Materials, methodology and contents
Nickerson (2005: 375) observed that “the market [for teaching materials] has remained somewhat static over the last two decades”. She took issue with then existing materials, arguing that they were outdated, catered to intermediate rather than advanced students and, above all, failed to reflect authentic business interactions. To this day, the materials used in Business English instruction are still often self-produced partly because English for Specific Purposes, as localised practice, accommodates localised forms of learning, partly because published materials tend to be standardised, wideangled and neutral with regard to a specific field (Gnutzmann 2011: 529-530).
Ideally, of course, materials should adequately represent the target contexts, preparing students for professional practice in the workplace. This plea for “authenticity” and for “bringing the real world into the classroom” (Kankaanranta and Louhiala-Salminen 2010: 208) resonates with a long-term trend in English Language Teaching. However, it is a somewhat unfortunate one. For “what is real or authentic to users is not authentic to learners. It is not real to them if they do not know the conventions of use that makes it real; and they do not know them, by definition, if, as is commonly the case, they are not yet members of the discourse community concerned” (Widdowson 1998:10). There are several reasons for this.
First and foremost, identifying Business English uses in the workplace can only give rise to descriptive claims. These, however, “carry no implication for the definition of English as a subject” (Widdowson 2003: 94). The latter would be a pedagogical claim that cannot be made on the basis of linguistic description alone. Even if “real” business language is derived from corpus data collected in the world of business, it will consist of “samples [emphasis as original] of real language data [that] do not of themselves serve as examples [emphasis as original] of language to learn from” (Widdowson 2003: 102). Similarly, emphasising the priority of learning over description of language use, Hutchinson and Waters (1987: 14) assert that “[w]e cannot simply assume that describing and exemplifying what people do with language will enable someone to learn it. If that were so, we would need to do no more than read a grammar book and a dictionary in order to learn a language”.
The “real” language debate is misguided for another reason. The context of the business world is arguably a far cry from the classroom context, the latter being imbued with a sense of pedagogic purpose that creates a “reality of its own” (Widdowson 2003: 133). This important point has been succinctly illustrated by Esteban and Canado (2004), who reported on the advantages and drawbacks of the case method in teaching Business English, describing it as rewarding and challenging for teachers and students alike. Interestingly, one of the challenges they identified was the physical learning environment itself, where the classroom proved to be incompatible with the teaching content of a meeting. Staging the classroom as a boardroom required too great an effort of imagination from both teachers and students. Nonetheless, the case method, alongside follow-up simulations of “genuine” cases adapted for the Business English classroom (Zhang 2007), has proved a viable method of teaching Business English. Other proven approaches include team teaching, ideally combining a language and a subject expert.
Even without research-based input, practitioners are required to “adjust [their] teaching methods to better suit the realities of an ever evolving and more complex, globalised, and multidisciplinary communication and teaching environment” (Du- Babcock 2006: 255). In this process, Business Communication and Business English offer two different perspectives on teaching business language, although it should be noted that ESP-led Business English has fared better due to its teaching- and learning-centred perspective. In order to improve teaching methodology in English for Specific Purposes, the content and language integrated (CLIL) approach would be a viable alternative since it “avoids confronting students with specialised texts they are not yet able to understand, but prepares them to meaningfully apply their new, subject-embedded linguistic knowledge in class” (Gnutzmann 2011: 531).
As regards what is taught, the emphasis in ESP instruction was traditionally placed on lexical issues. It prioritised, on the one hand, reading skills such as textual analysis and reading comprehension of technical language (see Gablasova
2015 for a recent overview of vocabulary learning from reading) and, on the other, genre-based/register-based writing skills. More recently, as the result of a shift towards competency-based instruction, communicative competence (CC) has become central to ESP instruction. Some of the most commonly cited models of Communicative Competence are Canale and Swain’s (1980) and Celce-Murcia’s (2007), both of which also include discourse competence.
Given that business encounters frequently involve speakers of different lingua- cultural backgrounds, they involve intercultural communication, which can be seen as “a system of shared or contested values, attitudes, beliefs and ways of doing things across cultural contexts” (Bhatia and Bremner 2012: 430). Communicative competence in business thus presupposes intercultural competence. In research on Business English as a lingua franca (BELF), several competencies have been merged into what is either referred to as “BELF competence” (Kankaanranta and Planken 2010) or, in an even more integrated form, as “Global Communicative Competence” (GCC) (Kankaanranta, Louhiala-Salminen, and Karhunen 2015). GCC is conceived as a multi-layered model consisting of three interrelated layers, namely multicultural competence, competence in BELF and business knowhow. Crucially, these layers are intertwined and highlight the importance of contextual knowledge for language competence and use (Kankaanranta, Louhiala-Salminen, and Karhunen 2015:130-131).
All in all, one of the main competencies to be imbued in business students today seems to be that of being flexibly competent. This implies that the educational purpose of Business English instruction should be “prospective”, i.e. preparing the learners to cope with the unpredictable (Widdowson 2003: 20). This way, “BELF is perceived as an enabling resource to get the work done. Since it is highly context- bound and situation-specific, it is a moving target defying detailed linguistic description” (Kankaanranta, Louhiala-Salminen, and Karhunen 2015: 129).