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The Business of Business English

What's the future of business English training? Perhaps this future can be predicted by the marketplace's response to a recent innovation in BE training. To build this prediction, this essay will summarize the three popular forms of BE training, the innovation, the responses from both the teachers and learners to this innovation, and the series of vicious circles that is hampering the betterment of this profession.

The field of business English training can be divided into three categories: (1) course books, (2) special needs, and (3) business training in the English language.

Most mainstream ELT publishers have a line of BE course books to complement their regular ELT products. The course books are artistically laid out, which helps justifies the cost the students pay for these books. However, the publisher still needs high volume sales to make a profit on its BE line. To get volume sales, the publisher makes this product assessable to as many teachers as possible. Therefore the content is developed such that many regular ELT teachers can present the material quite easily and competently, which means the business content is only superficially addressed. The publishers also develop the course book material so that little prep time and classroom management skills are needed from the teacher. Although this approach has built many successful lines of regular ELT training, many BE learners are not getting what they want from this kind of BE training.

This unmet need has led to a second kind of BE training: “special needs.” These trainers identify specific areas of business English, which can vary from writing emails to practicing presentations to particular technical needs such as human resources English or accounting English. To satisfy the technical needs, these trainers usually invest great time into finding and modifying existing authentic English material, creating vocabulary lists, comprehension quizzes, and gap filling activities to supplement the authenticity. The extra prep time is not usually compensated for; such teachers justify the unpaid development time as lessons that could be used later for a similar special need contract.

Like the course book teachers, special needs BE teachers usually do not have much experience or formal training in business. When this lack of business talents is coupled with unpaid development time, the quality of the classroom activity cannot be the effective learning experience it should be. This mediocre quality is evident in that many special needs BE teachers complain about their poor pay, citing some cultural barrier as the reason for not being paid more (see http://www.guardian.co.uk/education/2011/nov/08/business-english-lacks-professionalism). The real truth is perhaps that the customers are only getting fair value for the training despite the great time investment the instructor has gone to prepare those special lessons.

Some BE instructors do acquire some business skills. Being categorized with all those BE teachers with minimal business skills usually means not getting a premium wage for their services. So these more ambitious instructors often move into the field of “business training in the English language” usually focusing on just one or two specialized business topics such as cross cultural exchange to basic marketing to negotiation. They compete with acknowledged experts for training contracts, but with their language teaching experience, they do have an advantage in relating to the L2 learner over the experts. However it should be noted that such BE instructors are more of business teachers than English teachers, even though many learners are improving both business and language skills. These teachers are usually paid quite well, indicating that the customer has found more value than with the course book and special needs teachers.

Several years ago, Dave Volek's Business English (DVBE) was introduced to the business English marketplace. It was designed around two perceived unmet needs in business English training. First, DVBE is a series of simulations that put learners into some very dynamic conversation to understand and resolve the simulation. While the DVBE business content is definitely higher than the course books, it is still quite comprehensible for most BE learners and teachers—if they are willing to invest into a little learning curve. Second, DVBE emphasizes “numbers English” requiring learners to translate the English into some basic business calculations, an aspect of the English language that is not formally taught in the ELT classroom. No mainstream publisher is challenging learners in these two ways.

DVBE has other great features. First, free online listening activities were also developed to complement the classroom activities, which should ease the learning curve of the classroom simulation. Second, DVBE was written to a realistic level of English in the business world. Intermediate level learners will struggle with the material, but the world already has many intermediate level learners struggling with business communications: they should get more classroom practice with high level English with an experienced teacher to guide them. Thus a DVBE classroom should encompass intermediate, upper intermediate, and advanced learners interacting with each other, as communicating with these differing English abilities should be regarded as important skill. Third, DVBE also provides a forum for learners to build their confidence that they can communicate some rather complicated ideas with their broken English. And last, DVBE provides just enough business training in each module for that instructor to present that module reasonably well.

So how does DVBE fit within the three market segments of BE training? DVBE could supplement and supplant the course book approach quite well, giving learners in these programs much more dynamic classroom sessions. Some DVBE modules could fit into a few specific needs of business, but the DVBE line is far from meeting even a significant number of the many special needs. As for the business training in the English language, the business concepts in DVBE are too simplified to be of use for learners develop their business skills in these areas. In essence, DVBE is best used in the course book approach.

DVBE has had a fair exposure in the marketplace. About 20,000 visitors downloaded the two modules that were available for free download and classroom trial. To the publisher's knowledge, neither of these modules was ever tried in a classroom. At least 1,000,000 visitors have taken a quick listen to the online listening activities. While about 1% did spend a half hour or more with the listening activities, there is no evidence of learners returning to finish the 10 hours of listening or of any word-of-mouth recommendations. What is all this rejection telling the business English profession?

