Professional English not Perfect English
I’m an American and a typical stereotype is that Americans only speak one language. In contrast, it’s commonly believed that most people in Europe speak several languages. Both are oversimplifications that don’t tell the full story. What does it actually mean to speak a language? Does speaking mean fully fluent? Conversationally? Does it mean that you know 50% of the grammar and can say at least 1,000 number of words or sentences?
Having worked with English learners for more than 10 years, I find it best to avoid focusing on a level like intermediate or advanced, or aiming for a goal of fluent or proficient. Instead, focus on specific tasks, on what learners need to accomplish in a foreign language. That’s why in our professional English courses at Excedo, our language coaches don’t give grades that reflect a percentage of correct or incorrect test answers but rather evaluate learners’ competence according to “I can…” statements about particular business skills.
For example, I have various levels of proficiency in nine languages (and counting), but if asked, I say I only “speak” English. In French and German, I can pass reading exams at the university graduate school level. In Russian, I can read a newspaper as long as I have a dictionary close by. In Spanish and Italian, I can order a coffee with fat-free milk and no sugar. In Vietnamese and Mandarin, I can’t be understood doing the same, but if I write it down, I can order that same coffee. In Latin, I can read and analyze ancient poetry and literature from Julius Caesar, Ovid, Catullus, and Vergil, and I can argue the nuances of canon law precepts with other lawyers, but how would that help me order my coffee?
Real World English
In professional English programs, the focus should always be on what you can do. Whereas academic English courses often stress receptive skills like reading and listening (which makes sense for reading textbooks and listening to lectures), business English should stress productive skills like speaking and writing (which makes sense for participating in a negotiation and writing business emails). Whereas academic English focuses on accuracy – never making a mistake – business English should focus on fluency – getting your message across. Whereas academic English courses use textbooks and tests, business English should use real world scenarios and tasks to accomplish in English.
Just like your pronunciation goal shouldn’t be to speak without an accent but rather to be intelligible or understood without much effort from your listener (which apparently is not the case for me when the poor Vietnamese baristas can’t understand what I want in my coffee), your grammar goal shouldn’t be perfection but rather communication. English is a very forgiving language, both in pronunciation and grammar. It’s rare that little mistakes drastically change or obscure your meaning. That’s why professional English courses should focus less on grammatical structures and introduce vocabulary not as isolated words but in larger chunks of language that can be used to accomplish specific tasks.
Speaking comfortably & effectively
At Excedo we work on increasing learners’ confidence so they can perform common business skills in English. Professional English doesn’t mean perfect English. It means feeling comfortable negotiating a deal, leading a meeting, delegating a task, writing an email, and making a presentation. We learn these skills by doing them, which is what our Deliver sessions are all about – communicative activities with other learners.
The English language isn’t an end to itself but rather a medium for engaging an international communication skillset. We work on the language to accomplish these tasks, but it’s fair to say that many native English speakers need to learn and practice these skills as well and that development of these business skills can even help learners’ native language business communications as well.
Another reason to focus on speaking English comfortably rather than perfectly is because, especially in the business world where English is the lingua franca, you’re just as likely to be speaking English with non-native speakers at different levels who also have imperfect grammar and pronunciation, and don’t realize you’re making any mistakes. A company’s reputation goes up dramatically as their employees are able to conduct business confidently, comfortably, and effectively in English, in a global context with other business professionals from various cultures and countries around the world. This is our focus at Excedo.
An effective professional English course will encourage learners to take risks. It will help them to have the courage to speak up and to convey their message, and to express their ideas and opinions. It will provide opportunities to practice conducting business that requires the language and skills we need to do the same in our actual jobs. It will encourage us to speak freely and smoothly without stopping to correct our mistakes or search for just the right words. It will measure our success not by the low number of errors we make but rather by our achievement of goals and tasks. It will give us the skills to proudly answer, “Yes, I can.”