Saturday, 20 March 2010

Financial English ... if such a thing exists

I'll explain my strange title in a minute. This post will be a bit of a mish-mash of my thoughts on financial English. First some background.

This time last week I finished a series of presentations around Poland on Financial English. One week, 4 cities, 8 presentations (and I still managed to do two days' teaching too).

Why me? Well, a few years ago I was asked by my colleagues at the British Council to prepare 3-hour presentations for the two new Cambridge ESOL exams, ILEC (International Legal English Certificate) and ICFE (International Certificate in Financial English). So I went a bit wild with the Powerpoint and created the presentations - basically talking teachers through the exams, with guidance on how to prepare students for each task in each paper.

Then last year I did a tour to promote ILEC around Poland, using a whittled down version of my monster presentation. This year it was ICFE's turn. I had to squeeze my 150-slide masterpiece into 45 minutes. Not an easy task. I actually quite liked the big presentation, so it was quite distressing to have to delete so many slides.

The point about the ICFE is that it's an English exam, not a finance exam. It's designed to provide an accurate assessment of a candidate's skills and level of English in a financial context. It doesn't test their knowledge and skills of finance itself. With that important proviso, I think it's a pretty good exam. Maybe one day I'll offer deeper thoughts on ICFE and ILEC.

For the ICFE tour, I was also asked to do a second presentation in each city (Wroclaw, Krakow, Warsaw and Gdansk), this time on behalf of my other main 'employer', Cambridge University Press. (I should point out that I'm not actually employed by either the BC or CUP, but almost all my work is for one or the other).

I was promoting the new CUP Financial English course, called, er, Cambridge Financial English. It's designed as a blended learning course, based on the idea that many finance professionals are busy and stressed and in need of a flexible learning solution.

I've never used the materials to teach, but they look excellent. What I like best is the bank of 40 short video clips - a mixture of functional/situational dialogues (i.e. finance people doing their jobs, interacting with colleagues or clients in English) and informational listenings (e.g. news reports, interviews, etc.). The course looks very thorough, professional and useful.

I won't explain the whole course now - there's a nice demo video on the website. And I won't try to sell it to you!

But I did spot a great business opportunity, which I was very tempted to keep to myself and make a fortune ... if only I had time to exploit it. So here's the lowdown (don't tell anyone).

I think the site,, must get a lot of traffic (since it's also the site for the exam, and plenty of finance pros and students are likely to visit). Interested clients go to the site and want to register for the course, so they check the 'list of tuition providers'. And here's what they see:


Yes ... that's the complete list as of today. One in London and one in Kiev. So my idea was this: I could put the name of my language school here at no cost to myself and wait for the customers to come to me, knocking on the door and desperate to give me their money. No cost, no risk. The only problem is that I don't have my own school, and I don't really have the stomach to set one up and manage one. I prefer writing.

Anyway, I promised I wouldn't try to sell you anything (and I swear I'm not being paid to promote the course now), but if you've got a language school or you want to attract customers for financial English, I think this is too good an opportunity to miss.

Right ... I promised I'd explain my strange title. You see, I've always felt a bit uneasy about Financial English, and I'm not 100% sure it actually exists. My own main ESP area, legal English, has many grammatical and stylistic features that make it different from all other Englishes, as well as all the specialised vocabulary. The same could be said of Technical English (especially technical writing, i guess), Aviation English, Shipping English, Marketing English (especially the language of advertising). The same goes for Medical English: the skill of speaking with patients in delicate situations is probably unique to that set of professions. (My talk at the IATEFL conference in a couple of weeks is focused on the language nurses use - a fascinating topic that I'll blog about soon).

But financial English? Of course there's plenty of jargon. In fact, my main contact with financial English is the Jargonbusters I write twice a month for Professional English Online. (In case you're not familiar with them, they're lesson ideas based around a hot new vocab item, mainly from the world of finance.) So I know all about CoCo bonds, Clawback provisions, Legacy loans, Moral hazard and Quantitative easing, for example.

But I also know that finance people don't spend all day discussing terms like these, and that, interesting as they are, they're only the tip of the iceberg in terms of what finance pros need.

So what exactly do they need? Hmmm ... here's where I get to my strange title. My gut feeling (based on no evidence whatsoever) is that finance people need lots of generic business skills (speaking, writing, negotiating, reports, meetings, etc.), plus a bit of finance vocab. Of course specific branches of finance, like banking or accounting or insurance or whatever, may have other exciting needs, but I'm thinking about needs that unite the whole spectrum of finance people. And all I can come up with is ... business English in a finance context.

Even within a sub-field like banking, surely the front-office staff have radically different language needs from the back-office staff. And those back-office staff in turn will have different needs depending on which particular back office they work in. Retail banking is different from investment banking, which in turn is different from the world of national banks.

So my question to you: am I missing something? Does financial English exist or not?

Perhaps it doesn't matter to you: of course you can create great courses for your own individual students and groups, and you'll find plenty of language needs so you can prepare great courses. My own crisis comes from my job as an ESP editor: I have to find common threads for each of the ESP fields that are taught in my books, beyond easy things like jargon and generic business skills.

Anyway, I'll leave it there. I'd be very interested to hear your opinions, espcially if you have more expereince in financial English than me (not difficult, as I have next to none).

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  1. Interesting post. I think financial English does exist. If students require specific vocabulary to be used in special context, then it does exist.

    Perhaps I'm more generous than others when discussing different types of English. But I do think there are dozens of specialized English types -- all within English. I think the lines are blurry and fluid with a lot of overlap between types.

    I know if I discuss ROI or BEP with my wife, I'm discussing financial English while she thinks I'm speaking in code or another language altogether!

  2. I've taught accountants, brokers and finance directors, and I wouldn't say that their needs are much more divergent than different kinds of hotel staff or people who see ships as ships and others who only think of cargo in a shipping company. In any kind of financial English lesson I'll need to deal with numbers, trends, and names of financial documents, and money idioms and proverbs always go down well. After that it gets more specialised, but the same is true of Technical English or Medical English. I think you might have a point with grammatical structures, though, especially when compared to Technical English.