A Personal Take on the Last Twenty Years of Business English

by Paul Emmerson

Congratulations IH Journal on your 20th birthday anniversary. I did my CELTA at IH Lisbon in 1991, and then worked at the IH London Executive Centre as a freelance teacher from 1993 to 2009. Sixteen years! It was during this period that I wrote the first editions of my books (Email EnglishBusiness Grammar BuilderBusiness Vocabulary Builder etc). There is a little bit of IH in all my books – ideas came from discussions at IH, material was piloted at IH, and many of the character names in the telephone dialogues were the names of my colleagues!

For this anniversary issue of the IH Journal I thought I would look back at business English (BE) since the mid-nineties and see how things have changed. My perspective is both wide and deep: over the years I’ve done teacher training all over Europe as well as being involved with publishers as an author and also of course teaching (currently at The English Language Centre in Brighton).

I’ll begin with some course books to exemplify key developments. These books were the bread and butter of classes in the IH London Executive Centre. Then I’ll make one observation about the main trend of the present – eLearning. Finally I’ll stand back and give an overview of six general areas that I think are the main changes in BE over the years.

Let’s start. In the mid-nineties we had Vicki Hollett’s Business Objectives (OUP) and Business Opportunities (OUP) and not much else. Each unit in the book had the structure Presentation, Controlled Practice and Less Controlled Practice (PPP) as input, with a final page of Skills Practice as fluency work. These were modelled on the existing and very successful Headway (OUP) series in General English, and the publisher was transferring this model to BE. Vicki’s big innovation was to leave out topic vocabulary to make room for business communication skills (meetings, presentations, etc.), with the target language being key phrases grouped into functions. Grammar had an important role in these books as well, and was cleverly interwoven with the unit theme.

One of the other titles available at the time was In at the Deep End (OUP), and this took the opposite approach – throwing the learner into tasks, supported by a few boxed-off phrases on the page, and leaving the teacher to correct, supply and improve any language that the student produced.

In 1996 we got another innovation in BE with Mark Powell’s Business Matters (Language Teaching Publications). Mark was a follower of ‘the lexical approach’, a methodology advocated by the colourful figure of Michael Lewis, a dominating presence in ELT in the mid-nineties. His books The Lexical Approach (LTP) and Implementing The Lexical Approach (LTP) wove together ideas about language acquisition with suggestions for classroom exercises. He argued that it is more important to focus on lexis than on grammar, and by ‘lexis’ he meant collocations and phrases as well as individual words (‘vocabulary’). Mark’s Business Matters was the first ELT coursebook to put these ideas into practice.

The noughties arrived with the first edition of Market Leader (Pearson). This book had a team of commissioning editors that included David Riley (of the eponymously named David Riley BESIG[1] Award for Innovation). They spotted that the pre-work and in-work markets were different and required different books. Market Leader was aimed at, and written by, people in the pre-work sector – there were no activities where the leaner talked about their own job because they didn’t have one to talk about. Other innovations were the use of authentic texts, and of course the prominence given to case studies.

The noughties saw a trend for ‘soft business’ to emerge as a publishing category, with the success of the existing International Express (OUP) spawning other titles. ‘Soft business’ is for professional people who don’t want specialized business vocabulary and skills, but instead want English for general work, travel and socializing. The noughties also saw a steady trend for ESP (English for Specific Purposes) to separate itself from BE. ESP is for industry sectors such as aviation or banking or engineering.

A final noticeable trend in the noughties was for ‘soft management skills’ to begin to appear in BE materials in the form of Intercultural Awareness (IA). Pioneers here were people like Bob Dignen, and at BESIG conferences it seemed like freelancers – at least in Germany – had to offer an IA component to their BE if they were to remain credible. IA went mainstream when it appeared throughout the third edition of Market Leader in 2011.

The current decade has seen the further development of ‘soft business’ and ‘soft management skills’. They come together in a title like Lifestyle (Pearson), where skills such as persuasion, turn-taking and problem solving appear alongside old functional favourites such as requests or apologies.

Finally, the current decade has seen the emergence of eLearning. I follow this area closely and am dabbling myself with my site www.BEhereBEthere.com. The eLearning value proposition is very compelling: learn any time anywhere for a fraction of the cost. Early pioneers in the States developed MOOCs (massive open online courses) where whole university courses were put online. The professors deliver lectures to a video camera rather than to students in a hall, and their lectures and notes can be reviewed by accessing a Learner Management System at any time. In the ELT word, companies were early adopters of BE eLearning. As a cost-cutting measure training managers turned to online platforms such as Global English or English Town rather than employ face-to-face teachers. And in the world of informal learning people increasingly try to learn English from smartphone apps rather than going to class.

All of these approaches have a place somewhere, but the early optimism (or pessimism if you are a teacher) has faded a little. MOOCs have a drop-out rate approaching 99%. Few business people continue to log on to their BE eLearning unless forced to do so by the big stick of an annual performance review. And the publisher that made the biggest investment in digital education – Pearson, a FTSE 100 company – has had problems generating revenue. Its share price has collapsed from 2,500 (at its peak in the digital dawn of the year 2000) to 768 on the day that I write.

Will online learning take over the ELT world? Well, acquiring a language is a subtle and complex process that requires attention and time on the part of the learner. My gut feeling is that what will save face-to-face teaching is the difference in attention span between a person alone in front of a screen (around 45 seconds) and the same person in a classroom of real human beings (around 45 minutes). Blended learning will likely be part of the solution, perhaps using online sources or apps for presentation and controlled practice of new language, and real classrooms for less-controlled practice, personalization, interaction, motivation, fluency, tasks and teacher feedback.

So, let’s pause for reflection and look at the big picture. What are the main ways that BE has changed over the last thirty years? I would argue for these:

  • A more organic and realistic approach to language acquisition, where we no longer expect a form to be produced fluently in the same lesson/week/year where it is presented and practised. This means that the two basic lesson types – structured input and communicative tasks – are now less mechanical, more fun, and not necessarily connected to each other. We now understand that the role of PPP is to bring language into awareness, with fluent production coming much later, after repeated noticing and practice both in class and in the real world.
  • An understanding (I hope) that feedback following a task is as much to do with extending language – making it richer, more complex and closer to how the student would use it in L1 – as it is about correcting language.
  • The gradual de-emphasizing of grammar, with reference and controlled practice now often placed in a separate optional section at the back of the book.
  • More work on communication skills and topic-based lexis (to replace grammar) and both of these are now more motivating and ‘authentic’ feeling than in the old days.
  • The gradual introduction of soft skills such as intercultural awareness and communication strategies into BE.
  • An acknowledgement that pre-work BE and in-work BE are different. For example, Macmillan targeting The Business at the first market and In Company at the second.

That’s my review of business English over the last few decades. I would like to take the opportunity to thank all my colleagues in the IH London Executive Centre for the happy hours I spent there over sixteen years. If I ever jumped in front of you to use the photocopier, may I take this opportunity to sincerely apologize.

Author’s Bio: Paul Emmerson works as a writer, website owner, teacher and teacher trainer. He is the author of many books published by Macmillan, and has two websites: www.PaulEmmerson.com for teachers and www.BEhereBEthere.com for learners.
[1] BESIG is the Business English Special Interest Group of IATEFL