Business English: What is it and Who is it for?

Martin Luther King, Jr said “before you finish eating breakfast this morning, you’ve depended on more than half the world.” In this blog we discuss business English, what it is, who it is for and how we structure the course at ELC.

Business English | UCT English Language Centre

What is Business English? Think about this famous quote for a second:

“Your car is Japanese.

Your beer is German.

Your wine is Spanish.

Your democracy is Greek.

Your coffee is Colombian.

Your tea is Chinese.

Your watch is Swiss.

Your fashion is French.

Your shirt is Indian.

Your shoes are Thai.

Your radio is Korean.

Your vodka is Russian.

And then you complain that your neighbour is an immigrant?”

I think there is little doubt for any of us that the world is getting smaller in many ways. Things that were once taken for granted, like relying on a friend to bring you back some original Swiss chocolate from their holiday to Switzerland, are at the touch of a ‘buy online now’ or ‘add to trolley’ button, if not already available in your own local supermarket.

Who brought that chocolate to your supermarket? Who went to Switzerland and had those meetings and set up the importing of that chocolate. Or which Swiss decided to grace the world’s supermarkets with readily accessible and original Swiss chocolate? More importantly, for the purposes of this blog post – what language was everyone communicating in when they set up and had these meetings? There is a very good chance that the answer to this last question is English.

Now, it’s one thing to be able to speak English on the street, greet people and order a meal and a drink at a restaurant in English. It is quite another thing to be able to discuss financial risk or mergers and acquisitions at a business meeting with people you may have never met before, and often from very different cultures!

This is why, at the UCT English Language Centre, we only allow students who are already at an upper intermediate level or higher to join the business English class. It can become very frustrating for business English students, who are usually under a fair bit of pressure from work to get back into the office, and the business English teacher, if a student at a lower level of English is asking basic questions related to the English language, and not necessarily to the function of English in a business context. This is also the reason we only offer business English in the afternoons, which must be taken in conjunction with either general English or exam preparation in the morning. We believe that it is important to address the basic functions of the English language, and this is done in the relevant class. Thereafter, the focus is on business English.

Business English in the English as a Foreign Language (EFL) industry, is considered an ESP (English for Specific Purposes). Other examples of ESPs are Aviation English, English for Academic Purposes, IT, Tourism, and the list goes on.

Business English courses are typically only for those preparing for a career in business, students of business, or those already working in a business environment. The content should not necessarily be new to students as it is not the English teacher’s task to teach people about business. Rather, what is presented in class are all concepts and content that are already understood by a student in their own language – now they are learning how to produce what they already know, in English. Imagine you are not a pilot, but decide to join an Aviation English class!

Another interesting aspect of a business English course is the topic of doing business cross-culturally, in a global context. Many cultures and countries will differ in how they conduct business. Operating in an international context and conducting business with people from other countries means understanding different ways to conduct business, or that different actions have different meanings or repercussions in different contexts. For example, when receiving a business card from a Chinese businessman/woman, it will always be handed over with both hands and should be accepted with both hands as a sign of respect. You can read more interesting things about Chinese business meetings here.

We believe that ESP should be taken as seriously as general English and the attention that is given to placing students in the correct level for general English. In the same way that we would not advise someone to join an IELTS or CAE exam preparation course if they are a) not ready and b) not going to actually write an exam, we also don’t just cram people into business English classes so they have something to do in the afternoons that’s different from their general English courses in the morning. This is a serious course, for people who are serious about improving their business English skills.

If you are interested in joining a business English course at the UCT English Language Centre, we welcome you to get in contact with us to explore the options and let us guide you in finding the right option for you. 

At ELC, these are the options we have available for those students wishing to do a business English course:

Business English Elective ABusiness English Elective BBusiness English Electives A and B

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