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How are business English ELT students different from general English ELT students?

Have you heard the stories of children being thrown into a swimming pool in the mistaken belief that they will learn how to swim? Do you condone this as a method of learning?

Whatever your answer, have you noticed how often “life” throws people like you and me into the deep-end and waits to see if we manage?

Are language teachers any different? Of course not. More often than we would like, we find ourselves in the deep-end and swimming, in a metamorphic sense. As a language teacher freelancer, choosing which type of students you would like to teach can be the first hurdle: Do I prefer to teach business students or teach only general English?


What questions do you have as a teacher when choosing your target group of adult students?

Business students?! Some of you may ask in shock. Yes, it’s true to say that some of us feel taxed and out of depth when even thinking about business students.

Why? Because some teachers won’t have practical business experience. They feel intimidated by the prospect of teaching business English because it’s a completely unknown area. So they prefer to remain with general English students. General English is a well-tried and comfortable zone. Yet there are still others who are curious and would like to know – even without real practical hands-on experience – if it is possible to teach business English to business people?

Another question is: Are business people any different to students studying general English?

And of course, how does business differ from general English?

Let’s first address the question about defining business English:

How can you define business English?

What is business English?

There isn’t such a language as Business English. Instead we define these areas of English as ESP (English for Specific Purposes); another area of specialised English is EAP (English for Academic Purposes), for example.

“Business English” is a term coined to target English learners specifically working in a business environment. This is a normal everyday person who works to earn his living. The difference lies in the students’ activities: does he need English to earn his living (business English) or does he need English for his free time activities (general English)?

English is being learnt to communicate with other people. If a company director goes on a business trip he could travel by aeroplane; he will need a taxi and check into a hotel. He might need to change money from one currency into another and he may have to cope with a menu to order his meal. If he has problems, he will need to know how to complain. In all these situations, he will need the same language as any person travelling on holiday. But he’s on a business trip not on holiday. Is the language requirement any different for the businessman?

However, there ARE some differences, albeit small differences. Vocabulary may be different but not unheard of. Photocopier machines or fax machines for example. Another example are fixed phrases in certain situations, such as in answering the telephone.

A private person will generally answer the phone: “Hello?” However, answering the phone in an office is different. Here is one way a business person (Sarah Müller) may possibly answer the phone: “Good morning! [Company name] Sarah Müller speaking. Can I help you?”

Should a general English language teacher worry about this? Not at all. All language course books have a corresponding Teacher’s Book. And these have all the necessary background information a teacher needs to know to teach that particular chapter or unit – including all the answers to the exercises.

Teachers’ books are especially useful when teaching ESP or when teaching EAP. It can be safely assumed that not every language teacher can possibly have experience in all commercial fields. And it’s not expected from your students either — neither your business students nor your general English students.


What is a business student profile? And what is a general English student profile?

Yes, there are some differences when working with your students. Here is a breakdown of the most important differences. This list is the result of my own experiences with business students, and could be a surprising revelation to what you may be expecting.

  • Are business students very serious students, dry and difficult to teach?
  • Are general English student more fun to teach? Are they easier to teach?
  • What are their profiles?


Business English students: General English students:

  1. Generally research the Internet first for their needs.
  2. Secondly through word of mouth recommendations from employees.
  3. Agencies

  1. Are walk-in customers
  2. Research the Internet
  3. Recommendations from friends and colleagues
  4. Advertisements (newspapers, magazines, community courses brochures)
Learning target:

  • They are used to working towards a particular outcome, a result. They are goal-orientated.
  • Require exam certificates; minimum European Language Portfolio.
Learning target:

  • General English students work for progress.
  • Some are interested in exam certificates and the European Language Portfolio.
Time constraints:

  • They work to a specific timescale.
  • Time constraints because of ROI (Return On Investment) and the need for training to be cost-effective.
    [University students: also have time constraints for language studies.]
Time constraints:

  • They are less likely to set themselves a specific target within a specific timescale.
  • Exceptions are private students with pending trips to English-speaking countries abroad.
Money constraints:

  • They expect efficiency, quality and professionalism.
  • They expect good (and better) value for the company’s investment.
Money constraints:

  • Private tuition is generally too expensive.
  • Generally prefers to attend local English language schools or community further education offers.
Learn groups:

  • Generally groups are not larger than 6 people.
  • Can be private students as well and go to the teacher’s home. (Usually the Departmental heads, Managing Directors, or the owners of businesses.)
Learn groups:

  • General English students are more likely to prefer working in groups because of a lower hourly rate.
  • Community learning groups can reach up to 25 people.
  • Exceptions could be partners and married couples and small private groups of colleagues or friends (private students).
Characteristic expectations:

  • They expect professionalism, quality and efficiency.
  • They expect good value (ROI) for the company’s investment.

