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Teaching Vocabulary in Business English Classes
by Marjorie Rosenberg
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(First published in 'Business Issues, Summer 2009 Issue 72, a BESIG/IATEFL publication')

One of the main areas of difference between teaching general or business English lies in the vocabulary which needs to be taught and learned. Learners who are fluent in English may still have a lack of knowledge of specific vocabulary used in the business world and even in their own fields. These learners may be students learning at institutions of higher education or for specific exams or they may be business people who need English for their current or future jobs. In both cases, the motivation for learning this vocabulary is generally high. Their needs, timetables and access to authentic materials and speaking situations may vary greatly, however. Therefore, business English teachers have to find a wide variety of ways to help their learners acquire, retain and be able to use the words they need in their professional lives.

One way to begin to think about methods for teaching vocabulary is to first consider what it means to know a word. Do we have to know what it means, use it correctly in context, understand where it came from, pronounce it correctly, know if it has a positive or negative meaning or if it is formal or informal, and so on? Depending on the type of learners you teach, a variety of definitions for knowing a word may be applicable to your situation. Opening up this discussion to learners has the benefit of getting them to think for themselves about what they really need. Then they can find ways to record vocabulary, search for it using different sources and find out how they themselves can best move vocabulary from a passive usage to an active one.

It is also important to realise that individuals learn and retain vocabulary differently. This often depends on their learning styles. One model which can be looked at is the visual, auditory and kinesthetic model. Visual learners need to see words or pictures and often have to write the word down to make sure it is spelled correctly. They may need to read the word in a sentence in order to remember it.  Auditory learners need to hear the word or phrase said aloud. They concentrate on the sound of the word and the pronunciation is important for them. They may also need to put the word into a sentence and practise saying the sentence out loud or to themselves. Kinesthetic learners may need to move about or even make gestures while learning vocabulary. They may connect words with movements or feelings. For them, the positive or negative connotations of words can be very important and help them remember new words and phrases.

How does all of this apply specifically to business English? Lately, the economic crisis has  been the major topic in a number of business English lessons. In reading through authentic material it is interesting to note that a large number of idioms are used. In looking at the idioms more closely, it is interesting to observe that there is a group of phrases connected to water. Terms such as bailout, to go under, waterfall payments, sink or swim, to buoy profits or to keep one’s head above water are just some of the ones which have recently come up. Presenting these words visually and/or kinesthetically has greatly helped some of my adult learners. As vocabulary in English changes so rapidly, it is important to help learners find ways which they can employ themselves to retain some of the words they need. When they begin to store words in more than one sensory channel, they find that their access to the word has also increased and the word comes to them more easily when they need it.

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