What is Business English?

Author Paul Emmerson reflects on in-work and pre-experience Business English.

What is Business English? A naïve question to be sure, but a good one to step back and ask from time to time.

Below, in blue, is a nine-point answer to that question that I wrote along with my colleague Nick Hamilton back in 2000. It was going to be the Introduction to Five Minute Activities for Business English (CUP) but never made it into the book.

  1. You start with a Needs Analysis.
  2. The Needs Analysis leads on to a negotiated syllabus. There is no ‘main’ coursebook, although a selection of coursebook and other material may be used. The classroom tasks and texts are personalized, based around the interests and needs of those particular students.
  3. The syllabus is designed around communication skills (telephoning, meetings, presentations etc.) and business topics (management, marketing, finance etc.), not the English verb tense system.
  4. Language work is more lexical, including collocation and functional language, and less grammatical than General English. Pronunciation is another important area, especially the ability to break up speech into appropriate phrases (phonological chunking) and to use stress to highlight key information.
  5. Teaching methodology includes much use of tasks, role-plays, discussions, presentations, case studies and simulated real-life business situations. Approaches and materials are mixed and matched, but there is unlikely to be a high proportion of conventional Present-Practice lessons where one grammar point provides the main thread of a lesson.
  6. Much language work is done diagnostically following speaking activities. Feedback slots are used for checking, correcting and developing language (Output->Reformulate rather than Input->Practice).
  7. There is use of a range of authentic and business material (magazine articles, off-air video, company documents).
  8. Delivery of the course is different: the students are ‘clients’ with high expectations, the teachers are professional ‘trainers’ (or perhaps even Language Consultants). Teachers and students sit together round a table like in a meeting rather than in the classic GE ‘U’ shape with the teacher at the front. Conversation across the table may develop its own dynamic far removed from the teacher’s lesson plan.
  9. While teachers are expected to be competent as Language Consultants, classroom managers etc. they are usually not expected to be business experts. This is a language course after all, not an MBA. However teachers are expected to have an interest in business, ask intelligent questions, and slowly develop their knowledge of the business world.

And we continued:

The above principles represent a ‘strong’ version of BE, and we realize that there are some common situations where it is less appropriate:

  • Students studying BE in large groups in higher education – often called ‘pre-experience’ students because they have not yet started working.
  • Students studying for a BE qualification (often pre-experience as well).

Such students will almost certainly be following a coursebook, with tasks, texts and language focus already included. Students will be less interested in or unable to personalize activities. They might want to be taught about business itself as well as business English.

Looking back eleven years later it still looks like a good definition. But the final paragraph – about pre-experience BE – needs a little more development. Back in those days I didn’t realize the simple fact that the overwhelming majority of BE students are indeed pre-experience. Publishers have certainly realized this: all major multi-level coursebooks that I know (except InCompany) are aimed squarely at pre-experience students. When was the last time you read a coursebook instruction that invited the student to talk about their own company/job? Were an author to include it in a first draft, the editor would quickly ask them to change it – seeing the largest market disappear before their eyes.

Differences between Pre-Experience and In-Work BE students

So what can I add now about the pre-experience context?

My own teaching these days is in-work students coming to the UK for short, intensive courses. In the past I did the classic freelance ‘in-company’ thing (from 1991 to 1996 – in Lisbon, Portugal). In Lisbon I did also do a little pre-experience teaching in the evenings, so it’s not unknown to me. Nowadays, I have contact with the pre-experience BE world not through teaching but through teacher training (TT) – the majority of my trainees teach in higher education establishments of various kinds. On the TT courses we spend a lot of time discussing how BE ideas can be applied to the pre-experience classroom. The table below is a short summary of the ideas that trainees most often contribute in discussion.


