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Business English about soft skills as well as language learning, conference told

12 06 2014

Soft skills took centre stage at English UK's annual conference for Business English teachers.

Many of the sessions, including the opening and closing presentations, argued that general communication skills are increasingly vital in global business, and should play a major part in Business English.

Opening the day, Bob Dignen asked: "Why do we exist? What challenges do we help clients meet? How far may we, despite our best intentions, be disadvantaging our participants, making them in some senses worse international communicators when they should be better?"

Mr Dignen, director of York Associates, suggested that in certain cases it could be counter-productive to raise someone's English level too high, suggesting that teaching language to more than B2 could be a "disabler" in situations where non-native speakers were working together. "If you start to give more complex vocabulary it becomes less comprehensible to non-native speakers. You need to keep it at B1-plus, but get more strategic about communication rather than language," Describing the need to "evolve" Business English, he continued:  "I'm not even sure should call ourselves English language teachers. We make people aware of communication - how to speak clearly and  listen well. People may not do those things in their own language.....how do you become a good speaker and effective listener? There may be many different definitions. Is sitting in silence effective listening? In some places yes, but in other parts of the world unless you are interacting you are not polite."

He argued for the development of what he called the Big Seven interpersonal skills: building rapport, networking, developing trust, decision making in groups, influencing, managing conflict, and giving and receiving feedback.

Nick Brieger, the other plenary speaker, wanted to talk about how to teach business meetings and said: "I want them to learn better techniques for communications. Soft skills complement hard skills, which are the occupational requirements of a job. Hard skills will get you the interview but soft skills get you the job - and to keep it." He said that trainees often rushed to decision making when working together on business meetings, and suggested that it was helpful to give them techniques "in bite sized chunks" which they could practice and feed back on exploring and analysing options to make sound decisions.

Other sessions during the day included Ros Wright on English for Medical Practice training, and Candy van Olst discussing how to make language lessons truly relevant to trainees.

Huan Japes, Deputy Chief Executive of English UK, was very pleased with the day. "We had the idea a couple of years ago about the interface in skills training between language learning, Business English, and English for Specific Purposes and skills training.

"It's not about becoming soft skills trainers, it's about thinking about the techniques we're able to use as business teaching trainers, to encourage discussion in these areas, and to get people to think about how the processes of communication.

"There are two strands: language teaching and communication training and this has been how to teach them simultaneously."

Around sixty trainers attended the day, held at International House in London, travelling from as far away as Germany and Finland. Finnish delegate Anne Sjöberg said she came because there was nothing similar in her home country. "I think this is the only one in Europe. It's the first time I have been able to come, and I am really enjoying it. I'm reflecting on the new ideas I've heard and the exhibition is really useful because it gives me the opportunity to actually look at the books rather than just buying them online."

Jane McKinley from ECS in Edinburgh was also attending for the first time because the event's new date made it possible. "I'm interested in soft skills because they are something students are looking for more and more. They are at the heart of Business English. It's nice to know about new teaching methods and reflect on what you've heard travelling back. It's great to meet people as well."