Teaching Business English

I was surprised recently when an application form for a prestigious language company asked what specialist areas of business english I had taught.  ‘Fair question’, you might say, what’s the problem?  Well, the problem is that on the application form there were only four lines on which to enter responses and I have now taught Business English for twelve years.

‘I don’t get it’ – I hear, ‘just note down financial, sales & marketing, industry, and logistics english.’

In fact, that’s what I did, whilst noting in my ‘supporting statement’ that I considered each and every one of my business english students to have specialist needs.  Blanket bombing these students with general areas of business english as found in most pedagogique books does not, to my mind anyway, tackle precise needs.  In fact, it simply shows writers of english learning materials to be over-generalists.  Understandably, they do this in order to reach larger markets for their books, without really hitting the ‘individual needs’ nails on the head.

I give some examples:

In my experience it is possible to be teaching english to those working in pharma-covigilance preparing files to present to a committee (eg. the FDA) to gain a vaccine patent (or to a rival company’s lawyer preparing to appeal against that decision), whilst in the same day teaching english to someone selling his company’s high precision machine tools.  Alternatively, I could be teaching english to specialists working in the aluminium or steel industry preparing to present their production processes at a conference, or to financers juggling with CDOs and credit default swaps.  Maybe I’m helping forwarding agents communicate with customs, shipping agents and transport companies, or IT geeks setting up new data base management systems.  I could even be teaching english to sports lecturers preparing to give lectures in english on the neurological aspects of sport which involves a high component of statistical analysis, or english to designers of high-tech tv broadcasting equipment preparing to attend a trade-fair to market their products on the international stage.

Yes, I could go on.  As I said, I’ve got twelve years of similar teaching experience and all these teaching situations have been personally experienced.  This is just a small sample.  And the reality is that a lot of time is spent scouring the internet sites, including TEFL sites, finding specific materials to match specific needs – and much time is spent designing such material myself.

Facilitators, we should be, absolutely, but I’m not too sure all the authors of TEFL materials have yet taken that on board.  However, I do appreciate that this more detailed approach is coming – about time!  There are now newly published books designed for ‘logistics’, ‘oil and petrol industry’, ‘law’, ‘aviation industry’,   ‘maritime industry’ etc. , and a breath of fresh air they are too. (see here!)  Personally, I find them much more useful than the ‘general business’ books, and for the moments of ‘light chat’ or ‘small talk’, similarly, I try and let the student (s) direct which way the conversations go, with prompts, be it towards cooking, football, the weather, or holidays.  And I’m sure most other business english teachers do the same.

There, I’ve got it off my chest.  But that’s ok because I know very few people are actually going to read this and if anyone does who is not a business english teacher- well, perhaps it gives a bit of an insight into the reality of teaching business english as experienced on a day-to-day basis.


Top Ten ‘Free’ Learning English Sites

This is a personal selection of English language learning sites that I use and encourage my students to use.   Please feel free to comment or send me links of other sites that you recommend.


1.  BBC Learning English.com

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Superbe site!  It’s huge!  Everything you need from business english to general english, the news to worldwide recipes, with grammar, vocabulary, podcasts, listenings, video clips, forums, blogs … etc etc.  The site is continuously up-dated with new material added every day.

Slight drawback:  Not so good for the ‘absolute beginner’.   Site aimed at pre-intermediate and plus.

2. Breakingnewsenglish.com

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Created by Sean Banville, this site really deserves recognition and credit.  An enormous archive resource containing texts, listenings and vocabulary consolidation exercises on a large variety of current affairs subjects.  The format is the same for all texts, and each text is accompanied by an incredible ammount of material which can be used to classroom/group learning or selected for individual learning.

Half-an-hour of english learning per day?  Listen, read, gap fill one of these texts.

3. British Council Learn English.org

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Elementary podcasts included on this site!  In fact, all level podcasts and video clips with interactive exercises and transcipts available.  An essential resource.   Learning is fun!

4.  Real English.com

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I like this site.  It may be a little difficult for elementary students, but by hearing the same question asked to many different ‘real people’ on the street you hear many different answers, voices and accents.  That’s important in learning English.

5.  elllo.org

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Semi-real conversations with transcipts and quizzes to help you learn new vocabulary and expressions.  An excellent choice for those busy  ‘ten-minutes-a-day’ type students.  But keep it in your favourites and do visit it for ‘ten-minutes-a-day’.   At least!

6.  Podcastsinenglish.com

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Another podcasts site strongly based on developing listening skills.  That’s so important, and does also help with developing speaking skills whilst building up vocabulary and strengthening grammatical structures.

