How good is your business English? B1? C2? These terms didn’t mean much to most of us ten years ago or so, but today the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR) is an international standard for describing language ability. It is used around the world to describe learners’ language skills. The 20 years of research the Council of Europe put into designing and rolling out the CEFR was undoubtedly worthwhile: we now have a robust basis for a common understanding of what language levels mean. However, the CEFR is not business English specific – it was was designed for general education purposes. It doesn’t directly connect to day-to-day business communication scenarios. It doesn’t directly meet the language training needs facing businesses and corporations today, nor does it directly address common business communication scenarios.
In 2010, Target Training worked with the worlds largest courier company, Deutsche Post DHL, and another language training provider (Marcus Evans Linguarama) to close this gap. The outcome was a detailed set of can-do statements usable by employees, their managers and training providers alike. Chris Slattery lead the project at Target Training, and I asked him a few questions about this project.
What made you want to get involved in this project?
Chris: We had been working closely with the Corporate Language School at DP DHL for over 5 years, and they were keen to begin measuring their training investment. A major part of this was being able to measure learning progress. They had tried to use an off-the-shelf solution but it wasn’t working, and the CEFR was too abstract to use in a business environment. We’d been working closely together trying to make things work – and when it was clear that the tools just weren’t strong enough they asked us if we could build a business specific tool which was founded in the CEFR levels. We asked that if we were going to be the “developer” another provider be involved as a “tester” to ensure the end product was robust and practical. This is how Lingurama became involved, and this 3-way collaboration strengthened the project.
The CEFR isn’t designed to recognize gaps in performance at work. Our Business English can-do statements mean that managers can identify where they would like to see an improvement in performance, and we then know how to get them there.
How did you decide what a successful solution would look like?
Chris: Quite simply, success was a tool that managers and participants could easily use when analyzing needs, setting goals and evaluating progress. We needed something that reflected the specific business skills managers are looking to improve. This meant we had to adapt what was in the CEFR and re-couch it in terms that were relevant for the business world. For example to move from academic and linguistic terms to practical business communication needs.
Can you give an example of a scenario?
Chris: Sure. Take someone who has had English at school and then worked in the States as an au pair for two years. They speak good English with a Boston accent. When they joined DP DHL they had the opportunity to join our InCorporate Trainer program. Whenever somebody new joins the training Target Training needs to assess their English skills. This lady got placed at CEFR B2, which shows a good degree of competency … but she had never worked in a company before joining DP DHL -and now she needed to go and deliver a presentation in English. How well was she going to be able to do that?
Her general CEFR level is B2, but in her ability to give effective status presentations in English, she might be as low as A2. This discrepancy is huge. The CEFR isn’t designed to recognize gaps in performance at work. The Business English can-do statements mean that these managers can identify where they would like to see an improvement in performance, and we then know how to get them there.
We needed something that reflected the specific business skills managers are looking to improve. This meant we had to adapt what was in the CEFR and re-couch it in terms that were relevant for the business world. For example to move from academic and linguistic terms to practical business communication needs.
The full CEFR document is 273 pages long. Where did you start?
Chris: We started by studying the CEFR document in real depth, and understanding how it was built and why certain can-do statements are phrased in specific ways. At the same time we also agreed with the client which business fields made the most impact on their day-today communication – skills like “presentations”, “networking”, “negotiating” etc . We then reread the CEFR handbook and identified which can-do statements could be directly transferable to business communication scenarios. Then we broke these business fields down into language skills, and used the can-dos in the CEFR document which best fitted these language skills. Our golden rule was that the can-dos had to be within the context of specific business skills AND easily understood by a department manager with no knowledge of language training.
Can you give me an example?
Chris: Sure. These two statements contributed to one of the can-dos related to participating in meetings at a B1 level:
- Sociolinguistic appropriateness at CEFR B: Is aware of the salient politeness conventions and acts appropriately.
- Grammar at CEFR B1: Uses reasonably accurately a repertoire of frequently used “routines” and patterns (usually associated with more predictable situations).
Our Business English can-do statement for B1 Meetings: I can directly ask a participant to clarify what they have just said and obtain more detailed information in an appropriate manner.
How long did the whole process take?
Chris: It took five months to write, test, rewrite, test and rewrite again. We then needed to repeat the process with a German language version too. At the end we blind-tested it with the client, and were delighted with their feedback. The roll-out took a few months. Today, internally, it’s still an ongoing project. As new trainers join the company, they need to learn how to use the tool to its full potential.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
The Business English Can-Do Statements toolbox also has a short FAQ and 4 ideas on how you can use them. If you’d like to know more, please contact us, or read more about the CEFR framework on our website.