As Brazil is currently a major player in the global economy, many positions in local and international companies now require that their staff has a proficient level of English in order to do business with partners and customers from all over the world. Alessandra de Campos, a Business English Trainer based in São Paulo (Brazil), will be sharing with us her experience in teaching English for Specific Purposes (ESP) in a country that only now people are becoming more aware of how important is to speak a second language, and the great impact that it can have in their professional lives and professional development.
Justine Arena from the BESIG Online Team, who´s based in Brasilia, Brazil, asked Alessandra about her experiences as a business English teacher in Brazil, looking at the challenges, successes and future potential which exist there.
Alessandra de Campos has a degree in Language Teaching and post-graduation courses in Applied Linguistics and Distance Learning. Since 1990 she has worked in schools, language institutes and companies as a teacher, academic coordinator and program/material designer. She has a Celta and is currently doing her Delta. I occasionally do consultancy work for publishers, started recently to work as an examiner for Cambridge, teach teenagers at a bilingual school and executives in-company.
JA: Is Business English something that is vastly offered in English schools and as part of companies´ training program in Brazil?
AdC: A lot of English schools offer business English classes for individual students. I know of one school that offers group classes with a focus on presentation or telephone skills. In-company classes are usually individual or in small groups and classes are paid for by the students. Some companies offer employees at a certain level (usually the managerial level) sponsorship, paying a percentage of the course and some sign a contract with different English schools who offer employees a discount and classes either in the school or in-company. What usually happens is that these students, in any case, eventually hire a private teacher because schools cannot personalize classes (at least not enough) and the traditional business English classes with business English books end up not helping students to do their work.
JA: How did you start teaching Business English (BE), and in what type of settings have you taught BE?
AdC: My career in BE started in 2007, when the school where I worked as an academic coordinator was invited to design a program for 25 employees in a software company. The objective of the company was to help some of their managers (or prospective managers) to improve their use of English at work. We had there a very unusual situation, considering the business of language teaching. We were given a classroom, full access to the company’s meetings, conference calls, documents, projects, clients, in a way that we knew their business extremely well and that reflected deeply in the work we were able to do in class. I spent 4 years in that company and after that started teaching BE only as a private tutor.
JA: How is to teach BE in Brazil? What are the biggest challenges in your opinion?
AdC: The main challenge that I believe teachers/schools face is to understand exactly what students need. I remember interviewing the 25 employees in the company in 2007 and making conclusions about their needs that proved wrong as I started learning more about what they really had to do. My impression is that students do not really understand what they need to know or cannot explain these needs well. After a year being in the company 8 hours a day from Monday to Friday, I realized that none of the descriptions of use of English I had heard from my students had been accurate or ‘realistic’. Thus what I think is that, even as private teachers, we run the risk of offering the students what we think they need based on what they think they will have to do and not helping them, frustrating them and being frustrated as well.
Another big challenge is to find the appropriate materials to use in class. The only materials that would make sense to use would be their own production at work. Written production (emails and other artifacts) is usually available and easier to see, analyze and work on. The problem is oral production, which does not take place while we are in class, and can only be dealt with if students record their meetings or calls and bring the files to class, but that rarely happens. Because of the variety of segments in the business area, it is not easy for publishers to produce a book that is relevant and useful for classes. Most books cover too many areas (HR, sales, marketing, etc) and the units are too superficial and unrealistic. It is possible to find books that deal with only one area or career (for example, English in Medicine). In the area where I was (technology), even those books that were specific were inappropriate.
JA: What was the most challenging BE project that you have been involved with? Why? How did you overcome these challenges and what was the outcome of the project?
AdC: Teaching students to participate in a conference call effectively was my most challenging task. To begin with, I had never participated in a conference call, so I only had a remote idea of what happened during a call. Secondly, we teachers tend to prepare students to use a much more formal language than is actually needed, and if you do not participate in their calls, you never realize that your students may be sounding awkward, unnatural, or excessively formal. Of course, again, business English is a vast area and I believe information technology is among the most informal ones. But the business I see in companies nowadays tends to be much more informal than we believe it is or than it used to be, and I see the same tendency in the company where I am now, that is pharmaceutical.
But back to the calls, it is not only a matter of register. A conference call demands a number of skills. The student in a call has to be able to understand and manage silence, stress, uncertainty, doubt, has to show confidence in him/herself, the team, the project, reassure the client, make promises, explain, justify, argue, ask, answer, question, complain, demand, give in, make conversation, show regret, congratulate, praise, and so on, but all that in a foreign language. There is a large number of business skills, personal skills, soft skills required from the participants, and language skills only add up to the complexity of the situation.
I learned all I know today from the conference calls I participated in during the four years in-company. Many times, we were four, five people sitting in a room with a device that allowed us to hear and be heard, and we did not know what the best way to respond would be, as the client showed frustration, disappointment, disbelief. Sometimes, we were unable to understand the client’s English. We all learned by doing, by trying again and again, by discussing results after each call, analyzing recordings. Being in the company made all the difference and, after some time, I already knew what to expect and how to behave, so we formed groups of study to prepare employees for the different scenarios and started having much more effective calls.
JA: A lot of Brazilians can communicate in general English, but don´t have a proficiency level to write business emails, participate in conference calls and do business in English. What is needed to get a student who has some level of proficiency in general English to be confident and able to communicate in the business world?
AdC: I would say practice. Also, confidence in language use, in my opinion, has a lot to do with personality and attitude. A student at an A2 level may show more confidence than another at a C1 level. I do not really believe that knowledge necessarily leads to confidence. As a recommendation to students, I would say, “Observe. Listen. Watch. Copy. Improvise.” As a recommendation to teachers, I would say, “Observe. Understand. Analyze. Guide.”
JA: And we cannot leave behind the two major events that will take place in Brazil within the next 3 years. In you view, how ready is Brazil for the World Cup in 2014 and the Olympic Games in 2016? Is the country and businesses getting ready for these two major events as far as English goes?
AdC: I do not hear any comments about the World Cup or the Olympic Games inside companies. My students are usually more concerned about deals the president has signed, decisions made by big companies, changes in legislation and where numbers are going. However, on the streets I notice that taxi drivers and clerks, for example, talk a lot about getting prepared for those events, which I think may mean a high demand for courses preparing people to deal with foreigners. I think it is part of our culture to do things at the very last minute and I do not think things will be different in this case.
JA: Finally, in some places English for Specific Purposes (ESP), such as BE is something fairly new. What are some tips that you have for teachers who want to get involved in BE or are already teaching BE and would like to develop themselves further in this area?
AdC: I would recommend talking to other teachers who have already been doing this kind of work, watching classes when possible, learning as much as possible about the student’s (or company’s) business (besides reading about the company on their website, it is possible to sign up for Google Alerts, for example, and that service will email you whenever something is published about the company), reading (I would suggest Harvard Business Review - and The Financial Times; on Summary.com you can read summaries of books on several business topics) and watching videos on www.ted.com (there are a lot of videos on topics that are interesting for students inside companies).