Academic journal article Business Communication Quarterly

English Business Communication Needs of Mexican Executives in a Distance-Learning Class

Academic journal article Business Communication Quarterly

English Business Communication Needs of Mexican Executives in a Distance-Learning Class

Article excerpt

Many firms within and outside the United States operate in multilingual environments that require executives to do business in English as well as in other languages. Executives for whom English is a second language often face special challenges communicating in such settings. This study examines how 115 executives in a distance-learning business communication class in Mexico used English to conduct business and their perceived strengths and weaknesses in the language. Although most executives used English regularly at work and in their classes, many continued to have language problems. They cited vocabulary, writing, and grammar as critical areas to improve, followed by pronunciation and speaking. Their audiences consisted of native and nonnative speakers of English who faced their own language challenges. E-mail and phone were the most commonly used channels for English communication. The study results have implications for teaching international students in U.S. MBA and international executive programs. They give insight into the English language use and into the needs of managers overseas. Instructors can use a needs assessment to identify and target language challenges, develop class activities to address problems, and provide remediation in language need areas.

Keywords: multilingual environments; Mexican executives


MULTILINGUAL ENVIRONMENTS provide the backdrop for business in many firms within and outside the United States, requiring executives to do business in English as well as in other languages. Executives for whom English is a second language often face special challenges communicating in such settings. This study focuses on the English language use of more than 100 Mexican executives enrolled in a graduate business communication class delivered via distance learning. Although we cannot assume that the responses of the Mexican executives in this study are representative of all international executives, their input helps us to understand some challenges that international managers face in regions where English is a foreign language.

U.S. and international MBA business communication classes today often have significant enrollments of students whose second language is English. Even students with advanced levels of English proficiency continue to need additional language skills development. To teach international students more effectively, faculty require information on how their students will use English in their home countries and what their ongoing language challenges are. In spite of communication challenges faced by international students and the need to understand the English language, relatively little research has been done in this area.

This study examined the English language use of more than 100 executives from about 80 companies in Mexico, as well as the executives' self-reported strengths and weaknesses in English. The managers in the study were enrolled in an English Business Communication for Executives course in the fall of 1998 in Masters in International Management in Latin America (MIMLA), a distance-learning program that was offered jointly by Thunderbird and the Virtual University of ITESM (Instituto Tecnologico de Estudios Superiores de Monterrey). The managers (numbers in parentheses) attended seven 3-hour Saturday interactive satellite TV classes in Monterrey (70), Mexico City (39), and Guadalajara (6). They submitted assignments via e-mail and Thunderbird Intranet.

The study addressed three research questions:

1. How do nonnative speakers of English who are executives in Mexico use English on the job?

2. What do the managers see as their strengths and weaknesses in English?

3. How might this research help business communication faculty to meet their international learners' English language and communication needs?

This article examines how the executives in a distance-learning business communication class in Mexico used English to conduct business. The study results have implications for teaching international students in U.S. MBA and international executive programs and give insight into the English language use and needs of managers overseas.


Compared with other executive MBA programs delivered via distance learning, Thunderbird and ITESM's MIMLA program in 1998-1999 had one of the largest class sizes, with 115 students (Grosse, 1999). Today the MIMLA program has more than 150 students. The median age of the 115 executives in the business communication class was 26, with an age range of 23 to 44. Although predominantly Mexican, the class had 3 U.S. students (native speakers of English), as well as 3 Germans, 2 Panamanians, and 1 Brazilian. About one fourth of the class was female.

Using the Internet for homework submission, the executives had round-the-clock access to instruction from wherever their busy schedules took them. Only three students dropped out of the course by the end of the semester.

Most students held junior or middle management positions at companies such as Aeromexico, Andersen Consulting, Bancomer Cemex, Chrysler, Citibank, Conoco, Ford, Grupo Vitro, IBM, Lucent Technologies, Mattel Toys, Procter & Gamble, Ralston Purina, Rockwell Automation de Mexico, Santander Investment Bank, Schlumberger, and Televiso Azteca. In all, about 80 different companies were represented. About 10% worked at ITESM in jobs such as accountant and program coordinator. Approximately 4% were unemployed. More than one third of the entering MIMLA students held engineering degrees, and another third had degrees in business administration. Many of the remaining third majored in international relations as undergraduates.

