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Easing Anxiety When Business People Learn English

Christiane Martinez Corsi describes why business people get anxious in the language learning classroom and what teachers can do to help these students. See also Feng-Ling Margaret Johnson and Jessica A. Peterson's Out of the Box article, "The Language of Meetings," Essential Teacher, June 2008.

English has undeniably become an international language. Companies in many countries use English to close deals and do business. Many businesspeople are still struggling to learn English for negotiation and meetings, but something more serious than making time for language classes impedes their success: anxiety.

Why Do Businesspeople Get Anxious?

Businesspeople are successful in what they do and tend not to accept failure because it means they would be out of the market. Finding fast solutions for problems and giving advice to younger and less experienced colleagues are daily occurrences. However, different communicative skills are required for interaction in English language learning environments, and new cognitive abilities may need to be developed. Businesspeople, as foreign language students, do not have all the answers and are thrust into a rather uncomfortable position: the role of a learner who still has a long way to go to become fluent.

In addition, some companies base their promotions or bonuses on employees' English performance. Therefore, businesspeople depend on English classes to advance in their careers. Thus, anxiety is present in their professional lives as well as in the language classroom.

How Does Learning Occur?

Learning something new is closely related to the ability to remember. People learn a new language by studying it, but they speak by using their memory to retrieve the words that they have learned. As Hannaford (2005) explains, "the more we learn, the more connections we will be able to make in our brain so that more knowledge can be stored" (p. 36).

How Does Anxiety Hinder Learning?

When people get too anxious, their body releases the hormone glucocorticoid, to which the brain is extremely sensitive. If the anxiety is low and doesn't last long, the amount of hormone released will in fact improve brain performance and therefore enhance learning. On the other hand, if the anxiety is high and somewhat permanent (which is the case with many businesspeople), the glucocorticoid that is released begins to disrupt mental abilities. Under these circumstances, the brain is not able to fully store or retrieve information and may have diminished capacity to recall or input new data.

What Can Be Done About It?

As teachers, we cannot interfere with students' professional environment, but we can help them cope with their anxiety inside the language classroom. Here are some tips:

  • Make students comfortable. Many businesspeople see their English class as an opportunity to get away from their problems for a while and to release their anxiety. Teachers should allow time for these students to express their feelings so that they can unwind and get ready to learn a foreign language. Try to vary your teaching approach by using different techniques, but always allow the first 5 to 10 minutes for the students to express themselves.
  • Bring an element of fun to your lessons. Try to help students release stress and anxiety by telling them a joke or a funny anecdote that is not related to their work environment. It's also a good idea to use cartoons or comic strips to introduce a topic or start a discussion because laughter releases endorphins, which are the hormones responsible for relaxation. In a relaxed atmosphere, even the shiest students will want to contribute their ideas.
  • Vary the role-plays. Most of the business English books currently available contain a great number of role-plays, which are a fantastic way to provide students with meaningful situations in which they can develop their speaking abilities. However, role-plays may be repetitive and students might get bored with the same tasks. Teachers can vary them by adding extra components to the instructions, such as feelings and emotions that must be expressed in the conversation. For instance, students have to perform a dialogue between a manager and a supplier, but the first is upset because he or she had a problem that day, or he or she feels extremely happy from having just won a prize or bonus.
  • Prepare NLP-related activities. Neuro-linguistic programming (NLP) is a "collection of techniques, patterns and strategies for assisting effective communication, personal growth and change, and learning. It is based on a series of underlying assumptions about how the mind works and how people act and interact" (Revell & Norman, 1997, p. 14). Activities that incorporate NLP in learning are those that raise students' self-confidence and make them think about how they learn. Asking students to write sentences such as "I am good at _____ in English" or "I know I can _____ in English" helps them become aware and proud of their abilities in the foreign language.

Other activities related to emotions also help students unwind. Choose some words from the unit you have been working with, and dictate them to students. Ask them to classify the words under the headings see, hear, feel, smell, and taste, according to how they first envision the words in their minds. Compare experiences afterwards. Engaging in such activities helps learners link words to emotions, which increases the probability that they will remember the words later.


Hannaford, C. (2005). Smart moves: Why learning is not all in your head. Salt Lake City, UT: Great River Books.

Revell, J., & Norman, S. (1997). In your hands: NLP in ELT. London: Saffire Press.

Christiane Martinez Corsi ( teaches General English in the Languages Course at Faculdade Comunitária de Campinas, in Brazil, and Business English at companies in the São Paulo region.