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Theoretical Base and Problems in Business English Teaching in China
By Lixin Li
(Northeast Normal University, Changchun City, P.R.C.)
This paper aims to explore and discuss some problems in Business English teaching (BET) in light of ESP (English for Specific Purposes) theories and with reference to ESP practices in China. It is commonly agreed that English has been successfully promoted and eagerly adopted in the global linguistic marketplace. Tom Hutchinson and Alan Waters (1987) analyzed the reasons why English acquired so much importance at worldwide level: "The effect was to create a whole new mass of people wanting to learn English, not for the pleasure or prestige of knowing the language, but because English was the key to the international currencies of technology and commerce" (p.7). In fact, English has nowadays become the language of international communication. As Robert Phillipson (1992) points out, "English has a dominant position in science, technology, medicine, and computers; in research, books, periodicals, and software; in transnational business, trade, shipping, and aviation; in diplomacy and international organizations; in mass media entertainment, news agencies, and journalism; in youth culture and sport; in education system, as the most widely learnt foreign language" (p.6). The dominant position of English is strengthened rather than weakened with the development of world economy and technology as well as the widespread use of computers and the Internet.
China is not an exception - English has been extensively studied and taught since China opened up to the West in the late 1970's. English language teaching (ELT) runs through primary, secondary and tertiary levels of education in China, and plays an important role in China's education system, particularly in college and university education. Meanwhile teaching English for Specific Purposes (ESP), Business English teaching (BET) in particular, began to draw more and more attention due to China's fast economic development in recent years. After China's entering the World Trade Organization (WTO), business English seems to take the lead in teaching ESP, with different kinds of business English courses and books continuously appearing on the market. In addition, the Cambridge Business English Certificate (BEC), an international business English examination, to a certain degree promotes the quick expansion of business English. However, some practical problems unavoidably occur, with practitioners seeking for a sound theoretical base, the focus, as well as the requirements of BET to provide guidance in their teaching and course design. Those problems need to be dealt with properly in order to keep BET in line with the needs of China's fast-developing society.
2. The theoretical base of BET
2.1. BET and ESP
One of the dilemmas facing BE practitioners is whether there is anything to be taught that can be called "Business English". Business English is currently one of the areas of growth in ESP (Ellis & Johnson, 1994). In China, BE has already become a school subject, some universities offer BE major undergraduate programs and a few universities even offer BE major postgraduate programs. Hence, a question arises: Does BE still belong to ESP? Tianhu Lin (2001), one of BE practitioners in China, puts forward a suggestion that BE or International Business English (IBE) be developed into an independent discipline although it is generally accepted as one branch of ESP. In order to syncretize different opinions in the BET area, IBE or BE can be categorized as follows:
IBE > International Business > Applied Economics > Economics
or: BE > ESP > English Linguistics > Linguistics
He points out that BE is related to many areas of international business and develops into a discipline system which is composed of more than one or two courses. BE is a marriage between international business and English language, and becomes a new discipline that is pervaded by and combines the two subjects.
Pauline Robinson (1991) mentions that ESP (EAP/EEP) is for study in a specific discipline or as a school subject (p.2). Then what does ESP refer to? The definition given by John Munby (1978) goes, "ESP courses are those where the syllabus and materials are determined in all essentials by the prior analysis of the communication needs of the learner" (p.2). The notion of ESP courses and communication needs are emphasized in ESP teaching. And Jo McDonough (1984) thinks that ESP is a focus of language teaching activity which certainly has its own range of emphases and priorities. It is stressed that ESP is a kind of language teaching activity.
A broader definition of ESP by Hutchinson and Waters (1987) runs as follows, "ESP is an approach to language teaching in which all decisions as to content and method are based on the learner's reason for learning" (p.19). ESP should be seen simply as an "approach" to teaching, not a product.
Peter Strevens (1988) says, ?English for Specific Purposes is a particular case of the general category of special-purposes language teaching.? He defined ESP by making a distinction between its absolute and variable characteristics, and his definition begins with ?ESP consists of English language teaching which is ??. ESP is a goal-oriented language teaching or a type of ELT (English language teaching) in the end (Robinson, 1991, p.2).
