Specific aspects of teaching and learning foreign business languages

Similarities to, and differences from teaching and learning general language

Dudley-Evans and St John (1998: 4) write that Specific Purpose English teaching “makes use of a methodology that differs from that used in General Purpose English teaching”. Leaving aside the question of whether business languages can be regarded as “specialised” in the traditional sense, there is no implication here that all teaching and learning of specialised language adheres to principles completely different from those of all teaching and learning of general language. For sure, at first glance a course concerned with specialist knowledge or technical/specialised language may look very different from a more general one that touches on technical or business language only peripherally. Nevertheless, technical and business languages are, above all, “language”, which means that we can apply the same fundamental deliberations and principles to teaching them as to teaching general language. Having said that, there will be a need for certain shifts in emphasis depending on the specific goals of a particular course. Thus, in areas other than training specialists, teaching and learning of specialised languages often proceeds from the assumption that the various sub-skills - talking, listening, writing, and reading - are not equally important. For example, purely receptive abilities are often seen as sufficient, especially in relation to more complex source materials.[1]

In the area of teaching and learning specialised communication, the didactic focus tends to be tighter. It is no more than a tendency because - as I will show below - the distinction between specialised and, even more so, business language, on the one hand, and general language on the other cannot be drawn precisely. Yet, even so, we can discern that particular technical terminology, formulaic phrases and syntactic structures are more common in (prototypical) specialised languages than in everyday text types and genres (Sing, Peters, and Stegu 2014: 4). This difference should be considered in the respective didactical approaches.

Courses on business language used to put a strong emphasis on specialised business vocabulary and business correspondence. However, there has been a move towards asking which concrete language and communication requirements learners have (or will have) in their professional environments. Such needs relate to oral as well as written skills, with special concern for constantly changing and newly emerging text types and genres (e.g., in new/social media, etc.). In general language learning and teaching, so-called “needs analyses” already play an important role (Long 2005). In business contexts, they can be particularly useful if analysis of learner and organisational needs is combined (see Chapter 13 on multilingualism in business). The salient question is: How do the communication needs of businesses and those of language learners (school and university students, language course participants, etc.) relate to, or conflict with, each other?

In both cases, “real” and perceived or expressed “needs” may not always correspond. Leaving aside the fact that communication needs can never be objectivised, it is possible that both learners and business representatives hold certain traditional ideas about specific skills that they perceive as important but do not feature prominently in real communication. Nonetheless, it is fair to assume that a sufficient number of interviews and participant observations can lead to results that are at least reasonably close to “reality”. Again, it should be noted that opinions on what the learning and teaching of general or specialised language should look like may vary widely between and among experts and laypeople.

  • [1] Of course, similar thoughts can also feature prominently in approaches to learning and teaching“general language” such as, for example, in a course that is oriented towards multilingual intercomprehension and aims to provide speakers of a specific Romance or Slavic language with readingskills in other Romance or Slavic languages (see Klein and Stegmann 2000).
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