Common Misconceptions About Business English and ESP

By Alex Case
Alex Case explodes some myths

1. Needs analysis means asking students what they need
You will rarely get a good answer to the question “Why do you need English?” -because students have never thought about it before, because they expect the teacher to make all the decisions, or because they don’t have the language to explain. Ways round this include splitting that question up into many parts, using questions that have one word answers, giving them something to take home and think about before you ask them, and asking them in their own language. There is also the complication of working out the differences between what they want and what they need, and then making a balance between the two.

2. Business experience is essential to teach Business English
Many schools do ask for this from their teachers, but that is mainly so they can tell potential clients “We have teachers who have worked in (GE)”. You can make up for this by listing all the companies of the students you have taught Business English to. You can also show you are ready to teach Business English full time with a list of materials you have used, a qualification like the LCCI Cert TEB, and any other qualifications and interest in the field of business. You can make up for any lack of business experience in the classroom by lots of reading of business magazines etc.

3. Students need to describe their company structure
Most people nowadays work in organisations that are impossible to explain or where they are so distant from their ultimate boss they have no idea who they are. This topic can be useful as an introduction to talking about your job (“I am responsible for…”) or describing your company (“We have divisions that make…”), but usually needs to be simplified a lot compared to what appears in most Business English books.

4. Business English is boring/ you can’t use games in Business classes
Many Business English students come into class tired, stressed or with a history of unsuccessful language learning and need warmers, controlled practice games and the encouragement of being given points even more than General English classes. Popular business activities like case studies and roleplay meetings are also basically just games. If you do have students who are resistant to games, you can usually get away with doing exactly the same stuff by calling it “a business situation practice activity” or suchlike.

5. Your students already know about business, they just need the English
This can be the case, but you might have pre-experience students or you might be tackling a concept that doesn’t really exist in their country, company or section. This is particularly the case with Business English textbooks that cover each area of business one unit a time, but can also be true with people studying meidal English who are not doctors etc. See also below.

6. You don’t need to know about their area to teach them English
Every book on teaching ESP and Business English seems to start with this statement, so maybe they are under the impression that there is the opposite misconception that you need to be an expert. You can get away with knowing little or nothing about their area, and they will get lots of speaking out of explaining the ins and outs of their company to you. None of the books suggest, however, that explaining things to outsiders is the kind of communication skill they will need in their work. In their professional lives they are more likely to meet reactions like “Yes, I know” and “That reminds me of…”, and any reading you can do to make your own natural reactions the same will help you teach ESP better.

7. Students reading texts about their area of business is the best kind of practice for their work
Perhaps because these are the easiest resources to find on the topic of a student’s particular area of interest, many ESP classes consist of reading a text from a trade magazine and then talking about it. There is no evidence to suggest that this work as a language learning method better with ESP students than with any other kinds of learners, and they will actually need the same mix of skills, language work, controlled practice activities etc as any other kind of student gets for both short term and long term progress.

8. At low levels, students basically just need general English
There is a certain truth in this, but it is possible to adapt even a General English coursebook class by choosing the topics such as numbers and requests they will need more and tackling them first.

9. Business English and ESP are the same thing
There are similarities in the usual needs analysis and course design stages of tailored courses, but ESP also contains EAP (English for Academic Purposes) and training for practical skills like carpentry for which the materials and teaching methodology would be very different from a Business English course.

10. If their company is paying for the lessons, they must need it for their jobs
Some companies choose to offer English lessons just as a benefit to attract employees or as a cheap way of using the staff training budget. This makes including General English topics and fun activities even more important than in other ESP classes.

11. Business English students are more motivated than General English ones
See above. They may also be forced to come to lessons by their companies, in which case some adults might come to class with the attitude of a rebellious teenager. Showing that you are on their side against their HR department seems to work, as long as the HR department doesn’t get the idea that it is true…

12. TOEIC is a Business English exam
This is partly true. There is lots of Business vocabulary that can throw students who don’t know it but it is the kind of business vocab that any native speaker teenager would know and anyway is often not relevant to answering the actual question. Business vocabulary is certainly more important than grammar to get a good mark in the TOEIC exam, but probably comes lower than teaching them how to deal with a listening or reading text and just above functional language.

13. Business English students want to talk about their work
Many students want to use their lunchtime lesson to escape their work. If so, you will need to sneak in the topics like numbers that they will learn easiest, use most and please their bosses with without them even noticing that it is a Business English class.

14. You should just stick a Business English student on a Business English textbook
Most people who really need English for their present work should be working their way through a tailored course that combines the language and the skills they need today with what they need to progress in the longer term to reach the next level.

15. Business English classes are smaller than General English classes
Because it is easiest to do the stages of needs analysis etc, training for ESP teaching is often combined with training for teaching 1 to 1 classes. However, for budgetary reasons or to deal with a whole batch of new employees at once, you might have to deal with 20 students or even a lecture sized group.

Written by Alex Case for Teflnet April 2008
Alex Case is the author of TEFLtastic and the Teaching...: Interactive Classroom Activities series of business and exam skills e-books for teachers
© Teflnet

One Comment

  • robEFL says:

    Great overview of the most common misconceptions concerning ESP and business english!

    I especially liked the one about the “rebellious teenager”.
    If only I had a penny for each one of those type of students! I’d be a pretty wealthy teacher!

    Always a delight to read your postings and articles.



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