how to learn business english

How to Learn Business English Like a Brain Scientist

These days, there are many different ways to learn business English.

Role plays. Comics. Interactive games. Social learning.

How do you choose which method is best?

Would you trust a brain scientist to have the right answer?

After all, learning and long-term memorization occurs in your brain, not your fingers, eyes or ears.

Below are 8 easy steps to prepare your brain for learning business English—and they’re all proven by scientific research.

8 Scientifically Proven Steps for Learning Business English

1. Identify a specific goal

What is fluency?

Depending on who you’re talking to, fluency could mean a lot of different things. It could be defined by how many words you know. It could be determined by how quickly you remember those learned words. Fluency may simply mean that you can ask for directions and find your way to the nearest bar.

The more important question is: What’s your goal?

Be specific—you’re more likely to achieve more specific goals.

Make these goals measurable. To check if a goal is measurable, see if you can check it off a list. How about, “become fluent in business English.” Can you check this off every day or even every week? Nope. You may study your whole life and still have more to learn about business English.

How about, “highlight and define 5 new vocabulary words that you see in Bloomberg BusinessWeek every morning.” Can you check this off a list every day? Yes. You know exactly what you have to do. You know how often to do it. You know when to do it.

You need to know why these goals are important to you. Knowing the answer to this question will inspire and drive you to commit to learning each day.

Perhaps you’ve always wanted to live and work abroad. Maybe you want to start your own business. Or maybe you already have a business and you want to expand by communicating with English-speaking customers. Whatever your reasons, write them down and use them to motivate you and clarify your next moves. Each goal should help you get these things that you want.

2. Start with what you know

What languages do you already know?

Have you memorized certain movies in your native language? (I’ve got “Cool Runnings” and “Tommy Boy” totally memorized). Watch these again, in English. You don’t need your native language subtitles because you already know the movie well. Use English subtitles. According to neuroscientist Maxmillian Riesenhuber, your brain needs to see words, not just hear them.

Think you don’t know anything?

Don’t worry—I’m sure you do. Every language has evolved over the years, changing things up and adding foreign words. These foreign words are called “loan words.”

For instance, do you speak Spanish? English has borrowed the Spanish words bravado (a false or exaggerated show of bravery) from you. You can use this word whenever you want in English! For example, “our competitor’s website is full of vague assertions and bravado.

How about French? We use faux pas (mistake, error) all the time. For example, greeting the client in casual English was a major faux pas.

German? Zeitgeist (the spirit or mood of a time) has become more popular lately. Just look at this example: “Marie is the zeitgeist of this networking event.”

What’s your native language? Here are some loan words from Cantonese, Mandarin, Korean, Japanese, Malay, Tagalog, Polynesian, Spanish and German that are used frequently in English.

3. Forget learning styles

Depending on where you look, there are three types of learning styles or up to seven types of learning styles. Many sites advise you to embrace all learning styles but to stick to (commit to, prefer) your dominant one. Your dominant learning style will be the one that feels most natural, fun and effective for you.

The three major learning styles are: auditory (hearing), visual (seeing) and physical (hands-on/doing).

Supposedly, auditory learners do well in settings with lectures, discussions, oral readings or audio recordings whereas visual learners prefer books, articles, web pages, images, diagrams, presentations, flow charts and movies. Physical learners learn best from labs, workshops and role playing scenarios where they can be active, move around and do things.

Think about it like this. What are you good at? How did you learn to do it?

If you’re good at giving business presentations, did you learn how to do this by watching a colleague give their presentations? Did you spend time reading through online articles and forums for advice? Did you practice by presenting in front of friends and family before finally giving your real presentation?

What do brain scientists, or neuropsychologists, say? They actually say that we should forget about individual learning styles.

I hear you. Why did I include those examples of learning styles just before telling you to forget about them?

Recent brain research shows that memories are stored in multiple parts of the brain. Therefore, it’s best to engage all senses when learning. Use a combination of all of the examples above to really help your brain to learn.

That means that you can become an excellent presenter by using a combination of methods: watching professionals give their presentations, reading lots of articles on presentation methods and tactics, exploring online advice forums and practicing or role-playing actual presentations. By using all these methods, you’ll train your brain for success.

4. Help your brain remember

Word groups, word partnerships, collocations. These are all fancy terms to describe words that are often used together.

Some words just sound right together. On the other hand, despite being grammatically correct, some words don’t sound natural together.

Remember these words as a pair or phrase rather than as individual words. For instance, a common business English word pair is
“cease production,” which means “to end the making or assembly of goods.”

You’ll rarely hear someone say “cease to produce,” though this is grammatically correct. Overall, learning word groups will help you sound more like a native speaker.

Test yourself with some common business collocations here. How many do you know?

For an interactive experience, refer to this excellent visual thesaurus. After entering your chosen word (for example, “work”), this site gives you the following information:

  • related words (“employment”)
  • word partnerships (“go to work,” “to be employed”)
  • different contexts for use (“I have a lot of work” versus “I went to work”).
  • color codes which define types of speech (verb, adjective, noun or adverb).

