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Learn Business English - 10 Top Tips You Need To Know

If you are a non-native English speaker working in an English environment, Business English is a must to advance in your career. In this article, you will learn valuable tips to improve your English communication skills for the workplace. Yes, even on a busy schedule or without a conversation partner.

  1. What is Business English?
  2. Why is Business English important?
  3. Challenges with Business English
  4. Tips to learn business English

What is Business English?

You’ve likely heard the term “Business English” several times and each time you’ve probably wondered, what makes Business English different from general English? What do you learn in Business English courses?

On a technical level, Business English is part of a larger category called English for Specific Purposes (or ESP, in short). Other types of English that fall into this category include Simplified Technical English, English for Tourism, or Scientific English. What's special about these categories is that they have:

  • Specialized terms that only exist within a certain industry, or
  • Everyday terms that have precise and specific meanings within that industry

Generally speaking, Business English is a type of specialized English that is used within companies, in finance, international trade, banking, and other professional settings. Learning Business English helps you communicate effectively in different business environments, such as meetings, emails, sales presentations, or negotiations.

If you don't feel comfortable speaking in business contexts, don't worry. It is a skill you can learn. In fact, native English speakers need to learn Business English, too. It’s not something you grow up learning since there are specialized terms that aren’t used in day-to-day conversation. So don’t be surprised if you see a fluent English speaker in your Business English class.

Why is business English important?

Hiring choices are no longer limited by geography. Project managers set up remote teams filled with global talent. Multicultural teams hold virtual meetings across borders. Effective communication is vital to the success of these international endeavors, and English is now the global language of business. It has clearly become the lingua franca of global communication, innovation, and commerce.

More and more companies around the world are establishing English as the common language for their business, both in internal and external communications. Back in 2012, Harvard Business Review already reported that companies such as Nokia, Renault, and SAP (among others) had already mandated English as their common corporate language. Imagine now!

But would companies want to make the shift to English-only, despite being based in non-English-speaking countries? It turns out, English is an enabler. By communicating in a single language, all the documentation is accessible to everyone in the company, regardless of the location of the employee, and without having to translate it. Managers in India can communicate with colleagues in Germany. Distributed teams can collaborate seamlessly. Salespeople can access potential customers overseas. English isn't nice to have anymore –it's now becoming a must.

Challenges with business English

Have you ever found yourself in any of the following situations?

  • I cannot express all the ideas I have clearly and accurately (unsuccessful communication)
  • I was misunderstood. They got upset, but I didn't mean to offend.  (cultural barriers)
  • Speaking on the phone makes me anxious. I don't dare to speak up in meetings (lack of confidence)
  • I do not understand some accents or they don't understand my pronunciation (accent and pronunciation)
  • I find it hard to understand all the corporate lingo and phrasal verbs (business-specific vocabulary)

We often get students who have been learning English for a long time, but still struggle to communicate professionally. They can understand texts easily, but when they have to communicate with colleagues and customers in day-to-day business English situations, they encounter many different hurdles.

Unclear or unsuccessful communication, cultural barriers, lack of confidence, accent, and pronunciation, and lack of business-specific vocabulary are some of the most common challenges that learners experience when they need to communicate in business English.

In the next section, we will cover some of the most powerful tips to boost your communication skills for work. 

Tips to improve your business English skills... Even on a busy schedule

Life is about priorities. It doesn’t matter how busy your day is. You still manage to brush your teeth, go to work, and eat something. You may not spend a full three minutes brushing your teeth. You may not have the best work week or eat the healthiest meals, but you make sure to squeeze in those essential tasks.

This is how you should approach learning a new language. Waiting for the perfect stretch of time to learn is unproductive. And unrealistic. Instead, when things get busy, look for even the smallest way to incorporate practicing English into your daily routine. To get you going, we’ve pulled together some great ways to help you do just that.

Infographic Tips to Improve your English

1. Prioritize

You can't learn all the business expressions all at once. Choose what you need to learn and get rid of all the things you don't need. It's what they call the use it or lose it rule.

Make a list of the specific scenarios in which you'll need English –phone conversations, writing emails, negotiating, giving presentations, understanding a conference, or bonding with your colleagues. Once you have your goals –your direction–, then you can collect the most common phrases that native speakers use in those situations. Don't worry about memorizing all the expressions at once. Start with one or two for each specific case and build up on that as you become more confident.

