Business English

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br_business_english

br_business_englishA few facts about me: who I am, where I write from and why is it that I review this publication? Every sensitive reviewer, I believe, asks these questions and it is only fair that the answers be shared with the reader.

A colleague, member of the same department, entrusted with much the same teaching responsibilities and a student of the same field as the authors, I write this piece to review and assess a textbook and through it a phenomenon of which I am myself a part. Therefore, this review is rooted in a framework hopelessly intermeshed with the one under scrutiny, a view from inside, so to say.

The book, I presume, is meant for primarily two kinds of readers: teachers and students of the B.Com. Programme. Functionally viewed, it exists in a space framed by the curriculum and classroom practice on the one hand and the students’ study space on the other. It is being reviewed here for a journal that circulates among teachers of the English language. All this forces one to devise a reviewing framework that takes the curriculum, pedagogy and the students’ learning curve into account. I believe the authors must have also felt these factors pressing, sometimes even hurting, while putting the book together.

This framework leads me to ask three basic questions:

  1. How does this text relate to the subject matter and the syllabi it is prescribed for?
  2. What communication abilities and skills will the student learn out of it?
  3. What kind of pedagogic practices does the text participate in?

In the remaining part of the review let me attempt to answer, out of my understanding of this book, these questions and their corollaries.

Divided into six Units (25 chapters) the book glosses through a series of topics that correspond somewhat neatly to most of the entries in the B.Com Programme Paper XVI  syllabus (except Unit 1). Much of this you would find in any book on Business Communication, though in a different form, but the book also presents “updated information on the cultural components of communication and how gender and culture define communication”. Indeed the information is there, innovatively presented, but I wonder to what extent it is updated!

The reader is advised not to expect a theoretically unified exposition of the subject matter because this is a collaborative effort of five different minds. Each, perhaps, worked independently on one or more Unit/s, a fact that sneaks through changes in style, rhetoric, organization and some overlaps. Its strength lies in another direction – using a simple, lucid and innovative writing style to get across some basic points relating to the entries listed in the syllabus.

There appears to be a mismatch between the title of the paper and its contents (barring Unit 1), a mismatch understandably reflected in the book as well. Is this book about Business English or Business Communication? The opening page of Chapter 1 dealing with Business English reads: Business English is a communicative competence that needs to be understood in the context of the workplace and, for that purpose, it is important that we focus on the basics of Business Communication itself.

The book then takes off into the basics of Business Communication. That leaves me somewhat confused and dissatisfied. To understand Business English one would of course want to study the English language as practiced at the business workplace. But why leap from Business English to Business Communication? As if the most fruitful way to study it was through the theory of Business Communication. This does appear to be a book on Business Communication masquerading as one on Business English.

A paper centered on Business English should study the rhetoric, syntax, grammar, style etc. specific to that use of language and incorporate communication theory in its stride. But that would perhaps be an advanced course with different pedagogic and learning goals. Alternatively, basic versions of the course focused on the language could also be designed.

Within the framework of its implicit goals, however, the book seems to deliver well. In a pleasantly laid out note on the first page, the reader is introduced to a tree diagram that presents the organizational structure of a fictitious business organization – SWITCH2CFL– used for illustrative purposes throughout the text. There is something commendable in an impulse like this. An illustrative innovation, a feature that prevents

somewhat repetitive variety and a useful text book centered communication strategy one could go on enumerating its advantages until the chinks begin to appear. Most of the time, the context on the parent page clarifies the interrelations and there is no real need for this indexical reference. Perhaps, that is the defining trait of all effective communication: within a given context it has to function without reference to an index.

The sections on gender and intercultural communication lucidly explain and exemplify points relating to culture and gender specific practices and values and even illustrate incidents relating to gender based and intercultural differences and clashes. Starting from basic concepts in the area like perception, stereotype and ethnocentrism the text weaves interesting and even humorous narratives about incidents centering on such interactions and clashes. Perhaps it would have helped if the text built-up further the highlights of “dominant” cultures and gender issues along with specific dos and don’ts relating to them.

