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English as a lingua franca in international business contexts: Pedagogical implications for the teaching of English for Specific Business Purposes

  • 1. Introduction
  • 2. Reconceptualising English in the age of (corporate) globalisation
  • 3. Teaching English for Specific Business Purposes
  • 4. Conclusion


“Business is booming” reads the title of St John’s (1996) state-of-the-art article taking inventory of Business English (BE) two decades ago, which was then plagued by three ills: 1) The conceptualisation of English underpinning the notion of Business English; 2) The unavailability of data permitting the linguistic description of Business English, particularly the absence of a “common core” of business language; 3) The discrepancy between research and practice in English for Specific Purposes (ESP). Twenty years on, it is surprising to see the stubborn persistence of these problems, even more so given that “[t]he teaching and training of English for business [has evolved into] a multi-billion-dollar industry” (Nickerson 2012:1923).

There can be no doubt that the different waves of globalisation have left an irrevocable mark on the English language. Propelled by determining social, political and economic factors, globalisation gained new momentum after the end of World War II, giving rise to processes such as decolonisation and the rebuilding of Europe. Inevitably, the global spread of English has resulted in the increasing diversification of English-using communities, to the extent that it has become ever more difficult to conceptualise the English language. Consequently, current reconceptualisations of English, such as suggested by the English as a lingua franca (ELF) paradigm, testify to the conceptual broadening of the very notion of language, conceiving of it as a (virtual) resource characterised by plurality, fluidity and community-based interaction.

This perspective on language has been a source of inspiration and strong appeal to the Business English research community, where English as a lingua franca has been slowly, but steadily, embraced as BELF, that is, Business English as a lingua franca. The task of determining the properties of Business English has not become any easier in view of two factors: first, this new Business English as a lingua franca

DOI 10.1515/9781614514862-014

seems to defy linguistic description; second, business practices are, by default, international, intercultural and multilingual. It is thus no surprise that the field of inquiry is very much in transition, an idea encapsulated in the phrase “the changing landscape of business communication” (Kathpalia and Ling 2014).

If business has been booming, so has research into business language. Cases in point are The Handbook of English for Specific Purposes (Paltridge and Starfield 2013), two state-of-the-art volumes on ESP theory, practice and research (Belcher 2009a; Belcher, Johns, and Paltridge 2011), the special issues of English for Specific Purposes Journal (1996, 2005), the Journal of Business Communication (2010) or the Journal of English as a Lingua Franca entitled “Teaching ELF, BELF, and/or Intercultural Communication?” (2015). Not only do these publications testify to the great interdisciplinary interest in BE, they also highlight that the field is a composite of different research traditions. Influential scholars have recently revisited key concepts in this highly dynamic field (e.g., Starfield 2012; Nickerson 2012; Johns 2013). Thus Bhatia and Bhatia (2011) relate the dynamism in “English for Business Communication” to the influences of the teaching-led movement of English for Specific Purposes, on the one hand, and the language-centred focus of register and genre analysis on the other; a third influential field has been professional communication informed by management and organisational studies.

These highly prolific research activities have not only generated a voluminous body of literature, but have also somewhat diversified, if not fragmented, the research community. A case in point is the variety of terms used to denote the object of inquiry, including Business English (BE), English for Business Purposes (EBP), International Business English (IBE), Business English as a lingua franca (BELF), Business Discourse (BD) or Business Communication (BC). Each of these being representative of a specific research focus, the resultant “theory jungle” (Du-Babcock 2014:72) reflects the co-existence rather than cross-fertilisation of the different strands. Admittedly, the interdisciplinary sources of inspiration may have contributed to a widening of horizons. Yet there has also emerged “a widening gap between classroom activities and the professional practices in which the corporate world has been engaged. Academic research has also been seen as lacking relevance and useful application to the world of work, which is particularly true given modern-day business practice and culture” (Bhatia and Bremner 2012: 436).

This chapter offers an overview of Business English as seen from the perspective of English for Specific Purposes. In doing so, I will use Business English as an umbrella term, except for describing uses of Business English as a lingua franca. For reasons to be located in the history of ESP, but chiefly on account of language pedagogy, this coverage includes communicative uses of the language, even in the sense of Business Communication. In addressing the three issues raised above, the chapter is organised as follows: Section 2 provides an overview of the tight interweaving of (corporate) globalisation and the reconceptualisations of English, highlighting the repercussions of these developments on current conceptions of Business

English. Section 3 is entirely devoted to the teaching of English for Specific Business Purposes (ESBP), paying particular attention to the roles of specificity and needs analysis in course design and development. The discussion is wrapped up in the final section, indicating directions for further research.

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