Number one for English language teachers

BESIG 2007 conference report

Type: Article

Karen Richardson, an author and freelance teacher based in Germany, agreed to be a onestopenglish roving reporter at the 20th Annual Business English Special Interest Group (BESIG) conference in Berlin.

20th Annual Business English Special Interest Group (BESIG) conference
16th – 18th November, 2007
Berlin, Germany

Neither the German rail strikes nor intermittent snow flurries could prevent this year’s BESIG annual conference from being the biggest yet.

The venue

Fittingly, after being held in venues all over Europe, the Business English Special Interest Group’s annual conference, which first took place in Bielefeld, returned to Germany for its 20th anniversary. The choice of this very central and exciting European location ensured that over 540 people involved in the provision of Business English converged at the Technische Fachhochschule (University of Applied Sciences) in Berlin over the weekend.

Registration started at 4pm on Friday afternoon and was followed by opening speeches, entertainment in the form of a magician and a barbershop quartet, and food and drink for all.

The plenary

The very popular plenary session started at 9am on Saturday. Linguist, broadcaster and writer, David Graddol spoke to a packed auditorium about the future of ‘English for Business’ and ‘The Business of English’. Based on his research into the increasing role of English as a lingua franca, Graddol presented the ways in which this is likely to change the shape of ELT over the next 10-15 years and what consequences this may have for teachers and trainers of Business English who’ll most likely be having to deal with students with a higher level of English, and who require "just-in-time learning" without any "cultural baggage". He also talked about the need for "intelligibility rather than accuracy", and suggested that employers are becoming more concerned with what potential employees can do in English, rather than what marks they received at school or university. This was reflected in the figures he gave us: 74% of all business interactions held in English are between non-native speakers, i.e. do not include a native speaker. Although his research showed that we “will have to improve our act over the next few years”, he concluded on an upnote, stating that there are currently many new opportunities and markets opening up for providers of Business English.

The workshops, talks and presentations

With over 115 workshops to choose from, in 9 different time slots on Saturday and Sunday, the decision of which to attend was not an easy one. Probably the best thing to do then when you attend a conference of this size is to decide in advance where your particular interests lie, by asking yourself the following questions: Who and what do I teach now?, What might I be interested in teaching in the future?, and What aspect of Business English would I like to learn more about, but don’t usually have the time or opportunity to do so?

With this in mind, I went to listen to a discussion by David Cotton and Simon Kent about the use of case studies in Business English teaching, as well as Matthew Firth's talk about using the Internet as a resource in Legal English and how lawyers really use English (as well as the new ILEC exams), and lastly, I went to Charles La Fond's talk about teaching the language of negotiation.

But in case you’re thinking that this all sounds very passive, it’s not. One of the great things about attending workshops such as these is that you have the chance to actively try out the materials and gain tips and insights on the best way of putting them into action in the classroom. In this particular instance, it meant that more than 80 Business English trainers tried out a negotiation role play under La Fond’s watchful and experienced eye.

Trying to alternate between theory and practice, I also attended a discussion panel on testing and teaching, and Nick Robinson’s workshop on teaching content and vocabulary in the ESP classroom. The latter had been a popular workshop at the recent English for Specific Purposes conference in Ulm, so I was delighted to have the opportunity to catch up on a workshop I’d recently missed.

This is perhaps one of the biggest difficulties faced by delegates at BESIG conferences; it’s often not a question of what to attend, but of accepting what you cannot attend because there’s just so much else on offer. The workshops and talks I would have liked to attend included: two on the use of Second Life in Business English, a couple on technology, one on people skills, another on intercultural training, and one on using drama in the Business English classroom.

The people

The BESIG conferences are a must for anyone involved in teaching Business English. Although many of this year’s delegates, speakers, and sponsors were based in Germany where Business English teaching is very strong, at least as many (or more) flew in from places as far flung as the USA, Malaysia, Hong Kong, Latvia, India, and Nigeria. These types of conferences are an ideal place to meet with old and new friends, colleagues, and business contacts. They are a place to find out about the latest publications and products. Whether you're a freelancer, or represent a school or university, you are sure to come away with a bag full of notes, a head full of new ideas, and a pocket full of business cards.

Social networking

But what if you’re attending for the first time? How will you get to meet people? After all, big conferences in big cities can be lonely places if you are there by yourself. This year ELTABB members based in Berlin provided the perfect solution: ‘Dinner with a Berliner’. This excellent initiative relieved delegates of the worry of not speaking the language, and of not knowing where to go or who to go out with. All they needed to do was choose which type of restaurant they’d like to go to from those on offer on the notice board, sign up, and join the party. This was an excellent and much appreciated idea.

A conclusion

If you work in the field of Business English and can only attend one conference a year, this is the one to visit. You’ll not only keep up with what’s going on in Business English, you’ll be running at the front of the pack. BESIG is the Business English special interest group of the International Association of Teachers’ of English as a Foreign Language (IATEFL). More information about this conference, as well as plenty of photos from these conferences, can be found at

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