Disrupting our definition of Business English in the 21st Century
In a recent Washington Post article entitled ‘The surprising thing Google learned about its employees – and what it means for today’s students’, it was reported that Google had carried out a survey into the key characteristics for achieving success as a Google employee. Surprisingly, knowledge of STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering and maths) did not appear first. Instead, the survey placed skills such as coaching, insight, empathy, critical thinking, problem solving, dealing with complex ideas at the top of the list.
As a Business English teacher and course book author, I have a natural interest in these emerging ‘soft skills’ which reflect the needs of the 21st century workplace skills. I feel it’s my job to make sure my course materials and the contents of my lessons reflect the English needed to support these emerging skills. However, I also feel that for sometimes Business English materials have resisted integrating these skills into course programmes because they don’t easily fit into our longstanding definition of what Business English is.
If we go back about 25 years, the prevailing definition of ‘Business English’ has been:
- Language: Like General English course it covered grammar, vocabulary, pronunciation, the four skills etc.
- Communication Skills: Unlike General English, Business English aimed to train students in how to present more effectively, how to run a meeting, how to negotiate etc.
- Professional content: Business English books also dealt with topics such as production processes or marketing and sales; in other words, we taught business concepts alongside the vocabulary required to talk about them.
Since then, this three-part definition has dominated the contents and structure of most Business English classrooms and courses. And yet, some of the new skills don’t fit comfortably into the definition. Where exactly would you place ‘insight’ or ‘empathy’ into the three categories? Do thinking skills (critical or creative) require their own category? Is it even the job of a Business English to ‘teach’ these items alongside English?
These were just some of the questions that confronted me when I returned to work on the second edition of Business Result. The first edition of Business Result was published exactly ten years ago and so it naturally reflected the three-part structure of language, communication skills and professional content. But on returning to re-author the materials a decade later, it was apparent to me that we needed to incorporate the demands of newer 21st Century workplace skills. It’s the same challenge that faces many Business English teachers today – that we strive to prepare our learners not only with English but also with the professional skills they will need in the next few decades.
On March 16th Oxford University Press holds its first Business English Online Conference and my webinar, entitled ‘Teaching more than English’, will assess the kinds of professional skills needed to succeed in the 21st century. We’ll consider how we might integrate them into our course design and lessons, and our approach to teaching and training our students to operate more effectively. The session encourages you to participate and comment based on your own experiences and I’ll also share some practical ideas to include in your Business English lessons.
John Hughes is an award-winning author with over 30 ELT titles including the course book series ‘Business Result’ (Oxford) and the resource series ‘ETpedia’ (Pavilion). He has trained teachers at all levels of experience and background. In particular, he specializes in materials writing and offers consultancy and training in this area. His blog is www.elteachertrainer.com.