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  • Woman with a headset at a computer
    • Business and employability
    • English language testing

    Online English language testing for employment: Is it secure?

    By Pearson Languages

    Managers and HR professionals have a global workforce at their fingertips – and now, nearly 50% of organizations plan to let employees work from home. This makes adopting a secure English language test for employment more important than ever.

    An online English test enables organizations to assess candidates’ language proficiency from anywhere in the world, screen more applicants, and standardize the hiring process. They also help HR professionals and managers to save time – ensuring only people with the right language skills advance to the interview stage.

    But how can employers be certain these tests are safe? And how easy is it for people to cheat? In this article, we’ll explore a few of the top security concerns we hear, and share what features make online language tests secure.

    What is an online English test?

    An online English test measures how well a job applicant can communicate in English, focusing on speaking, listening, reading and writing skills. They also assess a candidate’s specific English for business skills – for example, how clearly someone can communicate on the phone with clients, or understand what is being said during a conference call.

    Online tests can be taken in a controlled environment – in a testing center with in-person proctors – but also from a job applicant’s personal computer or mobile phone at home. When tests are taken at home, they can be made more secure using virtual proctors or powerful AI monitoring technology.

    Cheating, grading and data security

    When many people think of taking a language test, they imagine the traditional way: students in a large testing center scribbling away with pen and paper. No mobile phones are allowed, and if test-takers are caught cheating, they’ll be flagged by a proctor walking around the room.

    So when managers or HR professionals consider the option of an online English test – taken digitally and often without human supervision – it’s no surprise that many have questions about security. Let’s take a look at some common concerns:

    Is cheating a problem?

    A large number of test takers admit to cheating on their tests. According to research by the International Center for Academic Integrity, 68% of undergraduate students say they’ve cheated on a writing assignment or test, while 43% of graduate students say they have.

    But how easy is it to cheat during a Versant test?

    The truth is, not very. With Versant, exam cheating is actually quite difficult, and test takers would have to outsmart a range of AI monitoring technologies.

    If a verified photo is uploaded to the platform, HirePro’s face recognition technology can compare the live test taker with it. This ensures test takers are who they say they are, and haven’t asked someone else to sit the exam for them. It is the institution’s responsibility to verify the original photo.

    And since Versant tests are monitored using specialized AI algorithms – without a human present – even the slightest suspicious behaviors are flagged for review. For example, Versant notices if a different face appears in the video, or if the camera goes dark. With video monitoring, our platform also flags if the test taker moves from the camera, or looks away multiple times. And we’ll see if someone changes tabs on their computer.

    Finally, the entire test is recorded. When suspicious behavior arises, HR professionals will decide whether to accept or reject the results – or have the candidate retake the test.

    Are scores accurate?

    We’ve all had frustrating experiences with AI. Chatbots don’t always understand what we’re trying to say, and speech recognition technology sometimes isn’t up to par. This leaves many wondering if they should trust AI to grade high-stakes tests – especially when the results could be the difference between someone getting the job, or not.

    Versant uses patented AI technology to grade tests that are trained and optimized for evaluating English language proficiency. It evaluates speaking, listening, reading, writing, and even intelligibility.

    Our AI is trained using thousands of fluent and second-language English speakers. With these models, we’re able to not only evaluate how someone should be assessed but also understand when they’ve mispronounced words or have made another mistake. Using all this information, a candidate’s final score is evaluated based on more than 2000 data points.

    Do online tests follow GDPR standards?

    HR professionals and managers deal with sensitive personal information every day. This includes each job applicant’s name, full address, date of birth, and sometimes even their social security number. The HR tools they implement therefore must also keep this data secure.

    Most importantly, it must follow GDPR standards. The data must be gathered with consent and protected from exploitation. With Versant, test-taker data is securely stored and follows all GDPR guidelines.

    All our data is encrypted at rest and in transmission. Versant assessment data is stored in the US and HirePro, our remote monitoring partner, stores the proctoring data in either Singapore or Europe, depending on customer needs. Both systems are GDPR compliant.

    Versant: a secure English language test

    The Versant automated language test is powered by patented AI technology to ensure the most accurate results for test takers and employers alike. Even better, our remote testing lets HR professionals securely and efficiently assess candidates worldwide, 24/7 – and recruit top global talent to help more companies scale.

