How to improve your business English

Updated: Sep 25, 2020

Good communication skills are integral in practice, so it's easy to understand why many professionals who speak English as a second language feel the pressure to master business English for their jobs. Quietly though —before I begin — I have good news for you. Learning and enhancing your English doesn't have to be boring and a chore!

However, mastering a language requires time and resources that many people — especially architectural professionals — struggle to find in between overtime and to try to find work-life balance. I also find that many business English resources are not well adapted for the design profession or for Architects in general. The materials are trying to appeal to a wide range of people who work in business and sometimes this means they are not at all relevant for more specialised and specific jobs.

Drawing on the language learning experiences on my students and from the literature on second language acquisition, I have put together a list of tips that highlight how people can learn English more effectively.

But first - the essential piece of advice I can give you is to first -

Understand the culture you're working within and find ways to enjoy the experience.

Many people underestimate how differently people do things in other countries and how much of an impact this can have on the ways we use business English to communicate and understand things. After reading The Culture Map - Erin Meyer, I understood so much more about how I can communicate better and manage my expectations about communicating across cultures. Erin mapped where different cultures sit on different scales, including factors such as communication styles, how they give and take on feedback and how they lead. You can find a summary of the full list of 8 scales which reveal everything you should know about different cultures.

Once you have an idea about how cultural differences can impact on the ways you work and use English, I strongly consider incorporating these into your daily life.

Secondly, I encourage all my students to figure out what they like about learning the language. What are some of the things you can do to stay interested and enjoying it?

1. Set specific priorities

Learning is best done by setting specific priorities that are challenging yet achievable. Don't leave the timeline too open-ended. A focus like "I want to be able to be confident in my client presentations and make no mistakes," is too vague. Instead, you could try, "I want to be confident to ask at least the client two questions and answer one tricky question in a meeting, by the end of August."

When I say priority, what I'm also getting at is sometimes, there could be several things you want to improve. Still, if you start to think or your goals as priorities, it helps you to understand that you realise there are many things you could be doing, but for now, you're going to make one or two things your priority.

2. Create habits.

Find ways to practice English outside work every day or every week. The regular effort will build momentum. For example, try to find an industry magazine you could read daily, a YouTube channel you could watch, a podcast you could listen to or organise to meet with a colleague to practice presenting a client project in English once a week.

3. Try tools and apps to make your life easier

Translation tools such as Reverso Context and ReadLang are excellent tools to add to your tool kit as well as using Grammarly for your writing. All these tools have extensions you can add to your computer. I've also recently started using LingQ, and it's incredible how much I love it, and as a result, I have a renewed love for the language.

I have also created a simple vocabulary app where you can keep a record of all your vocabulary. You can download the application and sign up to my fortnightly vocabulary email to get new vocabulary delivered to your inbox and app each fortnight.

4. Work on your mindset

When people believe in their self-efficacy, they are more motivated and willing to take on challenging tasks. If you're not quite there, yet it may be time to reflect on how we can change your mindset. Think about whether you believe you can accomplish your goals. If you feel you can't reach your goals, try to make your goals smaller and achievable.

5. Enjoy the learning experience and set aside time to practice

When you have a positive attitude toward advancing your English, you're more likely to make more of an effort and learn more than people with negative attitudes.

If you're finding yourself dreading advancing your English rethink your approach. Be creative to try and reignite the passion and try and change up your methods from time to time. Try writing a blog or keeping a notebook to record your experiences and learning.

For example, you could enrol in a drawing or creative course where you will need to practice listening skills more often.

6. Use authentic English materials.

Using authentic material is the big one. I'm here to tell you that textbooks and practice grammar exercises have a time and place, but if you want to confident in using the language, it's time to put them away. By authentic materials, I mean things such as listening to podcasts, online radio or audiobooks, TED talks and YouTube channels that are relevant to your profession.

With all of my students, I use authentic materials including their own sketches and concepts, Pinterest boards, industry magazines, videos and conference materials and anything my students tell me they want to use. We use them for discussion points and ideas. The more relevance the materials have for your job, the easier it's going to become when you need to recall the information.

Exposure Exposure Exposure!

It's not always easy, and you might not always have the motivation, and that's okay, but the important thing is you keep at it and be patient because even the smallest amount of progress is progress.

Authentic materials relevant to your job and work better prepare you for real-life situations, and I find them more enjoyable to learn and use for my teaching.

Find writing that inspires you and speakers you love to watch. Try to imitate the format and structure of the language. For example, in a previous post, I used a TEDTalk by Walter Hood to talk about how you can adopt chunking to help you to speak more clearly.

Exposure to authentic materials not only helps with language proficiency, but it can also enhance your knowledge within your field. If you don't believe me, then see what Steve Kaufmann, speaker of over 20 languages has to say about it all. His personal experiences and well-researched methods have helped me enormously. If you put in the work, believe in yourself and have the right attitude, then you will see that anything is possible.

7. Work with a teacher and find a positive learning community

Research shows that learners benefit from having an influential teacher and a supportive learning community. The Teacher helps the student set realistic goals, see problems from a different perspective and offer practical solutions as well as provide instant feedback.

Supportive communities provide accountability and encouragement that some people need to keep up with their goals.

8. Ask for feedback.

Research on feedback is clear: instant & frequent feedback has the most significant impact on learning. When you seek regular feedback from teachers and mentors, you can implement changes immediately.

You need to find people and be in situations where someone will make comments on the ways you use language and any grammatical errors you are making.

Research also shows that professionals learn more effectively when they have a structured course with a flexible lesson schedule. For this reason, I have carefully designed a structured program to allow plenty of time for feedback, questions and encouragement to hold my students accountable for their learning.

9. Accept that it's not always going to be easy.

Finally, even with your best approach, advancing your skills in a foreign language is a long-term commitment. Your motivation may falter sometimes but with patience, realistic goals, relevant materials and the right people around you, you can become a happy and confident professional who can achieve what they've always wanted.

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