Dudley-Evans and St. John, in a more recent study, have modified Strevens' definition and exposit their revised view on the essence of ESP from the following two perspectives:
* ESP is defined to meet specific needs of the learner;
* ESP makes use of the underlying methodology and activities of the discipline it serves;
* ESP is centred on the language (grammar, lexis, register), skills, discourse and genres appropriate to these activities.
* ESP may be related to or designed for specific disciplines;
* ESP may use, in specific teaching situations, a different methodology from that of general English;
* ESP is likely to be designed for adult learners, either at a tertiary level institution or in a professional work situation. It could, however, be for learners at secondary school level;
* ESP is generally designed for intermediate or advanced students;
* Most ESP courses assume some basic knowledge of the language system, but it can be used with beginners (1998, pp. 4-5).
To sum up, all the above definitions show that ESP belongs to English language teaching (ELT), and it may use, in specific teaching situations, a different methodology from that of general English. But it is not a special kind of English language, for specialized aim or specific purpose and special language are two different notions. Mackay and Mountford (1978) mentioned:
The only practical way in which we can understand the notion of special language is as a restricted repertoire of words and expressions selected from the whole language because that restricted repertoire covers every requirement within a well-defined context, task or vocation (p.4).
Whereas a specialized aim or a specific purpose refers to the purpose for which learners learn a language, not the nature of the language they learn. Besides, in practical teaching, it is hard to draw a clear line between where General English (GE) courses stop and ESP courses start, although we try to use such names as Business English or Medical English, etc. to distinguish between ESP and GE. And the common core of language is often used both in GE and in ESP. Hutchinson and Waters summed up the difference between the ESP and GE approaches as "in theory nothing, in practice a great deal" (p.53). Therefore, ESP is part of ELT in theory, and the purpose for which learners learn is different from that of general English, the former being more specific or specialized, whilst the latter more general.
There may be more BE practitioners who are puzzled by the theoretical base of BET, which definitely has some impacts on the scope and focus of BET in China. This paper tends to categorize BE as a school subject rather than an independent discipline, which is taught in school, college or university, for there are insufficient variations in the grammar, functions or discourse structures of different disciplines to justify an independent status of BET. Our conclusion is that Lin??s first proposal referred to above lacks theoretical support.
2.2. The categorization of BET
It seems that Business English can also be called English for Business, which forms an inseparable part of English for Business and Economics (EBE). The simplified "Tree of ELT" (Hutchinson & Waters, 1987) illustrates the relationships between BE and ESP.
ESP is divided into 3 branches: English for Science and Technology (EST), English for Business and Economics (EBE) and English for Social Studies (ESS). Each of these branches falls into two categories: English for Academic Purposes (EAP) and English for Occupational Purposes (EOP)/English for Vocational Purposes (EVP). An example of EAP for the EBE branch is "English for Economics", whereas an example of EOP for the EBE branch is "English for Secretaries".
Chart 1. Simplified Tree of ELT (cf. Wen, 1996, p.16)
David Carter (1983) classifies ESP into three types: English as a restricted language, English for Academic and Occupational Purposes, and English with specific topics. Carter's second type of ESP is further developed by Robert Jordan (1997) into the two main branches of ESP: EOP and EAP. Then EAP is divided into English for Specific Academic Purposes (ESAP) and English for General Academic Purposes (EGAP). Pauline Robinson's family tree of ESP divides it into EOP and EAP/EEP (English for Educational Purposes). Although there are differences concerning the types of ESP among Carter, Robinson, Jordan as well as Hutchinson & Waters, the two categories of EAP and EOP in ESP are widely accepted nowadays in ESP teaching area.
If tracked further down the tree chart, EBE is one branch of ESP, and ESP is part of English as a foreign language (EFL) that belongs to English language teaching. Thereby BET is part of language teaching in general.
As one part of EBE, Business English can also be divided into EAP and EOP aspects. "However, the research base on Business English for ESP is still in its infancy; and one of the reasons for this is that, with a number of notable exceptions, it is only very recently that Business English has started to be taught in universities", as Martin Hewings?? research (2002) shows. Meanwhile there has been a corresponding steady increase in the proportion of papers on EOP (particularly in business contexts). The teaching of EAP falls within the framework of what is generally called ESP, taking place in essence, and as its name suggests, in an educational environment (Dominguez & Rokowski, 2002). Then Business English courses taught in colleges and universities can generally be regarded as EAP, although it is hard to make a clear-cut distinction between EAP and EOP.
