Thinking outside the language box: Business Speaking

Thinking outside the language box: Business Speaking


How can we help our students to become confident speakers of English? James Schofield, author of Collins English for Business: SpeakingCollins Workplace English and Collins Workplace English 2shares his insights. 

“My problem,” said Bernd sadly. “Is that I’m bad at small talk in my own language, let alone English!” As Bernd’s English teacher should I be worried? Is small talk really that important?

People gathering around drinking coffee in an office setting

Definitely! Research shows we form our opinions of new people we meet quickly and these opinions are then difficult to shift. If you can influence those opening exchanges, you have a significant advantage. But although TEFL course books provide the language of small talk they don’t link it to strategies for small talk.

With the EFL materials that I write, I try hard to think outside a purely language box. Yes, I make sure that the language and vocabulary is as CEFR* appropriate as is possible but I also want to make sure that the students learn strategies to deliver this material in the best possible way. Because – as with Bernd – students need to learn the strategies as well as the language.

So for the Networking section of English for Business: Speaking for example, I looked at what various communication experts had to say about small talk. Their advice included:

  • Successful small talk is about commenting on and asking about ordinary things with interest and enthusiasm.
  • Match the mood of your conversation partner. If they are smiling and cheerful, be ready to laugh. If they seem serious, be serious too.
  • Ask where your partner comes from and, when somebody asks you the same thing, add something interesting about the place.
  • Ask what your partner does and, when you’re asked the same question add a small piece of interesting or amusing information about your job or responsibility.

Together with my co-writer, Anna Osborn, we wove these suggestions into the conventional language input. Not rocket science, but not something we TEFL teachers normally try to teach our students.  And it was the same approach for the other units. Whether it was making or dealing with complaints, managing teleconferences or meetings, we looked first at how somebody could best manage these tasks and then the language they needed.

Is this approach better? Does it add an unnecessary burden to what a TEFL teacher has to do? Well for me, my mind was made up the day one of my students turned to me at the end of a class and said:

“James, I think I can use this in my German meetings, too!”

*Common European Framework of Reference



James Schofield is the author of  Collins English for Business: SpeakingCollins Workplace English and Collins Workplace English 2. He has worked in Asia and Europe as a Business English trainer and materials developer for over 20 years. As well as developing in-company training courses, he has written a large variety of teaching materials and regularly contributes to industry publications.