Six Failures in Traditional Business Language Training Programmes

The typical structure of business language courses is a long-term agreement over at least 4 months where the participants work their way through a pre-defined course curriculum, often based on an English course book which is targeted to a particular CEF level while covering ‘business-related’ themes such as projects, teamwork, logistics, making decisions, and meetings & negotiations.

The manager responsible for the English language training will then coordinate with their colleagues to perform a placement test and the employees will be divided into levels based on their English language competency, and the course will commence.

Having worked in this industry as both an Instructor and Pedagogical Director for more than a decade, six glaring problems become clear with courses matching such a structure.

  • Generic Business Themes: Course books are designed to fit the CEF levels. As a result, all of your employees who have B2 level English will study the same business themes. You will then be in a situation where each theme is only relevant to a certain percentage of the course participants, if any. That means, in each class, a certain number of the participants will be ‘checked out’, resulting in a situation where they will not engage with the topic and it will be more difficult for them to remember the lesson objectives, even if the grammar point(s) is pertinent to their English language development.


  • Finding a Consensus: To keep all participants engaged, your English language teacher will find a consensus which fits the interests of all, or most, of the participants. However, can you be sure that the consensus within the group will also lead to a situation where they are learning the specific content which is relevant to their work? My guess is that the answer to that is ‘no’. What happens most often is that non-business themes are discussed, or discussions revolve around overly general business topics which do not get into the specifics needed for each employee, and their particular field of expertise.


  • Industry Vocabulary: General business English course books include vocabulary which, in theory, fits into all industries / positions within a company. Again, you will end up with a similar problem as above – if something is ‘good’ for everyone, it isn’t good enough for anyone. In response to this, course book publishers have made industry specific course books (medical, aviation, logistics, etc.) However, these are nothing more than a collection of key terminology that can be found online without making the investment of a course book, just look here, here, or here.


  • Participant Exhaustion: To complete the English language training, most companies organize 2 x 90-minute sessions per week either before or after working hours. Firstly, the participants will probably need to come early or stay late at work to be able to participate. Secondly, they know that their English training will take place on Tues. and Thurs., from 5 PM to 6:30 PM. They are then able to prepare themselves to speak English during that time, and then turn it off before and after those specific times. The question is though, when they do get a phone call in English, will they be prepared to spontaneously use English? If the course structure lacks creativity, the course participants will also lack creativity in their use and ability with the language.

On top of this issue, you have probably bought a promise that your participants will move from one CEF level to the next. However, what it takes to move from one to the next is not equal across the CEF levels. Have a look at these results from Cambridge English. According to this study, you need 500 to 600 hours to complete B2. This includes homework, but you have probably purchased a programme of 80 x 45 minutes to complete one CEF level. You’ll notice that 80 x 45 minutes is substantially less than 500 to 600 hours.

The product that you have been promised can not be delivered under such time constraints.

  • CEF Level Division: Building on the previous point, what is an even bigger issue is that if you are grouping your participants by CEF level, you will have participants from a variety of departments in one group. However, not only does the language vary from industry-to-industry and company-to-company, but also from department-to-department. The Human Resources Dept. will need different English than your Sales Team.


We don’t believe that participants should remain confined to their own department. However, what is important is that when there is interaction between departments, there needs to be a purpose to it. In what cases does the HR Dept. communicate with the Sales Team? How can we replicate that in your English language training? By answering these questions, we can give the course a level of authenticity which does not occur when only dividing participants by CEF level.


  • Medium of Communication: At William Jones, like most language centres, we are a proponent of the Communicative Approach to ESL, with a focus on oral communication. The Communicative Approach is not what is at issue, what is at issue is the understanding, or lack there of, to the complexities of communication. How have you used languages over the past week? Has it always been face-to-face communication within a predefined time period, where you could also anticipate the subject because you could flip through a course book in advance?


No, me neither. They happen spontaneously, through online chats, phone calls, emails, videos online, magazine articles that you found interesting, as well as face-to-face communication. So, why is it that English language training is most often done only through that final medium of communication?


English is a rich language, with a great degree of subtly and nuance. Face-to-face communication is, purely and simply, different than email, chat, phone, tabloid press, or serious journalism language. English language training traditionally overemphasizes face-to-face communication at the expense of other types of communication and, most importantly, at the great expense of spontaneity.

For William Jones’ response to these challenges, check out our blog on our unique Everest Strategy Programme.