Hutchinson and Waters (1987) do note that problem as they point out "¡ people can work and study simultaneously; it is also likely that in many cases the language learnt for immediate use in a study environment will be used later when the student takes up, or returns to, a job" (p.16). In other words, the end purposes of both EAP and EOP are the same, since they both prepare for employment in the end. However, the means and ways to achieve the end purpose may differ from each other due to the different scope and focus in the teaching area.
3. Practical problems existing in BET
3.1. The scope of BET
One finding of the linguistic study mentioned by Hutchinson and Waters (1987) was "that the language we speak and write varies considerably, and in a number of different ways, from one context to another. In English language teaching, this gave rise to the view that there are important differences between, say, the English of commerce and that of engineering" (p.7). Similarly, Business English will be different from Medical English, etc. But there is no research paper or study available to prove that Business English is a new kind of English that needs special teaching methodology and has nothing in common with English language teaching for general purposes. In fact, many English teaching methodologies are applicable both in teaching BE and ESP. Thus, BET is still part of TEFL and within the scope of ELT in general.
Then, what is the scope of BET in particular? This is a hard nut to crack. Dudley-Evans and St. John (1998) give a warning, "Business English is difficult to define and limit in linguistic terms" (p.54). The term encompasses a wide range of ESP courses, to such an extent that it is becoming common practice to speak of General Business English and Specific Business English (Boswood, 2002). Therefore, the general term "Business English" is used in many textbooks in China, which target a broad market through generalized texts with wide application. Meanwhile, other textbooks attempt to brand their offerings with more specific terms, such as English for specific professions, for specific genres, or for specific task types.
The scope of BET, however, sometimes becomes quite hazy in China owing to several factors. Firstly, the changes in the contents of some Business textbooks (Table 1) show that it is not easy to define and limit the scope of Business as a subject of instruction. It is clear from the Table that the contents of Business course books in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s vary, although our table does not list the complete contents of each book. So it is no wonder that some Business English teachers/practitioners do not have a clear idea about the scope of BET.
Next, such a situation may be attributed to the promotion of bilingual teaching in Chinese colleges and universities. In 2001, China's Ministry of Education proposed that all colleges and universities should promote bilingual teaching of some subject courses. Since English is the most commonly taught foreign language in China, bilingual teaching is often understood as teaching some courses in English with the help of Chinese. Sometimes teaching Business subjects in English (BTIE) is confused with BET. As is often the case, English textbooks on Business are used both in Business classes and in Business English classes, and the translation method is applied to help learners understand the meaning of the text well, which makes it really difficult to differentiate between BTIE and BET.
Table 1. A Comparison of the Contents of Business Books and Business English Books
Moreover, the booming popularity of Business English courses and books in China may be contributing to the haziness about the scope of BET. The Chinese translation of the term "Business English" usually appears in any course name or book title that has something to do with Business, even if it is only partly taught or written in English. Business English for Academic Purposes in the practice of teaching usually carries more contents dealing with Business per se, and is likely to be mixed up with teaching Business in English. Table 1 indicates the difference between BET and BTIE from the angle of general contents.
The contents of the books in Table 1 vary from one to another, and even books of Business share a few in common. All the books mentioned in Table 1 are published in the U.S. or in the U.K., and the distinction between BET and BTIE is shown clearly from the English native speakers' point of view. That is, BET is language-based or skill-based teaching of English language knowledge and skills for Business purposes; while BTIE is content-based teaching of an independent specialized subject. So BET is not the same as BTIE, the latter belongs to Business subject teaching, whereas BET belongs to ESP and is within the scope of English language teaching in Business context.
