Thirty Years of Business English 1986-2016

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A personal look at the history of BE right up to the present day. I use a few key coursebooks to exemplify trends, discuss current ideas such as eLearning and ELF, and finish with a 6-point overview.

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Thirty Years of Business English 1986-2016

  1. 1. 1/5 This article is © Paul Emmerson but may be freely circulated. Thirty years of Business English 1986-2016 by Paul Emmerson Introduction I have been asked by BESIG1 to look back at changes in Business English (BE) over the last thirty years. This is part of the celebration of BESIG’s 30th birthday in 2016. I did my own initial teacher training at International House, Lisbon, in 1991. Immediately after that I became a BE freelancer. Since then I’ve done teacher training all over Europe, and I’ve been involved with publishers as an author. So I am well-placed to review the thirty years from several different perspectives. I’ll begin with some course books to exemplify key developments, then list six general areas that stand out as having changed over the years. The nineties In the early nineties we had Vicki Hollett’s Business Objectives (OUP) and Business Opportunities (OUP) and not much else. Each language area in the book had a Presentation and Controlled Practice stage, and often there was Less Controlled Practice as well. This was the input. Then at the end of the unit there was a final page of Skills Practice as fluency work. This was the output. This approach was modelled on the existing and very successful Headway series in General English, and the publisher was transferring the 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, 1 The Business Interest Special Interest Group of IATEFL (International Association of Teachers of English as a Foreign Language). So BESIG is an international group of Business English teachers. They run a big conference in Europe every November and have a twice-yearly magazine.
  2. 2. 2/5 This article is © Paul Emmerson but may be freely circulated. 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 (LTP). 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 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 BESIG 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 learner talked about their own job, because they didn’t have one to talk about. Other innovations were the use of authentic texts, and 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 who 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 all through the third edition of Market Leader in 2011.
  3. 3. 3/5 This article is © Paul Emmerson but may be freely circulated. The current decade 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. Another recent trend is for ELT practitioners to talk about and be interested in ELF (English As A Lingua Franca), rather than native-speaker English. This is an area where I have strong anti-mainstream views – I basically don’t think that ELF exists2 . I don’t believe that there is any autonomous global variant of English that lives in a non-native speaker space that is available to us as credible and teachable input. I think that students’ interlanguage is influenced by L1, by partially learned classroom material (that is already graded and not authentic), and by whatever they partially notice in the real world (that is either a native speaker source, or a context-specific non-native source). I gave some examples of possible ELF candidates and why they are in fact not ELF in my ‘Tides Of ELT’ slideshow on PaulEmmerson.com. To take just one example: ‘assets’ and ‘liabilities’ have the false friends ‘actives’ and ‘passives’ in all mainstream European and Slavic languages. This is because of Napoleon, not ELF. And if we ever taught those false friends as acceptable alternatives for production, where would that leave speakers of Asian languages, not to mention Americans, Australians, Indians and Brits? 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 a hall full of students, 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. 2 ELF is just one of a long line of ideas (such as Task Based Learning) that gets an extraordinarily easy ride in the Applied Linguistics world.
  4. 4. 4/5 This article is © Paul Emmerson but may be freely circulated. 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 very high drop-out rate, and there are cost and credibility issues when it comes to marking any written assignments. In BE eLearning it turns out that few business people continue to log on to their platform 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 optimistic digital dawn of the year 2000) to 759 on the day that I write in November 2016. Pearson is an interesting case. From the outside it looks like they abandoned developing products internally under the guidance of people with an ELT background in favour of buying existing companies that were marketing-led with poor content (Wall Street Institute, Global English). This led them to lose touch with good pedagogy in the name of being close to the market, and gave them a ragbag of products that were difficult to pull together under one brand. The future Looking to the future, 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 or app for presentation and controlled practice of new language, and real classrooms for less-controlled practice, personalization, interaction, motivation, fluency, tasks, and teacher feedback. ‘Big Picture’ review 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 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 in
  5. 5. 5/5 This article is © Paul Emmerson but may be freely circulated. classroom time. We now understand that the role of PPP (Presentation - Controlled Practice - Less Controlled Practice) 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. So that’s my review of the last thirty years. Here’s to the next thirty! In 2046 I’ll be ninety one years old, probably still teaching BE, and will write a follow-up article. Paul Emmerson, November 2016

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