I used to be very sceptical of courses that purported to teach business English. Even a long time ago when I had ‘only’ 10 years of teaching experience I wrongly believed that the English language was just that – a uniform language and who would possibly have the audacity to categorize and separate certain lexis of English and call it somehow ‘different’ from English itself? I admit that I was wrong and I would like to discuss the authenticity and merits of business English.
English is just English! The grammar contents of a general English book and those of a business English course book follow remarkably similar patterns. They are practically identical. Was this not proof that ‘business English’ was not, in fact, a real thing?
Let’s learn the Present Continuous:
General: I can’t talk. I’m cooking dinner.
Business: I can’t talk. I’m finishing a report.
General: If I have the car, I’ll be able to go to the party.
Business: If I close the deal, I’ll get a bonus.
or Reported Speech
General: Bob said he would come to the lesson.
Business: Bob said he would come to the meeting.
This all just looked to me like a big marketing scam to sell more books and develop new products (courses). Let us look at why there is more to business English than meets the eye.
In the business world, and by that I mean in real company documents such as employee handbooks and various kinds of contracts, a very specific type of language is used. It is not enough to suggest that it is just ‘formal English. It is often a unique subset of formal English.
General: We need to do it like this from now on.
Business: We need to implement a new policy going forward.
General: We need to make sure you do it like this.
Business: We need to ensure compliance.
General: I need an answer next time we get together.
Business: I need a comprehensive report at our next meeting.
A lot of the words in the business column also fall into a subset of ‘formal’ English unique to the business community. (implement, compliance)
But there can also be a lot of colloquial business-type jargon.
These sentences might be heard at laidback meetings, briefings or even while hanging around the watercooler.
Let’s put that on the backburner for a bit.
We need to come back to that point later.
Let’s let that idea simmer a bit.
We need to come back to that point later (after some mental digestion)
I can help you unpack that.
I can help explain that.
We should finish the report so tomorrow we can hit the ground running.
…so we can start fast with little preparation.
What can you bring to the table?
What can you contribute to the discussion/project?
We need to get all our ducks in a row.
We need to get all our affairs finalized and in order.
So in terms of vocabulary there is a big difference in the type of language needed to discuss business. At all levels of English the rules governing English grammar are the same and need to be internalised as one’s English progresses. I am not aware of any study that has been conducted but I believe it would be very interesting to see if business English naturally lends itself to specific grammatical constructions. When used for business purposes do speakers favour certain grammatical tenses, conditionals, reported speech or modal verbs etc. more than when speaking in more everyday contexts? That could be an interesting research paper.
In a business English course book a learner is going to have a chance to talk about more things that are relevant to their job. The course book material may not always align with the nature of a business person’s job and things become quickly outdated but the discussions generated will leave the students the opportunity to share the language they know and that which comes up where they work. The other day I had a student tell me that her English boss is always using cool expressions like ‘Let’s call it a day.’ or ‘Thanks for bringing that up.’ (‘bringing sth up’ isn’t necessarily business jargon but perhaps it does have a higher frequency in the working world).
Have you ever taken part in a business English course? Have I made you a believer in the concept of business English? Let us know in the comments below.
Audacity – boldness, arrogant confidence
Scam – a ploy or plot to cheat someone usually out of their money
Lend itself – suits the needs of another (studying Linguistics lends itself to a career in teaching language)