Almost all students identified areas to improve in English, despite their proficiency level. Most students had an advanced level of proficiency in English, whereas about 20% wrote at the level of native speakers. Another 20% were at the intermediate level. The course focused on developing business communication skills rather than English as a second language (ESL), following the model used in traditional business communication courses taught at Thunderbird.


Other research has investigated the relationship between the business community and curriculum design and has explored ways to connect other cultures and linguistic backgrounds to business communication classes. For example, Kelm (2003) asked executives to review the undergraduate business Spanish curriculum at the University of Texas and to provide their input into what business students should know to work more effectively in Latin America. In another example of connecting with the business community to inform instruction, Dorn (1999) provides insight into the daily writing tasks of 25 U.S. executives to help communication classes better meet the real needs of business-people. Louhiala-Salminen (1996) also emphasizes the need for classroom instruction to mirror workplace reality. Lepetit (2002) believes that curriculum designers must understand student perceptions of language and their second language needs. To link curriculum to business needs more closely, Wright and Borst (2001) looked at 250 job postings to get a sense of what language skills corporate recruiters were seeking in job candidates. From this information, the researchers deduced what they should teach in the classroom to their business students.

Rose (2000) studies communication difficulties that arise when U.S. firms try to face language and cultural issues in the multilingual workplace. As Varner (1999) traces the growing presence of international business communication in the Association for Business Communication over the past 18 years, she points out the need for more research on communication in international settings and multinational corporations. Universities should pay particular attention to the needs of the executives because corporate universities in increasing numbers are providing their own language and communication training (Hayet, 2000). Loewy and Vogt (2000) cite the significant presence of international students in business communication classes, and the authors encourage faculty to consider students' diverse needs when improving the curriculum of the graduate business communication core.


The qualitative data for this study came from two homework assignments that the Mexican managers submitted via e-mail and Intranet: About You and Journal on Daily English Language Use. In these assignments, the managers wrote about how they used English at work and their strengths and weaknesses in English. The students answered the questions in each assignment in narrative form. Therefore, data collection proceeded in a qualitative rather than a quantitative manner. Not every student answered each question, nor were all answers clear and precise. As a result, some of the data collection was subject to the author's best interpretation.

In the About You writing assignment (see Figure 1), responses to Questions 2 and 3 were used in this study. This homework was given to students over the Internet as a preclass assignment. Because the instructor had no opportunity to discuss the assignment orally or face-to-face, she gave additional prompts for clarity, which may have influenced student responses, particularly in Question 2, in which students assessed language strengths and weaknesses using terms listed in the question (i.e. grammar, speaking, writing, vocabulary, etc). By the time the semester was over, 95 out of 115 responses to this assignment were preserved and used in the data collection.

The assignment Journal of Daily English Language Use (see Figure 2) provided another source of data. Successful completion of this assignment was rewarded with an extra point toward the final grade. Of the 115 students in the class, 43 completed the extra credit assignment. All but 1 were native speakers of Spanish.

Students completed the assignment either with a narrative of their daily English use or with a schedule that listed their language use hour by hour. In the narratives, students often discussed their typical English language use rather than just a 1-day window. See the sample journal entry in Figure 3.


This question examines the Mexican executives' needs for English in a Latin American setting. The data for this research question were compiled from the 95 narrative responses to the About You assignment. Question 3 asked how the managers used English on a typical workday. The following areas of English language use are examined below: frequency of communication in English, audience, communication channels, and communication tasks. Because the majority of students worked for global companies, most needed to communicate with people located in other countries from diverse cultures and linguistic backgrounds. Often English was the common language. Others who worked for American-owned companies had frequent dealings in English with headquarters and coworkers in the United States. Although these results pertain to a group of executives in Mexico, the global nature of their communication patterns suggests that they may apply to international executives in other parts of the world as well.

After reviewing the responses, it became clear that Mexican executives perform much of the same business communication tasks in English that they do in their native language. However, in the multilingual Mexican work environment, the important differences are the limited English proficiency of many managers and their need to communicate with other nonnative and native speakers of English.

