Teaching business English has become a lucrative, long-term career option for English trainers in today’s globalised world. Evan Frendo discusses interesting current trends and how the landscape of the industry has changed over the years with Ian McMaster from Business Spotlight.
Ian McMaster: What have been the biggest changes you have observed over your career among users of business English?
Evan Frendo: When I started in business English in the early 1990s, most of my students were managers and people in senior positions. They were the ones who needed English in order to speak to customers, work with partners and so on.
Now, it has become common to see people working in international teams, often virtually, with English as the lingua franca. Many internal meetings are held in English, even in German companies. For many people, a typical day is full of switches from German to English and back to German, depending on what is happening and who is in the room or on the telephone.
There is greater recognition of the fact that business English is not “native speaker” English, but rather the English that people need to do their jobs effectively.
This means that there is an increased focus on intercultural communication and soft skills. For example, in some companies where I work, the focus is on understanding “Chinese English”, because this is the type of English the employees will meet when they speak with their clients and business partners.
Experienced business people understand that it is no good having perfect “native-speaker” English if you cannot communicate with your clients.
And what have been the biggest changes you have observed for teachers and trainers?
I think the biggest change I have noticed is that there are more teachers and trainers on the market, and therefore there is more competition. Surprisingly, Germany is a country that does not demand high standards from the people who teach business English, and almost anyone can do it. There are no minimum entry qualifications.
This means that many trainers are not properly trained to do what they are doing, but have simply done a short introductory course on how to be a teacher and then relied on the fact that, as native speakers, their command of the language will get them through.
More and more trainers are now doing certificates in business English training.
In many business English situations, this is adequate, and there are many examples of satisfied customers using trainers like this. But in other cases, such trainers are not good enough.
This has led to another change: some companies have learned from experience and now demand better-trained trainers. And more and more trainers are now doing certificates in business English training.
What type of business English training do people at work really need?
The answer always depends on the specific context. In some situations, a general business English approach will be enough, with the trainer and the learners adapting published materials as necessary to suit their own needs. This type of approach is very common in language schools, for example.
Within companies, however, the approach can be very different, with the trainers and learners spending significant time analysing needs, understanding where the priorities are and then tailor-making the training accordingly.
An important factor here may be business knowledge and content, not just the language.
This sometimes means collaborating with a range of stakeholders to understand what the company’s perspective is, as well as observing language in use — meetings, presentations, negotiations, discussions and so on — to find out where the real communication problems lie.
An important factor here may be business knowledge and content, not just the language. Trainers will often work closely with a client to understand this perspective. Such a collaborative approach requires special skills; so trainers who do this sort of work tend to be well-qualified and experienced.
How is technology changing the way that people use English for work purposes?
Recently, I was in Xi’an, China, doing some work for a client, and I had to take a taxi. The taxi driver didn’t speak any English, and my Chinese is very poor. But I had a card with my hotel address on it, so I wasn’t worried. But this time, the driver chatted to me the whole of the 40-minute trip using an app on his smartphone.
The app allowed us to communicate. We talked about my job, his family, Xi’an and many other things. Such apps are becoming commonplace in the workplace. I often see people using them during meetings, for example. But simultaneous translation apps are only one example of new technology.
The biggest impact of technology is that fewer people will need to learn a language.
Everyone knows how easy it is to translate an email or other written document. The quality is now very good and getting better all the time. And some industries are working hard to eliminate the need for human communication at all in certain areas; computers simply communicate with other computers to pass on information.
Contact between people is still important, but things are changing. The days of relying solely on intuition and personal relationships are disappearing fast. And, of course, there is a lot more remote communication, using technology that simply did not exist a few years ago.
I think the biggest impact of technology, however, is that fewer people will need to learn a language.
Of course, it will always be beneficial to learn foreign languages. But when we measure how long language training takes, compared to the potential advantages, many of us will decide that the method I used with my taxi driver will be enough. It’s all about return on investment.
And how is technology changing the way that people learn and teach business English?
Firstly, the software we use nowadays to analyse language use allows us to understand much better the language that we need to focus on.
For example, we now have access to large collections of language data. We can compare the mistakes that native speakers of German make in English with those made by speakers of other languages, and create language-learning activities that are aimed precisely at German speakers of English.
This means that a whole range of learning resources, from textbooks to dictionaries to magazines, are able to target real needs much more effectively than in the past.
Secondly, the technology available in the classroom and for self-study allows a lot of new things to be done. It is now normal for teachers and learners to use their own devices in class to make recordings, to access resources such as dictionaries and videos, to practise vocabulary and so on.
Most coursebooks now include online activities and exercises. Language-learning apps are everywhere and are offering new language-learning opportunities. It is relatively easy to spend ten minutes every day revising key vocabulary on an app on the daily commute to work, for example.
But perhaps more importantly, these apps are allowing the experts to collect vast amounts of data about how people learn languages. Such research will have a profound influence on how professional trainers do things.
Looking ahead to the next five years, what are the biggest changes that you expect the business English industry to undergo?
Different parts of the industry will go in different ways. The big language schools will get bigger and bigger, and dominate the market even more, to the detriment of small schools and individual trainers working as freelancers.
This trend is already taking place, as many of Germany’s largest multinational companies are seeking to increase the quality of their training providers, and at the same time, bring down the costs.
Universities, colleges and schools will do a much better job of preparing people for the workplace, and less training will be necessary in the workplace itself.
… much more emphasis on soft skills and intercultural skills, rather than a more traditional focus on grammar and vocabulary.
Already, many school leavers have certificates in business English, something that was quite rare just a few years ago. Technology will continue to change the way we think about communication. And, as I said, fewer people will need to spend time learning a foreign language. The way we relate to devices will change as we learn how to use them better.
And those people who do invest in learning a language will demand much more emphasis on soft skills and intercultural skills, rather than a more traditional focus on grammar and vocabulary.
What advice would you give to someone thinking of starting a career as a business English trainer?
First, be prepared to learn from your clients and from experienced trainers. They often know much more about business communication than you do, particularly at the beginning of your career.
Second, be prepared to spend time analysing your clients’ needs. Each client is unique and requires a tailor-made approach. One size does not fit all.
Be aware that technology is really influencing this profession.
Third, do more than an introductory course in teaching — if you want to be a professional, you need to spend real time and effort learning the skills and techniques you require, and you need to keep up to date. Your clients deserve no less. Joining teacher associations, attending conferences and simply networking with others in the profession will all be invaluable.
And finally, be aware that technology is really influencing this profession. If you are interested in how language works, have a look at natural language processing and computational linguistics. These fields are at the cutting edge of what we do, and there are innumerable opportunities at the moment.
This is a shortened version of the interview originally featured in Business Spotlight magazine, issue 7/2019. www.business-spotlight.de
You can read the full interview on Evan’s website.
Evan Frendo has been an ELTABB member since 1993, when he first started teaching business English and ESP. He has a background in engineering and works for clients across Europe and in Asia. You can find out more about him on his website www.e4b.de.