7.  The English Blog

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There are many English blogs on the internet, but this is my favourite.  A new blog every day with cartoons, video clips and texts based on current affairs/news topics.   It also contains lots and lots of links to other very good English learning and English language blogging sites.

Perhaps for the more advanced students, but it’s fun.  A good way to learn what is happening in the world whilst also studying English.

8.  perfect-english-grammar.com

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A good site to work on your English grammar.  Clear explanations, exercises and video clips.

9.  e-anglais.com

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Another English grammar based site for French people who like to have English grammar explained in French.

10.  Onestopenglish.com

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This is an excellent site!  To access a lot of the material here you do need to subscribe.  However, I strongly recommend the freely available monthly news articles   (click on link) for reading practice, with comprehension and vocabulary building exercises, which can greatly help to expand your knowledge of the English language.

The English eat their words!

If only I could have a euro for every time I’ve heard this complaint – that ‘the English eat their words’.  In fact, my usual reply, since I live in France, is to reference the French expression:

‘Shais pas’.

Yes, the French eat their words too. Probably all nationalities do.  Know warrai mean?  So, to write this French expression out in full.  It’s simply a contraction of:

‘Je ne sais pas’.

But how do I know this?  I’ve never seen it explained in a French language book and I don’t recall anyone explaining it to me.  Well, my language learning ability is not so hot, but I can proudly say that my little ol’ brain worked it out by itself.  No, I’m not really so smart.  I don’t have a super-charged intellect that can decipher language by pure logic.  Nevertheless, there is an element of mental reasoning involved in language learning, and using a degree of logic is something we all do, consciously or subconsciously, when figuring out what a foreign language speaker is saying.  I’m not alone in this.

Now if you really want an example of an English person eating their words, watch this.   I have, several times, but still don’t understand everything the girl is saying!!

O.k.  That’s for laughs.  No-one really eats their words to that extreme!

So – to return to the French ‘shais pas’.   Imagine I pose the following questions to someone (in French):

– Qui à gagné la coupe du monde de football en 1954?   (Who won the football world cup in 1958? )

– Combien coûte, par kilogram, le gorgonzola? (How much per kilogram does Gorgonzola cost?)

And imagine that each question elicited the answer ‘shais pas’,  perhaps with a shrug of the shoulders and a negative visual grimace.  What, then, would you imagine ‘shais pas’ to mean?    Well,  it  seems pretty logical to me that it means: ‘ I don’t know’ (je ne sais pas).  Doesn’t it to you?

Hence, context is of prime importance for language learning.  It helps the brain work out what’s happening linguistically and solve linguistic problems.   On meeting someone for the first time, should  that person hold out their hand, smile and say ‘Nice to meet you’,  most non-English language speakers would understand that to be a friendly greeting.  And if you were meeting a Chinese man for the first time who, after making similar friendly gestures, announced:  ‘ 为满足您尼斯’, you’d probably interpret that as a friendly greeting too.  You might even try and remember the sound you heard spoken in order to repeat it the next time you meet another Chinese man for the first time.

And so, learning French through a pedagogical guide (a book) we learn that the expression ‘je ne sais pas’ means ‘I don’t know‘ in English’.  Through active listening the expression we ‘may’ (i.e. not always) hear is ‘schais pas’.  That’s just one simple example of a French ‘eaten word form’.  There are many more.   Just as many as in English.  They might also be described as the ‘informal, inarticulate, every-day, street, slang, sloppy or bad forms’, depending on one’s readiness to use such language oneself.   It’s exactly the same story in English.  Personally, I’d call them the ‘natural forms’.

So – try this English phrase

‘Iza bowta gowowt wemmi mayt caldrownd’.              (an exaggerated example)

Probably, especially if you’re not English, this looks nothing like the English language and if you heard it spoken you’d probably think it an extreme example of ‘eating our words’.  It is.   Problem is, though, that in this example there’s no context to help decipher the expression.  Remember:  Even with the simple ‘schais pas’ example we needed context.  Also, I could have written this in international phonetics, but deciphering phonetic symbols is a linguistic exercise in itself; for most people anyway.  So I’ve written the expression just as I personally hear it.   Anyway,  let’s give it some context and see if that helps:


John:  Did you go out last night, Mark?

Mark:  No, I didn’t.  I stayed in.

John:  But you said you were going to go out!

Mark: Yes, that’s true.  In fact, I was about to go out, but then I changed my mind.

John: Why?

Mark: Well, you know my mate Peter?

John: Yes.

Mark:  Well, ‘Iza bowta gowowt wemmi mayt caldrownd’ – so I didn’t go out.


