How to meet the English needs of global professionals


Lindsay Oishi describes the current business English world and what Pearson English is doing to satisfy changing requirements.

Among the hundreds of millions of people studying English, it is professionals working in global organisations who may face the biggest challenge. More and more companies are making English their official language—including big names such as SAP, Lenovo, Audi, Honda, Samsung, and Nokia[i][ii]. For employees, however, developing English proficiency can seem like a daunting task. Professionals are busy, and learning business English can be particularly stressful when it’s required by your employer. Yet, in order to succeed, workers need to collaborate effectively not only with native English speakers from the US to South Africa, but also across countries as culturally and linguistically diverse as China, India and Brazil. They need English now more than ever.

In the Business Solutions division of Pearson English, we provide products and services for adult English-language learners employed in global organisations. Our primary offerings include online self-study and virtual blended solutions, with globally-based expert ELT teachers connecting with students via telephone or Skype. Through focus groups, email surveys and real-time behavioral and opinion data, we’ve built a deep understanding of learners’ specific needs in the growing business English market. Customers tell us that lack of time, not enough specialised material relevant to their jobs and low motivation are their biggest blockers. We must design instruction that matches their goals and constraints, is adapted to their interests and is custom-built to motivate them effectively.

Adapting the curriculum according to interests

The first step in designing instruction for global professionals is simple: what do we teach? Business English may be considered a type of (or synonymous with) English for specific purposes, but ESP is usually focused on a specific industry (e.g. aviation), or even a specific job role (e.g. registered nurse). Teachers of business English need to cover a broader range of skills, including general adult English, and the more specific topics required in the modern workplace. The challenge grows when we realise that the ‘21st century skills’ that we cared about in the 1990s have changed in the last twenty-five years—and the pace of change is accelerating.

To design curricula and instruction that will benefit most working professionals, we need to go for what’s called in sport the ‘high-percentage play’. This is the gambit that has the best chance of scoring with the lowest amount of risk—often conventional, but consistently effective. To find the high-percentage topics and skills, Pearson experts reviewed national curricula, our own and other publishers’ course materials, syllabuses from private language school and institutions, and research articles on recent trends in ELT.

This work resulted in the creation of a set of ‘Learning Objectives for Learners of Professional English’. The Learning Objectives are based on the familiar ‘can do’ statements from the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages, but are customised and expanded for adults who need English for work. These descriptive statements of language skills are the foundation for new curriculum development and allow teachers and learners to share a common understanding of the prerequisite skills and level of study in any course. For example, a course on business meetings could include work towards key Learning Objectives, such as:

  • Can understand the main information in the agenda for a work-related meeting.
  • Can make suggestions in a work-related conversation.
  • Can express limited opinions and arguments during business meetings.

Making the most of every minute

We know that global professionals are often looking to improve their English skills quickly, with shorter timescales than those assumed by traditional curricula. Most are also expected to fulfill 100% of their normal work duties even while undertaking a significant learning goal such as improving their communication skills in English. It’s no surprise, then, that Pearson English market research with more than 100 business leaders in China and India revealed more interest in three-month courses focused on a specific business skill, such as making telephone calls, than six or twelve-month courses on broader topics.

Our learners are giving us the same message: they can’t wait years to improve productivity and efficiency in English at work. In our 2014 Customer Survey of more than 20,000 business English learners, 74% of respondents told us that they wanted to improve significantly in a year or less; a third aimed to improve in six months or less. Working adults want shorter courses that focus on a few key learning outcomes in every lesson, so that each one is as impactful and relevant as possible. That’s why one-on-one blended learning is a top choice for many global professionals: it offers the flexibility of virtual lessons on their schedule, along with personalisation of content that makes sessions with their teacher immediately applicable.