The managers used English for internal and external corporate communications, depending on communicative need, purpose, and audience. The audience consisted of both native and nonnative speakers of English. Typically, the native English-speaking audience was located outside of Mexico in the United States, Canada, or Great Britain. In some cases, the audience was in Latin America, Asia, or Europe. Because of the respondents' locations in Mexico, face-to-face communication in English took place less frequently than other modes. The most frequently used communication channels were phone and email, although they also used English in faxes, reading materials, PowerPoint presentations, meetings, visits, travel, Internet research, and videoconferences.


How often did the Mexican executives communicate in English at work? Most (62%) used English every day or almost every day. Slightly less than one fifth (18%) spoke or wrote in English sometimes, that is, once or twice a week or once or twice a month. One fifth rarely or never used English on their job. Some of these reported having used English extensively in a previous job. However, their present job did not demand much, if any, English use (see Table 1).

One manager described his daily use of English:

   I work for an airline in Mexico City and am responsible for the
   Quality Assurance of all aircraft maintenance activities. Since
   we operate US-built airplanes, I use English every day in
   communicating with the Boeing Company, as well as with all other
   component vendors, aircraft owners, the Federal Aviation
   Administration [FAA], and other airlines and consultants, among
   others. This communication is mostly by phone, although we also
   have on-site company representatives that are only English speakers.


With whom did the managers communicate in English? They interacted with Americans and other native speakers, as well as with nonnative speakers of English. One manager who used English frequently described his audiences, saying, "I have to talk, negotiate, and interact with a large variety of people from different countries and nationalities, most of them non-native English speakers." It is important to recognize that much of the communication done by international managers in non-U.S, settings may be with other nonnative speakers of English who have their own language challenges. Faculty can help their learners deal with this reality by stressing clear, simple, understandable communication and by giving students strategies to check for understanding.

English was the official company language for many who worked in U.S.- and Canadian-owned companies such as Mattel, Procter & Gamble, Andersen Consulting, and Northern Telecom. Others needed to communicate in English because their American or Japanese bosses did not speak Spanish. In other situations, U.S. bosses and partners spoke a little Spanish but felt more comfortable speaking English.

Internally, they communicated in English with upper management, employees, U.S. headquarters, team members, marketing representatives, technicians, human resources professionals, accounts payable personnel, technological partners, and sales directors. In short, the managers would communicate with the same variety of internal people in English as they would in Spanish. Language use was determined by the native language or preference of the audience. Again, the executives' work had the added complexity of needing to communicate in at least two languages and across cultures.

Externally, the Mexican managers used English to communicate with a diverse audience consisting of customers, vendors, suppliers, sales representatives, speakers at conferences, exhibitors showing their products, the international finance community, bankers, brokers, law firms, investors, lawyers, analysts, and consultants, among others. Again, the managers communicated in English with the same kinds of people with whom they communicated in Spanish. Language use depended on the preference and/or capability of the individual.


The Mexican managers used all available channels for their English business communication, including phone, e-mail, fax, face-to-face, videoconferences, letters, and the Internet. By far, the most commonly used channels were phone and e-mail. Managers preferred to use the phone when a quick response was needed and used e-mail and fax for more detailed information or for a record.

Managers noted that e-mail was better suited for more informal matters in which they could be brief and direct. E-mail documented the situation and gave them a record that could be useful for reference later. They sent e-mail to inform and inquire about everyday business and personal use. With respect to faxes, managers indicated that these usually were brief. Louhiala-Salminen (1999) provides additional information on how fax and e-mail have affected writing practices in international business communication.

Managers frequently used multiple channels to perform a communication task. For example, they might begin with a conference phone call, followed by an e-mail or a fax. Then meeting results were presented in a face-to-face meeting or via videoconference. For further discussion of communication channels preferred by virtual intercultural teams, see Grosse (2002).

Phone Communication Tasks

The Mexican managers used the phone for a wide variety of tasks in English. Once again, the audience determined the language used. The managers would speak in Spanish, English, or a third language, depending on the native or preferred language of the audience. One manager used the phone for 80% of his updates on business status. Another reported,

   I am in charge of the accounts receivable my company has with the
   American Technological partner, so I have to call the accounts
   payable people about payments, invoice problems, short shipments,
   etcetera. I usually speak with English native speakers via
   telephone, but sometimes I have meetings in my office with them.
   (see Figure 4)

Another person's company had conference calls or face-to face meetings in which decisions were made based on the information he gathered. More than 10 people might be talking at once about technical issues like new system pilots, global software, and hardware implementation.