3.2. The focus of BET
The scope of BET is closely related to and determines to some degree the focus of BET. Since BET is within the scope of ESP, it should focus on teaching English for Business purposes, and come to ELT in the end. ESP is centred on the language (grammar, lexis and register), skills, discourse and genres appropriate to these activities of the discipline it serves (Dudley-Evans and St. John, 1998, pp.4-5). So the focus of BET is on vocabulary, grammar, skills, discourse, style, etc. A textbook is an indispensable tool in teaching, and can reveal the focus of teaching activities in most cases. Table 2 is a summary of the layouts of Business books (in English) and that of Business English books, which can illustrate the focus of Business teaching and BET from a general perspective.
Table 2. A Comparison of the Layout of Business Books and Business English Books
The items listed in Table 2 do not appear in the same order as in the real books, and they are reallocated for the convenience of comparison and contrast. First, the length of Text and the level of Business content in BTIE and BET are different. A BE text, chosen on a theme or topic base, is comparatively shorter or easier to understand in general, and the content in the whole book is business-related but does not necessarily follow a systematic teaching of Business knowledge due to the need of English language learning, for language text should not be too long and needs corresponding exercises to practice target language points. Business text, however, is completely content-based, and the content in the whole book follows a logical order so as to provide a comprehensive and systematic introduction to Business knowledge in an academic aspect. Second, questions for discussion and exercises in BET are used to check whether the learners understand the main ideas of the text, and to teach how to use business-related vocabulary, useful expressions and the like, while discussion questions in Business books are designed to help learners master the Business content only. Finally, case study in BE book aims to enhance the reading comprehension ability of BE learners', which is different from a problem-solving case in Business books.
Although Table 2 does not provide detailed examples for each item, it can still reveal that BTIE puts emphasis on real Business content teaching, thus the knowledge of Business rather than language skills is the core of teaching. BET, on the other hand, is focused on teaching vocabulary, useful expressions, grammar rules, reading comprehension and learning skills within the Business context.
Of course, BE teachers have to teach some Business content, since Business content seems to be the pricipal element that makes BET different from general English teaching. In content-based instruction, there is at least some focus on the learning of Business content area. "Content-based language teaching is an approach to second language instruction that involves the use of a second language to learn or practice content" (Met, 1998, p.35). English teaching in China belongs to foreign language teaching, and Business knowledge is an indispensable aspect of BET as well. But the content in BET is a carrier for the language items to be taught. And there can be no distinction between carrier content and real content (Dudley-Evans & St. John, 1998, p.11). Business content in BTIE belongs to real content, which is the focus of instruction; whereas Business content in BET belongs to carrier content, which serves as the context for English teaching. By preferring carrier content over real content, BET privileges language forms over the objective facts or theories of Business area.
The presentation of Business content in BET sometimes causes misunderstanding in practical teaching, and even misleads or impedes BET to some degree by the improper emphasis on Business knowledge acquisition. Thereby BET simply becomes a process of teaching Business knowledge in English with the help of Chinese translation. The inevitable result is that learners scarcely get enough improvement in language competence to deal with business-related situations, and only acquire some segments of Business knowledge. Lack of proper focus in BET gets half the result with twice the effort; BET should concentrate on language learning in the first place and knowledge acquisition in the second place, when the order has to be decided.
BET makes use of carrier content, but what matters is "the language associated with the process" of teaching. The tasks or texts should not entangle the learners "in difficult and technical content that will interfere with the main aim of the exercise" (Dudley-Evans &St. John, 1998, p.11), which is mastering the language system. This kind of language learning "encourages open-minded, reflective, critical and active learning" (Margetson,1991, p.45). Galina Kavaliauskiene's research on ESP learning at university level in Lithuania shows that learners "find it very hard to cope with learning ESP basically because of lack of the General English skills". A similar problem also exists in China's BET. Glenda Crosling and Ian Ward report on an investigation into the workplace oral communication needs and uses of business employees who graduated from Monash University, Australia. Their survey shows that oral communication and language competence are essential for a successful business career in Australia. So, the focus of BET on language competence improvement is strongly supported with theoretical and practical reasons.
Besides, language serves as a carrier of culture. In BET, "we may often talk about reports, memos, oral presentations, and so on as overarching genres and universal skills, these take on meaning only when they are situated in real contexts of use (Hyland, 2002, p385-395)." In other words, learners do not learn in a cultural vacuum, they communicate effectively by using particular Business conventions appropriately. With globalization business, many organizations and companies are now operating across national boundaries, and employees need to have cross-cultural understanding (Liu & Beamer, 1997). Consequently, culture awareness is especially important in Business English communication, and deserves special attention in BET.
