Teaching business English in the ESL classroom
Monday, February 24, 2020
This article is a continuation of a MultiBriefs article published in 2017.
Business English requires additional skills that go beyond the typical academic ESL courses.
Students may be good at using English in everyday situations, but business English, like academic English, requires specific content-related skills such as business vocabulary, idioms and cultural understanding (Magrath, D., Nov. 1, 2017).
Knowing to use the right words in the right business context is more important than ever. Ask yourself these questions concerning proper English usage in South Africa:
Do you know the difference between “organize” and “organise?” Do you believe “device” and “devise” are the same thing? Do you think a comma and a semicolon could be used interchangeably? Why is “talk about” considered informal language? How does one create cohesion in your writing? (WITS Language School, Aug. 8, 2018)
In South Africa students may not learn the correct style of business English to be successful.
With many pupils in South Africa receiving basic education in their mother tongue, many enter the business sector not knowing the basic rules of how to articulate an idea coherently or cohesively (Knowing the basics is not good enough anymore).
Proper business English is more important than ever with increased globalization. Perhaps the most difficult aspects of English writing are style and rhetoric. The transfer of cultural thought patterns from one linguistic base to another results in comments on student papers such as "loose ends, vague, or wordy.” The accepted patterns of English rhetoric must be taught through a systematic approach that gives the writers plenty of opportunity for revision and extensive outside reading.
Companies operating in different countries need a common language.
Today, many companies are recognizing the importance of English in the workplace as a way to create better internal and external communication, as well as creating uniformity in general forms of correspondence and business documents (Knowing the basics is not good enough anymore).
Here is good definition of a business ESL program:
English for Business: This program is usually designed for international students who want to gain entrance into an MBA program of business professionals who want to further develop their English (Gebhard, J., 2009).
The language taught in ESL classes needs to be relevant to the students’ interests. For business students, they need to get hands on experience with the various aspects of the field and go beyond mere textbook examples. A good exercise would be for them to research companies in their local area and practice problem solving in real time.
Thus, it is important to show students what they are learning is relevant to life today, to connect concepts learned in class to the “real world,” and to allow students to reflect on these matters (Mitchell, P., 2011).
Each professional field has its own “jargon” which contains specialized vocabulary and idioms. Business vocabulary differs from the typical words found in ESL readers. Advanced learners can read current issues of Businessweek, for example, to learn the words and idioms necessary for their future studies and potential jobs in their chosen fields.
Research comparing different spoken contexts reveals systemic variation in the ways that speakers use language for different communicative purposes based on situational factors (Staples, S., LaFlair, J. & Egbert, J., spring 2017).
Language use differs according to its purpose. Students going into business will need to learn the nuances of business English in order to “make the deal.” Also, students need to focus on specific tasks related to their proposed fields of study and careers.
ESL programs must prepare learners for these instructional tasks that require the ability to grasp the nature of learning and classroom work and are present across the curriculum. These tasks include memory, procedural, or routine tasks; comprehension and understanding; and expressing opinion. Examples include note taking, outlining and summarizing while preparing for tests, critically analyzing texts, and writing lab reports and business correspondence (Magrath, D., 2008).
Many ESL students planning to major in business and enter the business world need to understand business writing as opposed to the standard five-paragraph essayor documented research paper they are used to.
Pre-business and business majors may be good speakers but may be unable to transfer conversation into writing and may have difficulty transferring their own and others' ideas into a written assignment (Exercises to teach the nuances of business writing to ELLs).
For example, they will be writing about contracts, personnel issues, and expansion plans rather than academic subjects.
Contracts are an important part of business, and students need to be familiar with the idea.
1) Begin with a discussion on contracts with a few questions such as “Why are contracts so important in life today?” and “What difficulties do people have with contracts?” It’s always nice to have a few real-life contract disputes up your sleeve; a simple Google search of famous contract disputes will produce interesting results (ESL Right Now, February 2013).
Students can provide input on contracts they may have signed such as a lease or cable company agreement. Then, to make the discussion, try to find out if anyone had problems having a contract fulfilled.
Students who have some business experience already can talk about their own experiences and initiate discussion.
Ask the student to tell you a brief story or to share and experience with you. Alternately, you can ask him or her to talk about a specific topic related to something you are teaching (Teaching Adults, 2013).
Instructors can take the students’ experiences and observation and build a meaningful activity around them.
Write what the student says on the board, a piece of paper or a flip chart page. You could also type it into a computer. If the student makes a mistake, you can correct it. However, try to keep word choices and meaning as close as possible to what the student says (94).
Students need to be aware that there are differences between speech and writing, especially in formal business reports.
Spoken language, everywhere and always, undergoes continual change of which speakers may be relatively unaware. Written language, because of its permanence and standardization, shows slower and less sweeping changes; the spelling of English has changed much less than its pronunciation since Chaucer's time. This in turn is linked to the factors of formality and prestige (Bright, W., Oct. 6, 2006).
Teaching hint No. 2
Short choppy sentences in a business letter can be combined to improve the flow of ideas.
Activities in this sequence include giving students two sentences and asking them to use a variety of techniques to combine them into one. Scaffolds might include giving students a word bank or conjunctions to choose from, while the most complex version might ask students to write a sentence with an independent and dependent clause on Alexander Hamilton that uses a conjunction. A core goal of these activities is to use relevant content to help students reduce redundancy in their writing by combining sentences. It’s also an opportunity to work on syntax within the context of content objectives. Students are motivated by the desire to be understood (Schwartz, K., May 28, 2018).
Teaching hint No. 3
Reading articles in economics and business publications will be different for students used to reading stories and literary works in ESL or EAP programs. Pre-reading will help learners get started.
Invite students to share what they already know about a particular concept in a concept map prior to reading. This approach provides students with the concepts and words that they are about to encounter in the reading text as well as an overview of the content to be learned. Then, ask students to add information to their maps while reading to provide a visual aid for building on their prior knowledge. This could be an individual or whole-class assignment (Oronzio, M.,June 15, 2017).
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