Got it?  Maybe not yet?

Of course, a grammar book would explain this phrase as:

past simple       when         past simple

(I was……..)         when            my mate called round

And we’d need to understand the phrasal verb, ‘to call round’ (to visit someone informally), as well as understanding that ‘mate’ is a familiar word for ‘friend’.  Now, if we  perfectly articulated the phrase: ‘ I was about to go out when my mate called round’ – well, it’d be very good English, but perhaps not so natural. Rather robotic in fact.  But at least you now know what that phase meant.

Really, we just need to accept that all native speakers do this with their native tongues.  It involves using contractions, liaisons, a bit of familiar language, then speaking the phrase at speed, and with regional dialect.  In fact, it’s quite virtuoso language usage.   Learning the phrase by the book, then, is not the same as hearing phrases said by a native English speaker.  The book’s one place to start, for sure, just as learning piano scales written down on a musical score is one place to start learning piano.  But from there we build up complexity and fluidity.  It’s also why taking English lessons with a trained native English teacher works best.  You’re introduced to the language as naturally spoken, when you’re ready for it.    If you’re not ready for more complex structures with all the contractions and liaisons, the language just sounds a meaningless noise.  Little- by-little.  We don’t give babies meat to eat, now, do we?

Hence, we start with easier structures, such as:  I’m English = I am English, or I haven’t got a car = I have not got a car

-and then slowly move to slightly more complex form, such as:  I wouldn’t’ve gone if I’d known = I would not have gone if I had known

Then we introduce liaisons, such as: Ho(w)ould you like to go(w)up to Paris tomorrow? = How would you like to go up to Paris tomorrow?

And discuss the famous ‘schwa’ (or ‘uh’) sound, to make:  Ho(w)ould yuh like tuh go(w)up tuh Paris tomorruh?

And we may even drop our ‘H’, to sound a long way from ‘correct English’:           O(w)ould yuh like to go(w)up tuh Paris tomorruh?

Yes, some people may now start calling this bad English, and I agree there are limits.  (BBC radio4 discussion: Language and social class).  But I also believe that English language students need to acquaint themselves with such sounds, even if they don’t go to these colloquial excesses, in order to understand ‘real English speech’ as spoken by 90% of the mother tongue English population.  Yes, the so-called ‘Queen’s English’ or ‘received pronunciation’ (RP English) is actually spoken by quite a small percentage of English people.  Regional dialects are many and even ex-Prime Minister Tony Blair doesn’t always speak ‘correct’ Queen’s English.  But then:  ‘He ‘aint bovvered’.   (He isn’t bothered)

Now, for fun, try these:

(Greeting): Greytuh meetyuh, Paul, whadjuh finkuh vee-y-otel?      (Great to meet you Paul.  What do you think of the hotel?)

(Saying goodbye): Iwus goo-tuh meetyuh. Hava goo tripak?    (It was good to meet you.  Have a good trip back)

(Booking Hotel room): Ayuh gotuh room wivuh view fuh two furrah week?   (Have you got a room with a view for two people for a week?)

Yes, these examples are for fun, but on a more serious note they are intended to show how the brain makes sense out of ‘meaningless noise’.  It makes sense out of what it hears (expressions in bold) by creating the logical understandable form.  To get from ‘A-to-B’, however, is an acquired skill requiring time and practice.  Writing down what one hears, during a listening exercise, is a listening training technique commonly employed by language teachers.  It’s a good one.  But there are others up the English language teacher’s sleeve.  As previously mentioned, understanding context and using a degree of logic to understand what’s being said is also an important skill to develop.

Seeing forms and structures, then, and giving them coherence, is a step in the right direction of understanding what one hears.  When the noise forms (such as those above in bold) begin to make ‘sense’, then comes the ‘eureka moments’ of realization and the structures and language become clear.  I’ve seen this occur thousands of times in my years of teaching English.

This is the moment, then, when students understand particular structures clearly.   In consequence, they then stop blaming their lack of comprehension on the English speaker eating his/her words, and advance in their English language listening skills.  But these skills come in stages. A good teacher will take you through them step-by-step.



I remember the 70s, the hey-day of the hippies and flower power.  Those were the days!  I used to have long hair then and sometimes wore a bandana, especially when I sat around camp fires playing folk songs on my guitar.  These are memories I hold dear.

I also recall my junior school with fond memories. And when I cast my mind back, I recall the day I first swam a length in the swimming pool and the times I played trumpet in the school orchestra.  And I think back over all the years that have passed since then.

