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Responding to Change: Three Chinese Textbooks of Written Business Communication in English
Shandong University, China
WANG Meiling is an associate professor teaching at the School of Economics, Shandong University, P.R.China. She holds a licentiate degree of philosophy in the field of applied linguistics (Vaasa University, Finland). During the period of 2004-2007, she has several refereed publications, national and international. Besides, she has presented several papers at conferences, for example, held in Chinese cities of Beijing, Shanghai, Changsha, and Yanbian and in Vaasa, Finland and Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia as well. Her main teaching and research area is Business English.
Great changes in the business environment have taken place over the past two decades. Significant are the internationalization of business and the increased importance of new technology-driven media such as the fax and email. Both developments have expanded the use of English, particularly between non-native speakers of English. These changes have been so rapid that the instruction of business communication in English seems sluggish in adjusting to the practice of it.
Earlier practical studies in the West, though limited in number, have established the existence of the gap between workplace business communication practices and related teaching materials and the visible need to change the teaching materials. When international business environments were dominated by traditional foreign trade transactions, the external communication of transactional documents of buying and selling constituted the bulk of written English business communication (see, for example, Yli-Jokipii 1994). However, some present-day global and multi-faceted business environments may be dominated by the increasing importance of messages for project proposals, in-house communication, and the like (see Louhiala-Salminen 1995), the goal of which is not buying and selling. Nevertheless, textbooks of written business communication may continue to adopt a traditional business transaction approach (Jenkins & Hinds 1987: 328; Louhiala-Salminen 1996: 50; and St Johns 1996: 11). Textbooks may sometimes ignore expertise and skills of using different communication media for efficiency and effectiveness. The sluggish response in textbooks to the increase in electronically-mediated messages such as faxes and emails has been established by Gimenezs (2000: 237-238) survey which found that of eleven well-known English teaching textbooks from the 1990s, only two dealt with emails. Textbooks may ignore the differences between the writing conventions relating to different cultures, as suggested by Yli-Jokipiis (1994) comparative study of business letters of requests in three cultures (Finland, the UK and the USA). The native English speaker model in textbooks of business communication in English is not unproblematic for non-native English learners as business communication in their future jobs is conducted more often with non-native English speakers (St John 1996: 5).
Chinas increasing integration into the world economy demands more competent Chinese business practitioners and calls for accommodating responses in the domain of English teaching and research. Chinese scholars have acknowledged the need to update the instruction of written English business communication, which has been taught under the official course name Waimao Yingyu Handian (English correspondence for foreign trade). Wang & Chen (2001: 3-4) emphasized that the teaching materials for the course, one of the staple Business English courses, needed alterations and adaptations so as to meet the requirements of present-day international trading communication. In the same line, Ding (2004: 66) proposed the renaming of the traditional course of English Correspondence for Import and Export into English for Written Communication and Documentation in Business to encompass the widening international business environment. Both Wang & Chen (2001) and Ding (2004) suggest that the term correspondence should give way to a more comprehensive concept of communication in present-day business environments.
Earlier studies of BE textbooks used in the Chinese settings are, however, limited. One exception is Halperns study of business communication instruction in China in the early 1980s. He (1983: 49-52) found that there was a lack of up-to-date and appropriate instructional material and, in consequence, specimen letters in them were seen to be oddly blended British and American English. Contemporary problems in related textbooks have been addressed by a number of Chinese scholars. However, except for Lis (2005) survey of the contents pages of BE textbooks, a systematic study of them is still lacking, particularly of the instructional contents for a single course. Changes are obviously called for, as evidenced by Liu (2004: 166), who has called for the incorporation of business emails into textbooks, and Gong (1999: 210), who has strongly criticized the sluggish revision of the textbooks. Common shortcomings in textbooks have been seen to result from an incomplete or partial description of business procedures, a need for the up-dating of INCOTERMs, a failure to accommodate changes in the media of business communication and out-dated phraseology (Zhang 1999: 210; Liu 2004: 165). These, however, are largely based on impressions rather than a systematic study. The present study aims therefore to meet the challenge of becoming the first systematic investigation of textbooks used at the tertiary level for teaching written business communication to students of a large Chinese university.
