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Business English: New approaches are needed to increase the ROI in corporate English learning.

Note: Printable version (PDF) and a podcast (MP3) are available on our website.

English is the international language of business. English is used to do business across international boundaries. People from different language backgrounds work together in corporate offices and use English as their common means of communication. It is not surprising therefore that there are millions of people who need to learn English for business communication. Companies and organizations around the world spend a great deal of money and time to help their employees learn business English.

Is there a satisfactory ROI (return on investment) for English language training in corporations or organizations?

Could the return on investment for business English be improved? According to information presented at a conference on language training for business called Sprachen und Beruf in Duesseldorf, Germany in 2005;

  1. Most business English training involves English teachers visiting companies once or twice a week or employees attending language schools. E-learning is growing as an alternative for learning business English.
  2. Organizations usually allow employees to study business English during working time. Surprisingly most employees do not like studying on company time because they are too busy working. They prefer to learn English on their own time.
  3. Even employees involved in company-sponsored business English courses usually spend little more than one hour a week studying on their own.

What does this mean? The preferred approaches for business English learning are on-site instruction or off-site schools. Yet these are largely perceived by employees as distractions from their main job. These activities also represent a loss of productivity for the employer, thereby adding to the cost of these programs.

Is there a good ROI in this investment? Employees usually recognize that they need to improve their own level of English proficiency. Yet one or two hours of group instruction, followed by one hour of self-study per week, will not usually bring about a meaningful improvement in business English skills. Results presented at Sprachen und Beruf indicated that it took 18 months for any improvement in business English language skills to become noticeable, in the best cases.

How Can E-learning Deliver Greater ROI?

E-learning is often considered as an alternative because of its greater flexibility and lower cost. However, existing e-learning models have experienced a rapid drop-off rate amongst learners. The reason is that most e-learning systems have simply tried to deliver classroom teaching methodology online. This is the case with some leading English language e-learning providers.

To improve the ROI in learning business English, it is necessary to adopt new approaches that take into consideration two essential characteristics of the business learner.

  1. The business English learner is an adult, not a high school student.

    There is increasing evidence that adults are better language learners than children, when all language skills are considered. This is true even for older adults, see The Older Language Learner by Mary Schleppegrell.

    There is no age barrier to language improvement. However, many adults have come to believe that they are already past the optimum age for language learning. These attitudes represent a major obstacle to effective language improvement. Forcing adults to do the kinds of drills found in a typical business English course, that were developed for use in traditional classrooms, will only increase the adult learner's resistance to language learning.

    Business English learning needs to be built around the strengths of the adult learner. The adult has a wide range of knowledge and experience. Learning activities should focus on interesting content that is meaningful to the business learner. The learner should be allowed to choose what to study. This meaningful content should include but not be limited to content containing English for business communication. Business English vocabulary is often the easiest to learn, and should be learned from content that is relevant to the business English learner's area of activity. In addition, the business English learner should be allowed to explore a wide range of content in English to improve broad English communication skills. The choice of learning content should be the learner's.

    The initial priority in improving English skills should be on increasing the understanding of written and spoken English through intensive listening and reading activities. This is in line with recent views about the importance of meaningful input to language acquisition.(see Krashen

    Efforts to improve accuracy in English writing and speaking must be integrated with intensive reading and listening to English content that is meaningful to the learners. If not, theoretical or abstract instruction can be counterproductive, creating negative attitudes amongst learners. There is considerable evidence that grammar instruction and error correction do not lead to improved accuracy or fluency in expression. See Grammar Correction in ESL student writing: How effective is it? by Shawn Loewen.

    Instead of classrooms there should be well planned opportunities to speak in English with small groups of no more than four learners and one native speaker. These meetings can be face to face or online. They should not be instructional sessions as are common in a conventional English course. Instead they need to be casual and stress free without too much correction. These should be discussions on subjects of interest to the learner, including, but not limited to, discussions about business. Native speaker tutors can provide feedback, but mostly should just let learners practice relaxed and enjoyable communication. These discussions will usually stimulate learners to do more intensive reading and listening, activities that learners can carry out on their own at little cost.

