Imagine that a person who works in a restaurant in the Czech Republic wants to order salmon from a supplier in Norway.
Which language do you think they’ll use in their conversation: Czech or Norwegian?
That was a trick question! I bet they’ll use English!
Even though a couple other languages have more native speakers, English has become the common language of international business.
And, as we saw in the example above, it’s also very common for two professionals to use English to communicate, even if neither of them speaks English as a first language.
Mastering English for professional purposes opens many doors to new career possibilities. You can make a great impression during a job interview with a global brand in your country, or you can get a better-paid job abroad, if you speak English as an advanced learner.
Additionally, there are many free learning resources out there, but they’re often only available in English. Therefore, they become accessible to you as your language comprehension improves. For example, you can choose a free Massive Online Open Course in your specialization to improve both your English and your industry know-how.
There’s a bright future ahead, but how do you get there? Is learning business English similar to learning English at school?
It is, and it isn’t. You still need the same set of skills (listening, speaking, writing and reading), but the methods to improve them may be different than the ones you’d use for general English. Before we dive into the methodology, let’s have a closer look at what we mean by “English for professional purposes.”
Understanding English for Professional Purposes
The purpose of learning English here is to use it at work, such as when you conduct a seminar for an international audience or when you write a proposal for a new client abroad.
You don’t use business English when conversing with friends and family because the English you use at work is often more formal than the English you use in everyday conversations at home or at school.
For example, you are more likely to address each other using professional titles, as shown in this video:
When writing an email to a potential supplier for your business, you might begin with the greeting “Dear Mr./Ms. [last name].” But it would be strange to do the same with a friend; instead, you’d maybe say “Hey [first name],” “Hi,” or even something like “What’s up?”
Additionally, each profession has its own jargon, which is a name for the terms and phrases that insiders use freely, yet which sound puzzling to outsiders. A big part of learning English for professional purposes is to learn the jargon that you’ll need to use and understand in your line of work. Plus, a word might have different meanings or usages in various specialties. Therefore, you’ll want to build your vocabulary with a focus on a particular field or profession.
Learning English for Professional Purposes: Do These 6 Things Now
Be Specific When Looking for a Dictionary
Since general dictionaries often don’t contain specialized terms such as those used in medicine, law or computing, you’ll need a reference book that fits with your specialization.
If you’re studying English to work in Business Administration, a book like the “Oxford Dictionary of Business and Management” would be essential (and if you don’t want to constantly carry around a big, heavy dictionary, it’s also available in a digital edition). It covers areas like marketing, business strategy, taxation and organizational behavior. It’s full of definitions for management jargon like “habitual buying behavior” or “iterative design.”
You can find other dictionaries and reference books for many different fields like law or medicine. There are also dual-language dictionaries between English and other languages for some professions (for example, there are medical dictionaries and phrasebooks that translate between English and Spanish, English and German and English and Portuguese). Depending on your profession and native language, a dual-language dictionary could be another useful tool.
Profession-specific dictionaries and reference books are often available at English bookstores or on Amazon. If you just search for the type of dictionary you need, there’s a good chance you’ll discover that it exists! And remember that most dictionaries these days are also available as apps or in digital editions.
Of course, you could also get a general dictionary, keeping in mind that bigger probably is better. A good dictionary might contain 225,000 (or more!) definitions of words from all kinds of subjects.
Read Trade Magazines or Industry-specific Blogs
To ensure that your reading material is relevant, you need to be picky. It’s fun reading lifestyle blogs or beauty magazines, but they’re only helpful to your career if you’re learning English to work in the fashion industry. However, trade magazines and industry-specific blogs cover ideas and trends in the profession that you want to follow.
Imagine that you’re learning English to get promoted from a content marketer to a content strategist; in that case, you might want to read Chief Content Officer magazine to learn about the latest news, challenges and opportunities in the world of content creation.