If you are willing to take some business English courses, make sure you talk to your instructor and clarify your priorities. This will determine how effective your training will be.

2. Select the resources that work for you

We all have different learning styles and schedules. Are you more of a video person, or would you rather read the information? Do you have time to join all sorts of events or can you barely squeeze a few minutes of practice into your day? Reflect on your specific characteristics and then select the right resources for you.

If you enjoy masterclass-type resources, where you can learn a lot in a short period of time, we host monthly free webinars on specific communication topics. Check out Talaera's many free resources here.

Turn your downtime into language learning opportunities

If you only have time to practice your English through Netflix, watch series that are set in a business environment. Our top picks are Suits and Succession for a more serious tone, and Silicon Valley and The Office if you are looking for something hilarious. 

Tonight, when you get home and all you want to do is crawl under the covers and watch something online... Be sure to watch it in English. It doesn’t have to be educational or informative. If you want a guilty pleasure, find a reality TV show online. The point is to watch something in English, even if it’s just to unwind. Check out this selection of ideas to turn your media obsession into English practice gold.

3. Prepare

If speaking and listening seem difficult it is also because they’re live. They’re about performance. There is no undoing. No revision. We can’t go back and check that word we didn’t understand. We can’t delete that sentence with poor grammar we just said. It can be a bit scary, especially if you are at a meeting with high stakes.

Write scripts for yourself. To overcome this challenge, prepare in advance. Come up with possible scenarios and write what you could say in those situations. Pretend you want to pitch an idea to your manager. Script it out and practice. This way, you can present your ideas clearly and confidently when the moment comes. Most conversations take a predictable path with a few variations. Include those variations and appropriate responses in your script. You can add to your different scripts every time you encounter new expressions or scenarios in your day-to-day business English situations.

4. Relax

Anxiety is your biggest enemy when speaking in a foreign language. When we write, we can take our time and think about the words we want to choose. We can use a dictionary or ask somebody for help. With speaking and listening, there is no time to think, and this often causes anxiety. This can make you lose confidence, which makes you speak (or understand) worse than you would. The workplace is not always the most relaxed place, and business English can feel daunting at times.

The first step is to quit obsessing over details. Don't worry too much about small mistakes. If you forget a specific word, try to explain it with different words. If you noticed that you used the wrong preposition, use the sentence "Oh, I meant [insert correct preposition]" and move on. If you didn't understand something, ask them to clarify. It's OK.

Not even native-English speakers speak English perfectly. Don't be too harsh and remember that your priority should be to make yourself understood, not to perfect everything you say. Once you’ve reached a conversational level, then you can move on to being more and more precise.

5. Practice

One of the main reasons you don't feel 100% confident speaking in English may be that you just haven't spoken enough. Switch from passive to active learning. Would you learn how to cook by reading a recipe book? Probably not. You would most likely learn by cooking, and by burning a few dishes, using too much salt, and messing up. It’s the same with Business English - we need to step into the kitchen and get a little burnt sometimes. By this I mean, practice whenever you have the chance, don’t be scared of making mistakes, and don’t worry too much about getting it perfect the first time.

At school, though, we spend most of our time reading and writing, and we don’t spend that much time speaking. Traditional teaching methods focus far too much on books and very little on real-life situations. What you need is to communicate in English as much as possible. Find people you can speak English with and pay attention to the way they talk. Schedule virtual hangouts with colleagues from abroad, speak up in business meetings, organize brainstorming sessions, and use Meetup to find people in your area interested in similar topics... The options are endless. If you are serious about taking your business English skills to the next level, consider joining a course with expert instructors. Explore our business English programs or contact us to receive tailored English training to your specific needs.

Remember, learning by doing is the most effective way to understand how a language and its culture actually work.

6. Think in English

Chatting with a native English speaker is an effective way to practice the language and learn new expressions. But what if you don’t have a conversation partner? Should you just throw in the towel? Absolutely not.