One manager used phone, e-mail, and face-to-face communication to speak with customers in the United States about sales, customers, quotations, potential markets, and products. At a U.S. company's Mexican office, an executive used e-mail, fax, and letters to analyze competitors' movements and industry status, provide general information, communicate action plans, and make recommendations.

Another executive with a Mexican company used phone and e-mail in English to coordinate the Dallas sales office with Mexico's operation. He said,

   I'm in charge of the price, quotation, customer service, and
   traffic areas in Mexico, so I am in daily contact with
   counterparts in my company. I make daily contact in English about
   status, prices, coordinating visits, and writing business official
   memos to customers or VIP personnel to negotiate or implement
   policies or business rules and specifications.

An individual who worked for a Japanese company communicated in English via phone or fax with industrial batteries production factories in the United States and Japan concerning product specifications, lead times, price quotations, and shipments.

One executive with a Mexican company sometimes worked with people in the United States on global team projects. He sent statistics to them in English, which they read and commented on. Then they prepared documents together.

These typical examples of communication tasks are conducted over multiple channels in one or more languages, challenging the managers' linguistic and cross-cultural communication skills. The same types of tasks might be conducted in Spanish, or any other language used in business, depending on the preferences of the audience.

E-Mail Communication Tasks

Executives described e-mail as the other most popular communication channel. One executive exchanged e-mails with consultants or suppliers in the United States to keep track of projects or plan future events. One student reported heavy use of English e-mail at work: "Almost all of the company's internal written communication is done in English via e-mail. I generate or reply an average of 30 e-mails every day on different subjects: business forecast, logistics, personnel issues" (see Figure 5).


Generally, the managers used faxes to provide specific information. One explained, "To be honest, our faxes or e-mails are very short. We usually just write a cover page giving some brief indications about the attached information we're sending (which is just that: numerical information, facts, copies of something, etc.)." Use of fax as a communication channel may have diminished since the date of this study.

Face-to-Face, Videoconferences, and Presentations

The Mexican executives communicated less often face-to-face in English than via phone or e-mail. The reason for this appears to be the corporate location in a Spanish-speaking country, where most of the internal and the external communication would be expected to take place in Spanish. Common face-to-face communication tasks conducted in English included meetings, sales presentations, training programs, reception of visitors, and business trips. Several people indicated that they attended daily meetings in English to discuss projects and daily work activities. Most did not meet often and only needed to attend occasional staff meetings in English in the office. One manager explained, "Face-to-face English communication in Mexico's offices is restricted to those who are not fluent in Spanish." Another said, "We might meet once a year with our customers to close deals that will last the whole following year." Some held monthly phone conferences or videoconferences to receive updates on projects and to detect or solve problems within the projects.

Some managers have the responsibility of receiving company representatives or other visitors. For example, one manager indicated that people come from all over the world to visit a U.S. company's plant in Mexico. He must explain the work process to them, frequently in English. Others use English when they travel to the United States or other countries on business. Some go on business trips once a month or several times a year.

Some of the managers made presentations in English at meetings to an international audience. Others gave sales presentations to customers or speeches at training institutes. At other times, some made formal presentations to upper management about their company's activity in Mexico. To give a specific example, one said, "Yesterday I had a meeting to present to two high executives (reporting to the CEO) on the benefits of the Free Trade Agreements to our future growth."

A number of executives reported that they attended seminars, expositions, industry conferences, or training courses in the United States or Canada.

Professional Reading

Many executives reported reading professional material in newspapers, books, magazines, and manuals. One explained, "I read many things every day. Perhaps 80 percent of the things I need to read at work are in English. I read internal information, Financial Times, Wall Street Journal, The Economist, etc." Another said, "All of the technical manuals we use to maintain our aircraft are in English." Others read American magazines for benchmarking against competitors. Popular English reading materials for the managers included Fortune, The Economist, Business Week, Forbes, Latin Trade, Sales & Marketing, Internet CNN, and the Wall Street Journal. The managers also read traffic, research, and performance reports; company and analyst reports; general business publications; Internet news sources; news magazines; and training materials.


