“Office English” and why nearly all business English books are useless

Famous publisher coursebooks, such as Cambridge University Press Pass Cambridge BEC Preliminary, teach such seemingly useful and important items as:

Product development (drug development in the USA) Measuring company performance (a private British rail network) Banking sector (about British banks) Quality control (a snack foods producer) Recruiting staff (article about various methods)

The seeming usefulness of this sort of study quickly vanishes when examined through the lens of reality, aka: needs analysis. Our students don’t need it. Contrary to popular belief and even many of our own assumptions, these lessons have little or no connection to the jobs our students will have.

This became apparent to me due to my practice of collecting 10 Emails from each of my corporate students. Examining the English that is actually used in companies, two things are very clear:

1. The specific vocabulary taught in these books is useless.
2. What our students need is basic business vocabulary and grammar.

At the bottom of this message are ten very typical examples[1] of Emails from a foreign insurance company operating in China. Please note the business vocabulary:
seminar
target customers
inactive
criterias [sic]
marketing plan

But please also note the specific industry vocabulary:
insured campaign
agent score card
Production Tracking Reports

As you read the Emails, below, you will see that little vocabulary is specifically about the insurance industry. But there is a lot “office English”, communication about approving forms, arranging a meeting, new procedures. Rather than call it “business English” with all its current sexy connotations of big negotiations, wining and dining in exotic five-star restaurants and stock market investments, I call this “office English”.

“Office English” is what our students are going to need. Not all that other crazy stuff in the business English books. Some of our students are going to work in the fashion, catering, manufacturing, chemical supply industries. Each of these have a very specialized vocabulary.

Special vocabulary they will pick up on the job.

So let’s look at this grammar. A few samples from the messages:

1. I’ll attend HR training this two days.
2. target customers who is inactive
3. the data in today’s reports just update to June 1st 4. u guys need not worry his ability 5. he has agreed with the revise

This is not “business grammar”. This is everyday grammar. They can pick up this grammar from reading novels, watching TV or movies, surfing the Internet, reading newspapers, graded readers.

In other words, they can learn it from extensive comprehensible input, material at their level and a little above that is interesting. Specific business vocabulary they will learn on the job from extensive comprehensible input in their work environment.

Collect Emails from your corporate students or ask your graduates who now have jobs to send you some samples and let’s compare notes. Are business English books hitting the target or are our students’ needs so diverse there is no ESP (English for Special Purposes) book able to serve them well?

Notes:

[1] Below are ten actual Emails from an American insurance company in China. Please note some very specialized vocabulary. Students tell me they learned this vocabulary on the job and did not study it. They just picked it up from their work in the office. For a Word document with 50 examples, please contact me.

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EMAIL 1

Kindly to inform you that xx has invited xx to be the speaker of OOC touch point seminar.

The seminar will be held on July 27 evening ( Pls see the attachment for the detail rundown).

On xx’s introduction, xx is a very very good speaker and he can speak fluent mandarin too. He is a world class speaker.

We think it’s maybe a good opportunity for agency promotion, we wonder whether you need to invite him too?

If yes, we should inform xx the schedule today.

Your reply today will be highly appreciated!

=======================
EMAIL 2

The under insured’s leaflet has finish it’s final design, I’ve submit to xx for her comment.

I’ll attend HR training this two days, yy will forward the confirmed design to you ASAP.

Anything urgent pls contact xx or zz.

Thank you!

=======================
EMAIL 3

Dear all:
Kindly to remind you that as GZ’s inactive orphan policy lead size is not so sufficient. GZ have 2 selection criterias:
1. For the target customers who is inactive for 5 years(the same as SH), 2. For the target customers who is inactive for 3 years.
Thank you for your attention.

=======================
EMAIL 4

Kindly be informed that the marketing plan of Under Insured campaign has been approved by our GM, I’ve fax the hardcopy to you, pls check it.

As the time is very tight, can we finish the whole approval circle in two weeks?

Thank you very much!

=======================
EMAIL 5

Considering the under insured campaign is LG channel, to give more information and motivation to our agent, I modified the tracking report:
1. Add a new report named: billboard
2. Modify the agent score card( for team) I’ve discuss with xx, he has agreed with the revise.

Thank you!

=======================
EMAIL 6

Many thanks for your kindest support to make it happen! We strongly believe that xx is the right person for our seminar.
Your continuous support is the key of our success!

=======================
EMAIL 7

Dear both,

Denise has already invited a guest speaker from HK agency. He is called Andy xxx ( Senior District Director).

well, he is a very very good speaker and he can speak fluent mandarin too. He is a world class speaker, so u guys need not worry his ability 🙂

Kind regards,

=======================
EMAIL 8

I’ve double checked these cost items, and they are all right. Furthermore, I’ve mastered how to use correlative forms, and I’ll ask xx’s help when I have other questions.

=======================
EMAIL 9

There is the final version wording of “NML Campaign” we prepared in the attachment, please help to check whether it is ready to apply for approval program.

=======================
EMAIL 10

To conduct the campaign better and more conveniently, we prepared three “Production Tracking Reports” for agencies, and we’ll update them every two weeks from now on; Furthermore, because the data in today’s reports just update to June 1st- when our campaign have only launched for ten days, so some items just for your reference. If there are some questions or proposals about these reports, you can contact us further.

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>Our students, their jobs, their English

>I’m working on developing a new course for a vocational college, as I mentioned before. I wanted to do some research on the students who have graduated early this year to see how they are using their English.

If students don’t use their English they will lose their English. But the English they will use will be the English they need and the English they need will be determined by the jobs they find (or other special interests). If we teach the English for the kinds of jobs they will find then they will be able to (1) do these jobs well and will also (2) retain this English and not forget it.

I sent a survey questionnaire to the students who graduated earlier this year from the college. The results are interesting:

42% are working in manufacturing or trading businesses. This is by far the largest group of industries that my students have entered. This, of course, is reflective of the type of businesses present here in Guangdong.

14% have no job at present. They may have had a job for awhile but not right now.

The other students are in various industries such as: travel & tourism, teaching & education, telecommunications, banking, hotel, IT, etc.

In these jobs the students are working in a wide variety of roles, such as, administration assistant, customer service executive, data processor, engineering dept. assistant, shipping documents clerk, merchandiser, Photoshop touch-up artist, purchaser, receptionist, teacher assistant, salesperson, telegraphic transfers clerk for a bank, translator, etc.

So our students enter a wide variety of industries and have a wider variety of roles. Can we make any useful generalizations out of those industries and jobs?

Manufacturing and trade are the industries that most of these students enter (42%). So to produce an oral English course and target English to discuss products, specifications, prices and costs, quality, shipping and transportation, plus English for other more general office functions like meetings, agreeing and disagreeing, handling complaints, etc, cover most of the students’ needs.

This kind of information is very helpful to not only provide direction in what the students need but what they don’t need, as well. For example, previously they were using coursebooks which had units on things like the stock market and the company annual report, etc. It is likely that the students would forget much of this vocabulary before they get a chance to use it.

On a side note, half of the students say they like or even love their jobs, about a quarter think their jobs are just OK or so-so and another quarter say they don’t like their jobs. So it’s nice to know that most of them are happy or somewhat satisfied with the jobs they found.