Specific Business English

SBE Publishers

To explain specific business English (SBE), it is best to show what SBE is not. A popular ELT publisher has created a coursebook titled “Accounting English,” which ostensibly seems to be a great SBE material for accountants. Upon further review, this coursebook, while using all sorts of terminology emanating from income statements and balance sheets, did not once mention two very important accounting words: “debit” and “credit.”

In this paper's author's opinion, the publisher avoided these words because they have very profound and complicated technical meanings that are impossible to explain with a simple dictionary definition. To fully understand how these terms are used in accounting, the teacher would have to take a beginner's course in accounting. Most ELT teachers don't have this training. So they could never present a course in accounting English that had these terms as a major part of the syllabus.

In essence, this mainstream publisher—to justify his development and marketing costs for this particular set of coursebooks—really can't afford to discourage so many teachers from putting this material in the classroom. While leaving out the terms “debit” and “credit” from the activities provides engagement from many ELT teachers, this coursebook can only engage accountants at a basic level. For these learners, the lessons are not as effective as the title suggests.

Despite its shortcomings, this accounting English course still has an important purpose. It would better serve accountants learning English than the GBE coursebooks. So it should probably be scored a little higher in SBE than the general coursebooks.

But this “Accounting English” coursebook should stay mostly within the realm of GBE.

GBE/SBE/PBE rating: 70/25/5.

So what should a publisher do to get a high SBE rating for a specific SBE topic? The answer is quite simple: mimic the textbooks English speaking universities are using and add some language building skills around these lessons. Unfortunately this is not practical for mainstream publishers. For starters, there are many different kinds of accountants, each having their own specific needs. A tax accountant specializing in corporate tax minimization in the European Union has a much different set of English learning needs than a managerial accountant in an automotive factory. A major publisher really wouldn't make a profit creating specific material to address the needs of all these very diverse groups of accountants, let alone business people. The potential audience for each need is so small it could never recover the costs of mimicking the textbooks and adding some language building components.

The BE profession should not expect much leadership from the mainstream publishers for SBE material—especially for those niches of SBE with a small sales potential. The publishing profits are not there for true leadership.

SBE Teachers

The SBE void is being filled by the teachers. BE teachers and schools get individualized contracts to fulfill their clients' specific business English needs. Quite often they use authentic text or videos and build language lessons around that authentic material.

Many BE teachers have very little business experience; others have quite a bit of formal training or practical experience. Both groups are quick to defend their position why business knowledge and experience is or is not necessary to teach SBE effectively. There is no research to prove the actual impact having a business trained BE teacher in the classroom has on the learning experience. Maybe it is minimal; maybe it is quite significant.

Both groups of BE teachers have one thing in common: Neither is happy with their pay. They seem to be paid a little more than regular ELT teachers in their localities, but far from what other professionals are earning. As well, SBE teachers are either paid poorly or not at all for their prep work to build those customized lessons. The BE profession is quick to blame either a lack of marketing skills on teachers or a cultural attitude on the value of BE training. But the real reasons for the low pay are much deeper than that.

The first reason for the low pay is that, by being paid so low, the effort the teachers can put into those customized lessons is limited. The teachers really can't afford to put in hours and hours to thoroughly understand the business topic and how the learners relate to that topic. This time limitation leads to, at best, lessons of mediocre quality, and the customers really have no desire to pay more for this level of quality.

Many SBE teachers will not be happy with this statement. But many experienced and successful ELT, ESP, and BE developers probably invest at least 10 hours in development for one hour of classroom activities. But shorting the development process to one or two hours per classroom hour cannot produce lessons of high quality. And with individual SBE teachers quick to prepare custom lessons on so many diverse business topics (with or without some general or specific business training), they cannot possibly produce the same quality of lessons as a team of two specialists in language training and two specialists in the business topic of interest.

The second reason is that creating new lessons for different SBE topics satisfies a creative desire for many SBE teachers. Like most musicians and landscape painters, SBE teachers sacrifice life earnings to be employed in the very creative field of BE teaching. Despite the low pay, many ELT teachers are still attracted to the BE profession for the creative experience. This leads to an oversupply of SBE teachers, who truly are providing some additional skills than ELT and GBE teaching. It is this oversupply of creative people that also helps keep the price down.

