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Why teaching culture is part of teaching Business English

John Hughes looks at how to approach teaching about culture in business English. John hosted a webinar on the topic of Intercultural communication in Business English on 17th October 2012.

I once taught a German student who needed to make regular telephone calls to counterparts in the UK. To help him, I introduced some language for making small talk at the beginning of the call. He accepted what I was suggesting but admitted: “I don’t like making this conversation on the phone. It isn’t efficient.”  Like my student, many of your business English students will also have lots of experience of working with many different cultures so it’s a ripe and useful topic for classroom discussion.

It’s also a crucial area. Many business relationships struggle, not because one person has lower level English but because there are misunderstood cultural differences. For example, take the business person who arrives at the exact time printed on the agenda and is kept waiting by another person who assumes that the time on the agenda is approximate, not rigid. Then, once these two people are in the meeting room, one of them wants to make plenty of small talk but the other wants to get down to business. One of them wants a working lunch with a sandwich while the other would prefer a three-course meal at a good restaurant that will extend through to the middle of the afternoon.

As well as working WITH different cultures, more and more of our business students are working FOR different cultures. In other words, different companies have different company cultures and different ‘ways of working.’ One company might have a top-down structure where people wait for decisions from head office. Other companies reward initiative and decision-making at the local branch level. Like moving from one country to another, there is a kind of culture shock that follows a move from one company to another. These company cultural differences also affect the language used. For example, the internal report written in English at one company might require a much more formal register than a similar report at another.

As teachers, how we approach ‘culture’ can vary. In the past, business English course books tended towards a ‘prescriptive’ approach. They included lists of tips for students that state rules like: ‘In country X it’s polite to use your host’s full title and don’t ask about their family.’ Personally, I’m not convinced by this approach.  It implies that within one country or one company, everyone responds uniformly. But this is not the case. Regions within a country will have different customs and people within companies will have different personalities and expectations.  I think we should take a more ‘descriptive’ approach. Students should be encouraged to describe how cultures vary in their experience and talk about their strategies for coping and dealing with different cultures. Into this, the job of the teacher is then to input the kind of language that will be appropriate for such situations.

I will be looking in more detail in the issues raised in this article and suggesting classroom activities you can use to teach language for intercultural communication in the forthcoming webinar on 17th October.

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Keeping ahead in uncertain times

Jeremy Comfort discusses the role that Business English teachers can play in developing a culture of innovation. Jeremy will be talking about Business and Culture at the BESIG annual conference in Dubrovnik on 19 November 2011.

As the storm clouds darken even further over Europe, it makes one reflect on our destiny. Economic power is shifting inexorably towards Asia and China in particular.

It seems that Europeans must accept a diminishing role.  The jury is still out on America as to whether they can recharge their batteries and once again be the strongest motor in the world economy.

A deciding factor will be technological innovation and where it comes from. Although Europeans have often been the initiators in terms of original research it has been the Americans and Japanese who have commercialized most of the big breakthroughs over the last fifty years. So the big question is whether the emerging economies can also take a lead in this area.

So what’s this got to do with Business English? I think the context is critical if we are to make our contributions beneficial for our clients. One of the ways into this is through looking at the culture of innovation.

I have been working closely with a small German fan-making company which is making big inroads into emerging markets. But they also have challenges in terms of adapting their innovations to these new markets especially in terms of the price–value relationship. On the other hand, the Chinese have started to really talk up the critical role innovation will play if they are to make another step in the development of their economy.

In both cases, they need to start by reflecting on where they currently stand – in other words, be mindful about their current business cultures. I often encourage my clients to use SWOT to focus on their current situation – what strengths do they have, what are their weaknesses, where are the opportunities, and what is going to get in their way (threats)?  My German client would certainly identify research and quality as key strengths, and a lack of adaptability and maybe humility as weaknesses. Their Chinese partners would probably see adaptability and speed as strong points, and maybe a lack of consistency as an obstacle.

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Tinker Tailor: Some thoughts on cultural perspective

Shady figure walking the streets at nightIn this post, Jeremy Comfort discusses cultural perspectives as seen in the media. Jeremy will be talking about the importance of culture in business at the BESIG conference in Dubrovnik.

I went last night to see Thomas Alfredson’s interpretation of John Le Carré’s Tinker Tailor, Soldier, Spy. I loved it, but was struck that this feeling was by no means universal. Last year another very British film – The King’s Speech – swept all before it at the Oscars while Tinker Tailor failed to win a mention at the recent Cannes festival. The King’s Speech fitted well with many foreigners’ perception of Britain – royalty, class and pluck in the face of adversity, whereas Tinker Tailor was stuck in the rather grubby mire of Cold War England.