A number of executives did Internet research in English for their company. They searched electronic databases for competitive intelligence, such as information about potential suppliers, competitors, and their regional plans.


The qualitative data for this topic were compiled from the 95 narrative responses to the About You assignment (see Figure 1), which asked, What are your strengths in English, and where do you most need to improve? The information provided in a needs assessment such as this can help business communication faculty to identify and target areas for the students to improve through in-class work or outside remediation. Students can get additional help from the instructor, a tutor, the Writing Center, or extra assigned work in print or Internet materials.

Not all respondents answered each question. Eleven students did not mention any strengths in English, whereas 6 did not provide information on areas they wanted to improve. Most identified multiple strengths and areas to improve. About three fourths identified two or three areas to improve, and approximately two thirds named two or three strengths. One fifth mentioned just one strength, whereas 12% chose only one area for improvement (see Tables 2 through 5).

The aggregate response identified the areas in which most students felt weak, as well as the areas in which they wanted to improve. Most identified reading and listening as their strongest skills in English. These receptive language skills contrast directly with the productive skills of speaking and writing. As for the areas most in need of improvement, more than half cited vocabulary and writing, followed closely by grammar. Interestingly and unexpectedly, vocabulary was the most frequently cited area for improvement. The next most commonly cited areas for improvement were pronunciation and speaking.


The data collected in this study give faculty, materials writers, and curriculum developers insight into the English language use, audience, communication channels, and tasks of international executives working outside the United States. From this information, we learn that the audience is often normative speakers of English who may or may not have their own language challenges. Considering the audience, business communication classes can devote attention to making messages simple, clear, and easy to understand. Faculty also can teach strategies to compensate for language deficiencies, check for clarification, and make sure messages are understood. Knowing that the majority of English communication occurs via e-mail and phone, faculty can give these channels special attention in the business communication class.

Cross-cultural communication strategies will also help international students on the job as they often have to communicate in English with people from different cultures.

Repeatedly, the executives expressed a need to communicate at a level commensurate with their position in the company and frustration at not being able to do so. Managers often feel extra pressure to communicate fluently and correctly in English when their audience consists of native speakers holding important positions within and outside their companies. They have an ongoing need to improve English communication skills in spite of having studied English for years, completed undergraduate or graduate degrees in English, and frequent business contact with English speakers.

Many executives feel compelled to improve their English, in particular in the areas of vocabulary, writing, and grammar. Business communication faculty can help international students develop their English skills in these areas by (a) adding activities that focus on vocabulary acquisition, (b) including frequent writing practice and feedback in and out of class, and (c) planning for grammatical remediation as needed. Faculty can give students grammar assistance in numerous ways such as (a) having students identify and correct their own errors in written and in spoken work, (b) identifying types of errors they commonly commit, and (c) assigning additional study and practice on these error types through exercises available on Internet grammar and writing sites or print materials.

Pronunciation and speaking were the second most commonly identified areas for improvement. To improve pronunciation, faculty can encourage students to (a) read aloud often, (b) get more English-speaking practice, (c) join Toastmasters clubs, (d) watch more English television or movies, and (e) listen to the radio and songs in English. To improve speaking, faculty can add activities that give students practice in this skill. In or out of class, students can videotape or audiotape their presentations for review and critique by peers and/or faculty.


This study provides insight into how international managers use English on the job in a multilingual environment outside the United States and identifies language areas for improvement. This information can help business communication faculty better prepare students for the job ahead by raising awareness of audience, communication channels, tasks, and continuing English language challenges. Thus, we can focus on international learners' needs to ensure that instruction helps them meet the communication challenges of the multilingual workplace.

Table 1. Frequency of Managers' Business-Related Communications in

Frequency             Managers    % of Total

Every day                32           36
Almost every day         24           27
Sometimes                16           18
Rarely                   13           14
Never                     5            5
Total                    90          100

NOTE: Five unemployed respondents were not included in this table.