The simplest solution to having no language partner is to make yourself your language partner. Just talk to yourself! It may sound a bit awkward, but no one needs to know. 🙊 Play the role of two people by asking questions to yourself and then coming up with the responses to those questions. This is a useful way of identifying your weak points. Some language learners are great at answering questions but struggle with asking them or vice versa. And if you’re worried that talking to yourself is unhealthy, don’t be! Talking to yourself actually has motivational and instructional benefits.

Think in English as much as you can. You’d be surprised how useful this is for language learning purposes and for de-stressing. Thinking in English is helpful for obvious reasons. You have to search your memory for all sorts of verbs, adjectives, and nouns. The psychological benefit is that you’re forced to prioritize your thoughts, slow down those anxious racing thoughts, and mentally tackle each matter one at a time. Before you know it, you’ll be mentally planning out your next project and thinking about tasks entirely in English.

7. Learn in context

When we learn, we need a situation, a meaning. We need to make sense of what we learn. If you learned all the words in the dictionary, would you know how to speak the language? Probably not. This is because you need to know how words are connected, how you can link them, and what combinations are commonly used together.

When you hear or read a new word, pay attention to the context.

  • In what situation is it used?
  • What is the phrase in which they appear?
  • Do they have a collocation? We don’t make business but do business. Collocations are combinations of words that usually go together. If you master these, you will be much closer to sounding like a native speaker.

Instead of learning a list of words with no context, try learning your vocabulary in a sentence for a specific situation. Phrases or chunks are easier and faster to remember, and people will understand you better (resulting in a higher success rate).

8. Read speeches out loud

The most iconic speeches are famous for both their words and their delivery. The cadence and pacing of the speaker and the style and rhythm of the speechwriter are what give a speech its power. Listen to famous speeches online (particularly those delivered by famous businesspeople, such as Warren Buffet or Sheryl Sandberg). Print out the transcripts, and practice reciting them out loud.

This exercise helps you in multiple ways. You learn new words, practice your pronunciation, and improve your public speaking skills all in one go. Now that’s a beautiful trifecta.

If you want to take it even further, try shadowing. Shadowing is a very powerful technique to improve your business English. It consists of repeating a piece of English audio as you listen to it. You should repeat after the speaker as soon as possible. Don’t let the speaker finish the sentence, and try to speak almost at the same time. It’s similar to when you sing along to your favorite song! It’s much easier if you have the script, as you can read it at the same time you listen. Don’t worry if you don’t understand everything you’re saying, this is just about imitating a native English pronunciation. This will help you improve your pronunciation, rhythm, and intonation, as well as your listening skills. Once you’ve mastered this, confidence will go up and up.

9. Read news headlines in English

Most people quickly skim the top news stories in the morning. If English is your second language, skimming entire news articles won't be very easy. Since you want to quickly know the day’s news (and you don’t have time to translate an entire piece) find an English-language news site and read the headlines. You’ll know what’s happening in the world while learning a lot of useful nouns and verbs.

If you are a Talaera student, go to your Library section on the Talaera platform and visit the Bloomberg News section. You will find new articles every month with audio and exercises.

10. Learn one expression each day

If you want to sound like a native English speaker, dedicate some time to learning new phrases and expressions every day. Follow social media accounts that often share vocabulary tips (we do it on Instagram), listen to our podcast, or just create your own list when you hear a new expression. Then, try to use that expression as soon as possible to make sure it sticks.

Perhaps the most frustrating part of a conversation in a second language is failing to understand the intended meaning of a full sentence, even though you know every word in the sentence. For example, someone may know the words “barking”, “wrong”, and “tree”, but have no clue what “barking up the wrong tree” means. These are called idioms, and there’s no shortcut to learning them. You’ve just got to dive right in.

11. Take a mental vocabulary quiz

Extra tip! Stuck in traffic? Are you one of a dozen people on a boring conference call? Making breakfast? While your mind wanders, play a vocabulary game in your head. Think of how many objects you can name in English or how many related verbs (“to drive”, “to listen”, “to toast”) you can remember. This is an easy way to turn mindless tasks into useful memory exercises.

Did we miss any valuable tips? Tell us what's truly worked for you in the comments below. 👇🏼

If you are serious about improving your business English skills...

Take your professional English communication skills to the next level with Talaera. Join one of our free webinars and read more about our business English programs, for you or for your teams.

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[Article originally posted in October 2018 and recently updated to make it more relevant to you.]