  • An image of Max Kortakul, a man with dark hair, glasses and black shirt holding a microphone
    • Business and employability
    • Success stories

    How English helped me to make my company a huge success

    By Pearson Languages

    Max Kortrakul is CEO and co-founder of StockRadars, a premier mobile application (app) for stock investors in Thailand. The company was one of Southeast Asia's most well-funded technology start-ups and won an Asia Pacific ICT Alliance Award in 2014.

    Technology start-up companies are flourishing in Southeast Asia, where record deals were made in 2015. According to a report released by Temasek and Google Singapore, within ten years, the internet economy in the region could reach US$200 billion annually. Here, Max recounts how he recruited investors for his app and went on to build his start-up company from scratch – and how his knowledge of the English language has helped him create a company worth an estimated US$15 million. 

    Why did you decide to develop an app for stock investors?

    “People tend to shake their heads at the mention of the stock market; it involves big numbers, lots of data and is high risk. I thought about investing but there weren’t any helpful tools to do so. My idea was simple: make investment easier for myself and for others in Thailand and that led to my idea for the StockRadars app.”

    How did you know your idea was a good one?

    “It was the one that kept me awake at 3am, so I put all my energy into finishing the app. Trusting your own intellect is crucial because sometimes you have to actualise your idea before you can even tell if it’s a good or bad one. If it works, then good for you. You never know, you could be standing in line to be added to the The Unicorn List – private companies valued at more than $1 billion. If your idea bombs, you can always move on and try another one.”

    When you pitched your idea to investors, how did you approach it?

    “I made sure that potential investors could see the value of my idea, not by presenting the projected numbers but by showing how much dedication, time and energy I had put into the project. When you’re able to prove that you have invested in yourself, the investors will invest in you too. I also pitched hard with facts about the importance of the product – I wanted investors to understand that if the app can balance the risk of stock investment, then we can make it less complicated for our users.”

    What was your greatest fear when you were in the meeting?

    “I tried not to think of myself as a small, powerless business from a small country with very few successful technology start-up companies. Thoughts like that could have hindered me when I was pitching – but I try not to be the kind of person who overthinks things. Of course, you have to pitch your idea in English, which can be daunting. People often believe that you have to use big words and jargon to give the impression that you’re clever but that’s not necessarily true. Investors are people, too, and people want to listen to something simple, with clear facts. Luckily, I had learnt to speak English while I was working for an IT company in Vietnam.”

    Has working in a multicultural workplace shaped the way you think?

    “I learnt to embrace diversity. Many people speak English but will speak their version of it – Thai English, Singlish (Singaporean English), Vietnamese English, and so on. The more you understand the English language, the better communication you will have. We may not be a fully multicultural workplace at the moment but we lean in that direction. We took on interns from Nepal and England, which was great as we gained new perspectives from other cultures with different beliefs and mindsets than our own. It’s very beneficial when we’re brainstorming – and that’s how we came up with a variety of ideas to adapt our platform.”

    Do you think learning English can help other technology start-up companies in Southeast Asia achieve more?

    “English is the language that connects you to the world and if you can speak it, it means more opportunities and you’ll meet more people. There are many tech start-ups in Southeast Asia and now is the time when start-up ideas are likely to become a reality – and knowing the English language will help.”

  • Woman with glasses and above shoulder length hair sitting on a sofa and looking down at a laptop
    • Study prep
    • English language testing

    5 ways to improve English test results

    By Pearson Languages

    As with all tests, adequate preparation is crucial. For many aspiring migrants needing to take an English test, it may have been several years since they took an official exam. Knowing how to prepare effectively and what to expect on the day are key when it comes to securing a successful outcome. Use these five exam preparation tips below to improve your English test results.

    1. Familiarise yourself with the type of test questions you will be asked and know what to expect on the day

    The official guides published by the testing bodies are an excellent source of information to help you fast-track your learning. They offer materials that replicate the real test questions as well as guidance and strategies for dealing with every task set. Taking a practice test in exam-like conditions helps to improve time management skills and set realistic expectations on your potential performance.

    As with all high-stakes tests, security arrangements at the test center are strict. Test takers need to prove their identity via a passport or similarly approved document, so it’s a good idea to arrive at least 30 minutes before the test time and have your documents to hand.

    2. Give yourself enough time by setting clear, measurable and achievable goals. This will help keep your motivation up and your end goal in sight

    Start with a detailed understanding of your current English proficiency. That makes it easier to focus on any weaker areas ahead of taking the test and plan how long you’ll need to study for to bring your skills up to the required level.