3.3. BE textbooks vs. the focus of BET
The commonly seen BE textbooks can be generally divided into language-based and content-based according to the model of ESP material design.
(Wen & et al. translated, 1996, p.135)
The four key elements are reflected in different ways in all BE books. The language that we use and the content we express through language are inextricably interwoven. There is no clear-cut division between the two types of BE textbooks.
One example of language-based BE textbook is Pass Cambridge BEC, which is the textbook for BEC (a suite of three examinations BEC Preliminary, BEC Vantage, BEC Higher). It is designed mainly to teach the four basic skills¨C¨Cspeaking, listening, reading and writing¡ªwithin the Business context and to develop the learners' communicative skills/ability. It can also be called skill-based textbook.
The content-based textbooks can be categorized into the following kinds: topic-based, task-based and theme-based. Topic-based books provide different topics, which are business-related but do not form a systematic introduction to Business knowledge. Task-based books offer specific tasks, which are carried out through listening, reading, speaking and writing activities. Theme-based books supply more specific aspects of Business knowledge, which allows the learners to improve language competence and deepen the content schemata at the same time (Master, 2003).
There are many kinds of textbooks titled "Business English" in the current book market in China, which sometimes misleads about the focus of BET. To be specific, the focus of BET is diverted to the mastery of Business knowledge mainly instead of the improvement of language/communicative skills and competence in using English for Business purposes. This may be caused by the increase of Business content in BE books. Table 3 lists the first four or five lessons in each sample book.
Table 3. The Increase of Business Content in Business English Books
The percentage and level of Business knowledge in the textbooks listed in Table 3 tend to increase markedly, which reflects the general trend of BE books in recent years. Many BE teachers have become slaves of the available published textbooks, unable to evaluate their suitability (Anthony, 1997). Besides, some original English Business books are used in BET in order to keep teaching materials authentic, and the trend seems to be on the rise in BET and even in the ESP area. BE teachers are unwilling to or unable to perform the necessary analysis of difficult specialist texts to verify their contents. More Business content definitely needs more time and energy in the practical teaching, and that unavoidably distracts the focus of BET from language teaching, thereby Business content acquisition wins an advantage over English competence improvement.
The main problem with BE textbooks is that there are many textbooks which claim to meet the needs of BE courses. Maybe not a single one can live up to its name (Jones,1990). Another problem in a BE textbook is that the analysis of learners' needs is far from enough, or even no needs analysis is carried out before book compilation. Thus, BE textbooks abound in number and kind, but the widely accepted or adopted one is still lacking, which greatly hinders the BET practice.
One possible solution in China is that an organization or committee at the national level will be in charge of providing not only the guidelines but also the detailed rules of implementation concerning the compilation of BE or ESP textbooks. Besides, an online source of BE materials and teaching forum at the national level will be of great help to the rapid development of BET in China.
3.4. Requirements to teachers in BET area
The last but not least problem in BET is the requirements to teachers or practitioners (Swales, 1985) who are engaged in practical teaching and materials or curriculum design. Dudley-Evans and St. John (1998) identify five key roles for the ESP practitioner:
To carry out the above key roles, ESP practitioners are required to have language teaching competence and specific-subject knowledge. To a BE teacher, language teaching competence includes English knowledge (grammar, lexis, syntax, rhetoric, style and etc.), high level of language competence and English teaching methodology. It has generally been thought that the teacher does not require specialized academic knowledge of the learners' major subject of study. This is because BET focuses on developing language and study skills and not on the academic subject itself (cf. Bell, 1999).
As for the level of ESP teacher's subject knowledge, it is generally thought (Dudley-Evans and St. John, 1998; Robinson, 1991; Hutchinson and Waters, 1987) that an instructor/teacher must have a working knowledge of the conceptual framework of the subject and actively engage the learner. The role of an ESP practitioner is to teach English and not Social Sciences. Although the teacher might evince interest in Business, s/he need not be expert in Business content area. As Ana A. Esteban and Mar??a L. P. Cañado (2004) point out, the world of business they were presented with was unfamiliar to them, which limited their ability as teachers of English. Therefore, BE practitioner/teacher should be to some extent familiar with the specialized area of Business, although s/he is not a subject specialist.