It would be easy to conclude that DVBE is not a worthwhile BE program, hence the marketplace has punished its publisher appropriately. However when most BE teachers inspect this program, very few would find it difficult to say it has rather poor language-building capacity for business people: all six modules could find a place somewhere in BE training. Instead the teachers will be looking at the extra prep time, the extra basic business skills, and extra leadership to conduct the classroom simulations. All these extras are too much for all teachers who have taken a look at DVBE. They have concluded that the learners' enhanced conversation experience and more exposure to numbers English are not worth the instructor's extra effort.

The rejection of the online DVBE listening activities is telling something about the state of the BE learners. Compared to the more popular online BE activities, the DVBE activities require more concentration, more business analysis, and more critical thinking from the learners. There is definitely much more “numbers English.” One could easily conclude that these activities have reached far beyond the learners' capacities, and hence the learners have had good reason to reject these activities. However, the technical nature of these listening activities is still quite basic business—and the learners are eventually going to find themselves in international business situations where they would need concentration, business analysis, and critical thinking to at least the same degree the DVBE listening activities provide. So why are BE learners rejecting this unique opportunity?

One hypothesis is that ELT learners have been conditioned to having “easy” English lessons because the ELT business is designed to accommodate less ambitious learners to keep them paying their fees. Hence, usual ELT lessons are not technically challenging. So when more ambitious learners encounter a higher level of technical challenge in an English-learning environment like DVBE, they are taken out of their comfort zone for English training. But when these same learners are faced with a real international business situation or a real business course, they readily accept the technical challenge—with their limited language skills—that comes with that situation. Yet, for some reason, BE learners still expect to be coddled when learning English. Such coddling is not part of the DVBE listening experience.

The mindsets of the learners, teachers, and publishers are hampering the evolution of business English training into a true profession. Right now, business English training is wallowing a pool of vicious circles keeping everyone in the same place with little chance of getting out of the muck. Here is a list of the vicious circles:

  1. The classroom retention of learners with lower ambition in the ELT world has implications in the BE world. If a BE syllabus is to really challenge the learners of middle and higher ambitions in the classroom, it has to risk losing some of the less ambitious learners. Many teachers and schools are reluctant to do this, and hence classes and programs are accommodating “the lowest common denominator” or close to it.
  2. BE learners don't want much technical challenge in their business English classroom. This limits the kind of the material that can be put into the classroom, and this limitation cannot reward the English teacher who has acquired some basic business and better-than-average classroom management skills.
  3. Course book BE teachers are unwilling to put in the extra effort to experiment with a new way of BE training that could enhance the classroom experience for their learners. Hence the DVBE approach (enhanced business conversation and numbers English) remains unknown and untested in its best position for servicing BE learners.
  4. Special needs BE teachers, who are more open minded and harder working than course book teachers, have tight constraints placed on them as to the material they can bring into the classroom. Hence they really can't experiment in the DVBE approach. And until DVBE starts generating revenue, its publisher cannot justify investing into developing its unique approach into more specific business needs.
  5. The lack of business skills and unpaid development time is having an impact on the quality of classroom lessons the special needs teachers can develop.
  6. Because the course book and special needs lessons are not of great quality, BE learners have a limit as to how much they want to pay their teachers. Hence, the teachers cannot invest the time to find, prepare for, and develop higher quality lessons. Without higher quality lessons, the learners see no need to pay more.
  7. When learners get frustrated with this mediocre special needs approach, they can easily move into “business training in the English language.” But this move does not better the skill set of the language teachers in a language learning environment. Hence the profession's capacity to develop and present more dynamic and effective language-based BE lessons does not improve.
  8. BE teachers should be able to turn to the established publishers for higher quality lessons. However, these publishers need volume sales to justify development of BE material. To get volume, they need to make their BE material comprehensible to average ELT teachers. And this means watered-down business content, which then leads to low quality lessons.
  9. By filling the many voids of BE training the mainstream publishers find unprofitable, the special needs teachers believe that they are creating fantastic BE lessons. Hence there is no need for them to look beyond the mediocre lessons they are actually creating.
  10. The BE profession has become content in that it really can't provide better training than it is currently providing. Being poorly paid is its only complaint. Unlike most other professions, there is no internal drive to improve.

Recently a new vicious circle might have been created. The DVBE publisher has taken a new marketing approach and made all six modules (about 40 hours of classroom activities) available for free download and classroom usage. If the DVBE approach ever gains some professional recognition, then why would another ELT publisher invest resources in copying this approach when DVBE is totally free?

Many scientific experiments are based on giving an entity a “stimulus,” monitoring the “response,” then conjecturing why the response happened with that stimulus. The BE profession has been subjected to a stimulus of the DVBE innovation. The response (outright rejection) of that stimulation is telling something important about the state of BE training today. Thus 11 vicious circles have been conjectured. Readers now need to ask themselves: “Do these stated vicious circles truly exist in the BE profession?” If not, then there has to be another reason for the marketing failure of DVBE. If the circles do exist, then it seems likely the BE profession will be stagnant for the next decade, not really improving itself. How then can business English profession transform itself to a higher level—a level where the world will regard it as a true profession?

Copyright by Dave Volek 2011

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