The world of business English is powered by words. Reports, meetings, and emails can sometimes seem like a puzzle to solve with all the complicated and specific business jargon that they use. So how can you improve your own business English vocabulary without memorizing the definitions of hundreds of words? Research into vocabulary development (second language acquisition or SLA) is changing how we approach word knowledge, and here are some of the research findings that can be easily adopted by any professional who wants to build their business English vocabulary.
1. Stick to the business English vocabulary that you need
When it comes to studying vocabulary, it can be overwhelming to know where to start. You can even be discouraged by how many words you don’t know rather than figuring out how to build on what you do know. Also, with our hectic schedules, we often don’t have a lot of time to be able to dedicate to developing our English language word skills.
To get the most out of your Business English study – whether it’s an English group course, a private coaching, in-company training or self-study – think about what you need to work on and what is important for your job. If you work in the IT department, you don’t need to spend hours memorising financial terminology if accounting is not a key part of your job. If you are a project manager, do you really need key phrases for sales presentations or customer service? Paying attention to your unique needs in your Business English journey can give you a solid foundation for building your mental word library, as well as make sure what you are learning will be useful to you in your current workplace and long term, in your career.
2. Look at words in their context
Some learners of business English vocabulary like to rely on long lists of words and phrases with definitions in their own language, or an explanation in English. If that works for you, great! But this takes the words out of their context – and this can often change the meaning of the word and how it is used. One of the difficult parts of studying English is that words often have multiple meanings and uses, which changes depending on its context.
Take the word “market”. In some contexts, it can mean a lovely local shop where you pick up your groceries for the week. But in the context of a sales meeting, “market” can take on the meaning of an area you wish to develop a presence in, such as “the European market” or “the Southeast Asian market.”
Context is also key for using idioms. Even if you grasp the meaning of these confusing terms, using them correctly and – most importantly, naturally – is where language learners often struggle. Looking at the context of an idiom’s use, as well as its meaning, makes it easier to incorporate these phrases like a native.
Keeping the vocabulary in context with example sentences along with the definition can help to raise awareness of the multiple meanings that English words can have and make sure you’re using the right words in the right context. Otherwise, you could be asked about the development of the Asian market and end up talking about their new bakery section that recently opened beside the dried fruit. Oh no!
3. Focus on “chunks” of language
A language chunk is a phrase of two or more words that appear together and act as one unit. “Nevertheless” is one word, while “How do you do?” is one unit that can communicate meaning. Studies show it is much easier for foreign language learners to memorise and store chunks of language in their memory rather than individual words.
Looking again at our example of “market” – it can be used to make countless chunks that are much easier to remember than the word on its own. Putting different words together to make chunks or phrases will not only widen your vocabulary, but also make your memory stronger when recalling the word.
This can be very helpful with the most common type of chunk; the dreaded phrasal verb. Memorizing the meaning of “bring up” may be simple, but “chunking” it with some related words, such as “bring up the issue with you” or “bring up the topic in the meeting” gives you more practice with the word as well as making it easier to produce it when needed.
4. Practice with your new business English vocabulary
Being able to recognize a word when you’re reading or listening to someone is just one aspect of vocabulary knowledge. This is known as “receptive language.” The part that causes issues for many people is their “productive language” or actually using the vocabulary themselves. So while it’s great to have a long word list for the pharmaceutical sales industry, how can you make sure you are able to produce those English words and phrases spontaneously when you need them?
The key is to practice production of business English vocabulary yourself, both with writing and speaking. If you don’t have someone willing to sit down and speak with you, try recording yourself speaking – using your smartphone on a topic unprepared for a minute – then listen back and see how many of your target words you used. Your nerves may cause you to slip up and make mistakes, but no one will ever hear these recordings if you don’t want them to!
For writing, practice writing emails, reports, memos, whatever your job requires you to do, and use your new vocabulary within it. All that wonderful business vocabulary is just sitting in your brain, and it’ll go stale and rot if you don’t try to use it. As we say in English, “use it or lose it!”
5. Rinse and repeat!
“Rinse and repeat” is an English idiom meaning, “Do it again. And again. And again.” The cold hard truth that many students can’t grasp about learning a language is that it doesn’t happen overnight. Learning vocabulary, like any part of studying a foreign language, is not like saving a file to a computer; make the folder, save the file, and it’s there forever. Learning a language takes time and repetition in order to reach the level of Business English that you will need for professional success.
Whatever practices you take on for helping with your vocabulary building, try to make a habit of it. Whether it’s reading an article in English related to your field, practicing business English vocabulary with flashcards, or even just pushing yourself to chat with your colleagues in English, get into the habit of doing whatever it is you find most helpful for developing your skills and knowledge.
Repetition not only has the benefit of helping you get better with your language skills, but can also help develop your confidence in your abilities. The more you speak with colleagues or clients in English, the more confident you will feel each time, and confidence is key in the business world.
Author: Clare Kelleher, MA TESOL
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