This creative nature of SBE may also be hampering the quality of SBE development. Often SBE teachers prefer to develop their own mediocre material over using higher quality material from experienced publishers with more resources for development. Because of this, publishers usually choose not to publish SBE training material—even if they know they can create something obviously superior.

SBE Teacher Position

Most SBE teachers would believe that they fit high in the SBE corner of the GBE/SBE/PBE triangle. But the truth is that unless they have some great business knowledge in all the topics they teach for, they can't address all the specific English needs of their clients. It is probably safe to say that many SBE teachers are somewhere between GBE and total SBE, probably closer to GBE.

So what would constitute nearly full SBE, such as a rating of 5/95/5? Perhaps we could define this condition as when native English speaking business people are willingly taking the same course alongside business English learners. In other words, these are actual business courses in the English language.

More than a few BE teachers have moved into teaching specialized business courses. Their experience as a BE teacher helps them understand the L2 learner better than an expert with perhaps more credentials than the former BE teacher. And these former BE teachers seem to be earning better pay than the all purpose SBE teachers, mostly because they have settled on one or two aspects of BE training and become very good at it.

Any statement with regards to BE teachers' pay in this paper is only an anecdotal assessment of the author's perspective of watching the BE profession interact on the Internet. There may be other opinions, but the fact is that no salary summary of BE teachers' pay has ever been conducted. Nearly all other professions and trades have their members participate anonymously with their salaries or wages, so its members have an indication of what their skills are truly worth in the marketplace. When the BE profession decides to conduct its own salary survey, then it will be in a better position to understand the forces that are shaping BE training today.

The SBE Learner

As discussed in the SBE teacher section, learners are not likely getting the SBE exposure they would really like to have in their classroom. The resources needed in the BE profession—high quality teaching material and very knowledgeable teachers about the specific subjects—are not there. So mediocrity has become acceptable for the learners, for such mediocrity in SBE is still preferable than the best GBE that has been published.

When learners' English is sufficiently advanced, they will take training from a business course in the English language to completely fulfill their SBE needs.

But until the learners develop their English ability to take such business courses, they (or the people paying their training costs) cannot justify paying a high price for this mediocre SBE training. Earnings for SBE teachers will be limited for the foreseeable future.


DVBE has only one module that has a somewhat high SBE score in the GBE/SBE/PBE paradigm. Stan's Tents is a fictitious marketing case study, designed to expose BE learners to a lot of marketing vocabulary. But where it actually fits between GBE and SBE would depend a lot on the audience.

For learners who have taken marketing courses in their own language or are already working in marketing, the business concepts of Stan's Tents will be easily understood. When compared to GBE coursebooks, Stan's Tents is indeed more specialized for these learners. When compared to Marketing English textbooks from the mainstream publishers (who are catering to the business capacity of the average ELT teacher), Stan's Tents is more advantageous for these learners. When compared to high level marketing courses in the English language, Stan's Tents is quite simplistic and does not cover some of the advanced marketing terminology many marketers would need. For these learners, the GBE/SBE/PBE rating would be about 40/40/20.

But there's a second group of learners where this rating would be different. Engineers often find themselves in business situations, but lack formal training and experience. Stan's Tents would give this group some useful marketing training as well as language acquisition. This group of new marketing learners would probably rate Stan's Tents as 15/65/20.

Learners will realize that Stan's Tents also has a low rating in PBE. Most of the module focuses on reading a fictitious case study, and working through its vocabulary lists and comprehension questions. But there is a small half-hour activity where learner groups can build their own marketing plan for their product or service (in English, of course and using the vocabulary from the reading), which would constitute the PBE of this module. In other words, there is a PBE component to Stan's Tents, but it is small. The rating of X/X/20 would let learners know the extent of PBE. Some learners just don't like simulations, and the 20 PBE rating would comfort them that there won't be a lot of business performance in a classroom with Stan's Tents. While those learners who like to practice English with simulations should look elsewhere for their needs.

NEXT: Performance Business English (PBE)

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