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The 7 Truths of Business English Teaching

I read a great blog post by Seth Godin recently, entitled ‘selling nuts to squirrels’. In this post, Godin talks about the challenge marketers face when selling products across multiple markets.  The issues outlined revolve around how different world views result in different needs, different ways of perceiving products and, critically, different ways of talking and behaving in the same interaction.

This simple but rarely dwelt on observation has serious implications for how we instruct ESP learners. The language that will automatically be produced in any given interaction is greatly affected by how the speaker views the world. Therefore, it’s critical that our instruction takes account of this world view and ensures that the language we offer our learners correlates with their way of interacting with the world.

A perfect example is the language of negotiation. If you ask any teacher what they would teach in these situations, items such as conditionals, diplomatic language and softening technique (both lexical and phonological) will probably emerge.

However, does this decision take into account what the learner thinks about negotiating and how they wish to express themselves? Although this generic language may be used in a negotiation, will the learner use it? Many negotiation materials don’t take into account cultural or organisational styles or positions people take. It’s fundamental that we, the trainers, find these things out before instructing a functional task so that the language we offer is that which is most likely to add value to the learner’s workplace production. In short, does our instruction equate to the learner’s meaning.

This problem is also true when one thinks about presentations. Signposting is one of the most common items taught in any presentation lesson. However, analysing my own and others’ presentations, this generic language is actually very low frequency. What I struggle with when preparing and delivering a presentation is ensuring that my meaning is conveyed clearly to my audience. It’s the content that causes sleepless nights, not the structure.

Again, content and, most fundamentally, meaning is specific to individuals. Without starting by analysing what learners say and how this fails to express what they want to mean, we cannot be sure that our instruction will aid them the next time they prepare and give a presentation. Of course, generic materials and language cannot help us to achieve this.

In order to ensure language is meaningful, memorable and useful, it must be tailored not only to learner needs but also to learner worldview. Therefore, whenever a particular communicative situation is taught, to be as useful to learners as possible, it must be unique, speaking to the meaning that particular person wishes to express.

This realisation has led me towards developing the seven eternal truths of Business English teaching:

  1. All instruction in a business English classroom must start with the learner, their worldview and their language.
  2. Trainers should focus less on what learners say and more on what they mean.
  3. Needs analysis should focus on perspective and meaning as well as linguistic competence.
  4. Trainers must be knowledgeable about learners’ culture and industry, whether this be through experience or research.
  5. Feedback must focus on meaning rather than accuracy.
  6. Generic materials are incompatible with developing meaning and workplace performance.
  7. The assumption that we, as experts, know the language needed cheats the learner of opportunities to express meaning. We cannot know their meaning because we are not them.

I feel that if we put learner meaning at the centre of our classes, we will ensure maximum learner performance. However, a fundamental problem to this is that the learners, who do not have the benefit of educational theory, don’t always agree with us.

How do we ensure that learners schooled on ‘grammar Mc Nuggets’ accept an approach focussing on meaning?



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