2 The Case
2.1 Data and Aim of Research
In my study, I have chosen Shandong University, a key Chinese university, as the context and the textbooks used in the course under the name of Waimao Handian at the School of Economics there as a case. The choice of data is supported by the fact that the course, on which the book is used, is obligatory for students majoring in International Economics and Trade, and it can thus be assumed that the students will be working in an international environment where they need English.
The three textbooks Business English Correspondence and Dialogue (Qi 1995), Communicating in International Business (Lu 1998), and New Standard Business English (Liang 2001) formed the research material. These three textbooks have been used one after the other as set textbooks since the mid-1990s. The first, the oldest one in my study, is in fact the 13th reprint of the original in 1989, the second is the 5th reprint of the 1994 revised edition, and the third is the most recent book published in 2001. The three textbooks were taken to represent Chinese textbooks over the past two decades and were referred to in my study as B1, B2 and B3 respectively. The study is based on the assumption that the most important requirements are related to three central aspects of business environments, and the research questions were formulated in relation to them as follows:
1) What scope of international business is covered in the three textbooks? Besides traditional foreign trade transactions, new forms of international business, such as joint ventures, international contracted projects and international credit and settlements, have become part of contemporary Chinese business environments. How do the textbooks respond to this change?
2) What prominence is given to different communication media? Besides the traditional postal letter, what significance is given to technology-driven media such as the fax and email?
3) What English is taught to students, American English, British English or others?
2.2 Method of Research
In finding answers to the three research questions, I used genre analysis to analyze the construction of business environments and the communication competency required of future Chinese business practitioners in the three textbooks by drawing on Swaless (1990) ESP-based genre theory and particularly key concepts: communicative purpose as the primary genre determinant, discourse community as users of genres, and conventionality as part of genre knowledge. I was interested in how the three textbooks over the past two decades reflected changes in the contemporary business environments, and particularly, genre knowledge of written business communication required of students, who aspire to obtain membership in business communities.
In my study, genre was used as an umbrella term to label written business communication, as all business writing activities are purposeful. On the basis of assignable purpose, message types were in turn labeled as subgenres. Thus, subgenres were primarily distinguished between message types relating to traditional foreign trade transactions and those relating to new forms of economic activities on the basis of purposes either of buying/selling or not. The two primary categories of subgenres themselves, thus, have their own members of subgenres operating at different levels. For example, Yli-Jokipiis (1994: 51) thorough account of three phase-related subgenres was used in my study as references in grouping subgenres of traditional foreign trade transactions. Similarly, a multilayered view of international business community was used in identifying types of business environments where university students of business are assumed to work after their graduation. To become members of a given business community, students are supposed to grasp genre knowledge as their professional competency. As genre knowledge, I chose to analyze the construction of changes in the choice of communication media and English varieties in the three textbooks. Following this theoretical framework, I have conducted a systematic analysis of the three textbooks for their construction of business environments, and through them, generic knowledge required of future Chinese business practitioners. The empirical study consisted of two basic steps. The first step examined explicit data, that is, how the publication pages, the prefaces, forewords, and revision notes described international business environments and through them the subgenres. The second step examined implicit data, that is, the contents page and the instructional content, primarily the specimen documents given in the individual chapters.
This section aims to report the findings of the present study. The findings suggest that there was a trend towards extending the scope of business environments beyond traditional foreign trade transactions, reducing the significance of the telegram and telex, and increasing that of the fax and email. The students were taught a blend of Standard British and American English. However, traditional foreign trade transactions through formal business letters remained at the core of written business communication in all three textbooks. Followed is a detailed report of the technical analysis and results.