Large classes are the norm. Small classes, or 1:1, are the norm.
Mixed language levels is the norm. Language levels likely to be slightly more equal between students in the group.
Students follow a coursebook most of the time. Students use a variety of input material from a variety of sources, perhaps collected together in a file. In many lessons the students draw ideas for discussion from their own world and there is no material (i.e. a dogme approach).
Exam involved – course has to be designed around this. No exam involved – course designed around student’s needs (ongoing/changing).
Lesson structure clear, coming directly from the coursebook. Lesson structure flexible and liable to change at any moment according to where the Ss take the lesson or how much they have to say.
Ss want more of a GE style course with lively/fun topics for discussion. Ss want a strong business/work focus. They are often happy with dry, information-dense texts that a Pre-Exp student might find boring.
T needs to think creatively about how to encourage pairwork, group work etc.Tip Pre-Exp Ss love case-studies, which they can do in small groups followed by your language feedback. Small class size allows more options for classroom management. For example, whole class activities are possible (discussions, RPs, presentations) and Ss will do them without being self-conscious.
All previous points taken together mean that the T needs skills that are quite similar to a GE teacher, with a focus on classroom management of large, mixed-level groups. All previous points taken together mean that the T needs to be able to respond to the changing needs of the Ss in real time and act as a group facilitator and language consultant.
Focus is often more on business topics than on business communication skills. Focus is often more on business communication skills (at least in most pre-course Needs Analyses I have seen, and in InCompany).
Ss need models before they can do a communication activity: an example email, an example presentation, an example meeting etc. Less need for models – Ss have experience of emails, meetings etc. in their everyday lives.
Few opportunities for personalization (Ss don’t have their own company), but they can draw on a) summer and part-time jobs, and b) work experience/internships. Personalization easy, necessary and important.
T has to teach some business content (although remember that Ss are studying business in other classes). Ss already know about business – in fact they teach you about business.
Ss accept what you say/teach. They don’t ask many questions and don’t challenge T or each other. They are young and T knows best. Ss question what you say/teach. They freely ask questions and challenge T and each other.
Innovative approaches are tried and adopted more slowly, and usually only as they filter through to the classroom via coursebooks. Innovative approaches are tried and adopted more quickly (lexical approach, task-based learning, intercultural awareness, soft management skills, use of internet in the classroom, etc).
Motivation:√ Ss have an exam to do√ Ss need English to get a good job× Ss can be immature, make silly jokes in class, keep checking Facebook on their smartphones, etc. Motivation:√ Ss have high expectations√ Ss have paid a lot√ Ss have voluntarily given up part of a busy work schedule× Ss can be tired at the end of the day× Ss are sometimes ‘sent’ by their company and don’t really want to be there
Ss are adolescents/young adults and bring into class personal issues, parents’ expectations etc. Ss are more mature and tend to keep their personal lives out of class.Exception: one-to-one classes, where Ss often bring very personal things and you have to be a sympathetic listener/counsellor etc.


I think this raises some interesting questions. We think of ourselves as one big BE community, but are we really separate tribes? Think of these:

  • the teacher who stands up in front of thirty mixed-level, same-nationality 18 year olds in a provincial university in Poland, Mexico or China
  • the teacher working in a busy, cosmopolitan capital city who jumps into taxis as s/he goes from office to office teaching in-company to small groups or 1:1
  • the teacher who stands up in front of a small group of similar-level, mixed-nationality business people on an intensive course in a language school in the UK, the US, Australia or Ireland
  • the teacher who works in a private language school in the evenings – anywhere in the world – where the students are a group of young adults (some working, some not) who are studying to pass a BEC exam

How much do these teachers have in common? What unites them? What separates them? How much does it depend on the individual lesson? How important is the teaching context as given in the bullet points compared to the personality of the individual teacher and their own particular approach?

Perhaps the four teachers in the bullet points are different tribes. Perhaps not: it might be that most BE teachers in the world are in a grey area somewhere between the pre-experience and in-work poles. So many pre-experience teachers are inclined towards one pole, but at the same time are trying valiantly to incorporate more in-work techniques. And many in-work teachers are inclined towards the other pole, but sometimes rely a little too heavily on published material (especially at the start of their teaching careers) without offering the students the chance for personalization.

And of course every lesson is different.

It’s also possible that there is a ‘silent majority’ tribe. At conferences and teacher training courses we only come into contact with the best, most motivated, and most open-minded teachers. They did decide to come after all, while their colleagues stayed at home. Perhaps those who stayed at home are just working through a coursebook, page by page and week by week, in difficult teaching situations, poorly paid and demotivated. Do they make a separate tribe in their own right?

Paul Emmerson is a well-known figure in the Business English world. He is a writer, teacher and teacher-trainer based in Worthing on the south coast of England. His most recent book, Management Lessons, is a photocopiable resource book for teachers of Business English, available from BEBCTo find out more visit http://www.paulemmerson.com/.


10 thoughts on “What is Business English?

  1. Hi Paul. Nice to see you here. I think all of your points here are useful, particularly the emphasis on the diagnostic approach and the importance of feedback.
    There does, as you say, seem to be a trend towards younger, pre-experience participants, which changes the teaching role somewhat: there’s a greater expectation on the part of participants for input and a more ‘grammar’-based structure.