I will never forget the time my brother fell in a lake, nor the time I got stuck up a tree.  But when I call to mind the past I remember the good times more than the bad-  even if I’m reminded of the embarrassing times by my brother.  He won’t let me forget them.  Like the time I got stuck in the mud.

Sometimes I hear an old song and think, ‘ah! That rings a bell’.  Then past incidents come to mind.  One example is the song, ‘Those were the days’, sung by Mary Hopkins.  When I hear that song I recall, as a young child, how I would sit with mother on the sofa and we would listen to the radio together.  She would normally be knitting.  Yes, she always used to knit, and I would be looking at a picture book.  We used to do this every Friday evening, but I don’t recall where the rest of my family use to be.

These are all dear recollections I will keep forever.

‘Nostalgia ‘aint what it used to be’ – as the saying goes.   Well, here’s four Yorkshiremen reminiscing.  See what you think.


Yes, that’s quite difficult to understand.  So here’s some translation and the text.  Any teachers reading?  This is fun to do in class.

Vocabulary: cracked cup (tasse fissuré), rolled up (roulé), damp cloth (tissu humide), tiny (miniscule) tumbledown (délabré),
huddled (blotti), rubbish tip (bout de déchets), septic tank (fosse septique), rotting fish, (poissons de décompositions) dumped (vidé), tarpaulin (bache),
mill (moulin), thrash (battre), gravel (gravier), tuppence (deux pence), slice (trancher), lump (morceaux), graves (tombes)

Very passable, that, eh? Very passable bit of risotto.
Nothing like a good glass of Château de Chasselas, eh, Josiah?
You’re right there, Obadiah.
Who’d have thought thirty year ago we’d all be sitting here drinking Château de Chasselas, eh?
In them days we was glad to have the price of a cup of tea.
A cup of cold tea.
Without milk or sugar.
Or tea.
In a cracked cup, and all.
Oh, we never used to have a cup. We used to have to drink out of a rolled up newspaper.
The best we could manage was to suck on a piece of damp cloth.
But you know, we were happy in those days, although we were poor.
Because we were poor. My old Dad used to say to me, “Money doesn’t buy you happiness, son”.
Aye, he was right. I was happier then and I had nothing. We used to live in this tiny old tumbledown house with great big holes in the roof.
House! You were lucky to live in a house! We used to live in one room, all twenty-six of us, no furniture, half the floor was missing, and we were all huddled together in one corner for fear of falling.
You were lucky to have a room! We used to have to live in the corridor!
Oh, we used to dream of living in a corridor! Would have been a palace to us. We used to live in an old water tank on a rubbish tip. We got woke up every morning by having a load of rotting fish dumped all over us! House? Huh.
Well, when I say ‘house’ it was just a hole in the ground covered by a sheet of tarpaulin. But it was a house to us.
We were evicted from our hole in the ground. We had to go and live in a lake.
You were lucky to have a lake! There were a hundred and fifty of us living in a shoebox in the middle of the road.
Cardboard box?
You were lucky. We lived for three months in a rolled up newspaper in a septic tank. We used to have to get up every morning at six o’clock and clean the newspaper, go to work down the mill, fourteen hours a day, week-in week-out, for sixpence a week, and when we got home our Dad would thrash us to sleep with his belt.
Luxury. We used to have to get up at three o’clock in the morning, get out of the lake, eat a handful of hot gravel, go to work for twenty hour a day at mill for tuppence a month, come home, and Dad would beat us around the head and neck with a broken bottle, if we were lucky!
Well, of course, we had it tough. We used to have to get up out of shoebox in the middle of the night and lick the road clean with tongue. We had to eat half a handful of cold gravel, worked twenty-four hours a day at mill for sixpence every four years, and when we got home our Dad would slice us in two with bread knife.
Right. I had to get up in the morning at ten o’clock at night half an hour before I went to bed, eat a lump of cold poison, work twenty-nine hours a day down mill, and pay mill owner for permission to come to work, and when we got home, our Dad would kill us and dance about on our graves singing Hallelujah.
And you try and tell the young people of today that ….. and they won’t believe you.
No, they won’t!

French vs English hair styles

Can you tell the difference between French and English hair styles?

   English or French?    

While considering this question here is some historical background to ‘getting your hair cut’:

Traditionally, women go to the ‘hairdressers’ and men go to the ‘barbers’.  The barber’s shop is the one with the red and white pole outside; red for blood, white for teeth.  Barbers once also practiced surgery, blood-letting and dentistry and the pole represented the bloody bandages.   In England, traditional barber’s still exist; but less and less.  Now ‘hair salons’ predominate, catering for both men and women.

