In this article taken from ENGLISH TEACHING professional magazine, Alex Case makes the case that taking an interest in his business students’ fields of expertise can pay personal and professional dividends.
Most guides to teaching Business English start off by assuring teachers that they don't have to know anything about business to teach Business English – 'You’re not teaching them about business, you're teaching them how to speak about it', or words to that effect. Whilst this is true and is worth telling a teacher who is about to teach Business English or ESP for the first time, I think too many of us hang onto this idea throughout our teaching careers and never get to know anything about business or the other specialist areas of our students.
Good for the teacher, good for the student
Not only does this exclude us from teaching pre-experience ESP students (probably the biggest-growing market in EFL), who do need to learn about the concepts as well as the language, but for me it also means missing out on one of the chief rewards of this type of teaching: really learning about something from your students that it would be difficult to learn elsewhere.
It can, of course, be useful for your students and interesting for you if they explain their job and their sector in the simplest possible terms. However, unless you are the kind of person who loves arcane knowledge, if your first contact with the world of business is someone explaining the ins and outs of accountancy in their second language, it is probably going to be enough to put you off for life. Anyway, you can still feign ignorance and get them to explain it in basic terms even if you're an expert. Doing vocabulary exercises or a reading from an English language teaching coursebook is not generally the most stimulating way to introduce yourself to subjects like marketing theory.
So here are some suggestions of how to start taking an interest in what your students do in a nice, easy way, so that next time you can ask about their jobs with genuine interest (and even some understanding). Most of the examples given here are for the world of business, but they are easily adaptable to other areas of ESP.
The first time I ever stopped in front of the business section of a bookshop was after I started teaching Business English and started to worry about my complete lack of knowledge of that field. I can't say that first impressions were very reassuring, but I quickly spotted the best books to start with – the ones that look like paperback novels.
Books on great business swindles, crimes and disasters are a good start as the best ones read like a thriller. You don't realise how much you learnt about banking when you were reading about money-laundering until you go back into class and what your students say starts to make sense. Luckily, recent history has been full of great business scandals and business failures.
- Newspapers and magazines
If you don't have time to read a whole book, then newspapers and magazines are the best bet. The Economist is great if you have any interest in politics or international affairs, but only aim to read fifty or sixty per cent of it. A much lighter start is the weekend edition of The Financial Times, where there are even sports and leisure pages (always with a sneaky financial slant). Even better, there is the annual Fortune list of the world's richest people, something that almost everyone finds fascinating.
If you never even pick up a newspaper, try some business-related fiction. John Grisham often writes about the little guy against corporate America and ends up giving as much detail on the corporation as he does on the hero.
If you like self-help books, there is a vast range of business books that fall into this category.
There are, of course, endless biographies of famous businesspeople, and many of them spend as much time on their colourful lives as their businesses. Richard Branson's autobiography is a good example.
There are also lots of history books with a business bias, such as accounts of the South Sea Bubble, the world's first major financial scandal.
Last but not least, and perhaps even best of all, start with comics. The 'Dilbert' comic strips and books are, as far as I'm concerned, the funniest thing around – and, again, you hardly notice how much real business you are learning.
Material here is more difficult to find, but you could look out for films and TV series based around the world of business.
More dedication is needed for this one, but if you are tired of doing readings in class about industries that seem inherently boring, try researching a business that you are interested in. If football is your thing, you will be surprised how much a text on the whole 'industry' throws up useful business vocabulary for any kind of student. The students can then recycle the language by telling you the similarities and differences between your chosen area (e.g. health foods, sailing holidays) and the one they work in.
If you are not ready to risk your house by trading on the stockmarket as yet, you can play a version of 'Fantasy Football League' with stocks and shares. You and your friends all have an imaginary $10,000,000 to invest and the person who has made the most out of it at the end of six months wins the real (but more modest) pot of money you all put in. You'd be surprised how quickly you start talking like a Wall Street hot-shot. Once you've tried it with friends, you can also try it out on a class of students.
By making a little effort, you can not only make your Business English classes more interesting for you, but by showing your students you are making an effort to learn something, you have a bit more moral weight when nagging them about doing their homework. All the suggestions above can also be great for students who need to learn as much about business as about English – for example, a translator I taught recently who was learning things in English she had no idea about in Polish.