  2. Sulabha Sidhaye

    Dear Paul,

    You have have indeed grouped the salient features of the varied situations of teaching Business English effectively.
    I would like to add a few points here about how the students may be homogeneous or heterogeneous in different ways.

    The MBA college pre-experience students have to be taught along with classmates who have some work experience ranging right from manufacturing, to working as therapists.
    * In India a pre-experience class may also include housewives who have taken a break from their career and now want to prepare to work in an environment which has changed a lot after they discontinued their jobs or education.
    *The Business English class sometimes has staff from the personnel department who are preparing to become trainers for all-round development of different categories of new employees.

    Sometimes experienced as well as pre-experience groups have people with wrong language habits for whom unlearning the errors is a daunting task.
    This is often more time-consuming than teaching someone with very little English .
    In India, people with varied mother-tongues come with different categories of errors.
    *Time constraints of employees, specially those working in shifts, doesn’t allow grouping according to needs of individual students.

    Thus the Business English teachers have to continuously modify their training to suit all kinds of students within the same course. We keep learning newer business ideas and language teaching methods through our experiments and the varied responses of different students.

    • Hi Sulabha. How interesting to get an Indian point of view. I notice from the FlagCounter on my site that India has the 10th highest ranking for visitors to my site, and many people have said they found it surprising as India is not seen as a traditional ELT market. I can imagine that the teaching situations you describe are very challenging. Keep up the good work!

  3. Hi Paul, Wish you a wonderful 2012. Good to see your effective and useful tips for teaching BE effectively. However, the client’s soaring expectations of cumulative fanciful results from coaches training batches of working professionals, within a pretty short period of time, is simply challenging, though interesting.(I devised the entire English Enhancement Course for an MNC here, recommended BE, coached and got them certified too) More so, if the umlearning habit is to be triggered and fresh learning has to be stacked and applied handsomely at work. While it is acceptable to collect topics from various sources and customize too, the 5th point about not having an exam doesn’t sell well as the students look upon the same as a certification that is creditable, also as a short-term goal. Could you kindly suggest some authentic and updated sources so that the enrichment will be more well-defined and appreciable?

    • Hi Rajalaksmi – probably also from India (?). Yes, of course, if your in-work students want a certificate then you give it to them: the client is always right! As for updated sources, well … in terms of coursebooks I can’t really favour one publisher or book over another as it compromises the ‘neutral’ position of my website. But as for self-study material you won’t be surprised if I recommend my own books! You can find a comprehensive list here: http://www.paulemmerson.com/books/ and of course you can order them from BEBC.

  4. Hi Paul

    I was interested in your point about the relative numbers of pre-experience and in-work students, where you suggest that “the overwhelming majority of BE students are pre-experience”. My own instinct would be to argue the exact opposite, ie, that in-work are by far the larger number. The main difference is that such students don’t all attend “traditional” language classes. Many learn on-the job, through communities of practice, or perhaps through self-study. They may have occasional contact with a language trainer or coach, but not that often.

    So yes, there are large numbers of pre-experience groups at various higher education establishments, but all those people then join a workforce which is much much larger, and which never stops learning. The challenge in companies is to make that learning as effective and efficient as possible. (for an example of this see Chris Bowie’s description of his virtual classroom – http://englishfortheworkplace2.blogspot.com/)

    • Hi Evan. Yes, by ‘students’ I meant ‘people who buy coursebooks’, so a publisher’s/author’s view of a student. The evidence here is simply to look at Pearson, the biggest publisher: Market Leader and Intelligent Business for pre-experience, nothing for in-work. In fact the only big multi-level coursebook for in-work, by any publisher, is ‘In Company’.
      Take a wider view of an in-work student of BE, as you do, and I guess you include most middle class professionals in any business sector in any non-native country in the world. And … that’s exactly the audience that I will be trying to reach with my forthcoming BE e-learning site http://www.BEhereBEthere.com But that’s a long way off … at least 12 months … if I ever make it at all!

  5. Sulabha Sidhaye

    Dear Paul,
    The name of your forthcoming site is very interesting.
    I’m constantly on the lookout for new inputs for Business English..
    At present I’m training a batch of Lecturers of Engineering and Management ( having varied Indian languages as their mother-tongue) who have to use English as their medium of instruction.
    Best wishes for your new site which I look forward to read .!

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