What exactly are we trying to learn? Is it really English?

I recently attended the IATEFL conference in Harrogate, which is the International English Teaching event of the year. This post draws on a presentation given by Fiona Mee, CEO of York Associates , with whom I share a similar vision of the way things are developing in the corporate language training sector. So thanks, Fiona for the inspiration here. I’m sure you’ll recognise some of the themes.

What we essentially teach is International Business Communication in English. The question I wish to raise here is: What is it that students need to focus on in their learning of Business English?

It is widely considered that the active vocabulary required to communicate effectively, albeit basically, in English in a business context is approximately 1500 words. That is not a huge vocabulary compared to that of your average native speaker. I just tested my own vocabulary on testyourvocab.com coming out with a healthy 32,600 words! Not bad! Apparently, your average university educated native speaker might expect to have an active vocabulary of around 20,000, so it looks like I’m a bit ahead of the curve there (and so I should be given my job). The point is that you do not need to know what ‘purloin’ means to communicate effectively in a business meeting.

Chair at a meeting

Once learners of English dominate enough basic grammar and vocabulary to make themselves understood in contexts with which they are familiar, the lexical and technical areas of learning bring diminishing returns for those whose challenge is to communicate effectively in a business context. What becomes more important for the learner is to master techniques to meet the most common communication challenges non-native speakers face. These can be summarised as follows:

  • Uncertainty: – how can I make things clearer?
  • Complexity: – how can I make things more simple?
  • Diversity: – how can I adapt to managing in different contexts?

The biggest difference we can make as trainers and teachers is to increase communicative confidence, which is very different to acquiring sufficient grammar and vocabulary to pass Cambridge Proficiency – something a very small percentage of non-native English speakers will ever attain. Communicative confidence is required for the media non-native people use in their workplace: email, telephoning, conference calls and social media (let’s call these the virtual skills). It is also required for the challenges of face-to-face communication, which will vary according to one’s level of managerial responsibility: it could be simply expressing clearly a point of view or an idea, or it could be something as delicate as dismissing someone or eliciting critical feedback.

So, if it is task achievement we are looking for, we should be aiming at evaluating communicative competence, not grammatical excellence. I hope we are getting closer to that objective.

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