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The Nuances of Teaching Business English

By Pola Papadopoulou

As a branch of English that is constantly gaining more attention, both from students and researchers who further wish to understand it, Business English has its pros and cons. As the name suggests, students mainly come from the business world, ranging from marketing to aviation to pharmaceutical companies, and all of them have the same goal; to improve their English. Here, you will probably ask,

so, what is the difference between teaching adults in General English and teaching Business English? They are both adults, right?

Wrong! Same age group, completely different aims and objectives.

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First things first, as a Business English teacher you have to constantly study in order to keep up with the latest trends and the latest vocabulary in various industries, or in the particular industry in which your students work. This means that you have an enormous vocabulary stored in your head, (shock absorber seals, lead stabilisers etc.) which you may or may not ever need again, depending on the industries you work with, I call that my homework.

Students who are interested in taking Business English lessons are not very keen on starting from the basic, or even more advanced, everyday phrases, but will more likely request that you teach them their industry’s vocabulary, how to soften their language and be diplomatic with others, how to interrupt politely in a meeting, and countless more business functions. Now, native speakers may wonder why on earth they would need to constantly study in order to teach their language. As a Business English teacher myself, I can tell you that it’s not so much about the language per se, as it is about its functions and about how, why, and when to use it within a professional context.

Lack of motivation and surplus of demand

Another thing that you should consider when taking the Business English path, is that students may not be as motivated as you would expect but more demanding than you thought. It’s true that Business English students are different from others in a sense that time is valuable and in short supply; in other words, time is money. You may wonder, however, why they would want to have lessons if they are not motivated enough to study or be mentally present in them. Well, the answer is as simple as 1,2,3; they are often tired and preoccupied. Although they most likely need English for their career, on a day to day basis, there are always other jobs and projects which are equally or more pressing. They take time out during the day to have their lessons and this could mean interrupting their project or even interrupting their workflow. And that’s the best case scenario. Imagine having lessons cancelled all the time, sometimes at late notice, or your lesson being interrupted by a vital visitor or phone call; it all happens, if not all the time. Frustrating, right? I am with you on that one.

My best advice to you is to always make your lessons fun and interesting and valuable.

Businessmen and women are smart. If they do not see that their lessons are adding value, then they will easily give up. They have to see the relevance of them. In this context it is not a bad idea to leave some time at the end of a lesson to explain what you have achieved and how it is going to be useful for what is coming in the next lesson. Do not be afraid to think outside of the box. If they are tired, play a silly game with them or even ask them silly questions to make them laugh and feel relaxed. Trust me, it works!

It happens sometimes, that as an outsider, some businesspeople are happy to offload their troubles to you or have a good moan, especially if they are having a bad day. This is natural, as teachers are trained to be good listeners and sometimes it’s acceptable to allow five minutes for this but never more.

Lessons are for learning and the same person who is having a good moan will moan about the lesson if he feels he has learnt very little.

Now, as to how demanding they are, I don’t think I have to draw your attention once again to the fact that they are business people. In this case, I would suggest you really dig deep when conducting your needs analysis in the first lesson. Make completely sure that you ask them the right things and that you are getting all the details. And by details, I mean that you should not simply ask them if they want to develop grammar; of course they will want that. Ask them which functions of grammar they wish to work on, but do not use terminology such as the names of the tenses as they probably won’t have a clue. There is nothing worse than simply asking what the student wants to focus on in their learning and then turning up with something completely irrelevant. Business people also respect a deep needs analysis, as it’s what they are used to and expect; this is particularly true of the Japanese.

Less theory, more practice

Additionally, be wary of using too many theoretical concepts in your lessons. When I started, I unfortunately made this mistake when I was teaching report writing and wanted to be analytical as to the kinds of reports there are and how they are structured. This is a big NO! If your students are interested in learning how to write a report in a professional manner in English, try to elicit what kinds of reports they want to write and focus on that. You can mention the other types of reports that one may encounter in their workplace, but by no means should you present an in-depth analysis. Focus on practice, rather than theory.

I do understand that teaching Business English may sound daunting. I always feel myself that it is. However, with the right preparation and with active listening, you can accomplish a lot and your students can learn in an inclusive and fun environment. Plus, you will meet people from all walks of life and business and you will always learn new things through your conversations with them.

It’s very rewarding in the end, I promise. Just make sure you take heed of the little nuances involved in the profession.

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