MED Magazine - Issue 23 - October 2004

The intercultural dimension of Business English
by Rosemary Richey

Second in a series of articles on Business English issues


In the last issue of the MED Magazine we explored the basic definition and components of teaching Business English (BE). It may appear that BE focuses entirely on language and skills development for the workplace. However, our BE training should include an obvious intercultural aspect to realistically prepare our students to function professionally in English.

Some BE specialists might claim that intercultural training is just an added 'extra' to our lessons. There is only a minimal emphasis since language teachers are not really in the cultural training business. I would propose the contrary where BE training is invariably intertwined with a strong intercultural element. If not, then, our efforts to prepare our students to genuinely communicate in a real-life business setting will be impractical, not yielding any concrete business results.

To develop this premise, I will discuss the basic ideas of intercultural learning and training and how it inextricably lends itself to BE.

What is intercultural training?

Intercultural training cultivates an awareness and understanding of a person's own culture and other cultures. The underlying target of intercultural training is to foster international tolerance and consideration. This is a prevalent feature of all fields of education nowadays, not just in language teaching.

What does 'culture' mean?

As a basic review, culture signifies manners, customs and expectations of behaviour within a given society. It can also be identified with nationality and religion. In many cases, people can belong or function in more than one culture.

Developing intercultural awareness

I would suggest that intercultural awareness is directly linked to language teaching. After all, language is defined and developed by a culture. If our students are learning a second, even third language, it would be a logical assumption to help them understand the culture of these languages — and how it can relate to the students' own culture. This is a reciprocal process which entails an exchange of cultural information — or an intercultural development.

Intercultural effectiveness for BE skills

Cross-cultural teaching creates a heightened sense of awareness and sensitivity. Our students incorporate these attitudes in learning BE. This is especially evident in the following general and specific skills and language aims.

General competence
communication skills: clear speaking, active listening and high tolerance for ambiguity, dealing with other points of view
understanding of different work styles
building, leading and participating in teams

Specific business skills
business writing: emails, letters, reports
job search related: CVs, job applications, interviewing

From the point of view of both general competence and specific business skills, the target language involves:
giving/handling feedback
offering alternatives

We may sufficiently prepare our students in the areas listed above. However, their intercultural effectiveness will be confronted with real-life business considerations such as:

1 What is the expected protocol at interviews and meetings?
2 Which negotiation strategies/language work and which do not?
3 How can I avoid costly and embarrassing cultural blunders?
4 How can I win the respect and confidence of international partners?

BE should develop intercultural awareness to help students address these questions of business etiquette or norms in dealing with foreign colleagues, clients and customers.

BE lessons with intercultural awareness

Intercultural elements of BE can be addressed by designing materials which have a clear intercultural theme. For instance, your cultural background and related experience can give an authentic dimension to the materials you use or design. The students themselves are a rich source of intercultural input, both from their personal and professional background.

Coursebooks or already prepared seminar materials may already be presented in a certain cultural context, but this can be easily extrapolated into the students' own culture — or into those cultures they are familiar with. Moreover, the intercultural aspect of your lessons belongs in any classroom format whether it be a one-to-one or small group lesson or seminars and workshops.

Appropriate levels

It can be assumed that intercultural training is only readily understood by advanced English learners. I contend that any level of BE should include the cross-cultural element. For example, in high beginner to pre-intermediate levels, descriptive language involving personality, jobs and workplaces can be presented to reflect both the students' and other cultures. In intermediate to advanced levels, more particular aspects of intercultural awareness can be emphasized such as interpretation of body language, or cultural expectations in handling and closing business deals.

Final thoughts

Since we are teaching BE as language and skills in context, then we cannot ignore the intercultural factor as crucial to that development. The language and skills learnt will have no practical purpose for our students if not applied in the appropriate cross-cultural manner. No attempt at cultural awareness and sensitivity in business will most certainly bring frustration and setbacks when students attempt to deal with international clientele. Moreover, the intercultural element within BE implies that one culture is not superior over another. Students learn the value of compromise to apply to differences and to still achieve successful results.

Further reading

Cankova, M and Gill, S. Oxford Basics Intercultural Activities (OUP, 2002)
Gibson, R. Intercultural Business Communication (OUP, 2002)
Utley, R. The Culture Pack: Intercultural Communication Resources For Trainers (York Associates, 2002)

Useful websites
The Delta Intercultural Academy website for intercultural training news and events
The website of the Society for Intercultural Education, Training and Research
Macmillan's teacher resource site providing articles, lessons, worksheets and teaching tips
The special interest group of IATEFL for Business English updates, discussion, events and links to prominent Business English websites

More in this issue

You'll find the following related material in this issue:
• More tips for teaching meeting skills
• Meeting Essentials 2 activities
• Meeting Essentials 2 teacher's notes

Next in the series

The November issue will contain tips and activities for presentations. Business English Issues will feature a discussion about classroom management.

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