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… and the winner is …

Simply Business has just won the BELMA 2016 Gold award at the Frankfurt Book Fair.
BELMA (Best European Learning Materials Awards) are presented every year to excellent educational materials from Europe.

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Business English bei Cornelsen

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Using mutant chickens to develop business skills and language

Here's a quick quiz for you. Decide if the following are true or false:

  • If you leave a tooth in Coca-Cola overnight, the next morning the tooth will have completely dissolved. True/False
  • KFC have dropped the word 'chicken’ from their name because the meat they use is now so genetically modified that the company is legally forbidden to call it chicken. True/False
  • By deleting the cookies after searching for a flight on the Ryanair website, you can find a fare that is lower than the previous result. True/False
  • Wearing an iPod during a thunderstorm will increase your chances of being struck by lightning. True/False
  • Starbucks has closed all its stores in Israel but continue to do business in the surrounding Arab countries. True/False
  • Sodium laureth sulfate, an ingredient found in some brand-name shampoos, is carcinogenic. True/False

Want to know the answers? Chances are if you share these with your students, they will want to know too. The intrigue that stories like these create makes them perfect for language development and vocabulary building. Because each one is about a well-known company or product, there is an opportunity to practise several business skills too. How? Let me tell you.

The truth is, all of the above are no truer than the old story that Coca Cola invented our modern image of Santa Claus. If you thought that they did, then you have fallen victim to what’s known as an urban myth or legend - a story that has been passed on so many times that it becomes plausible. These myths are mostly untrue, but sometimes there may just be a grain of truth behind them – while our red Santa was not created by Coca Cola, the company’s advertising certainly helped to popularize his image.

The success of stories like these is due to their shock-value. You will probably already be familiar with some of them either because you read about it in an email circular, or like me in the case of the KFC story, saw it in a Facebook post. Urban legends are often created for humorous effect (I admit I recently had to think twice when I read that in the wake of the horsemeat scandal, human DNA had now been detected in Welsh lamb). They may also have been started, however, as a direct attempt to damage the reputation of the company concerned.

But the next time you see a story like this on the internet, consider this before you hit delete: can I use this in my Business English classroom? The very thing that makes these stories legends is their ability to generate such interest that we almost crave to know if they are true. What if we could channel that same interest into what we do in the classroom? It is perhaps no coincidence that the first person to really recognise urban legends for what they are was Jan Harold Brunvand, himself a professor of English at the University of Utah.

He proved that urban legends did not just belong to primitive societies and showed how by studying them we can learn much about modern culture.

To see what we can use as teachers, let’s take the KFC story as an example. If I google the words KFC and mutant I will get over 4000 hits. Among the first twenty of these are sites that tell me the story is definitely not true, but two links take me to Youtube films of this mutant ‘chicken’. Another link takes me to graphic images of the same creature – featherless, some with six wings. One more link takes me to an actual petition on behalf of an animal activist group that seeks to end this cruelty and another link takes me to a forum that discusses whether the story is true or not. After surfing through these links and reading their content it is up to me to decide which sources I believe and which not.

It’s very easy to turn this into a simple webquest that your students can do either as a group task or as self-study in their own time. Give your students a brief summary, such as the one I saw on Facebook, and then set some leading questions like:

  • Is the story true or false, how can you be sure?
  • Which sources do you trust, why?
  • What facts, if any, can you find to support the story?
If the students don’t find enough information to decide, use this to their advantage: have them write emails to the companies/sites concerned or get them to ask a question in an internet forum. Receiving a reply to one of these can be a tremendous motivational boost as well as making their project very real.

When your students have done their research and have come to some conclusions, ask them to present their findings to the rest of the class. As they do so, encourage their classmates to ask questions, then reflect on how the legend arose in the first place:
  • Who started the legend and why?
  • Was it for a humorous effect or malice?
  • How did the company deal with this?
All of the tasks I’ve just mentioned allow students to practise the business skills they need for their workplace: writing emails and reports, presenting an argument and dealing with questions, analysing data and information.

As they work through each stage, your job as teacher is one of guidance and support. Make sure the students keep a record of what they discover and help them identify the key language they need. Remind them how they can later recycle this in a real-life context. The language you practise depends on the legend you choose. In my quiz alone, we already have several company departments to choose from (marketing, HR, production, sales) in fields such as catering, travel, IT, politics, pharmaceuticals, cosmetics... If that’s not enough, you’ll find a list of many more business and product urban legends at: http://urbanlegends.about.com/od/business/Companies_and_Products.htm With minimal preparation and a simple outline of one of these you have the power to make what and how you teach... legendary! (Sorry, couldn't resist!)

Oh, and on a final note, in case you’re still wondering about those mutant chickens and KFC, when asked to give his opinion of the story, the company’s Director of Public Affairs said: ‘Any thinking adult would know it's absolutely absurd.’ So now that that’s cleared up, let’s all rush out for our bargain buckets!


By Andreas Grundtvig
(in-company trainer, blog writer [http://www.playlands.org], BESIG presenter, Cornelsen adviser and author)