    It is the correction of writing that represents the best opportunity to improve the accuracy of the learners' business English communication, if it is properly integrated with other learning activities. Here again, correcting meaningful writing, including actual business correspondence, is more useful than assigning artificial activities like exercises or tests, which are typical of classroom and the traditional business English course. Business English learners should be encouraged to use the same style of English whether writing or speaking, in order that the practice of these two language skills can be mutually reinforcing.

  2. Most business English learners are comfortable with the Internet, iPods and related technology that make it possible to deliver personalized and effective language instruction anywhere and anytime.

    What is more, learners of business English are busy. People who need to learn business English are active and busy, but they do have time that can be used effectively for language learning. Listening to interesting or relevant content on an MP3 player or iPod is easy to do. It needs to be done in conjunction with reading and a systematic method of vocabulary learning such as the Internet makes possible. Often this listening should be done in a repetitive way to ensure reinforcement.

    Most employees commute to work and or have other "dead moment" periods during their day, when they can listen, if only for short periods at a time. Many business people travel for business when they can also find themselves with "dead moments". These "dead moments" represent valuable opportunities for learning and improving English skills. Listening can also be combined with other activities like exercise or doing household chores.

    Such repetitive listening, reading and vocabulary review activities, using portable devices such as iPods, can provide a degree of reinforcement through repetition that the traditional classroom simply cannot match. It is effective if it is combined with an efficient and structured method of online instruction.

    The classroom is often a once or twice a week learning occasion. The business learner may have trouble concentrating in class because he or she is thinking of other things. On the other hand, the repetitive listening to a personal device like an iPod during "dead moments" while doing other activities can provide constant high intensity learning of a continuous immersion nature. The key to the success of such a program is to stimulate and maintain the interest and motivation of the learner.

    If the content to listen to and read is selected by the learner because it is interesting or useful, the learning activity becomes enjoyable. If the learning activity is enjoyable, the learner will be more motivated to continue, and to spend the time necessary for ultimate success.

The Linguist, a web based learning community that focuses on the ROI of business English.

The Linguist is an online integrated English language learning method where learners choose their own meaningful and relevant learning content, at their own level of difficulty. The key to language learning success is the interest and motivation of the learner. The Linguist makes the learning process as pleasant and efficient as possible to ensure buy-in from the corporate learner. It is based on the 8 essential steps of language learning, Choose, Read, Listen, Review, Write, Pronounce, Speak and Measure.

Most online language learning systems, including The Linguist, now offer daily measurements of what learners are doing. This makes it possible to monitor learners and make sure that learners are actually taking advantage of the opportunity to improve their business English. Daily ongoing measurement of each learner's activities and achievements should be an integral part of any business English course in any corporation or organization. With ongoing measurement it is possible to monitor the return on investment in English learning by employees and to make sure that time and money is used as effectively as possible. Return on investment should be as important in training as in any other field of activity.

A new content based approach to online English learning designed specifically for adults has shown that if the learning experience is enjoyable and if there is a perception that progress is being made, busy people will find the time to study. Learners at TheLinguist are typically busy employed professionals. Yet they find the time for active listening, or reading, or speaking or writing, or studying vocabulary almost every day. This is a much higher rate of activity than in most business English programs.

The ability to choose content of personal interest is motivating. The lack of pressure to perform instills confidence in the minds of these adult learners. Most learners at The Linguist have studied in classrooms or other e-learning systems before, using traditional methods. In general, the freedom to direct one's own studies at one's own pace increases enjoyment, decreases stress and ensures continued improvement in business English. Modern computer systems can help the learner find content at the appropriate level of difficulty, and assist in remembering new vocabulary. This significantly increases the feeling of achievement and reduces the frustration experienced by the learner. This all works to ensure continued efforts to work on improving business English.

From the perspective of the employer, the most important criterion in evaluating a business English learning program should be the learning activity level of the learners. Employees may have different English levels, or even different aptitudes for language learning. What matters is that employees devote enough time to their studies to actually improve.

About the Author:

Steve Kaufmann

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