Business knowledge vs. LSP competence
One particular feature of teaching and learning foreign languages in the widest sense is the importance of knowledge in the field concerned. For example, “language” skills alone are insufficient for understanding a business report: indeed, they cannot be separated from content knowledge. Of course, the same applies to learning so-called “everyday language”. The difference is that knowledge on everyday topics such as saying hello or good-bye, buying groceries, ordering a coffee, etc. is not usually considered “specialist” because we are all supposed to be specialists in such basic activities - although from an intercultural point of view that may not always be the case.
In a best-case scenario, for sure, courses on business language will be taught by instructors with both business and foreign language training, or by teams of two experts. Yet such ideal cases will remain exceptions. One reason is that many teachers of language classes to subject-specialists will not need a particularly high level of specialist knowledge. Rather, these situations will involve a complementary process of learning and teaching in which teachers give up their position of authority and infallibility, and serve as tutors instead (compare Stegu 2007). It is true that teachers will always require basic knowledge and a degree of openness to the specific field (e.g., business administration, economics), especially if they are the first to convey certain specialist content to their students. However, any insecurities they might have about their perceived lack of specialist - or in our case - business knowledge should not lead them to forget their role as “language and communication specialists”. Consider the following critical comment in Reuter (1997:11; author’s translation), responding to Buhlmann and Fearns (1987):
[I]t cannot be the primary responsibility of foreign language teaching to anticipate a curriculum’s
field-specific content by requiring students to learn specialist knowledge by heart. Instead, their
most important purpose is preparing students to engage in specific forms of specialised oral
and written communication likely to be encountered in training and on the job.
There cannot be any absolute guidelines on how to weigh specialist knowledge and language and communication skills. Again, learners’ needs and interests, institutions’ requirements and other factors are part of this process. Moreover, different relative weights may be preferred in different languages. For example, learning and teaching Business English may be very strongly focused on business and economic content, while courses on other languages (see Section 3.4) may be less geared towards specialist knowledge. In any case, a stronger focus on specialist knowledge should never replace the primary one on language and communication skills.
At the same time, it would be unwise to underestimate the importance of small talk especially in establishing a positive atmosphere for communicating and negotiation. Additionally, attempts to communicate at least partially in one’s partner’s L1 (and thereby to understand that language and the culture associated with it) can be highly valuable on a relational level (see Watzlawick, Beavin, and Jackson 1967:1 - their “second axiom”). After all, communicating does not simply mean exchanging “hard facts”.
In the increasingly internationalised area of tertiary education, students can often engage with specialist content in foreign languages at their home universities, but also, and perhaps to a greater extent, during exchange semesters in other countries. Exchanges can lead to great advances in learning foreign or business languages. However, courses on specialist content taught in a foreign language can only supplement, rather than replace, courses that focus specifically on the teaching and learning of foreign languages (see my comments on CLIL in Section 2.2). If students spend time at a university in a different country, languages other than English often take centre stage, both in one’s studies and in everyday communication. Sometimes, though, exchange students socialise exclusively with other exchange students or students from their own country. In these cases, they often communicate primarily in English or in their L1, and do not attempt to acquire even survival and small talk skills in the local language, especially if it is not a “world language” such as French or Spanish.