view of Malta bay

IATEFL’s Business English Special Interest Group (BESIG) celebrated its 30th birthday last year but as the annual conference wasn’t established until BESIG’s second year, BESIG members celebrated their 30th annual conference on the 10th to the 12th November this year by holding the event for the first time ever on the beautiful island of Malta.

Conference delegates were treated to breathtaking views of the Mediterranean Sea at the conference hotel, the Salini Resort, where we were well fed with tasty hot meals and a flow of nibbles and snacks, and well nourished with thought-provoking and enriching talks and workshops.

Reacting to feedback to previous conferences, the BESIG committee experimented with a change to their usual conference format this year: four plenaries, fewer speaker sessions, longer coffee breaks (and more time for networking and exploring the exhibition area), and a World Cafe (a structured conversational process that involves delegates splitting into groups to discuss different topics like the future of Business English, intercultural communication, skills work, etc).

BESIG 2017 conference delegates

David Riley award winner, Mike Hogan, and the team from Cornelsen.

The conference kicked off with an opening reception on Friday evening where the much-anticipated David Riley award for Innovation was awarded to authors Mike Hogan and Britta Landermann and the team from Cornelsen for their new book ‘Business English for Beginners A1’. This was followed by drinks and dinner at the hotel restaurant, where delegates got to meet and mingle.

The plenary on Saturday morning by Helen Spencer-Oatey on ‘Culture, Language and Business Relations’ started the day by emphasising the importance of effective communication across cultures and languages. Spencer-Oatey reminded the audience that intercultural awareness is a skill that is key to international collaboration. Meaning, by its very nature, is not fixed and is something that is negotiated and heavily dependent on context. International communication is particularly fragile and in academia, despite the many frameworks to contextualize intercultural competence, there is very little unpacking of what being competent in intercultural communication actually entails.

Spencer-Oatey went on to consider how an understanding of the relational context between interlocutors can help us manage interactions. This included place relations considerations like power differentials and level of distance and closeness, and rapport relations, which she broke down into the taking into account each other’s interactional goals, sociality rights and obligations, and face sensitivities.

BESIG 2017 conference speaker

Helen Spencer-Oatey in her opening plenary.

Careful to define culture as something that is associated with social groupings (and not just bound by nationalities), is fluid and can manifest itself in different ways, where we see it influencing not just one’s values but also one’s practice e.g. behavioural patterns. These manifestations are very much context-bound and can be flexible. Using a dialectic approach, we can consider how explicit, how expressive, how formal, how emotionally restraint our interlocutors are in different situations. This allows us to turn a disorienting encounter into an opportunity to review and to adjust our own behaviours and perspectives.

There were three 45-minute session slots that day, and delegates were given a choice of 12 different sessions to attend during each slot. As I was also speaking about intercultural awareness for my session ‘What does it mean to “teach culture”?’, I decided to go along with the ‘cultural theme’ that the opening plenary had set,  and attend Judith Mader and Rudi Camerer’s talk ‘Identity-Language-Culture The Daimler-Chrysler Case’ where further emphasis was placed on the importance of helping learners understand that there are no communication conventions which are globally accepted as ‘normal’, and of helping them to acquire diverse discourse strategies to deal with a variety of expectations, whilst dealing with unexpected behaviour and utterances in their encounters.

BESIG conference second speaker

Sarah Mercer telling us about emotional intelligence and interpersonal skills.

The closing plenary on Saturday was given by Sarah Mercer, who spoke about interpersonal skills and how relationship-building is central to Business English teaching in her talk ‘The Human Connection: socio-emotional competences in Business English teaching’. Mercer addressed the components of Emotional Intelligences (self-awareness, self-regulation, internal motivation, empathy, and social skills) in the context of teachers being able to motivate themselves and manage their own emotions in themselves and in their relationships.

However, with socio-emotional competences regarded as one of the key 21st century life skills, this ability to reflect, to experience the world through somebody else’s eyes and imagine how they feel and their perpectives on things would also be vital for students developing their ability to communicate across cultures.

BESIG conference speaker Alessia Cogo

Alessia Cogo answering questions about her talk in a Q&A session with Evan Frendo, one of two incoming BESIG coordinators.

Alessia Cogo delivered the opening plenary on Sunday morning with her talk ‘Business English as a lingua franca: from research implications to practical applications’. Showing how ELF is a ‘hybrid phenomenon’ where there is constant accommodation to interlocutors in dynamic and complex ways, Cogo argued that there is emphasis on intercultural awareness and interculturality in BELF for BELF is not neutral, and neither is it about native-speaker norms.

There is hybridity and translanguaging in BELF and ELF, where there is a constant interplay of languages in all business practices, both in written and spoken modes, and as teachers we need to recognize the usefulness of the learners’ L1 and raise awareness of translingual communication in the language classroom. Instead of focusing on accuracy, Cogo suggested that we allow our learners to practice negotiation strategies (negotiation of meaning), using authentic data and naturally-occuring dialogues to demonstrate pragmatic strategies to deal with situations of non-understanding. The juxtaposition of localizing our teaching and developing skills to deal with ‘super-diversity’ can better help the individual learner to handle professional interactions.

For more about translingualism, see this interview I conducted with Jason Anderson at the recent ETp Live! Conference.

If we consider the reasons why our students are learning English, we can undoubtedly say that they are doing so to communicate interculturally. Their future conversations in English will be conducted with someone from a different culture, whether they be native speakers or non-native speakers of the language. And issues of non-understanding and misunderstanding would arise not just from a lack of mastery of English vocabulary or grammar, but from differences in perspectives, values and attitudes, practice and traditions, and norms and expectations.

It is reaffirming to see that the talks at this year’s BESIG conference have reflected this movement, with added emphasis on developing self-awareness and pragmatic strategies and skills that go beyond the big six of Business English teaching (Meetings, Emails, Presentations, Negotiations, Socialising, Telephoning). The BESIG committee has once again put on a relevant conference that will certainly get teachers reevaluating their classroom practice when they return from the revitalizing weekend in Malta.

Thank you BESIG. And happy 30th birthday!