We also know that a normal workday includes ‘downtime’ that can easily become productive time with the right learning design and professionally-focused content. In a user-experience survey we carried out with thousands of customers, we found that 13% chose to study English during natural, spontaneous breaks in their schedules. Designing online activities that are modular and take between five and fifteen minutes to complete helps meet this need. For busy professional students, it’s also important to reduce friction in the learning process—low requirements for startup time, pre-work, or even continuity with the previous session make it easier for them to engage.

Driving motivation through course design

Like any group of English learners, people studying business English vary widely in their motivational levels and goals. One advantage that professionals in multinational organisations have is that there are opportunities to develop language skills at work nearly every day. That’s only useful, however, when curriculum and instruction are carefully designed to scaffold on-the-job learning through relevant, directed practice.

Figure credit: Emily Schepp
Figure credit: Emily Schepp

For working professionals, we can align teaching with students’ needs through a slight modification to the popular flipped classroom model. The normal flipped classroom approach has students learn content before applying it with the teacher. Adding another step—utilising that skill in the workplace—makes the lesson more relevant and more likely to stick. After preparing on their own, and then refining their skills in the classroom, students are encouraged to iteratively practise at work, and report back on how it went. Of course, this isn’t exactly revolutionary—good teachers have always asked students to apply what they’ve learned in real-life contexts. But here, the follow-up step of holding learners accountable for reporting on workplace practice is what’s critical. Students’ reluctance to expose errors in a new language is only magnified in the workplace environment, where mistakes can have higher-stakes consequences. Teachers can support students by discussing how to safely apply new knowledge and skills, first in easier contexts such as conversations with colleagues, and then slowly moving into more significant tasks such as meetings with managers.

Delivering a return on investment

When students see English as the foundation for their long-term career, it matters. Our 2014 Customer Survey found that people who said English was important for future jobs were just as engaged with the digital curriculum as those who said it was required or important for their current jobs. When we analysed survey responses against how much time our learners spent on our online business English learning platform, we also found that people who said their managers supported their English development were more engaged than those whose managers were indifferent.

Underlying the demand for English is the universal need for professionals to collaborate and communicate effectively to drive business results. For today’s HR director, how much someone contributes in a meeting is far more important than whether they’ve mastered subject-verb agreement. So in our customer surveys, we ask about the skills that are most relevant and common among global workers, like emails, conference calls and presentations.

As teachers of business English, we need to speak the language of workplace performance not just to the learner, but with the people who influence their recognition, compensation and promotional opportunities—managers and executives. This means that when measuring outcomes we shouldn’t just stick to traditional achievement and proficiency tests; we also need to demonstrate how products have supported learners in their jobs. For example, our business English learners report that they save an average of 2.7 hours per week at work as a result of their improved English skills. This statistic is a crucial addition to the story told by standardised test scores.

Meeting real-world business English challenges

In our work with global organisations, we have encountered many common negative perceptions about learning business English: it takes up time, is too broad to help on the job, and doesn’t offer tangible return on investment. Those misapprehensions will remain prevalent until we adopt an approach to business English that identifies and explicitly addresses measurable workplace language skills. Our students need to be able to offer ideas in meetings, discuss options via email and converse confidently with colleagues around the world. They need to learn English for conference calls, English for text messages, and English for customer service.

As an industry, we need to match our learning resources to students’ professional goals, build solutions that reflect the real-world business English challenges they face, and motivate them to keep developing their skill-set. As all indicators point to English growing as the global language of business, learning providers who have the expertise to drive results for multinational teams and organisations will be in high demand. With the right tools and empathetic understanding of our students’ specific contexts and needs, we can make the business English journey not only effective, but also efficient and enjoyable for learners.

This article first appeared in Modern English Teacher, Volume 24, Issue 4 and has been edited to fit an online format.

[i] The Economist.‘The English empire.’ Feb 15, 2014.Accessed online at http://www.

[ii] Neeley,Tsedal.‘Global Business Speaks English.’ Harvard Business Review, May 2012. Accessed online at global-business-speaks-english

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