Why Business English can’t be done with the standard course books

My title announces an argumentative exercise. Before starting, however, a few remarks on the scope of my statement are due.

What are the “standard course books?” The textbooks of the established publishers, including the so-called specialised “English for… (business field)” products, which either focus on specialist vocabulary or on specific communication skills. No need to give names, as I’m not writing about any one in particular, but about a certain approach in general.

Second, when I state that Business English (BE) can’t be done with such books I have in mind not necessarily the doing itself, but the effective doing. Of course one can still just pick the BE course book from the shelf and go into the BE course quite self-assured. One can, and one still does. Mainly on the account that the trainees might simply want some English, nothing “special”. I believe, however, that such “simply English” training situations are nearly extinct nowadays. I may expand on the reasons in another post.

I will also need to clarify at some point, of course, what I mean by “effective”, in the paragraph above. Hopefully this will emerge in what follows.

Let me now address the statement in my title. Starting from the small things, the existing BE published materials are aimed at a business person that hardly exists: one that needs all skills in every (protoypical) business situation. In the main strands of English Language Teaching, BE counts as a branch of English for Specific Purposes. And yet, BE course books are still designed very much in the same matrix as General English ones: let’s brainstorm the typical communicative situations for the generic learner and then make sure we pack a little bit of everything in each of them – and that we will call a “unit”, or a “lesson”. All this forgetting that this was supposed to be a specific-purposes strand, which would be reasonable to imagine would require a different fundamental approach. If any teacher in this world could honestly and truthfully claim that they have taught one BE course book from the first to the last page to one and the same group, I would be astonished.

Of course, publishers and authors will argue that a course book is there to provide material, which the teacher will configure and compile. But then what is the use of course books, when we could have collections of activities specialised on a skill, so teachers could simply choose, say, speaking and vocabulary for their course. Also, having a book as material from which one only uses forty to fifty percent is not exactly the idea of “packing a little bit more just in case”.

The core of the evil, however, lies somewhere else, but is connected to the point above. During the years of my teaching career when I was teaching mainly one-to-one at mid- to top-management level, I became aware that what I was supposed to be teaching, according to the published course materials, would have been superfluous and sometimes even inaccurate, or out-of-date, in terms of selection of content, at that level of expertise. The problem was not so much that the material writers had not done enough reading on management or business practices, neither that the materials themselves were old; after a while I realised the problem lay in the selection of the content points and implicitly of the language teaching points.

The syllabus of the mainstream published materials is designed a) from the language perspective and b) from the outsider’s perspective. Let me make that clearer.

When I say that the syllabus – or, for non-teachers, the course agenda – is designed from the language perspective I mean the fact that the book sets out to teach a list of language items at level x in business (wherever the lists may originate from), which are then packed in business communicative activities. For instance, the authors know they need to put together a syllabus for level B1, so they will start from the list of things like past versus present perfect, figures, modal verbs, telephoning language etc. Some of these language points are from the start embedded in a communicative situation, like telephoning. But the goal of the book is in fact to take the learners on a language tour, because this is a language course after all, and in the process, language will be served in appropriate packaging: presenting company history, talking about business figures, making small talk etc.

When I say that the syllabus is designed from the outsider’s perspective I mean that teaching points are sometimes selected because they represented an “interesting” conceptual, implicitly vocab, issue to the linguist. For example, a lesson on advertising will almost always attempt to theorize about types and forms of advertising, with various elements of ads (AIDA), with below-the-line vs. above-the-line promotion strategies etc. No one working in advertising would need that kind of subject matter – either it’s basic, or it’s simply too general to apply for their communicative needs. The same goes for marketing,  logistics, or HR.

So what is wrong with designing the BE course syllabus a) starting from a language agenda and b) from an outsider’s perspective?

In the former case, the course becomes inevitably split from the reality of the learners’ communicative needs, because the textbook MUST teach the past tense, or the difference between must and have to. It also means that the course will flow in a way that is not transparent to the learner: they are required to take several “tours” with different units, not knowing why today they discuss marketing and tomorrow finance, but more disturbingly they will be required at the end to put the pieces together by themselves and attempt to apply them in their practice. Someone told me years ago that he was not going to learn English, just to learn how to do his job in English. At first I blinked not knowing how to take it, but then it became clearer: when I buy a computer I don’t want to know how it works, just how I can get it to do what I need. I don’t want to become familiar with programming, just as business people don’t need another specialisation, in language, besides their professional one. There’s even a marketing story on the idea that people don’t need the drilling machine, they only need the hole in their wall.

I am instead for an approach to syllabus design that starts from needs analysis (be it generic), breaking it down to individual tasks or genres; for instance take “present your company” without worrying that it includes many language points – not every one of them will require us to teach them. The benefits of this is that the learner finishes a “unit” with a clear outcome: in this unit I have examined what exactly it is that I say when I present my company, and how I can do it with my language resources and with some add-ons.Whatever language is taught, explained or practised is generated by the task / genre of presenting a company. Learners won’t need to piece up the big puzzle at the end of the course: the puzzle was put together all along, slot by slot.

As to the second objection, the worst thing is not that the content is not motivating, but the fact that a choice of content represents a choice of teaching points – so practically we are teaching those advertising specialists the basics that a language teacher finds fascinating when first opening some reference materials on advertising. If you, reading this post now, are a language specialist, imagine someone taking pains to explain to you the main grammatical cases in a course where you want to learn Greek for your next holiday. So approaching the field of business communication simply as a language specialist is not just bound to generate artificial content (artificial to the learner, as they are insiders), but it will lead to the selection of the “wrong” teaching points. Why not design lessons that simply investigate the individual genres, as in my example above, present my company, provide some overview, and let trainees generate the concepts themselves? The concepts generated this way will set not just the direction of the teaching within the genre – say, not talking about company locations, but about its restructuring plans – but also the “right” level of language complexity. Designing lessons that include a map of the genre, discussion and awareness-raising of the genre, along with practice of language and discourse structures, will leave plenty of room for the learners to generate their own content and focus on it in the language classroom. The result will not be just higher motivation, but maximum effectiveness of the time spent in class.

In the end of this rather long post, a few thoughts again about what makes Business English distinct, as a further argument against using the standard material and syllabus design approaches. Business English is not simply English in business contexts. If our trainees want just that, it’s all right. But in most cases, in my experience, Business English is understood, in companies and corporations, as a targeted practice of particular genres: project meetings with the sister companies, telephone customer support, pitch for technical parts or products, and so on. In practising them, or becoming aware of their patterns and moves, there is little room for doing that little bit of reading of the latest news report just because it’s “business”. Also, Business English is hardly ever “general”, or “total”. Every course that I have taught demanded something specific. There will always be common areas, of course, but then company presentations themselves are made up, as a genre, of common blocks, and yet every individual company presentation is different, or specific. In the same way, a BE course will inevitably need to focus on a specific configuration of parameters.

The second fundamental difference from any other teaching of language is that such courses do not aim to be educational, or formative, as school courses do. Trainees are not there to do a little bit of everything for the sake of background  knowledge or of cultivating their minds. The one educational effect of good BE courses is in fact the awareness of genres, of differences, of the room available for variation and creativity within the business world.

Business English is not so much English, as it is Business.