Education March 2011

Learning “Real World” Language

Many people need English at work, but few are fluent

The world of business changes rapidly and this has never been more true than over the past 10 years. With developments in communications and technology, the world has become smaller and business is being done on a global scale more quickly, easily and effectively than in the past. Economic bases have shifted, new markets have opened and economic powerhouses have emerged. The world has become globalised and the face of international business has a new complexion.

These changes mean that business people are now likely to be dealing with individuals from a wide range of countries. This has had a major impact on the teaching of business English. Teachers need to have more than knowledge of grammar and basic business vocabulary. To ensure effective communication, they need an understanding of how people from different countries and with varying levels of English communicate worldwide, and how business practices are changing on the international stage.

With business becoming increasingly global, a growing number of people need to use English at work. A recent study of 25,000 business people around the world shows that for about 90% of the respondents, English was either “critical” or “important” for their jobs. However, only 9% of these people said their English was good enough for them to conduct business effectively. Students now want more focused and flexible courses that more closely meet their requirements, lead to faster progress and have immediate application to their jobs.

Globalisation also calls for increased cultural awareness. As business people are dealing with a wider range of nationalities, they need to learn how to behave and what to expect. No modern business English course would be complete without some reference to cultural differences. Moreover, while Asian students of business English are learning how to give a firm handshake, in other parts of the world their counterparts with an interest in the Japanese market are learning how properly to exchange meishi.

Employers, meanwhile, yearn for measurability and insist their students take exams to measure progress. Yet few of these exams measure how a person uses English to perform work-related duties in the real world. Employers should focus instead on enhancing the ability of their staff to communicate, thereby ensuring that the money they have spent makes a real difference.

Globalisation has had an effect on Japan’s business and economy that some analysts suggest threatens its status. The main threat comes from China, which has just replaced Japan as the world’s second-largest economy. Other nations, particularly in South-East Asia, are also undermining Japan’s hegemony in manufacturing. A rapidly ageing society and the struggle to provide cutting-edge innovation will take a further toll on Japan’s economic prowess.

Japan desperately needs to engage with the rest of the world to fight off competition, win new markets and form international partnerships. This will not be possible without English. Employers should be aware that “true-to-life” practice has far more meaning and practical worth in the real world of global business than exam marks.