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Author Insights

Developments in Professional English

Steve Flinders, author of Leading People, reflects on developments in
Professional English.
Business or professional?
To start with a brief definition of terms, Ive used the term Professional English rather than
Business English in this article because, as well as business people, I work with people in
politics, the media, public administration and trades unions for which the former term
works perfectly well while the latter term does not. Similarly, I generally refer to
organisations rather than companies in generic materials Im writing so as to cover people in
the public as well as in the private sector. My main focus here is also on in-service rather
than pre-service learners.

What is working internationally?

The other rider Id like to add is about the people we teach, so lets just take a minute to
look at what working internationally really means. Business English course books tend to
be illustrated with photos of depressingly beautiful models dressed in expensive business
attire, shaking hands or smilingly discussing weighty issues in oak-panelled boardrooms or
the executive lounges of shiny new airports. You may actually teach the people they are
pretending to represent from time to time and I do sometimes, but I also teach receptionists
who greet visitors and field calls from abroad both of which require quite complex sets of
skills to do well and which reflect very badly on the organisation if done poorly; and I teach
trade union reps who are also drivers, industrial, canteen and health workers and the like
who have to communicate with migrant workers in English to help with health and safety,
explanations of rights, welfare issues and so on and who perform an important societal
function when they do so. More and more people from every walk of life are working
internationally in todays globalised, interconnected and highly mobile economy. It is not
just a sport for a minority of senior executives as some book illustrations like to suggest.

Where has Professional English come from?

The company I work for, York Associates, has always aimed to be in the forefront of
Professional English training. In the 1980s, a main part of its activity was designing and
delivering bespoke ESP (English for Specific Purposes) courses in areas such as technical
report writing and conference communication for doctors, with a strong emphasis on
identifying and teaching specialist and sub-technical vocabulary. In the early 1990s, it was
among the very first specialist language training organisations to publish video-based


materials on professional communication skills for presentations, meetings, telephoning,

negotiating and socialising materials which were eventually translated into the Oxford
Business English Skills series. In 2000, we ourselves published The Culture Pack to bring
intercultural training activities and awareness into the Professional English classroom.
This evolution mirrors fairly precisely the way our profession has responded over these
three decades to the basic question: What do Professional English students need to learn? I
think there is a generally agreed set of answers to this question (although perhaps less
about the means of delivery in the light of developments in technology more recently) i.e.
that someone who is operational in English in a professional context needs:

general competence in the language mastery of basic grammar, vocabulary and

job-specific vocabulary;
the language and skills to perform across a range of professional communication
contexts (as appropriate to individual circumstances) to make a presentation,
telephone, lead and take part in a meeting, negotiate, socialise, write - and more
recently, to communicate virtually in telephone and video conferences;
to develop intercultural behaviours and competences to be able to work effectively
and appropriately across a range of cultural contexts national, corporate,
professional, functional and so on.

Where is Professional English going?

Basic language, professional communication and intercultural skills development are all now
part of core Professional English as reflected in the wide range of generally very good quality
materials (pictures apart!) provided by publishers. However, another question which is just
as important as the first one above is: Why? Developing these skills are the means to what
final end? Part of the reason for confronting this question more frequently today may be
the result of pressure from course sponsors in the form of corporate human resources and
purchasing functions asking what Return On Investment they are receiving from us. The
answer has to be that our job is to help our clients get results when they are working
internationally, specifically through helping them to communicate effectively. This
encompasses all that we have been doing in the past but also has the potential to widen our
remit substantially as well.
Helping York Associates clients to get results internationally has led us to extend the core
model further in response to client needs into:

interpersonal skills. My colleague Bob Dignen has for some years been writing
articles for the German Business English magazine, Business Spotlight, initially
covering professional communication skills and latterly looking more and more at
the interpersonal skills that he considers important for successful international
working for getting results. These include building relationships its central to our
view that good relationships are essential to getting results in the international
sphere; and also building trust, networking, giving and receiving feedback, making
decisions and influencing;


leadership skills. Our move into leadership training has come via team development
work for international teams using the Team Management Profile; and also
international project management communication training, driven by Bob see his
title in the International Management English series, Managing Projects.

Where are Professional English trainers going?

Extending your training offer into new areas like these can be a very daunting prospect. But
many of us are already aware of the increasingly blurred boundaries between what we do
and the activities of coaches, facilitators, communication experts et al. Indeed Im sure that
many Professional English trainers already possess not just language knowledge but a range
of intercultural skills and interpersonal ones too notably for building relationships, and
giving feedback. What is not so clear is how far trainers know what they do and are able to
say what they do, how far they can articulate what skills they are exercising. I think this which includes developing an intellectual framework for talking about these kinds of
communication processes - is an important area for professional self-development because
you cant really transfer a skill to someone else unless you have a critical understanding of
that skill yourself. (This is also true for our learners: they cant transfer soft skills to
colleagues and team members if they cant say how they exercise these soft skills
themselves, so that helping them to do this is an important part of the service we provide
for them.)

Professional development and International Management English

International Management English comprises four titles: Leading People and Managing
Projects (published 2012) and Managing Change and Communicating Virtually (published
2013). All these titles explore areas where language, communication and leadership training
overlap; and aim to introduce learners to ideas and information, and to develop their skills
in leadership, change and project management and virtual communication not ones which
have been significantly dealt with in the Professional English classroom before.

Finding out more

The Financial Times and The Economist websites are useful sources for business
information, and the CIPDs (Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development) for skills: a
subscription to the CIPD magazine, People Management, will get you associate membership
of the organisation - so that you can also join your local CPID branch if youre UK-based and access to restricted areas of the site too. is also a useful source
of ideas and information.


York Associates is the co-publisher with Delta Publishing of the International Management
English series:
The Team Management Profile is part of the range of tools offered by TMS Development
International Ltd:
Business Spotlight is Germans leading magazine for learners of Business English:
Dignen, R. with I. McMaster. Communicating Internationally in English. 2011. York: York
Utley, D. Intercultural Resource Pack. 2004. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
(formerly Utley, D. The Culture Pack. 2000. York: York Associates)
Oxford Business English Skills: Effective Presentations; Effective Meetings; Effective
Negotiating; Effective Telephoning; Effective Socializing - a video-based series aimed at
improving communicative skills in specific areas: