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IH survey shows way forward for business English worldwide

Rafaela Peteanu talked to International House affiliates and saw opportunities and threats

The Gazette surveyed worldwide affiliates of the International House (IH) organisation to gain a better understanding of changes in business English and English for specific purposes (ESP) teaching in the past year and to identify any emerging trends in these fields.

We first wanted to know how important business English was to different IH schools. Hamburg, Baden (in Switzerland, near Zurich) and Dubai emerged as leaders in terms of the percentage of total enrolments that were for business English, with 90, 70 and 50 per cent respectively. This is perhaps unsurprising, given their locations – all in countries with a relatively stable economic climate (Germany, Switzerland and the UAE). At the other end, IH Rome only had 2 per cent of its enrolments for business English. San Sebastian (Spain) and Moscow were not much higher, at 5 per cent each.

When it came to trends in enrolments and the demand for business English exams, IH locations with very high or very low enrolment rates for these types of courses reported similar levels to previous years. With the exception of the Spain affiliates, which noticed a significant decrease (more than 10 per cent), and Vietnam, which registered only a slight decrease (less than 10 per cent) in enrolments in the past year, most other locations maintained steady numbers of new students. Emerging ESP locations such as China and South Africa, represented by IH Xi’an (the Shaanxi Province capital) and Cape Town, had higher levels of enrolments compared to previous years, and affiliates in the UK and Switzerland noted a slight increase in enrolments as well.

Increases in the demand for other languages for business, such as Chinese in Moscow, or Portuguese in Cape Town, can be explained by proximity to countries where these languages are spoken. IH Cape Town explained that many of their students of Portuguese were looking into work opportunities in Angola and Mozambique. An increase in the demand for French and Spanish was noted in Switzerland, along with a decrease for Italian.

But while the financial crash in 2008 may not have hit all our respondents’ countries as strongly, certain global trends did emerge. Among the most cited was price sensitivity on the part of companies sending employees for training. Value and cost-effectiveness, as well as result-oriented training, have become more important for employers, who are looking for more control over the outcome of the training, whether it’s courses ending in external exams such as the Business English Certificates (BECs) or Spoken English for Industry and Commerce (SEFIC), or the client’s scrutiny of results and progress. Employees are also more open to sitting an external exam, as they are aware their current positions may not be permanent.

Due to the current financial climate, language schools are now in a position where not only are companies less inclined to invest in training their employees, but they also expect more flexibility from the schools, for example in relation to scheduling. Some employers have taken to sending their employees to the UK for short intensive courses. These tendencies are reflected by a slight increase in enrolments in Newcastle (UK), and were observed in IH affiliates around the world, from Moscow to Dubai and Rome.

With regard to the future of business and other ESP English courses, the trend definitely seems to be specialisation. Clients want more specialised content – more modular courses, including English for presentations and video conferences, or even English for aviation (higher standards are now being required for air traffic controllers).

There’s also a demand for more specialised teaching mate rials. According to IH Hamburg director Patrick Woulfe, the demand for sophisticated and comprehensive teaching materials may be beneficial for big publishers, as they are usually the only ones that can afford to develop these. Quality control is also becoming more important, with companies preferring to engage locally based language schools rather than those with a network of individual teachers.

In addition to specialist courses, some schools have also pointed out the need for constant support from employers. For instance, companies could engage in long-term partnerships with language schools, allowing employees to enrol in language courses even outside precise company training dates. Similarly, in places where English is already being used in higher education, such as the UAE or Switzerland, support is sometimes needed for broadening the ESP knowledge to more social situations – which allows for more comfortable interactions, both in terms of language and understanding and in regard to social skills.