IATEFL BESIG World Blog


Welcome to the BESIG World Blog. Each month we’ve got a different guest author lined up who will be sharing thoughts and experiences on teaching business English from countries around the globe.

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Business English in Developing Contexts: The View from Pakistan

In this interview, Claire Hart talks to Azra Ahmed.

Azra Ahmed is a business English teacher working in the higher education sector in Karachi, Pakistan. She takes an active part in the global business English community by participating in professional development activities and sharing her ideas with other professionals at international conferences. In order to present an accurate and three-dimensional picture of business English teaching and learning in her home country of Pakistan, Azra created and distributed a questionnaire asking business English learners at her university for their views and some of the results of that survey are recalled by Azra in this interview.  Azra also considers how teaching business English in developing contexts differs from and is in some cases more challenging than it is in the West and looks to the future of business English in Pakistan.


You can download the questionnaire here: Business English World Blog Questionnaire


Azra Ahmed
Azra Ahmed is Assistant Professor at the Aga Khan University Institute for Education Development, Pakistan, and holds a Masters in TEFL, and has a COTE (RSA) from Cambridge University. She is currently enrolled in MSc in E-learning from the University of Edinburgh. Her online training certifications are from the IoE, University of London, Consultants-E and Trinity College. She has edited two books and presented internationally.


Claire: Can you talk us through the linguistic landscape of Pakistan and the role that the English language plays within it?

Azra: Pakistan is a multilingual community—more than sixty languages are spoken in Pakistan, including a number of provincial languages. Urdu, the lingua franca, is the national language and is understood by over 75% of Pakistanis. English is the official language of Pakistan, used in official business, government and legal contracts; the local dialect is known as Pakistani English.
English and Urdu are the most commonly used languages in business communication. English being a power language in Pakistan, it is generally used both for peripheral, i.e. all kinds of information meant for in-company usage, collaborate, organize, plan, etc., and frontal communication, which is used for strategic purposes—correspondence, verbal & written, aimed at the propagation and representation of the organization—usually outside the organisation. However the size and nature of business determines which language is used to a greater extent. Written communication is by and large in English; however, oral communication is mainly in Urdu. But interestingly most BE learners aspire to be able to communicate orally in English—perhaps we go back to its status as the language that opens up opportunities—the language of a community that has a socio-economic edge in society, the ruling elite! Interestingly job interviews are more often than not in English even when the job may not require the employee to speak in English, and this situation makes business English an important component of ESP in countries such as Pakistan who have yet to get over their colonial past.

Claire: How would you characterise the learning and teaching of business English in Pakistan if you had to generalise?

Azra: Though English is a compulsory subject from Class 1 (or at least it´s supposed to be) it definitely has an increasingly greater role at the tertiary level. The challenge is that learners leaving college or university have not been equipped with the language skills they tend to need in the workplace. The problem, I dare say, is with the teaching rather than with the learning—and I say this as an English language teacher and someone who has been in this business for the last 28 years! I am not sure if this is because there are no business English training schools for teachers, or it’s because the language proficiency of the language teachers themselves is questionable. Often language teachers are given this responsibility, without any input on how to adapt materials for business English or what teaching learning strategies to adopt with young employed adults. Another challenge is the typical ESP situation where the teacher is at best a facilitator and in many cases knows much less than the participants do in their field. This seems to be an obvious point, but it is something which still eludes many business English teachers here. In short, business English teaching is yet to be institutionalized in Pakistan.

Claire: I know you´ve done some research with business English participants at your university to find out what their response to the content of their lessons is, what were the results?

Azra: I did a small survey with a group of BE participants and the majority said they enjoyed taking part in discussion-based lessons and working on presentation skills. I have a feeling if I had not been their facilitator for Presentations skills their responses may have been different though! And the majority felt they would also benefit from discussion-based lessons, which are rather uncommon here; they listed writing skills as second on this question. Surprisingly only 3 out of the 29 participants said they enjoyed BE games and only one said games could benefit them. That seems to be reflective of the choice of games by the facilitators and how they are handled in the classroom, I would imagine. Another survey with BE trainers demonstrated the majority felt the BE landscape in Pakistan was looking up even though not many business English courses are currently being offered in Pakistan. The pay-scale is usually better than what most instructors get and perhaps they are considered a ‘cooler’ lot than the ordinary ‘teacher’. And interestingly the more modern—read western—you look, the more impressed the participants get!

Claire: An area that you´re particularly interested in is course design, would you like to share some of your views on course design with us?

Azra: Course design, for me, also includes the materials and strategies used by BE facilitators here. And more specifically the need to contextualize and adapt published material. I have seen over the years how we mimic what is published and or what the ‘experts’ say. A large majority of the books used in our business schools are obviously written for the Western market and no one has bothered to research into the indigenous needs and wants of the market and the learner. Let me give you an example of two very common features of communication skills as taught in business circles. One is: look into the eyes of the speaker—for the various reasons given in the course books. In our culture we don’t look directly in the speaker´s eyes, especially when we want to show respect or deference. The other being: the salutations in business letters. Our greeting is Assalaamu Alaikum—Peace be Upon You, but we have to start with Dear… And then the writer can choose from four titles (Mr, Mrs, Ms, Miss), whereas we place the title after the name, e.g. I might want to say Carl Saheb, and not Mr Dowse! The issue is obviously not with the materials publishers but with our lack of confidence in developing our own variety of business English.

Claire: What factors do you think those working in the field of business English in Pakistan will be unable to ignore in the future?

Azra: Pakistan is a 'young' nation, with a median age of about 20 out of a total population of approximately 180 million. Although a majority of the population lives in rural areas, the number of internet users is growing in millions every year—the figures clearly represent the emergent nature of social media here. Therefore I believe that tutors of business English should concentrate on designing and delivering courses through online Learning Management Systems and using Web 2.0 tools in the future.