    3. Seek English instruction that works for you and matches your specific needs and learning goals

    Coursebooks are a good option if you have a little more time to study in the run-up to the test. A rigorous preparation course structure will take you through a series of normally class-based lessons designed to prepare you for the test. Sometimes, however, the best way to prepare for a test is to join a class and receive tuition face-to-face. There is a multitude of courses and they offer class-based or individual tuition, from intensive week-long courses to six-month programs to help brush up on your English skills.

    4. Choose quality materials that are at the right level for you – they should stretch you a bit to help you progress so you stay motivated

    Digital learning can be very useful, providing opportunities to study at a time that suits and giving lots of feedback opportunities. Many test-takers take advantage of the large amount of free preparation material that includes everything from print and digital course guides to practice tests. A huge amount of information is also posted on YouTube, including tutorials and advice covering the range of different tests on offer.

    5. Be persistent – keep practicing at every opportunity

    Make the most of those spare minutes to practice your skills. Every workday includes a little downtime so try to incorporate a few short 5 or 10 minute practice activities each day to keep building your knowledge.

    IELTS has long been the standardized test approved by the Australian government and the test of choice for visa applicants both for work and study. Since November 2014, in an effort to make it more convenient for applicants, the DIBP has approved a number of additional tests that can be used as proof of English language skills, including TOEFL iBT, Cambridge English Advanced (CAE) and the Pearson Test of English Academic (PTE Academic).

    Bonus tip just for PTE Academic test takers

    PTE Academic offers a wide range of free and paid materials online that help test takers prepare for their migration visa English test. Of particular note is the Scored Practice Test which gives test takers an indicative score – so they know how close they are to their goal. 

  • Overhead shot of young childrens' arms playing with blocks and toys
    • Teaching trends and techniques

    3 activities to nurture creativity in the classroom

    By Pearson Languages

    What keeps people from exercising their creative potential? From negative past experiences to the way we see ourselves, there are many things that can hold us back, no matter how old we are. As teachers, it’s our job to help each individual find out what their creative barriers are, whether internal, external or imagined.

    Our classrooms, therefore, need to become places where we nourish emotional safety and welcome mistakes. As such, we should encourage a culture that promotes failing as part of learning.  

    Here are three activities to help nurture creativity in the primary classroom.

    Activity one: My whole self

    In this activity, students express themselves in words and images, using a life-sized drawing of their bodies. The aim of this is to help them share their feelings and ideas. With a little adaptation, it can work just as well with teens and young learners. 
    Before the lesson, ensure you have enough cardboard or paper for each student. Each piece will need to be approximately 2m long. If you’re using paper, roll it into tubes, so it’s easier to distribute to each student later.

    In class, hand out the paper/cardboard to each student. Tell them to draw a life-size outline of themselves on the paper. Students working online can copy the outline you share onto a large piece of paper. They can do this in their notebooks if they don’t have any paper to hand. 

    In teen classes

    Tell the students that they are free to use their creativity. They should draw, write, and express themselves however they want. If they are stuck for ideas, ask them:

    • How do you feel? 
    • What are your ambitions? 
    • What are you worried about? 
    • What do you enjoy?
    • What are you looking forward to?

    Note that questions should be adapted to your students’ age and level of English. 

    During the activity, your students can use colors, stickers, magazines – and anything that will help them express what is in their minds and hearts. 

    A note on using this activity in elementary classes

    Primary-aged students will need more support. Here are some example instructions:

    • In your right hand, write what you do when you feel frustrated. 
    • In your right foot, write your favorite song. 
    • In your left leg, write the name of the person you get good advice from. 
    • In your right arm, write what makes you happy. 
    • In your left hand, write your greatest dream. 
    • In your left foot, write which cartoon character you would like to be. 
    • In your left leg, write what you like to do in your free time. 
    • In your left arm, write things you value the most. 
    • On your stomach write your favorite meal.

    Afterwards, students should explain what they’ve included in their silhouettes to the rest of the class. Encourage students to ask each other respectful questions. 

    Activity two: Message in the box

    The aim of this activity is to establish a routine where students can share their ideas, thoughts and feelings on a regular basis. 

    Have students bring an old box into class (of any type). Encourage them to personalize their boxes with decorative paper, markers, crayons, stickers, etc. 