Rather than simply using memorization techniques, research suggests that you need to challenge your brain to “solve problems, think critically and explore creativity.”

For instance, try a business simulation game to challenge yourself. You’ll learn how to balance available resources, time restraints, consumer demands and staff issues. You’ll remember vocabulary and grammar better through games, because you’ll have context to help you.

These methods build knowledge but also prepare your brain for future learning. You’re training your brain to learn better with these methods. This means that, for every 100 words or concepts you learn, the next 100 will be even easier to learn and so on.

5. Take care of your body

Those of us working hard to become successful in business often forget to take care of ourselves. We’re so busy trying to work and learn that we often don’t remember that our health is extremely important to our success—but if we’re not happy and healthy then we can’t work well!

The same is true for learning business English. If you’re tired and miserable, you’re not going to study well. Here are some ways to take care of your body and boost your business English learning at the same time.

Eat brain food

I just learned that some of my favorite foods are good for my brain (exciting!). Egg yolks help maintain memory, blueberries and kale keep brain cells “young,” avocados keep a healthy blood flow going to your brain and salmon boosts brainpower.

Sure you can eat the above “brain-boosting” foods, but it’s more important to simply feed your body. Hunger keeps you from being able to concentrate and limits brain development.

Let’s not even get started on being hangry. Hangry is a very new (and very useful) word made up of hungry and angry.

Dr. Brad Bushman, professor of communication and psychology, confirms that despite being only 2% of your total mass, your brain uses 20-30% of the calories you consume. Therefore, in order to keep your brain happy, working and learning, you need to feed it well!

Take power naps

I’m so happy that scientists agree that one of my favorite things to do—sleep—is essential for a healthy body and a healthy mind.

In terms of memory, a team of neuropsychologists found that an hour-long nap can significantly improve memory performance and published their findings in the journal Neurobiology of Learning and Memory.

Sweat it out

Are you losing steam (losing motivation, losing your drive)? Go for a run, lift weights, play soccer or even meditate. Physical exercise and morning meditation keep your brain healthy, developed, primed to learn and able to commit information to long-term memory.

Harvard’s Health Letter confirms that exercise helps memory and thinking. Exercise directly releases chemicals in your brain that keep your brain cells healthy and abundant (many in number, plentiful). Indirectly, exercise reduces stress and anxiety.

6. Change it up

Add some variety.

Repetition is often used (successfully) in learning. However, the brain craves variety which boosts your attention and retention levels. This helps with procrastination as well, because changing things up will make you more excited to learn new things.

If you’re learning past tense verbs this week, then next week you should change the topic to adjectives describing wine, or…change the topic entirely. For instance, turn off your business English learning for a few hours to take some music lessons. Music not only keeps your brain young, it makes future learning easier.

7. Make it fun

Pleasurable experiences cause your body to release a hormone called dopamine, which in turn helps your brain remember facts. Logic is great, but things like “humor, storytelling, group activities and games” help produce powerful (and long-lasting) memories.

Sure, there are plenty of ways to have fun by yourself, such as watching movies, reading the book versions of popular movies or laughing along with BuzzFeed articles, but making learning a social event works also.

By learning with others, you reduce anxiety, your body releases dopamine and, overall, you remember information over a longer period of time. This doesn’t mean you have to sit together and memorize vocabulary—instead, go sing English karaoke or play business-centered English board games, such as Monopoly, Risk or Settlers of Catan!

8. Practice every day

As we say in English, use it or lose it.

When it comes to your brain, the more you use it, the more neural connections you have. It’s simple.

The more you read business English magazines, the more business English you’ll know. It’s okay to take breaks (for those music classes), but don’t step away from business English for more than a few days.

Consider your daily commute to work. You don’t think about it consciously anymore because you’ve made the journey so many times. In brain lingo (specialized language), that memory is ingrained (fixed, set) in your mind.

Be realistic with your time. Just a few minutes a day add up to hours every week or month. Play video games in English or listen to ten minutes of a business English podcast every morning while you’re starting your computer at work. Commit to using at least one industry-specific slang word or idiom each business day.

Use Your Brain

If you want more information on the brain and learning, there’s a MOOC (massive open online course) just for you.

On Coursera, University of California at San Diego is offering a free class called “Learning How to Learn.” Though they admit that brains are very complex, they’ve taken what we know (step 2) and will teach you about learning and long-term memory. Sub-topics include motivations, how to “chunk” to learn and how to battle procrastination.

Now I want you to look back at the steps I’ve provided here.

See a pattern?

These tips all start with words like start, change, play, make and practice. They’re all verbs—action words.

That’s because, overall, the best way to learn a language is to DO.

At least, that’s what brain scientists say.


Joyce Fang grew up all over the United States and currently lives in Yokohama, Japan working as a freelance business plan writer and graphic designer. She has earned a Japan-focused MBA and has worked across almost every industry including finance, hospitality, retail and event management. She loves traveling, food, rugby, hot yoga and her dog, Gator.

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