Top Tips for Teaching Business English in China
English is, without a doubt, the global language of business, and the ever-increasing globalization of the world economy means that the vast majority of people working in the business world today are required to show some fluency in the language to communicate effectively with clients, partners or colleagues. Business English commonly refers to the formal English language that is used in a business context, encompassing all types of communication (presenting, reporting, discussing, negotiating, communicating via phone/email, etc.) as well as any business-specific vocabulary. However one can learn it only after having achieved a decent fluency in general English. Knowledge of informal language including slang and idioms is also useful for socializing with native speakers (or simply because some people might use casual language or even swear in the workplace!).
This post was written by our TEFL certification graduate Erwan L. Please note that this blog post might not necessarily represent the beliefs or opinions of ITTT.
Considering the learners’ needs and goals
The profiles of business English learners can vary greatly in terms of age, professional career, previous experience of learning English or other foreign languages, motivation, and goals. In addition to initial language level testing, a needs analysis should be conducted to determine learning objectives (whether assessed by the students themselves or, in the case of company courses, set by their employer) and also the students’ personal goals. People with similar job positions and language levels can have very different degrees of ambition and motivation depending on their career aspirations and personal goals (e.g. interest in dealing with overseas clients or in a corporate assignment overseas).
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Teaching materials and activities
One of the great advantages of business English, compared with general English taught at school, lies in the fact that, in most cases, students already have decent language proficiency so that lessons can easily be related to real-life events or situations which can interest and motivate them. Course books and other specialized teaching resources can be complemented by an infinite amount of authentic materials: excerpts from business publications (newspapers, magazines, online news portals, etc.), business videos and podcasts, and basically any kind of business documents: sales and marketing materials, legal contracts, financial reports, company websites, corporate memos, letters, emails, etc.
In respect of the Activate stage of lessons, a vast number of activities can be organised that will help students practice their communication skills: role-plays are a great way to simulate real-life situations (conference calls, job interviews, negotiation meetings, client presentations, etc.); debates about various topics of business or corporate life are also great opportunities for creative speaking.
Under the teacher’s supervision, authentic materials and situations brought by students from their workplace (e.g. preparing to make a presentation) will likely be the most popular as they will add instant value to their work.
Challenges specific to Chinese learners
Chinese learners of business English face several challenges that can broadly be linked to two main issues. Firstly, the Chinese and English languages are vastly different in virtually all aspects (alphabet, vocabulary, grammar, pronunciation, stress, and intonation). Secondly, many students with good English reading and writing skills can still encounter difficulties with listening and speaking. These can be attributed to several factors, including the education system (large class sizes not conducive to interactive speaking activities, the traditional focus on written tests), some common cultural traits (modesty, shyness, fear of losing face) and also the lack of opportunities in China to practice communication with English speakers.
While there is no substitute for the great volume of study (inside and outside the classroom) which is necessary to grasp the fundamentals (vocabulary, grammar…) of the English language, there are at least two ways in which teachers can help students improve significantly their communication skills:
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Maximizing exposure to the language
Besides organizing appealing listening and reading activities in the classroom, the teacher should encourage students to often watch English movies and television (or online videos), listen to English audio podcasts and songs and read English content (e.g. online news). Watching movies or television (with or without English subtitles) can be particularly beneficial for busy professionals, as it is entertaining and requires minimum effort whilst being very effective at sharpening listening skills. The point being made here is that in today’s China, anyone motivated to learn English can immerse oneself in anglophone culture thanks to the wide array of free media available.
Motivating the students to speak and building up their self-confidence
Arouse their interest with purposeful, yet fun, interactive activities such as communication games, role-plays and discussions. Make them feel comfortable by first working in pairs and small groups, before proceeding to more challenging tasks (e.g. presentation in front of the full class).
Another crucial topic is pronunciation. While it certainly needs to be taught and learned, teachers shall try to remain patient and indulgent and refrain from over-correcting, as this could hinder any communication effort and risk hurting the students’ motivation. The reality is that the vast majority of them are more likely to communicate in English with other non-native speakers rather than with native speakers (who also happen to have different accents). Furthermore, we should bear in mind that the foremost criterion of effective communication is to be able to understand and be understood. Perfectly accurate pronunciation comes only after that.
Teaching more than just language
While the teaching of business English focuses on communication skills for business purposes, it may also often help broaden the students’ horizons, develop their understanding of different business cultures, and enhance their soft skills and self-confidence in the workplace. This could not be more relevant than in today’s China, where the opening up and the explosive growth of the economy has resulted in numerous career opportunities for people able to communicate effectively in English. The role that the EFL teacher can play in helping students achieve their goals can feel all the more rewarding.
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