    Instruct students to write an idea, feeling, thought or question down. The complexity of the task will depend on the grade you teach and their level of English. Topic ideas include:

    • What are you grateful for today? 
    • How do you feel today?  
    • What do you wish for? 
    • What do you do when you’re angry? 
    • What do you like most about yourself?

    Have your students write their answers and put them in the box. When everyone has finished, they should take turns to choose a piece of paper at random and read it out loud to the group. 

    Wrap up this activity by asking the class, “What things do we have in common as a group?”. This way students will see that everyone has similar worries and dreams and hopefully they’ll be more willing to talk about their feelings in future classes.

    Keep the box in a safe place and review the notes after a month to see if peoples' thoughts and feelings have changed since they did the activity.

    Activity three: Activity story board

    The ideal class environment is one where students feel challenged, but not overwhelmed.  The aim of this activity is to have students reflect on the challenges they have faced in their day-to-day learning and think about what they need to do to improve. 

    On a blank piece of paper, ask students to draw two vertical lines and one horizontal line to form six boxes. They should number each box from 1 to 6. Students should then write a challenge or objective in box number six. It should be something that they would like to improve, for example, studying habits, reading skills, doing homework, getting better at exam results, etc. Then encourage them to think of five things they can do to help them reach their objective and write them in boxes 1-5. 

    1. Read at least two paragraphs every day
    2. Draw what I think is the main idea on paper. 
    3. Look up the meaning of words I don´t understand. 
    4. Try to increase the number of paragraphs I read each week. 
    5. Make a monthly progress chart  to see if I have improved. If not, I need to work on another strategy.
    6. My objective:  Ex. Get better at reading comprehension quizzes.

    Provide students with your support and constructive feedback. Have them share their objectives with the rest of the class and every couple of weeks check how they are doing. 
    Remember to praise their ideas and efforts to improve. Students are more motivated when they feel their teachers are invested in their success.

  • A woman with glasses thinking with her hand to her mouth, stood in front of a pink background
    • Just for fun
    • Linguistics and culture

    5 of the strangest English phrases explained

    By Pearson Languages

    Here, we look at what some of the strangest English phrases mean – and reveal their origins…

    Bite the bullet

    Biting a bullet? What a strange thing to do! This phrase means you’re going to force yourself to do something unpleasant or deal with a difficult situation. Historically, it derives from the 19th century when a patient or soldier would clench a bullet between their teeth to cope with the extreme pain of surgery without anesthetic. A similar phrase with a similar meaning, “chew a bullet”, dates to the late 18th century.

    Use it: “I don’t really want to exercise today, but I’ll bite the bullet and go for a run.”

    Pigs might fly

    We all know that pigs can’t fly, so people use this expression to describe something that is almost certain never to happen. It is said that this phrase has been in use since the 1600s, but why pigs? An early version of the succinct “pigs might fly” was “pigs fly with their tails forward”, which is first found in a list of proverbs in the 1616 edition of John Withals’s English-Latin dictionary, A Shorte Dictionarie for Yonge Begynners: “Pigs fly in the ayre with their tayles forward.” Other creatures have been previously cited in similar phrases – “snails may fly”, “cows might fly”, etc, but it is pigs that have stood the test of time as the favored image of an animal that is particularly unsuited to flight! This phrase is also often used as a sarcastic response to mock someone’s credulity.

    Use it: “I might clean my bedroom tomorrow.” – “Yes, and pigs might fly.”

    Bob’s your uncle

    Even if you don’t have an uncle called Bob, you might still hear this idiom! Its origin comes from when Arthur Balfour was unexpectedly promoted to Chief Secretary for Ireland by the Prime Minister of Britain, Lord Salisbury, in 1900. Salisbury was Arthur Balfour’s uncle (possibly his reason for getting the job!) – and his first name was Robert. This phrase is used when something is accomplished or successful – an alternative to “…and that’s that”.

    Use it: “You’re looking for the station? Take a left, then the first right and Bob’s your uncle – you’re there!”

    Dead ringer

    This phrase commonly refers to something that seems to be a copy of something – mainly if someone looks like another person. The often-repeated story about the origin of this phrase is that many years ago, people were sometimes buried alive because they were presumed dead – when actually they were still alive. To prevent deaths by premature burial, a piece of string would supposedly be tied to the finger of someone being buried – and the other end would be attached to a bell above ground. If the person woke up, they would ring the bell – and the “dead” ringer would emerge looking exactly like someone buried only a few hours ago! Other stories point to the practice of replacing slower horses with faster horses – “ringers”. In this case, “dead” means “exact”.

