Natural Business English

Bill Mascull
Delta Publishing 2013

Natural Business EnglishNatural is a funny word, isn’t it? What a recipe book will call plain yoghurt will be called natural yoghurt on the packaging; the brand’s marketing people will have seen to that. Some years ago OUP put out an underrated coursebook series called Natural English, which begs the question: was everything else unnatural English? What does natural mean in a title called Natural Business English? Does it mean authentic, as the subtitle – Authentic language for business today – suggests? Seemingly not, at least not in the sense of the texts it contains being drawn from the world outside ELT (or BELT – Business English Language Teaching). Indeed, there are few texts, since most of the language is delivered at the sentence level, and they are clearly written to provide a nesting place for the new lexis, not that there is anything wrong with specifically written texts. Would anyone complain about footwear being specifically designed for skiing, football, trekking, snorkelling or dancing? Natural here seems not to denote much; what this really is is a 120-page book of lexical input for 20 sectors in the world on Business English. And it’s quite impressive.

The author promises and delivers some 800 words, collocations and multi-word units that occur in the professional domain. They’re organised into 20 four-page units, with 10 or 11 steps or exercises, three of which are linked with the included audio CD. After every four units there is a two-page Review spread that is set out rather like a test, which of course you mark yourself, as the Answer Key is at the back of the book, along with the Audio Scripts and a seven-page Glossary that gives you some grammatical information but no phonological guidance or unit references. It still comes across as being very user-friendly. But who is the user? While it’s aimed primarily at the self-study market, it could be used in small doses in class. No student–student interaction is envisaged, though there are small hints for any lingering teacher at the bottom of every second page, suggesting a research or homework task. Level? They say B2/C1, and certainly any BEC candidates who sprinkled their output with this lexis would favourably impress examiners at Vantage and Higher level. Having said that, I could see this material being used successfully by many B1 or C2 learners. The fact that there is no grammar as such aids this elasticity.

There is another issue with the nature (ha!) of the end-user. Will learners already working in Finance be interested in the unit on Research and Development? Will those in Marketing want to do the one on Manufacturing? Who would want to use the whole book? Probably pre-service learners. Other than that, I can see it coming in handy as something that makes a guest appearance on a wide range of BELT courses. And a lot of this lexis has very wide coverage: ripped off, herded like cattle, (to) exceed expectations, (to) go out of their way to help, and the delightfully supple delighted (all on page 31), because we are all customers, clients, consumers, aren’t we? Just ask our governments.;

Among the selling points are, as already mentioned, how easy it is to use, and the fact that you could use the units in any order, or simply, like most vocabulary books, pick the ones that interest you. It is very strong on meaning, it tackles collocation head-on, it includes a brave range of idiomatic language (some of it even touching on the very tricky area of newspaper headlines), sporting metaphors and a great section on courtship metaphors that talks about mergers and de-mergers. It contextualises new language well, and doesn’t give the impression of overload, surely one of the major potential pitfalls of a book of this nature. There is typically one closed exercise in which the learner uses, chooses or manipulates the input. Apart from the Review spreads, the further exposure and practice that the learner will need to begin to acquire the new language will have to come from outside; here, perhaps, is the role of the teacher lying in wait. There is a fair variety of exercise types – the danger in a book like this is to be far too uniform. And I was delighted to see that it doesn’t shy away from some of the more critical ways we talk about people we have to deal with at work. ELT publishers tend to present us with a sweetie-sweetie world that puts me in mind of the Paradise side of a Heaven and Hell / Last Judgement Renaissance diptych. There are nice little touches here and there; study tips, such as the note (page 18) about what happens to phrasal verbs when they convert into nouns, and notes on UK/US usage and spelling. There is a generous amount of attention given to word-formation.

It’s an attractive artefact. There are no colour photos, to be sure, just one illustration per unit, but photos would serve no purpose here. The pages breathe; they look less dense than some of the vocabulary books that the prolific Mr Mascull has written for CUP. However, the drawing of skyscrapers on the front cover harkens back to BELT coursebooks of the late 80s/early 90s, and the two large central ones bear an uncanny and unhappy resemblance to the Twin Towers. More could have been asked of Delta’s graphic design department in this area, I feel

The meaning of new words is the heart of this material, and it’s an area that is usually very well-handled. Yet it can be tough trying to find new ways to get a closed one-item answer; page 64 asks us what word is defined by ‘An organisation to protect people who work in transport’, the correct answer being union . Or ‘This has to look right in relation to the things on sale’ (answer: store design ). Also on page 32: ‘Store owners want to increase figures for this by making their stores as attractive as possible’ (answer: footfall , a term I didn’t know in this particular meaning). It’s never easy to know how much detail to go into in these 20 topic areas, or how much transient, trendy language to include. It can become daunting, or it can become too lightweight, but for the most part I think this book gets it just right.

The 48 audio tracks are scripted and delivered with the speed and clarity you’d expect in a B2 examination. Some of the decontracted forms jar, at least for a native speaker, and some of the definitions (“an early pioneer”, “back to the drawing board to start again”) slip into tautology. 90% of the voices were RP. Only four voices were (intended to be) American, and there was one where a Pom tries in vain to sound Australian. Aren’t there thousands of out-of-work Aussie actors in the UK any more? The University of Hereford is mentioned no fewer than four times; no other university is. A case of product placement? It would be, if it existed. At times, and this is by no means limited to this book, you can get all the listening answers right without even getting the CD out of its pocket. Unit 8 Exercise 5 is an example of this. Unit 14 Exercise 6 asks us to put the six near-synonyms of (to) fire someone into six different sentences and then listen to check their answers, but in reality any of the expressions ( give someone the boot, let someone go, throw someone out ) could go with any of the answers. People have a choice when they talk. The audio texts are simply there to vocalise or explain the lexis, almost like a talking dictionary, so surely you shouldn’t criticise an almond tree for not giving you hazelnuts. However, given the fact that there’s no pronunciation as such in this package, I wonder whether some or even all of the CD could simply have been re-cast as a support for pron, especially important in the multi-word units, expressions and idioms. Isn’t knowing how a word sounds a key part of being able to use it?

But perhaps there is another, hidden, end-user for this book. I mentioned before that footfall , in terms of studying customer behaviour, was new to me, ditto stick to your knitting and black swans. I’ve also learned the cute little word inshoring. I wonder how many people teaching BELT out there really know which is which when they hear about bull market and bear market . Come on, let’s be honest! And how about spot rates, equity and leverage? Here’s our chance, oops, I mean your chance.

Brian Brennan is the Language Training Manager at International House Barcelona Company Training.