2.3.1 Continued significance of traditional foreign trade subgenres
The first question concerned the scope of business environments and was addressed in analyzing explicit and implicit evidence for their representations in the three textbooks. Of the three written English business communication textbooks, B1 (1995, revision of the original 1989) had both a preface and a foreword, B2 (1998, revision of the original 1988) had a preface and a revision note, and B3 (2001) had a preface and a contents summary on the publication page. These paratexts were seen to provide evidence of the view adopted in the three books of the important subgenres, the knowledge of which would be regarded as important for targeted business environments.
A close reading of the paratexts revealed that despite the dominance of traditional trade transactions, there was a tendency which ran chronologically from B1 to B3 to widen the scope of contemporary Chinese business environments. As stated by the author Yunfang Qi in the preface (B1: pfii), the chapters of B1 deal with message types for inquiries, offers, price negotiations/bargaining, ordering, payment terms, delivery and shipment, contracts, insurance, claims and agency. The author (B1: iv) claimed that () these make up the entire field of foreign trade activities, which, indeed, was an accurate description of the case in the late 1980s when the book was first published. Agency in B1 was seen as part of foreign trade, that is, conducted through a broker, such as an import or export house, engaged in selling and buying as an intermediary between the suppliers and buyers of goods. According to the revision note added in 1994 (B2: iii), it was the expanding scope of international business activities in particular that had motivated the revision. The expansion of business environments in B2 included international credit arrangements, international leasing, international bidding and tender, foreign consultancy services and correspondent banking which were given and discussed in a chapter each. The significance of new forms of economic cooperation in B2 was, however, reduced in B3. In the preface of B3, the author emphasized the dominance of the traditional foreign trade transactions, although an additional list of finding agents, negotiating business forms, introducing business scope, reporting market trends, etc. might suggest the expansion of business environments beyond traditional foreign trade transactions.
Implicit descriptions of the scope of business environments and, through them, the subgenres the Chinese students are expected to know can also be inferred indirectly from the contents page (See Appendix 1 A simplified view of the chapter headings in the contents page of the 3 textbooks) in the three textbooks. The chapter headings, surprisingly, indicated the significance of traditional foreign trade transactions environments in both B1 and B3, while new business environments were given more prominence in B2. Ten chapters in B1, seven in B2, and ten in B3 were devoted to presenting traditional export-import environments. This means that, all in all, five chapters in B2 were devoted to the new business environments and subgenres involved there. Their placement after chapters of traditional foreign trade environments also suggested lesser weight given to them.
2.3.2 Developments in communication media
The second research question concerned the coverage of the media of business communication and the prominence given to the options. In answering the second question, I focused on the developments in communication media and made the basic distinction between the postal letter and technology-driven media. The three books were studied individually for both explicit and implicit references to different types of media, and the choice was seen to be that between the postal letter, telegram/cable, telex, fax and email.
Explicit evidence consisted of the preface of all three textbooks, the foreword of B1, the revision note of B2, and the publication page of B3. According to these paratexts, postal letters were seen to be the most prominent instrument of written English business communication, while other communication media were seen as auxiliary means of sending and receiving the messages. Very few references to the media types and their significance were made in the prefaces of B1 and B3, and the foreword of B1, while none was made in B2. The preface of B1 described the emphasis of the book to be on the postal letter, which was the means of communication in ten chapters, while telegrams and telexes were to get one chapter. This chapter included a range of technical and linguistic details and was described by Zhuge (B1: the foreword) as having practical value. The preface of B3 pointed out the increasing importance of modern technology-driven media (the fax and email) in the current business practices.
The study of explicit evidence was followed by the study of the contents page and the instructional content. The significance of the media was inferred from their presence in chapter headings, section headings, and the occurrences of specimen documents. The study showed that the three textbooks all promoted the postal letter and considered technology-driven media of the telegram, telex, fax and email marginal. Although telegrams and telexes were dealt with in a separate chapter in B1 and B2, their placement after chapters of specimen letters and towards the end of the book indicated only marginal importance. Surprisingly, the most recent textbook, B3, contained no separate chapter dealing with technology-driven media, while the prominence of the postal letter was emphasized as in the first two chapter headings (see Table 1).
