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A Definition of Business English from a Teaching Perspective

A Definition of Business English from a Teaching Perspective | ITTT | TEFL Blog

The Merriam Webster dictionary defines Business English as: “English as used in business”. While concise, this definition is of limited value to a teacher. This essay will attempt to expand on this definition in the context of English teaching. A more thorough examination of business English will precede an overview of teaching business English before concluding with a modified definition.

This post was written by our TEFL certification graduate Christopher B. Please note that this blog post might not necessarily represent the beliefs or opinions of ITTT.

The Usage of Business English

It is important to note that the use of business English is not confined to countries whose primary language is English and multinational companies and companies interested in international trade will often utilize English. It must also be kept in mind that business English is not a separate language and exists as a subset of the English language, in the actual operation of a business people will not exclusively use business English.

English is the lingua franca in the realm of Business and as varied and dynamic as that realm is, so too is the way English is used within it. Form often follows function and to define business English one must examine how members of a business enterprise will use the language. The way English is used in a business is, for the most part, very similar to the way English is used normally, and yet it has been separated as a new category of English. To get a clearer idea of what business English is it will be helpful to determine how it stands out from regular usage. The following paragraph will attempt to compare its’ usage against regular English.

business people

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English in a business context is used with a specific function in mind. Instructions need to be given, policies understood and so on. For example, one may ask: “Hey, would you mind taking off your shoes before coming in?” however in a business context this may become: “Company policy requires that shoes are removed before entering the building.” Formal vocabulary and language structures take precedence with greater prevalence and there also exists business-specific terminology that differs from regular usage, for example, one may exclaim: “He said to get it done right now!” however in a business context this may become: “The client has requested that the item be actioned ASAP.” While the meaning and urgency of these two sentences are the same, Business English takes a more formal approach and uses its jargon (here, actioned and ASAP). Communication between levels of a hierarchical structure will often require greater formality and written communication will be more formal again. The level of formality will also often be greater when communicating with clients and other businesses.

What is Important about English

Clarity of communication is not necessarily an important property and there exist a plethora of options for one who seeks to exaggerate, prevaricate or simply lie in business English. While this holds for English in general; business English has its vocabulary and structures that would sound quite strange out of a business context. One example of this may be the softening of “getting fired” to being “let go” or replacing “made a mistake” with “ made well-intentioned decisions that may have been, with the benefit of hindsight, in error”. Business English will always be purposeful (even if that purpose is obfuscation), often with greater formality and will often utilize jargon. It should also be noted that there is a significant subset of Industry-specific language within the realm of Business English.


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Teaching Areas

Teaching business English may not vary significantly from the teaching of English in any other context. To teach business English, the student (or in this case client) must first have a solid grounding in the English language. As mentioned before business English is not a separate language but rather a subset of the English language, therefore, if a Teacher is engaged by a business to instruct their staff in business English it will be up to the teacher to first ensure a solid English foundation. From this foundation, which should include an understanding of formal language, the intricacies of business English can be introduced. A useful tool to introduce such language is the use of authentic materials from the area of business the clients are from. Business English will have purpose and function so when determining how to teach business English it will also be important to elucidate the purpose to which the client will put the language.

One may utilize a Needs Analysis so that one may tailor the lesson or course to the needs of the client. There may be the industry-specific language that must be learned or specific purposes, for example, handling customer complaints, or showing potential customers around a factory. As purposed and functional as business English is, so too must the teaching of it be.

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Another aspect of teaching business English is the cultural aspect. Many businesses will deal with international clients or utilize a multi-cultural employee base, this becomes especially important when dealing with the formality component of business English. Across cultures the level of formality required will vary, for example, Australian cultural norms view formality as ‘posh’ and undesirable and while initial formality will be acceptable, prolonged formality may be seen as rude. However, if one where to apply the same user to a German corporation different rules of formality would apply. How interaction within hierarchical structures would also differ from a cultural perspective. For example, Corporate directives from a central office in Dusseldorf may require considered formulation when they are communicating with their office in Sydney. The inter-nationality of English requires that teaching Business English also requires a degree of cultural sensitivity.

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After an examination of business English and its’ instruction, some clear themes emerge Functionality or purpose, Formality, and Cultural Sensitivity. For a prospective teacher of business English, it may be more usefully defined as the “functional, formal and cultural gestalt of the English language as it pertains to the operation of a business”.

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