In practical BET in China, most BE practitioners/teachers are trained language teachers, who lack the expertise and the confidence to teach Business specific contents, especially with the increase of Business contents in BE textbooks. One possible solution, team-teaching (Dudly-Evans & St. John, 1998, p42-48) or collaboration between language teacher and subject teacher, is promoted and discussed by some ESP practitioners (Gray, 1989; Benesch, 2001 and Mulford & Rogers, 1982). Besides, task-based approach (Willis & Willis, 2001; Zeng, 2003), content-based approach (Brinron, Snow, and Wesche, 1989; Qu, 1998) and case study methodology (Daly, 2002) are tried and explored in BET. The aforementioned approaches or methodologies bring more challenges to BE teachers/practitioners.
First of all, China is not an English-medium country, and English is a foreign language to both the language teacher and subject teacher, who will have some difficulties in communicating and cooperating with each other in English in classroom teaching. That will need more time than a single teacher class. Besides, the involvement of the subject teacher in BET will unavoidably divert the focus of BET from language learning within business context into business content acquisition. Whereas team-teaching between native-English speakers will not have this problem, for the input English is definitely right and standard English and thereby language competence and content acquisition can be achieved at the same time. So BE practitioners in China cannot copy what their native-English counterparts do without any change. And it needs some time for both teacher and students to get prepared for team-teaching at the same time or by turns, for traditionally classroom teaching in China is usually conducted by one teacher.
Moreover, content-based approach and case study methodology require BE practitioners to have a higher level of subject knowledge and to carry out the other key roles apart from a teacher. Thus, BE practitioners are faced with greater challenges in BET, and the teacher training attracts more and more attention in China. Among some suggestions on ESP teacher training (Shi, 2000; Zhang, 2002; Master, 1997 and Chen, 2000), self-training becomes the more practical and immediate approach to BE practitioners. As Master (1997) remarks: "ESP teacher education in the US today can thus be said to be minimal at best .¡ In most cases, professional ESP practitioners train themselves, learning as they go" (pp. 32¨C33). Many BE practitioners in China are doing the same, for the lack of BE teachers and the increase of BE courses do not allow them to have any pre-service or in-service training.
Tsai-Yu Chen (2000) proves the efficacy of a self-directed training program in ESP teachers' expertise improvement by means of her action research case study. Since ESP theory is often not specific enough to be applicable to the immediate teaching context, self-training or self-study guided by ESP theory is an applicable approach for general English teachers to become a well-qualified ESP teacher. This approach is particularly suitable for BE practitioners, as BE is a term which encompasses a wide range of ESP courses, and it is hard to develop a specific training program for all BE practitioners.
With the boom of BET in China, the theoretical base of BET has become the main concern among BE practitioners/teachers, for it determines the scope, the focus, the course/curriculum and textbook design as well as the development of practical BET in China. BET belongs to ESP, and is within the scope of FLT. Therefore, BET should focus on the improvement of learners' language competence in business-related context, and the acquisition of certain business content is achieved at the same time. BET is an approach and a bridge between general English teaching and Business teaching in English, although there can be no clear distinction between them. In order to carry out BET effectively, suitable BE textbooks and qualified teachers/practitioners are badly needed in China. BE teachers/practitioners play an important role in the whole process of BET, for they assume more roles and responsibilities than a common language teacher or a subject teacher does. This paper deals with several problems existing in the present situation with BET in China, discusses the causes of those problems, and puts forward some tentative solutions, which need to be tested and introduced into BET practice.
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Lixin Li is an associate professor of the E-business Department at Northeast Normal University in China where she teaches Business English and Business Communication. She had taught English for Economics and Trade in Changchun Taxation College for 11 years before she got the present position.
Address: E-business Department, School of Foreign Languages, Northeast Normal University,
No. 138, Renmin Street, Changchun City, Jilin Province, China, 130024
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