On the large and small screen, Britain has done well selling its nostalgia for a more glorious past. Many years ago, Chariots of Fire took Hollywood by storm and more recently Downton Abbey (another upstairs-downstairs drama) is being sold to networks across the world. France has mined different veins but reinforced stereotypes in the films of Chabrol which usually portray the breakdown of bourgeois life and also a certain whimsicality in films like Amélie.

Here in the UK, things are beginning to stir. Fiction and the small screen is being invaded by very culturally specific offerings from Scandinavia – the Stieg Larsson Millenium trilogy and Wallander from Sweden, the gripping TV series The Killing from Denmark and the thrillers of Jo Nesbo from Norway. We have also been much absorbed by series imports from the States – notably The Wire and Mad Men.

Of course we like them firstly because they are good – strong stories, well-acted. But I think we also like them because they can give us an insight into a different culture, even if we still need to guard against stereotyping. Britain has been very slow to embrace foreign films with subtitles (I, on the other hand, have to admit to even watching the Baltimore-based series The Wire with the subtitles switched on!) but it seems finally we are changing. This sort of cultural curiosity is what we need to develop in all our Business English students.

International business is breaking out from the Anglo-Saxon hegemony which has dominated for so long. Companies are increasingly appointing their new generation of leaders from emerging markets. Business English also needs to break the mould. The dominant models of British and American English have led to an over-dominant cultural framework. We are beginning to draw on new perspectives and these need to be from non-native trainers and writers from the emerging economies.

The business world is changing very rapidly and we all need to keep our heads up and alive to these changes.

Do you think Business English materials are sufficiently international? What kind of foreign imports in your media do you benefit or suffer from?

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What’s culture got to do with Tesco’s decision to withdraw from Japan?

tug of warIn light of the recent news concerning Tesco’s withdrawal from Japan, Jeremy Comfort considers the impact of culture on business. Jeremy will be speaking more about this topic at the annual BESIG conference in Dubrovnik on 19th November 2011.

Having spent several years building their business in Japan, the UK’s biggest retailer has decided to sell up.  Investors have been disappointed with the return from this part of the business as Tesco have found it difficult to achieve the scale that make their UK tills ring constantly. There are also concerns about their much larger investment in the US where the Fresh & Easy chain is yet to make a profit.

Tesco has been successful in other markets, notably Eastern Europe and SE Asia, so what has gone wrong?

It seems that the Tesco way has worked well in emerging economies such as Thailand, Malaysia and China but run into problems in more developed markets like Japan, US and Taiwan. This is a recognisable phenomenon that I have come across with other international businesses. So called majority cultures such as the US and Japan are far more resistant to change than the developing world which is open to new ideas and eager to embrace opportunities.  In Europe multinationals often find it easier to pilot new products or systems in Hungary or Poland than France or Germany.

This analysis gives us an insight into some key factors which leaders need to consider when deciding on strategy. It also provides a bridge to a set of competencies which are needed by all Business English learners who are working internationally. Companies need to know when to push their own agenda / approach and when to adapt or pull towards the local way. Individuals need to develop “push skills”, such as focus on goals, autonomy, resilience and some approaches to influencing, but also “pull skills”, such as active listening, rapport building, openness and acceptance*.

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How ESL and EFL classrooms differ

Filling in formsIn her first guest post for OUP, Kate Bell, a writer and researcher, talks us through some of the practical differences between ESL and EFL classrooms.

You may think that teaching English is teaching English, whether you’re doing it in a Thai village or a suburban California school. And you’d be right, sort of. Many of the same textbooks, lesson plans, and online resources serve in both cases. Many English teachers go from one type of teaching position to the other, and back again. But there are fundamental differences between ESL and EFL classrooms. Understanding them will make you a more effective teacher.

An ESL classroom is in a country where English is the dominant language. The students are immigrants or visitors. The class is usually of mixed nationalities, so students don’t share a native language or a common culture. Outside the classroom, students have a specific, practical need for English, and ample opportunity to use it. Students have extensive daily exposure to English-speaking culture, although their understanding may be limited by their language skills.

An EFL classroom is in a country where English is not the dominant language. Students share the same language and culture. The teacher may be the only native English speaker they have exposure to. Outside of the classroom students have very few opportunities to use English. For some, learning English may not have any obvious practical benefit.  Students have limited exposure to English-speaking culture, most often through a distorted lens like TV or music.

Based on these definitions, we can see that there are important differences in the student population. Effective lesson planning must take them into account.

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