Beyond the “Square Mile”

Teaching Modern Business English

By Peter Read

Teaching Modern Business English in a rapidly changing global market – the need to adopt a practical approach.

Teaching Modern Business English is, as anyone involved will know, a very personal experience. Every successful teacher has his or her own preferred method and style and every student similarly is an individual with specific needs and objectives. Business English is often taught on a 1-to-1 basis, usually over a short period of time, that requires a teacher to quickly identify. assess and analyse what is needed, to ensure maximum benefit for the student concerned. What follows is based on the writer’s own observations and how he sees this fascinating ESP subject developing in the future.

The author is one who believes there is benefit in breaking away from regimented and traditional teaching tools and developing new models that help students to become actively involved in scenarios and practical exercises that give them a real sense of participating in and experiencing real life Business English scenarios. This often involves designing teaching aids and materials that are intended to bring out the very best in students of all abilities.

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Despite the recent comments of President Emmanuel Macron concerning the importance of French, particularly in Africa and his hope that it will become the world’s first language, it is improbable that his dream will become a reality. To think otherwise would be to ignore the continuing growth in the numbers of students, worldwide, including Africa, who are actively learning English.

No more so is the demand to learn English better demonstrated than with those professional businessmen, businesswomen, executives and managers, who, having identified the need and often in order to further their careers, are enthusiastically pursuing Business English Language courses. Many are academically and professionally very well qualified in their own countries and have high career aspirations, but have recognised that being able to communicate using the correct Business English vocabulary, phrases and expressions will give them an advantage in the competitive international workplace. They use either traditional tools, including attendance at classes, textbooks and written exercises or, as technology continues to develop, turn to the internet where there is a plethora of ‘face to face’ teaching options available plus blogs, articles and teaching materials, sometimes a combination of one or more.

Change is evident. ‘Business English’ is a generic term that covers a wide range of related specialisations. Banking, Legal, Financial Services, Insurance and Marine and Aviation English are all examples.

Just as English Premier League football clubs have become a heavily marketed brand in many countries, so has Business English and the specialisations that fall under the broad description.

Students who want to make full use of all the modern technological resources seize opportunities and are prepared to maximise their efforts and experiment with new methods of learning. Most are anxious to achieve success quickly, are willing to invest their time and want value for money, whether their courses are paid for by their employer or are self-funded.

Recent experience teaching on a 1-to-1 or small group basis has confirmed that whilst students have varied levels of English linguistic communication skills, many being proficient as a result of learning English at school and continuing to do so afterwards, nearly all now prioritise developing business or specialised conversational ability, acquiring vocabulary that is needed in their employment and improving their practical written communication skills. Additionally, there has been a distinct shift towards wanting to become proficient in presentation skills. As the impact of globalisation within the cultures of modern business organisations continues, many students are now expected to be able to give detailed presentations, often using PowerPoint, on a wide range of topics to audiences with different nationalities and where a range of languages are spoken; yet the Lingua Franca is English.

Helping students understand the importance of how they ‘present themselves’ – using the phrase ‘You don’t get a second chance to create a first impression’ is another area to focus upon.

This is achieved by giving ‘hands on’ practical demonstrations and opportunities for student participation, often at a very elementary level that might include the importance of introducing themselves correctly, identifying where they come from, who they work for and why they are at a meeting and even dress code together with meeting and greeting exercises. By doing so, it becomes easier to work together to improve ‘presentations’ of both types, including introductions, together with business meeting and socialising skills.

In the writer’s experience, there is often a genuine fear of failure and of being misunderstood. This is to be expected. Part of the teacher’s role is to help build confidence. This has meant a shift in teaching techniques. Whilst traditional text book exercises involving grammar, correct use of tenses, vocabulary, spelling and punctuation are still basic requirements, there is now more scope to experiment drawing on professional ‘hands-on’ work-place experience that some Business English teachers can bring to the proverbial classroom, be it ‘face to face’ or ‘on-line’. How does one achieve all this during what are usually intense but only short periods of time with a student?

The City of London, the famous financial and commercial centre that is referred to as ‘The Square Mile’ is a source of many of the unique phrases, vocabulary and specialised terms that are found frequently in Business English dialogue.

The techniques recommended draw on practical personal experience and highlight how business works, identify cultural differences, required etiquette and standards that emanate from working with the professions and elsewhere within the international business community. There is an emphasis on understanding and learning specialist vocabulary, grammar, the use of different methods of communication including preparing and answering professional e-mails and how to manage telephone conversations and conference calls. Allied to this are concerns about pronunciation and understanding different dialects. Students say that telephone conversations cause the most concern. They are intimidated by silences, not having the advantage of being able to see facial expressions and identify body language, both of which help in being able to understand what is being said. Feedback and encouragement are essential constituents to building confidence that might include enacting an imaginary telephone conversation where problems can be drip fed into the dialogue.

