BELF and the English Language Skills Course

What is BELF?

Studies of Business English as a Lingua Franca (BELF) takes researchers into the heart of business. Ehrenreich found, in the context of her study, which looked at a German multinational corporation, that “English has become an indispensable ‘must’ in the company and that there is a general understanding that staff at all levels develop their language skills as they see appropriate for their roles within the company.” (2010: 409).

She points out however, that the English that has become so important is not that language which seeks to emulate the English of native speakers, but rather “communicative effectiveness in English as a business lingua franca, … an international contact language” (2010: 409) This refers to the language used by both native speakers (NSs) and non-native speakers (NNSs) who have varying degrees of proficiency in the language.  Ehrenreich says that “learning to cope with the challenges of such diversity, in the context of business communication, seems to happen most effectively in business ‘communities of practice’ rather than in traditional English training.”(ibid.: 409)

Developing BELF Competencies

In order for people in business to achieve a level at which they can benefit from these ‘communities of practice’ they need to acquire a certain level of English in the first place. HR professionals know what is required of their staff in handling their tasks in international environments. The problem is how best to help their staff to achieve the required level of competence in English as quickly as possible to be able to do their work effectively.

While BELF is not a new concept in the wider world of English language training it is not a concept which is taught in the more traditional training of Hungarian universities preparing its students to be English teachers.  Teachers take a stricter approach with training learners and focus on the correct use of grammar and vocabulary.  They want the learners to come as close to NSs as possible. This is very laudable in the early stages of English development as it builds a strong foundation for future development. However, following the same approach over an extended period of time can be counterproductive.

“ELF, BELF has been defined as a language that is nobody’s own,” (Ehrenreich, 2010, p 410) . This is because it is a language shared by people in the business community who use it to communicate across cultures.  Researchers find that in business they observe a “pragmatic approach to language issues”. A similarly pragmatic approach is required from the language teacher too.  We have to decide at what point we stop drilling and insisting on language accuracy and introducing new verb tenses and structures that are not really needed or used in the broader business community.

Communicative competence is key to the successful business person in a global environment.  Kankaanrata and Planken’s findings indicate that “BELF can be characterized as a simplified, hybridized, and highly dynamic communication code”. (2010: 381) and that “BELF competence calls for clarity and accuracy of content (rather than linguistic correctness) and knowledge of business-specific vocabulary” (ibid.: 381) is more important than general English. For this reason a focus on the 7Cs of communication is crucial to the success of learners who are preparing to use English in their global companies.

“The dominance of BELF in the international business arena is supported by the introduction of English as the official corporate language in several Europe-based multinational companies” (Kankaanrata and Planken, 2010: 382). This is a fact that in Hungary we are familiar with as more and more companies switch to English as their lingua franca as they expand into parts of the globe where their own language is not widely spoken.

Kankaanrata and Planken’s findings that “interactions with NNSs ranged from 70% to 100% of the total of their English language interactions.” (2010: 389) agrees with our own anecdotal evidence from our communication with clients, who in light of this fact have a more relaxed approach to their need for linguistic accuracy.  One interviewee that Kankaanrata and Planken spoke to stated that the language used in business interactions is “more purposeful, task-oriented and persuasive” (2010: 392).

Users develop and extend their language skills on the job, but a skills training course through the medium of English can help to develop these skills for the new recruit to a job which requires global interaction for the first time. Short skills course are a cost effective way of providing intensive practice of skills like writing, meetings and negotiation, presenting and all-round business communication skills. Practice in a safer environment makes it easier for business people to perform in the real world efficiently and effectively.

 

Bibliography

Ehrenreich, S. (2010). Corporation : Meeting the Challenge English as a Business Lingua Franca in a German Multinational. Journal of Business Communication, 47, 408 – 432.

Anne Kankaanranta, A and Planken, B. (2010). BELF Competence as Business Knowledge of Internationally Operating Business Professionals. Journal of Business Communication, 47, 380 – 408.