The instructional content in actual chapters gave a somewhat more varied view. The role of the telex was reduced from B1 and B2 to B3, while faxes and emails received increasing significance in the most recent book. B1 and B2 both contained a separate chapter dealing with telegrams and telexes, which was lacking in B3, while only B3 devoted a separate section to the discussion of the fax and the email (B3: 12-13). In the most recent book, B3, the fax and email were described as widely used media in the present international business context. Also telegrams were seen to have been practically replaced by faxes. Moreover, the dominant role of postal letters was seen to have changed because letters were no longer transmitted by post but by faxes. Nevertheless, the choice of the fax as a medium of communication was not self-evident. Both the fax and the mail had their advantages and disadvantages. Despite its competitive advantages of fast speed and convenience, faxes were an expensive medium in the Chinese business environments. Moreover, emails were seen as an appropriate medium for sending non-confidential or rather routine messages or between well-established business partners. Also, the format of faxes and emails was not discussed at all, contrary to the promise of the author in the preface. Instead, the format of the email was said to be computer-programmed, for example, with email templates as prompts, and thus the sender did not need to give special attention to the format (B3: 13). No specimen faxes or emails were given in B3. Maybe they were assumed in B3 to differ from formal business letters only in the transmittal method.
Examples of telexes were still included in B2 and B3. In B2, there were five specimen telex messages, two in Chapter 6 Transport (B2: 143) and three in Chapter 7 Payment & Settlement of Accounts (B2: 147). In B3, only one specimen telegram document, that is, a cable copy of L/C (B3: 99-103), was found. The significance of the technology-driven medium, telex, had thus been reduced from B2 to B3. The above six telex messages in B2 and B3 also suggested that telexes could be more popularly used by shipping companies and between established business partners.
However, there was a trend to reduce the prominence given to the telegram and telex in B1 and B2 and increase that of the fax and email in B3. Nevertheless, even in B3 faxes and emails were only introduced and their description remained superficial.
2.3.3 What English?
In finding answers to the third question of the choice of language varieties, I was inspired by the claim by Halpern (1983) that Chinese business communication textbooks mixed Standard British and American English and was interested in the situation of the three textbooks representative of the late 1980s, the 1990s and the early 2000s. The variety of English taught to students in the textbooks was inferred from specimen letters totaled 33 specimen letters in the first ten chapters of B1, 206 in fourteen chapters (Chapters 2-15) of B2, 103 in eight chapters (Chapters 3-6 and 10-13) of B3. Then, the spelling of a selected group of token words, primarily including inquiry and enquiry, catalog and catalogue, and favor and favour, were seen to distinguish between British and American English.
There are differences between American and British English and although in many cases differences are unambiguous, some might even cause misinterpretation. According to Eckersley & Kaufmann (1966: 172-173), British English and American English spelling differ, for example, with words such as 1) favour/favor, colour/color, honour/honor, ending in our for British English and or for American English, 2) litre/liter, metre/meter, centre/center, ending in re for British English and er for American English, and 3) catalogue /catalog, enquire/inquire, cheque/check, and lablelled/labeled where the former for British English and the latter for American English. Moreover, the derivative adjective for favour and favor follow the same spelling favorable, while enquire and inquire are both used in British English. I chose, in the present study, to investigate only the occurrences of favour/favor, but the occurrences of enquire/inquire including their derivative forms for the choice of a particular variety.
