When we say business English, we often just mean we're talking about work; what we do, where we work, how it's going, and the challenges we face.

Vocabulary

The words we use in a workspace depend a lot on our industry. Compare the terms used by doctors to those used by people in finance for example.

Formality

Some languages are more clear about the difference between formal, and casual speech, but levels of politeness definitely exists in English as well.

An Example

Business English Example Mechanic

In the mechanic’s case, it would be a little strange to use very formal language. Of course, he runs his own business, and makes a lot of money in the process. He uses special words related to ordering parts, supply chain, inventory, billing, scheduling, etc. He probably also retains an accountant to help him with payroll and taxes, and likely a lawyer as well. He’s absolutely a business person.

Business English Example Banker

Now think of a banker. In this case, the banker needs to use more formal language. When I give this person my money, I want to be sure he’s going to be serious and take good care of it. I expect him to speak politely and professionally, and so do the people around him. His level of formality is high, but he still uses a great deal of special terms related to his work, just like the mechanic. 

How do you teach Business English?

Identify the students’ needs
Many students take a class because they need English for work, or for a special purpose. Find out if they need English for regular communication with coworkers, email correspondence, a trip abroad, or a special function. By “special function”, I mean one particular thing they do at work. For example, a taxi driver may need English for taking and giving directions and charging fares. A sales person might want to perfect a presentation. That’s where you come in. 

Business English for Accounting

Go beyond the book
There are plenty of books out there and most of them are a good start. Remember, books are published to appeal to a general  audience. Bring in your own ideas and, more importantly, rely on your students’ experience.

Remember: You’re Not Teaching Business
A common concern for teachers is that they don’t have experience in the topic at hand. “I don’t know about banking!” Are you teaching banking? No. You’re teaching English. Do not confuse teaching the language with teaching the topic. Your students already know about business, just help them with their language skills. 

Of course, that’s easier said than done. In my case, I’ve taught English for adults in business situations here in Tokyo for quite some time and I can say from experience, being familiar with a topic is certainly an advantage. So, don’t worry about being unfamiliar with a topic, but at the same time, keep your curiosity up and you’ll do well.  

Teaching Business English

Resources
Training programs and instructional books abound. This book helped me get started: Teaching Business English. It gave me some great ideas and templates for getting started. 

If you have a book or a resource that helped you, we’d love to hear about it. @ me on Twitter, leave a comment below, or contact me directly. 

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