When talking about language, people say that they “speak French” or “know Russian,” as if these are monolithic forms without variation.
This is of course not true: there are many dialects of English, for example, such as British and American. But even within these dialects there is variation, variation of register, or situation in which the language is used: the register I would use in a classroom is not the one I’d use in a business situation, and both are different from what I use at home. It is this knowledge of appropriate register that students even fluent in English may lack—sometimes bringing the register appropriate for home and their neighborhoods into a business situation, for example. Learning the register of business is not easy, even for native speakers of English, and since many ESL students hope for a business career, teaching them the business language is critical: the specific vocabulary, phrases, and grammar that are used in a business situation that varies from that used elsewhere. In particular, phrases are helpful to learn in a second language in that they combine both vocabulary and grammatical structures in ready-made bits of language that students can produce automatically at appropriate times.
Following are some common phrases that students will find helpful for learning for a business situation.
10 Phrases for Business English
a heads up:
A warning or notice: “I just wanted to give you a heads up that the meeting time has been changed from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.” The phrase has its origins in soldiers hiding behind a hill or in dugouts from the enemy, cautiously raising their heads to survey the terrain.
in the dumps:
depressed, used for both people and money: “The markets have been in the dumps for the past week.”
to take in a nose dive:
To fall sharply, as in a swimmer taking a high and head-first dive into a pool. “The markets took a nose dive today.”
Gossip or rumor in an office situation. A scuttlebutt was the cask around which sailors would gather to drink fresh water during the day and trade information, the equivalent of today’s water cooler in an office setting.
a pink slip:
The notice, traditionally pink, given to an employee and serving as notice that his or her job is in danger of being eliminated.
a positive spin:
To interpret a story or fact in a specific manner. “The boss tried to put a positive on Mary’s leaving, but it is very disheartening.” This expression comes from spinning, the art of weaving threads together to create cloth.
To shrink, become smaller. Individuals “downsize” or move to smaller homes, usually after children are grown. Companies downsize when they lay off employees and sell holdings, due to financial losses.
on the job market:
To be actively looking for work. Job seekers are seen as a “market” from which potential employers choose, and an individual looking for a job becomes part of this market.
in the black:
To be profitable, taking in more money than spent. From accounting, where traditionally positive income is shown in black ink.
in the red:
To be losing money, spending more than taking in. Again from accounting, where expenditures are shown in red ink. Also used in expressions like “There was red ink all over the books” or “The books were flowing in red ink,” to show the financial crisis in a company.
Methods for Teaching Business English Phrases
Define. Show the connection of figurative and literal speech.
Begin by explicitly defining the expressions so that students have some understanding of the terms before beginning to use them (complete understanding probably won’t come until actually practicing the terms and getting feedback on the usage.) Connecting the figurative meaning of terms—most of these terms are figurative—to the literal from which they are derived can help students understand. For example, showing the connection of the figurative terms “in the black” and “in the red” to the literal meanings derived from accountancy by bringing in a financial statement and showing the black and red ink will give students a more complete understanding of the terms.
Demonstrate in Context
Before being able to use a term, students have to hear and see it in context numerous times. The term “to take a nose dive” really gives little information on how to use it in speech or writing. But if the teacher can model expressions like “The markets took a nose dive today” and “student test scores have recently taken a nose dive” then students will begin to understand how to use the term.
Matching, Fill-in-the-blank, Substitution
Once students have some control over the meaning of the terms, they can begin to use them more in different exercises for further processing to continue to develop their awareness of the phrases. Such exercises as matching, in which the term is matched with a definition or synonym; fill-in-blank, or placing the correct term in some extended discourse like a paragraph, and substitution, the substitution of an incorrect or inappropriate term with the correct, will all give students addition al processing to develop their understanding of the terms.
Use in Discussion
Once students have learned the definition of the terms and worked their way through the exercises, they are ready for less structured activities, such as discussion in which they have to use the terms, such as an assignment in which students discuss in pairs or groups relevant topics such as searching for a job and using at least five of the expressions they have learned.
Use in Writing
Again, the writing assignment, now that students have practiced the phrases, is less structured from the earlier exercises. Students are given a topic and asked to write on it, either individually or in groups, using a set number of the phrases. It can be a more formal writing assignment, such as an essay, or less form, such as a journal.
Learning an entirely new register is difficult. It involves new vocabulary, grammatical structures, and phrases.
By focusing on phrases, students can learn some ready-made and situationally appropriate language that they can call upon automatically in a business situation.
What are some expressions for business you know? How would you teach them?