Despite a limited number of token words consulted, the three textbooks showed different choices in teaching the students the varieties, and a tendency from strong influence of either American or British English to a blend of the two. In B1 there were five occurrences of the spelling inquiry (B1: 21, 39, 40, 61, 192), three occurrences of the spelling catalog (B1: 4, 21, 39), and three occurrences of the spelling favor (B1: 61, 82), while there were no occurrences of the spelling enquiry, catalogue, and favour. In the spelling, B1, thus, consistently taught students American English. However, B2 showed a significantly strong influence of British English. B2 had seventeen occurrences of the spelling enquiry and one occurrence of the spelling inquiry (B2: 266), seventeen occurrences of the spelling of catalogue and two occurrences of the spelling catalog (B2: 256, 257), and five occurrences of the spelling favour (B2: 47, 163, 164, 165, 268) but no occurrences of the spelling favor. The strong influence of the British style spellings in B2 found support in words ending in re, for example, two occurrences of the spelling metre (B2: 87, 87) and one occurrence of lustre (B2: 87). However, some blend of American English also was visible. More evidence was found in the choice of the spelling between or and our in other words. For example, B2 showed a consistent use of colour (B2: 46, 56) but used both the spelling honor (B2: 76, 76, 100) and honour (B2: 359).
Also B3 blended the two varieties and taught students both American and British styles of spelling. For example, there was a significantly consistent use of the British style spelling of catalogue as evidenced by ten occurrences and only one occurrence of the spelling catalog (B3: 60), of the American style spellings of inquiry, check (one occurrence, B3: 156), and favor (four occurrences, B3: 36, 45, 50, 158). More token words suggested that that B3 consistently applied the word ending or, for example, five occurrences of color (two occurrences in page 36 and one occurrence in page 20, 63, 131) and two occurrences of honor (B3: 153, 159) and no occurrences of colour and honour.
In the spellings, the three textbooks varied in the choice of the two varieties. This can be discussed in relation to Halperns observation that the early 1980s Chinese textbooks for business communication were strongly influenced by British English with some blend of American English. B1 (1995, 1989), representing the late 1980s, consistently taught American English rather than British English. Only B2 (1998, 1994), representative of the 1990s, supported Halperns observation to the effect that it had a strong influence of British English with some blend of American English. Despite a blend of the varieties, B3 showed a strong influence of American English with some blend of British English. In this sense, Halperns explanation for the blend has implications for the shift towards American English from the early 1980s Chinese textbooks to the contemporary ones. From the 1970s onwards, the Sino-American relationship has developed and so has the bilateral trade.
The present study was inspired by the fact that textbooks in English business writing are not timely enough in encapsulating the business writing practice today. The present study assumed that the most important expertise and knowledge required of students to grasp for their future business communication relates to three central aspects of business environments, and therefore aims to investigate three respective research questions: the construction of (1) the scope of international business environments and message types, (2) the media of communication, and (3) the variety of English in the three textbooks. Genre theory in the English for Specific Purposes (ESP) tradition was employed as the theoretical framework, and particularly key concepts: discourse community, communicative purpose, and conventionality, were used as tools in the genre analysis.
The results of the present study warrant a few practical considerations for future related textbook design and production. Firstly, the selection of message types of written English business communication and related writing features needs to address the relevance of their significance for students future job needs. Message types of international economic cooperation need to be increased. Faxes and emails need to be given more attention in future textbooks. They are not only different types of media from traditional letters but have also broken some of the conventions of formal business letters and often resemble more closely those of spoken rather than written language (St John 1996: 11; Gains 1999; Gimenez 2000: 238). Faxes are widely acknowledged as a genre on their own and also features of emails have been increasingly seen as generic. Moreover, the widespread use of faxes and emails has also made traditional business letters less formal. The view that the three textbooks gave of the media of written business communication differs to some extent from real-life business environments. Recent studies have established that faxes are widely used in present day Chinese business environments (Zhu 2005: 127), which did not show in the textbooks. In order to become effective communicators, Chinese business students need to be trained in the mechanics of composing an email message, its conventions and use. To enhance effective intercultural business communication, some differences of American and British English styles need to be identified and students are made aware of intercultural miscommunication due to lexical differences. Scotts (2000: 32) illustrative example is worth quoting here: The American expression canceled check means a check paid by the bank, while the British expression cancelled cheque means a check that is stopped or voided.
