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After completing college or university, you get your first job and you begin to climb the corporate ladder.
As the years go by, you begin to notice that English is becoming more and more important to your job. Your company is expanding and you have to speak to clients all over the world.
Whether they come from Asia, Europe, the Middle East or elsewhere, you are expected to communicate with them in English. What’s more, you know that if you want a promotion or to get a new job, you will be competing against other candidates who speak good English.
This comes just at the time that you are beginning to forget the English you learned at school.
You realise that it is time to brush up on your English once again.
You realise that there are many ways to improve your English skills. There are courses and websites that feature General English, English for tests such as IELTS and something called “Business English”.
Business English seems like the one for you. After all, your work is the reason you wish to improve your language skills.
But is a Business English course really the best way forward for you?
Let’s explore what Business English actually is, and whether it is the best option for your career.
What actually is “Business English”?
In simple terms, Business English is the type of English used for work. You use Business English when you email a client, give a business presentation or present a sales pitch.
We expect Business English to be more formal than General English. Business English has a specialised vocabulary, with words such as globalisation, outsourcing and onboarding.
When you write a report or an email for your company, you are expected to use a certain format and formality.
However, if you work for a company where English is spoken, you will be using General English (or even “Global English”) most of the time.
Let’s look at a typical office discussion:
Employee 1: What time is the client getting here?
Employee 2: He should be here in around half an hour.
Employee 1: Which one of our products is he interested in?
Employee 2: He wants to know more about our products.
Employee 1: Do you need me to help you talk to him?
Employee 2: No thanks. I know you’re busy and I can handle it by myself.
As you can see, all the language in this exchange could also be used in a normal, everyday conversation at home:
Husband: What time is your uncle getting here?
Wife: He should be here in around half an hour.
Husband: Is he staying for dinner?
Wife: Yes, he wants to try my macaroni.
Husband: Do you need me to help you fix dinner?
Wife: No thanks. I know you’re busy and I can handle it by myself.
Lots of people think they need to study “Business” English in order to get a promotion or a new job, when the reality is that “Business English” really isn’t that different to “English”.
Do you need Business English to get a good job?
Employers, in general, are much more interested in your level of fluency than whether or not you speak “Business English”. They will want to know that you have the ability to communicate effectively enough to carry out your job. They may wish to know your CEFR or IELTS level.
However, if your job involves a lot of writing, you may need to know how to format an email, proposal or a report.
Additionally, if your job is technical in nature, you may need to know a lot of specialised terms. For instance, if you work for a bank, you may need to know terms like “money laundering” and “base lending rate”.
It’s not rocket science, and these are things that you can quickly and easily learn without doing a Business English course.
What would you learn on a Business English course?
A typical Business English course covers the same components as a General English course: listening, speaking, grammar, reading and writing. Some courses place more emphasis on writing.
One major difference is that these skills would be practised within a business context.
For example, on a General English course, you might do a listening activity where you hear two friends talking about buying a new car. On a Business English course, you might hear two coworkers talking about buying office supplies.
We’ll leave you to decide what subject you would find more interesting...
A Business English course may focus on skills you need for your job, such as persuading a customer to buy something. A General English course might also cover this skill, but in an everyday context, such as persuading your brother to get a new car.
A Business English course usually covers grammar because you will wish to minimise the grammar mistakes you make when you write.
Key features of Business English
Some key topics that are covered on a Business English course are:
- writing business correspondence
- presenting information clearly
- dealing with customers
- giving instructions
- discussing finance
Do you need to take a Business English course to learn "Business English"?
When you first enter an English-speaking workplace, you may be confused by jargon such as “stakeholders” and “KPIs”*. However, remember that you might be just as confused by business jargon in your own language!
In fact, you can quickly learn the jargon and technical terms that you need during the course of your work. You might find that many or most of these terms are even used in your own language, and it is very unlikely that you would miss out on a promotion because you don’t know “business” vocabulary.
What about writing reports and emails?
In reality, every workplace has their own style of report writing. Even if you have learnt report writing on a Business English course, you will still need to change the way you do reports to fit your company’s style and requirements.
As for emails, just like technical jargon, you can easily pick it up. The important thing is to use formal language (not texting language such as “u” for “you”), write clearly and be polite.
In fact, business writing is becoming less formal as executives prefer a more friendly style when writing these days.
Just as people went from sending letters to sending emails, many executives are now using message services like WhatsApp to communicate instead of email. When sending a WhatsApp message, it doesn’t seem right to be overly formal (although you should still be clear and polite).
*A stakeholder is a person with an interest in something, such as a manager who is involved in a project. KPIs are key performance indicators, a way of measuring whether an employee is successful in his or her work. These are examples of corporate jargon – terms that you only hear in an office environment.
What should English learners do about it?
If you really feel that learning Business English would be helpful for you, especially if you need to do a lot of technical writing (and perhaps your employer has even offered to pay for it), then there are many Business English courses for every level.
For the majority of learners, however, even people whose main motivation is to get a better job, there will be better options.
If you are feeling independent, it’s perfectly possible to learn English on your own. If you do want to take a course, you can decide between English courses, online classes and getting a tutor. And if you want a mixture of the two (and one that will certainly not mention business jargon), then options such as the Leonardo English Academy are worth considering.
The bottom line is that Business English courses are often expensive and unnecessary for most learners of English.
Implications for English teachers
English teachers do need to be aware that many of their adult learners need English for work. They can factor this in when designing their General English courses.
A General English course that sets aside a little time for dealing with workplace issues and themes may be much more helpful than a pure Business English course.
It’s always worth explaining this to students, as the language learning industry likes to encourage people that a Business English course is necessary when it often isn’t.
There are so many Business English courses out there because it is what people think that they want. In reality, there is not a significant difference between “Business” and “Normal” English.
Even if you conclude that Business English is the right way forward for you, you still need General English in order to improve your vocabulary and social interactions.