Number one for English language teachers

Teaching Business English: Prioritizing vocabulary

Type: Article, Reference material

In this article, Ed Pegg answers your questions about what vocabulary to teach your Business English class.

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What vocabulary should I prioritize with different types of Business English learner?

Vocabulary plays a big part of any language syllabus and business English is no exception. However, whether you know a lot about the work of your students or not, it can be difficult to select the specific vocabulary to teach.

Do you focus on industry specific terminology or focus on words and phrases to achieve particular tasks and functions. And what if you’re following a course book? Will the language inside be enough for your learners or will you have to supplement it?

Here are some questions you can ask yourself and your learners to help prepare for any new course. Think about them before you meet your new group or after the first couple of lessons. You could even use them as a needs analysis in the first lesson.

You could prepare a structured handout or just have an informal chat, it really depends on what you think will work for your group.

The answers will help you identify the vocabulary that will make the biggest impact on your clients’ workplace performance.

What do they do in English?

This is the first question you need to ask. Obviously talking to learners’ about what they do will give you lots of information but remember that they may only do some of those tasks in English. Ask your learners to describe what they need to do in English and this will give you a list of tasks they need to complete. From this list, you can identify the functions they need to perform which, in turn, will help you identify individual language items they need.

But what if I don’t have any experience of the functions they need?

Business English teachers who have less experience of the workplace outside of education often feel insecure about their ability to provide language and contexts that their clients will believe in. Something that they often don’t realize is that teaching is work. There are actually a limited number of functions that we perform at work and, to a greater or lesser extent, everybody uses them, regardless of what they do.

Most things that happen at work fall into one of the following categories:

  • asking for things
  • telling people things
  • negotiating things

So, when you listen to your learners describe what they do, try to relate their experiences to your own. Even if it may not be as formal or large scale as theirs, I guarantee that you will have done something at least a little similar at some point in your career. Thinking about your experience and the language that you used will help you select the most useful language to teach your learners.

Who do they speak English with?

Once you’ve identified what you should be teaching, you then need to find out who they’re talking to. How is this going to affect the vocabulary you present?

Well, who could they be talking to? Native speakers? People from Asia, Europe, Latin America? Why does that matter?

Well, if they’re speaking to native speakers on a regular basis, they’ll be exposed to large amounts of phrasal verbs, idioms and colloquial expressions. If your lessons don’t provide a rich blend of these items, then your learners will probably be underprepared for communication with native speakers.

If you’re training European learners working with people from Asia, you might want to think about the differences between European and Asian communication styles. Although there are wide variations, there are also many similarities. Many Asian cultures have a fairly indirect style of expression and the direct communication of many Europeans can potentially create conflict.

So, if faced with this training scenario, you would probably need to help learners; increase their range and active use of hypothetical language, develop indirect structures such as ’I was wondering’ and ’I don’t know if’… and develop ambiguous, face neutral language.

And if you were preparing Asian students to work with Europeans, you’d need to consider the same issues, only in reverse.

What are the learners’ objectives?

This may be an obvious question but don’t underestimate the effect it can have on the style of lessons you teach and the vocabulary you present. If your learners only speak English occasionally, primarily in routine functional situations, then you’ll just want to focus on functional phrases for those situations. Keep it simple – present and practise 6-10 items at a time and work on using a limited range of vocabulary to satisfactorily complete the tasks they need.

However, if they want to do more than survive, you’ll need to introduce a much wider range of vocabulary. Once learners reach intermediate, it’s very common for them to say things like ‘I know I can speak English but I don’t feel confident when I speak’.

This is probably caused by two factors. Firstly, they have not yet perfectly mastered the English they know. So, again, keep it simple, introduce 6-10 items at a time, recycle them regularly and give learners opportunities to recycle them in spontaneous speech. This will increase vocabulary recall which will increase confidence in turn.

The second factor affecting learners’ confidence is much more complicated and probably relates to their desire to join a community of practice.

A community of practice? What on earth is that?

A community of practice is a group of people that share a profession. This could be engineering, the law, finance, sales or business English teaching. These communities have norms of behaviour, knowledge and language and only demonstration of understanding of each of these norms will allow someone to be accepted as a member of a community. These norms are often intangible and self-regulated by the members of the community. It’s difficult to say when someone is accepted into a community but when you are accepted, you’ll usually have a feeling that others believe what you say is credible and accept it at face value.

Entry into their chosen community of practice is often the unstated (and commonly unknown) goal of most professional language learners. They are a member of their community of practice within their native language and the lack of membership in a foreign language is often perceived and lamented by business English learners.

Therefore, it could be argued that the real job of business English teachers is to help their learners enter their chosen community of practice but how?

How can you help learners enter a community of practice?

Unless you’ve worked in a particular profession, it can be hard to know how communication in particular communities differs but there are some easy things you can do to find out. By reading industry blogs and watching interviews of members of the community, you can notice the high frequency vocabulary these people use. By comparing this to your learners’ production and filling the gap, you can help them move closer towards entry into their chosen community.

So, next time you’re deciding what to teach a new group, remember to ask yourself, and them, these questions. I’m sure you’ll quickly find a wide range of language that will ensure exciting lessons and the high performance of your learners at work. 

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