The present study opens up important avenues for further research into Chinese business environments and the use and teaching of business English in China. In light of earlier practical studies on business environments and the relevance of the instruction of textbooks to practices outside China, further study in this area is needed in China. To better address the present-day demands of Business English, practical studies on the reality of English business communication practices for the Chinese practitioners and the classroom activities are also needed. The design and production of related materials should not be based only on the authors intuition. The teaching of business communication should be reflecting the various activities or social practices in the business context (Louhiala-Salminen 1996: 50).
The present study also has its limitations. As a qualitative study, genre analysis has high requirements for a reporting so as to made readers see what has been done and why. This means that examples can be important. However, a single example of one whole message was not given. With paratextual features as supporting evidence to create the context for the choice of English varieties, coupled with other textual features of specimen letters, the present analysis of only spellings for the choice of English varieties would have been less superficial and more revealing. The case, however, is that structural moves of business letters such as letterhead, senders address, receivers address, the date line, were all omitted in B2 and B3, and not all salutation and complimentary close moves were presented, either.
Besides the research method, the present study could be expanded in a number of ways as future research candidates. The data could be enlarged to include textbooks used outside Shandong University. The research scope could also be extended, for example, towards the teaching of English, which is hardly mentioned at all in the present study despite an important dimension in the instructional content of the business communication textbooks. It would be also important to investigate what tasks in the exercise units designed for practice and consolidation would be most useful for business students.
It is hoped that there will be more research into textbook design and production, with the growth of national and international business English conferences and of the number of Chinese students studying Business English. It is important that future textbooks will be developed to respond better to the challenge of doing business in English.
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A simplified view of the chapter headings in the contents page of the 3 textbooks
 I adopted Louhiala-Salminen (1995)s argument for the multi-layered view of international business community, along the lines of Swaless (1990) concept of (academic) discourse community.
 Yli-Jokipii (1994: 51) proposed a three-phase model of foreign trade transactions whereby situations-based purposes were identified: pre-deal situations of inquiries, requests for a quotation, offers, quotations, on-deal situations of orders, acceptance of order, shipping and payment arrangements, and post-delivery situations of reminders, complaints and adjustments. Purpose is thus assignable in each situation.
 The original Chinese in the preface is quoted as keyishuo, qianshike baokuo le zhengge maoyi huodong (B1: iv). From now on, the text in a single quotation indicates that the translation from Chinese to English and vice versa is mine and the original is quoted in a footnote.
 The five new chapters deal with guoji xindai, guoji zulin, guoji zhaobiao yu toubiao, duiwai zixun yewu he yinhang yewu wanglai deng (B2: iii).
 The information is given in Chinese in the preface as: xunqiu yewu daili, shangtao yewu xingshi, jieshao yewu fanwei, baogao shichang dongxiang deng (B3: pf1).
 The original text is quoted as wanquan bubi guoyu kaolu geshi (B3: 13).
 The spelling of inquiry has occurred once in pages of B2: 25, 27, 46, 47, 50, 54, 61, 85, 99, 132, 137, 192, 264, 265, 270, 366, 396.
 The spelling of catalogue in B2 has two occurrences in page 27 and page 192 each and one occurrence in page 24, 26, 54, 62, 77, 78, 193, 194, 217, 218, 362, 374, 378 each.
 The spelling of catalogue in B3 has three occurrences in page 35, two occurrences in page 32, and one occurrence in page 19, 21, 22, 33, 46 each.
 The spelling of inquiry in B3 has three occurrences in page 36 and page 38 each, two occurrences in page 37 each, and one occurrence in page 19, 34, 35, 45, 141.
 Including one occurrence of discolor (B3: 36)
September 26, 2007.
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