A recurrent theme identifiable with many students is a preoccupation with small linguistic mistakes, leading them to place far too much initial emphasis on correcting them. Most are easy to remedy by simple explanation and can be corrected in later practical conversational exercises. It is important to recognise this and emphasise to students that they must focus on the broader picture and not place too much importance on superficial errors.

Dealing with these and other fears is achieved using practical examples, often drawn from the students’ own work place where situations are re-enacted and recorded. A recent example of this was provided by an Austrian Patent lawyer, who regularly corresponded with the Patent Office in London. He felt that his written texts were unprofessional and failed to use the correct legal language. A few days spent designing template e-mails using Legal English vocabulary boosted his confidence and enabled him to feel that his professional skills were not diluted.

Role Play

Other examples might include describing a specific event, issue or a problem and then either on a 1-to-1 basis or in small groups identifying the issues and working through them to find a solution. Students take on a particular role. One that the writer uses involves an emergency situation where a cargo ship has a small fire on board and subsequent engine breakdown whilst approaching a Northern European port to discharge a cargo of bananas, a perishable cargo where delivery is time sensitive and there are slots allocated at ports for discharge at precise times. Depending on how many students are in the group, each can take on one or a number of roles. It is primarily aimed at shoreside personnel, including staff employed by an unnamed foreign shipowner, a charterer, insurers, the cargo owners, lawyers, surveyors, crew ‘ship to shore’ communications and engineers. The list can be expanded to include others who may have to be consulted to help solve the problem including financiers and other service industries. It is a useful exercise to develop further, ensuring that everyone is aware of the different countries and nationalities that might be involved and differences in time zones. All are practical methods to encourage students to see and be a part of a real scenario that shows a wide global infrastructure where the Lingua Franca is English. There are of course simpler exercises that can be designed to suit different groups and individuals.

Meetings, Preparing, Writing and Checking Documents

There are many types of practical situations that can be used as examples including different formats and types of meeting. Many multi-national companies expect their staff from other offices located in different countries to attend meetings at the head office where English will be spoken. Support staff are expected to be able to ‘meet and greet’ and assist generally in providing local travel arrangements and helping to book accommodation together with organising social events.

Other practical issues might involve staff working together on the wording of sales contracts, offers and acceptance terms together with other specific documentation relating to their businesses. All of these can be practiced during the interaction between students where group participation using practical examples, including written exercises can help students and generate positive responses.


Most businesses engage in some type of negotiation process whether it involves purchasing or selling goods, raw materials or services. Exercises can be designed to help students identify key words and phrases and also make them aware of the possible different cultural responses they might receive. Although the parties are communicating in English, often what they say and how it is interpreted can be very different leading to intentions and conclusions being misunderstood.

Interviews and Staff Appraisals

This is a specialised area. Although one might expect interviews and staff appraisals to be conducted in the language of the country where the staff member is based, there is an identifiable trend particularly amongst multi-national companies and conglomerates for such matters to be conducted in English. It is not unusual for candidates applying for employment to be interviewed in English and similarly staff in-house promotion interviews and annual performance appraisals to be in English, often because the interviewer’s first language is English.
Exercises drawing on experience and preparing students with what to expect and questions to ask are a helpful guide for anyone who might confront such situations in their future careers.

Vocabulary, Phrases and Jargon

What follows are some examples of English words, phrases and slang expressions that are regularly used by those working in the business community. To someone whose first language is not English they can be very confusing and difficult to understand. There are many others. It helps in teaching Business English to make students aware that they exist, of their use in the workplace and to explain their real meaning and context.

Above board
At the end of the day
Bread and Butter
Bring to the table
Contractual obligations
Data driven
Dictate terms
Early delivery bonus
Sharpen our pencils
Take to the next level
Team players
Going Forward
Head Honcho
Heads up
Next step in negotiations
Penalty Clause
Real time
Results driven
Room to maneuver
Thinking outside the box
Touch base
Up and down like a yo-yo
(reference to fluctuations in exchange rates or share prices)

Allied to all this practical teaching comes another aspect that students like to pursue, the use of English idioms and metaphors, especially in the context of Business English. I urge caution in their use, but students simply love to use them, often at entirely the wrong moment and out of context, but nevertheless they are a great learning tool and help to breakdown the sometimes monotonous learning styles of earlier generations. Their use gives students an ‘add on’, something a little different and makes them feel more English.

In all teaching scenarios there is a need to continually encourage feedback. This helps to improve one’s own teaching skills and enables one to develop new techniques, something that is essential in the rapidly changing global market.

An example of the pleasure and amusement that teaching Business English can bring occurred after one of my recent classes with a particularly bright group of students. I had explained that I had stopped working recently after a career spent in “The Square Mile”. After the lesson, the student concerned came over to me and said “So you’re retarded then are you?” I smiled and said “I think you mean retired”.

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