A word needs to be said about the narrative character of the explanation that runs throughout the book but specially in the gender and culture sections. It’s a form that should help students feel the points mentioned in the para heading at an experiential level. That should help the textbook reach the final goal of helping the students handle real life communication situations. Though it would leave teachers like us wondering about what we are supposed to do in the class – perhaps comment critically on the narrative? I have inadvertently moved into the realm of the second question.

There is enough substance in the book for a B.Com. Programme student to process. The real life examples through occasional case studies and narratives, exercises, assignments, activities etc. should help the student consolidate the lessons learnt. It also appears well-tuned to the subject matter with its stress on concepts and processes illustrated through diagrams, sketches, tables and occasional pictures. There is enough theoretical material to reproduce in the examination, and sufficient practical ideas, tips and guidelines to help students learn the form and practice the contents of various business communication tools.

That brings me to the pedagogical realm. A situation broadly analogous to what prevailed in the U.S. universities in the ’80s seems to be current today. As Prof. E.D. Hirsch Jr. summarized it then “Keeping literature and composition separate is artificial. We must integrate – reintegrate – as departments of English. We can’t have the literati, the literary mandarins, sitting aloof in one corner refusing to ever sully themselves with having to teach composition. Nor can we afford to have composition teachers, as members of a separate clique, concerned only with writing.”

Literature and composition (which I here take to mean language and communication courses) have in one sense always been integrated in the undergraduate classrooms of Delhi University. It is perhaps a commonplace of University experience that the English department at the college level teaches all other departments of the College a course relevant for them. Yet a schism has persisted in the minds of most of the teachers between language and literature. Trained in reading and teaching literature they have found the experience of teaching language and communication courses, no matter how carefully planned, different from teaching literature courses and sometimes unproblematically arranged them in an hierarchy.

I see this book as beginning to bridge this divide, level this hierarchy, in one sense. First by bringing in issues like culture and gender. By suggesting that teaching language practice in specific contexts cannot be divorced from theoretical aspects of language, literary theory and interdisciplinary fields, publications like these should help enrich the teaching and learning experiences for both sides of the classroom. Graduating from an era of teaching language and communication based on stereotypical form and content, where books and teachers taught students not how to understand the basics of the form and the ability to frame content but instead offered “templates” of content and form, this book should prove to be a richer experience. It would not be far-fetched to say that such stereotyping of the subject matter may have been responsible for a fair degree of disinterest that teaching language courses aroused among literature teachers.

The book would perhaps benefit by having a closely argued Preface explaining the relevance of integrating the theory and practice of language not only to the students but also the teachers and implement some of that integration further into its content.

I want to end with a small and somewhat disjointed anecdote.

A cardiologist wanted a new piece of equipment for a hospital but could not explain it to an electrical engineer. Apparently, he MD and the PhD were not – if you will pardon the pun – on the same wavelength. So, how did the cardiologist and the engineer solve the problem? They called in an English teacher. The electrical engineer explained his problem to the English teacher as the doctor listened; then the doctor explained his needs as the engineer listened. When they had finished, and just as the English teacher started to arbitrate, both men of science stepped back and said, “Now we understand what each of us was trying to say.” The conclusion is obvious: if two scientists can explain their points to each other so that an English teacher can understand, then communication in direct, clear terms takes place.

Somewhat serious, somewhat humorous, I want to use this anecdote (picked up from the ’80s) as an opportunity to explore the relationship between English as a language and the fields which use it for their own ends – business being one of them. They need language and us because they need to get across to each other; they struggle against problems of coding-decoding, form-content, style-context much as we do, though with a clearly utilitarian end in sight. We are for them, still, a touchstone of clarity, efficiency, proficiency and a kind of middle ground that they can relate to as a part of their challenges and struggles and look upon us as facilitators.

This is a historically situated role that may not be available for very long to teachers of English literature. We may not be comfortable embracing these roles but given the world we live in can we afford to reject them? Syllabus necessities apart, can we as literature teachers ignore the appreciation and perhaps influencing of contemporary reality that would emerge out of a dialogue with the business world – and why do we refuse to conduct such dialogues through teaching courses like these? As our smiles fade, it is perhaps time for us to think what English teachers can do both to meet and, more importantly, to influence the direction of that demand.

* Article first published in FORTELL newsletter, issue no. 15

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