Table 2. Strengths in English Self-Reported by Mexican

Student-Identified Strength in English   Responses    % of Total

Reading                                     51            26
Listening                                   41            21
Pronunciation                               30            16
Speaking                                    30            16
Writing                                     20            10
Grammar                                     15             8
Vocabulary                                   5             3
Total                                      192           100

Table 3. Areas to Improve in English Self-Reported by Mexican

Student-Identified Area to Improve       Responses       % of Total

Vocabulary                                  54               24
Writing                                     51               22
Grammar                                     45               20
Pronunciation                               27               12
Speaking                                    26               11
Listening                                   15                7
Reading                                      9                4
Total                                      227              100

Table 4. Strengths in English: Number of Areas Cited by

Strengths Cited    Respondents   % of Total

1                      17            20
2                      36            43
3                      22            26
4                       8            10
5                       1             1
Total                  84           100

NOTE: Strengths include vocabulary, writing, grammar, pronunciation,
speaking, listening, and reading.

Table 5. Areas to Improve in English: Number of Areas Cited by

Areas to improve   Respondents    % of Total

1                      11             12
2                      39             44
3                      26             29
4                       8              9
5                       2              3
6                       3              3
Total                  89            100

NOTE: Areas to improve include vocabulary, writing, grammar,
pronunciation, speaking, listening, and reading.

Figure 1. "About You" Preclass Assignment

ABOUT YOU: Please answer the following questions about yourself, and send me your responses by e-mail:

1. How did you learn English? (family, education, work, travel, living abroad)

2. What are your strengths in English? Where do you most need to improve? (grammar, speaking, listening, reading, writing, vocabulary, pronunciation)

3. How do you use English on your job? Tell me how you use English on a typical workday. Who do you usually speak with in English? For what purpose? Over the phone or face-to-face? What did you read in English? Describe the e-mails, faxes, letters, memos, or reports that you write in English at work.

4. How do you use English outside of work? How often do you watch English-language TV programs and movies? Do you listen to songs or radio programs in English?

5. What are your goals for this course? What do you expect to learn?

Figure 2. Journal Assignment: Daily English Language Use

1. BONUS POINT: Keep a journal about how you use English and technology on a typical workday. For example, you could mention: who you spoke to in English, for how long, on what subject, on the phone, or face-to-face. What did you read in English, for how long? Did you write any e-mails, faxes, letters, or homework in English? Which English-language TV programs, movies, songs, or radio programs did you see or hear?

Also comment in your journal about how you used technology to communicate on this workday. Describe how you used a computer, software programs, e-mail, fax, videoconference, TV, radio, voice-mail, or cellular phone, etc.

Figure 3. Sample Journal Entry

On a typical workday, I speak English face-to-face with the Boeing representative for a few minutes regarding any particular problem that we may be having with the fleet. By telephone, I may receive a call from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) inspector requesting information to proceed with the approval for operation of a new aircraft in the US. After providing the information orally, I write a fax confirming it and send it to Dallas. In another phone conversation, I speak with an aviation quality consultant about auditor training and ISO9000 registration.

I read my incoming correspondence, including brochures from software vendors with programs for Statistical Process Control. I also read a survey on human factors in aviation maintenance, where I am requested to contribute to a research project that a consulting firm is doing on behalf of the FAA. Other documents are letters from vendors announcing changes in their phone area codes and brochures on training programs and aviation conferences. I also take a look at several industry magazines like Air Transport World, Aviation Business, and Quality, Progress.

Occasionally I may participate in meetings with consultants, technical representatives, and sales executives regarding the use of their services and products in our maintenance processes. In other instances, I tour our facilities with visiting auditors from allied airlines, clients, inspectors, and aircraft owners.

Figure 4. Examples of Phone Communication in English

Talk with suppliers to negotiate price adjustments

Discuss competitive proposals of suppliers

Talk about product modification proposals

Receive an update on business status

Speak with people at U.S. HQ to follow-up on projects

Figure 5. Examples of E-Mail Communication Tasks

Keep people informed about daily job

Make requests for information, usually technical

Communicate needs

Provide information about performance (numbers) or projects

Make amendments to export documents requesting information

Advise that certain equipment has arrived and cleared customs

Give shipping instructions on where, what, how, and when to ship

Author's Note: The author gratefully acknowledges the financial support of the Thunderbird Research Center for awarding a research grant to the author to conduct this study.


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Address correspondence to Christine Uber Crosse, 5220 E. Cortez St., Scottsdale AZ 85254; e-mail:

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