By the same token, PC Mag, MacFormat or Wired are some go-to resources for tech news, and they’re excellent reading materials for English learners who have or want a career in computing or automation. If the printed magazines that you like aren’t available at newspaper stands where you live, you should try checking at a local university or public library. Libraries often have a huge selection of magazines, and usually they’re free to borrow!
You can find more trade-specific magazines for discounted (lowered) prices at Magazine Line. They have a Professional & Trade category, as well as categories that may be specific to your field, like Business & Finance, Computer & Electronics, Cooking & Food and many more. The prices for some magazines are lowered by as much as 70% or more, so you don’t have to worry about spending too much!
While some magazines are only available by subscription and in certain locations, blogs are free to read and they contain plenty of useful, practical lessons. FluentU’s Business English Blog, for example, is a resource that can help you learn English for a career in business and management. It regularly publishes new articles to help English learners who want to improve their business English. It covers things like how to negotiate in English, what expressions to use in customer service, how to write a business letter or how to excel in your next presentation.
When you start finding online magazines and blogs, I recommend using Mix and Feedly to give you a smooth and engaging reading experience.
Mix finds and recommends web content to its users based on their preferences. If you tell Mix that you like to read about finance, for example, it shows you highly-rated articles related to finance—but also suggests other things you might find interesting. You don’t know what you’ll get, but it’ll be related to what you like, and the content is usually excellent since many others have recommended it.
Feedly works a bit differently. You can use Feedly to organize, read and even share articles related to your profession. You tell Feedly which blogs and magazines you want to follow, and it continually checks those sites for you and puts updated articles and content all together in one place. It’s basically a way to build a private collection of blogs and magazines.
Listen to Professional Podcasts
English podcasts are a quick and accessible way to improve your listening skills. There are excellent podcasts to learn English for daily conversations as well as for business communications. If you dig deep, you’ll also find professional podcasts that will enhance your English as well as your career.
A great example is the British Council’s Professionals Podcast. That one covers a wide variety of topics, from branding and relationship building to biotechnology advances and a day in the life of a medical doctor. Using the podcast, you can listen to real-life presentations or interviews. You also have access to a vocabulary list, listening exercises, a related article and the transcript of the audio file. It’s an extensive resource!
Podcasts are continually growing in popularity, and new ones are being started all the time. As a result, whether you’re a human resources officer, a professional writer or anything in between, there’s probably a podcast just for you. You’ll likely find one or a few podcasts related to your field if you know where to look.
Start with your favorite blogs and watch for their recommendations. You can also check social media accounts of industry experts to see if they mention any podcasts that you can check out.
Make It a Goal to Attend an International Industry Conference
International conferences are great opportunities to mingle with like-minded people and practice speaking English. Going abroad for a conference might cost some money and take time and planning, but the reward is high. You get to build a network with people in your industry and broaden your career path while improving your English comprehension.
If you don’t think you can afford international travel or have doubts about the results, try webinars first. Webinars are seminars conducted over the internet. TellOnline.org lists webinars and conferences in various fields (like computer technology, economics and finance).
Eventbrite is another website where you can find many online English presentations as well as offline events in your city. Some online events are free while others charge a fee, but the fees are often lower than that of a similar on-location event. Go to either site, pick a free webinar in your field and check it out to see how it works.
Many industry leaders organize webinars regularly, which means you won’t have to wait long before a new one becomes available. If you subscribe to their blogs, you’ll be the first to know.
You can also find more information about events and conferences through word of mouth (ask a coworker for recommendations) or on corporate websites.
Find Specialized Professional English Courses Online
Not every English learning program is designed for professional needs. You might find that the lessons are too general and informal for the way you plan to use English in your career. Luckily, there are plenty of programs out there that are specialized for professional purposes.
English for professional purposes is different from everyday English, so you might need to adopt new methods to master English that will work for your job.
Be selective and focus on your particular industry when choosing your learning materials. And if you can make it to one, international conferences provide a fantastic chance to put all your English knowledge of your industry into practice, so consider going to one or two this year.
It might take some hard work to improve your business English skills, but it’s worth it!