Traditionally, men visited the barbers shop for a ‘quick trim’,  a ‘short, back and sides’, a ‘crewcut’ or a shave.  It was important to look clean-shaven and smart for the girls at the saturday evening dances.  It was also one place where men could quietly obtain condoms.  The barber would ask, with a surrepticious wink:  ‘Anything special for the weekend, sir?’  Barbers shops were places for men; for men’s chat, men’s jokes and men’s horse-racing tips.  Combs, scissors, clippers, razors and shaving brushes stood around the sink with bottles of aftershave and tubes of ‘brylcreem’ to grease down the hair once it was cut.  Sounds horrible now, but such was the fashion in the 1950s.

Women’s hairdresser’s, similarly, were places rarely entered by men.  They were not particular welcome.  Women did not want men to see them with their hair in curlers and their heads stuck up under saloon hair dryers.   Like today, women in the past did not have their hair ‘cut’, they had it ‘done’.  They would even talk about having a new ‘hairdo’.  Thus, whilst a man could have his hair clipped and trimmed in under ten minutes, ‘doing’ a women’s hair might take half the morning.  No change there, then.  And to achieve these spectacular results necessitates such a vast range of tools and devices, from curling tongs to crimpers, with every tonsorial chemical aid known to humankind, from peroxide bleaches to shampoo conditioners, that a visit to the hairdressers costs women five times the cost of a man’s visit to his barber!

Yes, times and hair styles have certainly changed over the years.  Long hair became the fashion in the hippy hey-days, whilst skinheads liked their hair tightly cropped.  Bob Marley began the fashion of rastafarian dreadlocks (‘dreads’), whilst men’s afros were common in the 1970s.  Then ‘punk’ arrived and spikey ‘mohicans’ were frequently seen on the street.

For women, every possible style has been in vogue at one time or other:  Wavey hair, frizzy hair, curly hair, straight hair and ringlets.  Page boy style, beehive style and perms.  Braids, pony-tails, pig-tails and extensions.  Hair tinted, dyed or coloured with roots re-touched and split ends removed.  To see and hear these all discussed click  here

So, is there a difference between current french hair and english hair styles?  Click on the highlighted words.  This should help you to answer the question.

The French!

What do French people look like?

Have you ever played the game, whilst drinking a coffee outside a café in some tourist hotspot, where you watch the world walk by and try to guess different people’s nationalities?  Can you spot a Scotsman or tell the difference between a German and a Dane, a Moroccan and an Egyptian?   What about the French?  Surely that’s easy. You can tell the French by their clothes, faces, moustaches, perfumes, cigarettes.  Can’t you?


National stereo-typing may not be quite PC, but let’s be honest and admit that we do it.  So, here’s  a physical description answering the question, ‘what do the French look like?’  that I found on the net:

Northern French people tend to look more germanic, they have brown sometimes blonde hair and lighter eyes.  Some of them look slightly nordic, but their features are very different – they tend to have quite large aquiline noses. The further south you go, most people have dark brown/black eyes, dark brown/black hair and olivy skin. French people on the whole tend to be quite short too.’


What are the French like?’

Is that as easy to sum up?  Here are two internet descriptions?

1. ‘A typical Frenchman will be condescending or philosophical, he is easily excitable and can be quite violently forthright, he will have fulsome seductive lips usually formed in a pucker.’

2.  ‘French people are in general very courteous and they are direct too. They are accustomed to speaking their minds and being direct and to the point. If you sometime get annoyed by this, you will later realize that French people are friendly and polite if you get to know them a little better.’

You can also watch this video and find out what English and American people think the French are like:

 Real English    (click to view)

(video removed, perhaps for infringement of copyright ? If so, let me know someone, please.  Nevertheless, good site!)


What do the French like ?

One site suggests that the French people like:  ‘Smurfs, Queen and Freddie Mercury, Jim Carey, Techtonik and comic books’.  Perhaps that’s true of the younger generation, but on the whole I wouldn’t completely agree.  But then, I’m not French.

As an Englishman living in France I list the top 5 French  likes thus:

1) Good food and drink

2) Good manners

3) Good dress sense

4) Good health and hygiene

5) Good work conditions and holidays

– see details of French culture and customs:


That’s my opinion.  Feel free to disagree.  What do you think?


Finally, apart from some discussion on national characteristics, there is an English language purpose to this blog.  The questions forms:

1.      What do they look like?

2.      What are they like ?

3.      What do they like?

There are important distinctions between these questions.  The first one discusses physical characteristics, the second – personalities, the third – likes. More vocabulary and grammar on this subject is found on this link below.  Check it out!