Tip: Nip the next two problems in the bud before the course begins:

  • Homogenous difficulties will occur with internal political conflicts such as mixed hierarchy students or departments.
  • Attendance can be sporadic and disharmonious (telephone calls, meetings, business trips) so you need a firm and controlling hand.
Characteristic expectations:

  • They expect quality and good value for their money.
  • Progress is often disturbed by newcomers of a lower level.
  • Community courses work on the principle of “adjusting the lesson to the weakest member in the class”. This can affect the perceived progress of the whole group.
  • Homogenous difficulties (levels of English knowledge) are a permanent problem in community courses.
  • Attendance is good. Only holidays or sickness keep the students from the lesson.
  • Private students also expect professionalism, quality and efficiency.
Characteristic student traits:

  • Business students are generally more relaxed and easy going. They already know each other.
  • Easily motivated if the target language is of immediate use to their jobs.
  • Contrary to belief, most just love “relaxing” activities such as game activities to practise the target language (contrast to their working environment)…
  • …and yet they have high competitive traits which make for lively team-work competitions.
  • Most love to have some lesson time spent on conversational discussions such as books, films, politics, etc. (Keep a firm hand to bring the conversation to a timely close!)
  • Homework with a “business flair” such as writing e-mails gets done. But be warned: homework exercises such as gap-fill exercises won’t be touched!
Characteristic student traits:

  • Takes longer for students to thaw out amongst all these strangers.
  • Can be difficult to find topics and materials to keep all students actively interested.
  • Love game activities to practise the target language.
  • Competitive traits for lively team-work or game competitions have to be developed. This can be hard work but worth the effort.
  • Shy in speaking at first. Takes time to gain more self-confidence to talk freely in the lesson.
  • Homework is often left undone — or done in the last few minutes before the lesson starts.
  • Private students share the same traits as business students.
Equipment and Materials:

  • Expect tailored materials.
  • Use of the Internet, computer and modern presentation technology is expected.
Equipment and Materials:

  • Mostly English course books and photocopies.
  • May use e-mail communication.
  • Young learners and young adults are more likely to use computers and the Internet.
  • Private students expect the same use of equipment and materials as business students.

As you can see, private general English students expect the same service from their teacher as business students.

But are there other factors you must consider when deciding whether to target your services to teach business or general English students?

What other factors must you consider?

Yes, there are other factors such as larger or smaller groups, one-to-one lessons, and your own special preferences in teaching. For example, do you have any specific knowledge where you can work in a special area in business (ESP: accounting, law, engineering, energy, medicine, media, retail, production, real estate…) or science subjects (EAP: chemistry, research, university students…)? Just to mention a few…

Summary + Action Plan

Then what about business experience that is not white-collar business experience? Is this “life’s” way of throwing you into the deep-end? To make you feel insecure and in danger of drowning? You don’t need to when you understand the definition of “business English”.

Understanding and defining what exactly is meant by “business English” and realising that business students have the same requirements as private general English students could help “unpanic” those who have never worked in an office.

An office need not be the only requirement for experience. Working on the factory floor is also business experience: working in supermarkets or in the grocers is also working experience, albeit another form of business experience, but– business experience.

Are language teachers any different? Of course not! As a language freelance teacher, choosing which type of student you prefer to teach can be the first hurdle when you start free-swimming.

Experience in being able to earn your living is “business experience”. Specialise in your area of experience and help those who need your knowledge in this area – with your English expertise.

You have a choice.

Don’t belittle the amount or type of your business knowledge you possess. It’s won’t be easy with such a wide choice, but you do need to make a choice.

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