Pre-intermediate Business English is tricky

By Odin’s shorts, I hate language tests!

I have a student who has been making very good progress with her English. In three months she has raised her general English listening and speaking skills from A2 to B1 (my assessment). Imagine her disappointment, therefore, when she took an English test at work and got a low A2 score. What happened?

  1. It was a business English test, and the vocabulary deemed to be intermediate was not vocabulary she had ever encountered in her work.

  2. She was marked down for reading, I presume because she reads very slowly, translating every sentence into her native Russian and then thinking about its meaning.

  3. She was marked down for writing, either because of weak grammar or for lack of intermediate vocabulary, or both.

The problem is this: she is required to operate, as best she can, at C2 level at her work, and C2 is way beyond her current level. Given that most of what she has to read at work is C2 level financial English, it’s hardly surprising that she approaches all written English as though it’s going to be very hard to understand. But also, given that she knows she needs to operate at C2 level, she is likely to feel that A2 level material can’t be hard enough to meet her needs.

My response was:
a) To provide reassurance. Tests just suck.

b) To suggest that she try reading English at A2 level, lots and lots of it, to pick up grammar patterns and general vocabulary without having to work too hard.

c) To suggest she use LingQ to help her learn the C2 level vocabulary she needs for work.

Would anyone suggest any other approach? Or can anyone suggest good sources of A2 reading and listening material, or business English writing and speaking exercises?

Is there such a thing called business english?

What’s the difference between business English and just English

  • because of the vocabulary?
  • because of the formalness?

So for myself, not knowing what business english is, since business is a domain knowledge in which one needs to acquire relevant vocab. Like I cannot talk about dog breeds in English even.

If business English is defined as being not colloquial, then one needs to read and “input” lots of business documents or well written articles.

What is C2 vocab too? My wife obtained a C2 - she even has a degree at an Australian University. But can’t say simple words like sneezing and hic-ups. Is C2 a matter of sounding good by using fancy words? Is C2 a matter of speaking fluently? Certainly I have met hundreds of chinese people who have C2 English scores in tests but there is a ridiculously massive difference in their written and spoken capabilities compared to a native speaker. Being a native speaker, it still took myself YEARS to be able to write well for business documents such as requirement specifications etc. So I don’t think you can simply just study your way to an excellent level of English without actually reading samples of other people’s work and reading more and more and more…

Even once upon a time, Steve Kaufmann even doubted if I was a native English speaker by my writing style! Though my friend needed to score a C1 for her Australian permanent residency test.

She kept writing and writing essays after essays and I would correct her English. I found over 80% had poor vocab usage, poor grammar structure or simply had mixed formal registers. The best way to learn is to keep reading and reading and reading and reading more. That’s how I learnt to write well communicated business documents and functional in “business english”. Being a native speaker also doesn’t automatically mean you are born with communication aptitude.

Anyway, I didn’t answer your question, but just wondering the above :slight_smile:

Sorry for my ignorance.

I like the Business English Podcast. It is not too difficult, covers a lot of vocabulary and offers some explanation:

Audio is free, Texts are not.

I do not find that these level distinctions (A2, C1 or whatever) are that useful for the learner to think about. If your student is required to read English content on financial subjects then that is what she should do, using LingQ, saving all words and phrases that she needs. It may be tough going at first, but if she stays with the same subject (finance) she will soon get used to the language.

I also agree with Milan that these distinctions like business English, academic English, sports English, stamp collectors English etc. are somewhat artificial. To me, the important point is that if we want to master a certain range of vocabulary we have to focus our listening and reading on that subject matter. This could even apply to focusing on the writing of a certain author in order to become comfortable with his or her use of words.

I would also agree with Vera, that listening to something like Business English Podcast would be a good supplement, and your student should start to notice some of the same vocabulary reappearing. This also depends on whether she finds these podcasts interesting and pleasant to listen to. She can also go to the Financial Times podcast site and subscribe ( ), or google financial pocasts, or economic podcasts and find more resources.

In addition, there are lots of sources of economic and financial content on the web which she could import, or use the bookmarklet to bring into LingQ to develop her knowledge of vocabulary. To find these, your student has simply to google using financial markets, financial news, global economy, interest rates, hedge funds or any other such term and she will find lots of things to read.

With regard to grammar, this should improve with input, and especially with you Helen, providing feedback, advice, explanation and reinforcement.

In case of financial/business English, I think it’s simply a matter of jargon. It’s like medical English, or English for engineers, or any other specialized subject matter. She needs to learn specialized vocabulary, and I think using LingQ is not a bad plan. As Steve said, the material is not hard to find on the internet. Any newspaper has some kind of financial section, or she can even import stuff she needs to read for work. I think it would help her if she gets to the level of reading when she is not translating each and every sentence into Russian, as that would make reading more enjoyable and not as intimidating. And while she is reading, she can note grammar points she doesn’t understand, and look those up.

But I think you are also right and she should also read easier texts, as I think it will make her feel more confident about her growing language skills (often you don’t even notice you are improving, and notice only after you go back to the easier stuff and realize that it has gotten, well, even easier).

business English: ability to say obscene stuff like “oh, the prerequisites for this merger will increase our collateral liquidity and solidify our stock portfolio”

I agree about reading easier content, but this need not be on financial subjects. She should read or listen to easy content to improve her general comfort level in English, and then she still needs to go to the financial texts for the vocabulary. These will be more difficult. It is hard to find easy texts with the terminology she needs to master.

The brain likes both novelty and repetition. The financial texts are novelty and a challenge, a challenge that she can cope with easily using LingQ. The easy texts provide repetition of the words and language she mostly already knows.

“Is there such a thing as Business English?” Good question.

There isn’t as far as the learner is concerned, there’s simply the English that they need to know to live their life. Sometimes they use English at work, sometimes at home, sometimes on holiday. Business English is the invention of teachers, who then define what vocabulary a person “should” need in their work.

In this case their seems to have been a wide gap between the vocabulary the test designer thought a person would need to use at work, and the vocabulary this learner actually needs.

This actually brings up something very interesting- to be considered good in any language one must know the “business vocab” of each language- While I find business english rudimentary (not to imply I’m good in economics or anything), I can imagine how hard it can be for people learning the language, because I learnt english at a young age and having this barrage of vocab, and especially some phrases- that can be tough. To think, there’s business Japanese, business Arabic, Business Chinese etc etc hahaa best of luck everyone!