As I flicked through the programme of the BESIG conference 2013, which took place in Prague this weekend, what struck me most was the number of talks that dealt with doing business internationally.
It is no surprise that international business and trade has become the norm for expanding businesses wishing to survive in the modern world, and as Carl Dowse and Justine Arena suggested in their talk, The Glocal Blend, technology has made it increasingly possible for companies to reap the rewards of global markets. It is therefore natural for us Business English teachers to be considering the importance of helping our students with the soft skills required in communicating internationally.
What kind of skills are needed by those communicating internationally?
Jackie Black and Jon Dyson, authors of the book Working Virtually, observed that people working for international companies are increasingly required to communicate with geographically diverse teams, and that a certain competence with the technology being used would be expected. But what was emphasised in their talk Working virtually: building confidence and competence, were the essential soft skills needed to help move things along such as relationship building, facilitating communication and dealing with cultural diversity.
There was indeed a lot of mention of culture over the 2-day conference. From Adrian Pilbeam’s session on Developing skills for intercultural training to Sandra Gasber’s Intercultural skills in ELT: Watch this! and Martin Bradbeer’s Cultural diversity in the seminar room.
However, is the cultural training we provide more about helping our learners deal with cross-cultural situations, and less about learning the communicative behavioural patterns of an English-speaking country like the UK?
With the proliferation of English as the global language of business and trade, most of our learners would no longer be simply learning English to communicate with native speakers of the language. After all, there are only an estimated 360 million native speakers in a world of more than 1,500 million English speakers. In fact, it is said that 80% of the interactions in English would be taking place without any native speakers present. So what are the implications of this on the English that we teach?
Dealing with the topic of International English and English as a Lingua Franca, Rudi Camerer in his talk How can we teach International English? questioned the traditional benchmarks of UK and US English and asks if our concepts of accuracy, range, fluency and coherence need to adjusted.
Nick Hamilton’s talk Fluency and Pronunciation in International Business English also provided the audience with some food for thought as he reminded us of the core pronunciation features that affect international intelligibility e.g. vowel duration (sheep vs ship), consonants sounds (van and not ban; crab and not crap), consonant clusters at the beginning of words (strength; spain; great), and the use of prominence (but not individual word stress).
The ability to adapt not just our English, but also our communicative behaviour to the different situations we encounter as we do business internationally is a skillset that stems from an ability to observe and reflect. This was the message behind Jeremy Comfort’s talk Mindfulness: Helping managers to develop observational and reflective skills as a foundation for effective international performance. Using the DIE model where we learn to ‘Describe’, ‘Interpret’ and ‘Evaluate’ the communication of our interlocutors, we become better at adapting to the communication around us. Being mindful as we observe ourselves and others when we interact with different personalities across different cultures and situations can help develop emotional intelligence, cultural intelligence, and situational judgement and lead to higher performance when working internationally.
Such observational powers and awareness can be applied when dealing with specific business soft skills. In his talk, titled What International Negotiators Need to Know, culture expert Barry Tomalin identified the key frameworks that help international managers negotiate with clients, project partners and suppliers, and emphasised the importance of helping of our students understand the cultural expectations of their partners and what tactics to adopt to achieve their aims.
Meanwhile Fiona Mee, author of the book Managing Change, acknowledged that change is happening faster and in more diverse ways around the globe. in her talk, Teaching skills for managing change, she explored the language, communication, interpersonal and intercultural skills needed to help our learners manage the different changes happening around them.
On the topic of presentation skills, Mike Hogan, in his workshop Key Issues when teaching international presentation skills, urged the participants to look beyond a typical ‘jolly-good’ British English model, and consider the cultural expectations of the audience being presented to. Rather than focusing on ‘English for Presentations’ with our learners, we should be focusing on helping them improve their ability to present to an international audience, thereby transcending lexical items and help them become more aware of key aspects of presentations that might differ across cultures, such as how information is presented, how audiences may or may not interact, whether questions will be asked, and if so, how, and so on.
This rapid increase in internationalisation has also led to more specialisation, new organisational structures and uncertainty. Ian McMaster and Bob Dignen in their talk The Future of Business English: What should it look like? questioned if we should be focusing on new types of communication skills as a result. The speakers are the co-authors of the books ‘Effective International Business Communication’ and ‘Communication for International Business’, and interestingly, while the former is a book written for non-native speakers, clients not unlike our students in our typical business English classrooms, the latter has been written for native speakers of English.
The road towards international business communication is clearly not just one that affects non-native speakers of English but also native speakers. No longer can they lie on their laurels, expecting the world to conform to their way of doing things, but they now also have to adapt both in the way they speak English, and also the way they accommodate other cultures and expectations.
Black, J and J, Dyson. (2013) ‘Working Virtually’. Delta Publishing.
Dignen, B and I, McMaster. (2013) ‘Effective International Business Communication’. Collins.
Dignen, B and I, McMaster. (2013) ‘Communication for International Business’. Collins.
Mee, F. (2013) ‘Managing Change’. Delta Publishing.
Tomalin, B. (2012) ‘Key Business Skills’. Collins.
About English Teaching professional’s regular blogger:
Chia Suan Chong is a General English and Business English teacher and teacher trainer, with a degree in Communication Studies (Broadcast and Electronic Media) and an MA in Applied Linguistics and English Language Teaching from King’s College London.
A self-confessed conference addict, she spends a lot of her time tweeting (@chiasuan/@ETprofessional), Skyping, and writing. You can find out more about her on her blogsite: http://chiasuanchong.com