    Use it: “That guy over there is a dead ringer for my ex-boyfriend.”

    Off the back of a lorry

    This is a way of saying that something was acquired that is probably stolen, or someone is selling something that’s stolen or illegitimate. It can also be used humorously to emphasize that something you bought was so cheap that it must have been stolen! “Lorry” is the British version – in the US, things fall off the back of “trucks”. An early printed version of this saying came surprisingly late in The Times in 1968. However, there are many anecdotal reports of the phrase in the UK from much earlier than that, and it is likely to date back to at least World War II. It’s just the sort of language that those who peddled illegal goods during and after WWII would have used.

    Use it: “I can’t believe these shoes were so cheap – they must have fallen off the back of a lorry.”


  • Hands typing at a laptop with symbols
    • Technology and the future

    Can computers really mark exams? Benefits of ELT automated assessments

    By Pearson Languages

    Automated assessment, including the use of Artificial Intelligence (AI), is one of the latest education tech solutions. It speeds up exam marking times, removes human biases, and is as accurate and at least as reliable as human examiners. As innovations go, this one is a real game-changer for teachers and students. 

    However, it has understandably been met with many questions and sometimes skepticism in the ELT community – can computers really mark speaking and writing exams accurately? 

    The answer is a resounding yes. Students from all parts of the world already take AI-graded tests. PTE Academic and Versant tests – for example – provide unbiased, fair and fast automated scoring for speaking and writing exams – irrespective of where the test takers live, or what their accent or gender is. 

    This article will explain the main processes involved in AI automated scoring and make the point that AI technologies are built on the foundations of consistent expert human judgments. So, let’s clear up the confusion around automated scoring and AI and look into how it can help teachers and students alike. 

    AI versus traditional automated scoring

    First of all, let’s distinguish between traditional automated scoring and AI. When we talk about automated scoring, generally, we mean scoring items that are either multiple-choice or cloze items. You may have to reorder sentences, choose from a drop-down list, insert a missing word- that sort of thing. These question types are designed to test particular skills and automated scoring ensures that they can be marked quickly and accurately every time.

    While automatically scored items like these can be used to assess receptive skills such as listening and reading comprehension, they cannot mark the productive skills of writing and speaking. Every student's response in writing and speaking items will be different, so how can computers mark them?

    This is where AI comes in. 

    We hear a lot about how AI is increasingly being used in areas where there is a need to deal with large amounts of unstructured data, effectively and 100% accurately – like in medical diagnostics, for example. In language testing, AI uses specialized computer software to grade written and oral tests. 

    How AI is used to score speaking exams

    The first step is to build an acoustic model for each language that can recognize speech and convert it into waveforms and text. While this technology used to be very unusual, most of our smartphones can do this now. 

    These acoustic models are then trained to score every single prompt or item on a test. We do this by using human expert raters to score the items first, using double marking. They score hundreds of oral responses for each item, and these ‘Standards’ are then used to train the engine. 

    Next, we validate the trained engine by feeding in many more human-marked items, and check that the machine scores are very highly correlated to the human scores. If this doesn’t happen for any item, we remove it, as it must match the standard set by human markers. We expect a correlation of between .95-.99. That means that tests will be marked between 95-99% exactly the same as human-marked samples. 

    This is incredibly high compared to the reliability of human-marked speaking tests. In essence, we use a group of highly expert human raters to train the AI engine, and then their standard is replicated time after time.  

    How AI is used to score writing exams

    Our AI writing scoring uses a technology called latent semantic analysis. LSA is a natural language processing technique that can analyze and score writing, based on the meaning behind words – and not just their superficial characteristics. 

    Similarly to our speech recognition acoustic models, we first establish a language-specific text recognition model. We feed a large amount of text into the system, and LSA uses artificial intelligence to learn the patterns of how words relate to each other and are used in, for example, the English language. 

    Once the language model has been established, we train the engine to score every written item on a test. As in speaking items, we do this by using human expert raters to score the items first, using double marking. They score many hundreds of written responses for each item, and these ‘Standards’ are then used to train the engine. We then validate the trained engine by feeding in many more human-marked items, and check that the machine scores are very highly correlated to the human scores. 

    The benchmark is always the expert human scores. If our AI system doesn’t closely match the scores given by human markers, we remove the item, as it is essential to match the standard set by human markers.

    AI’s ability to mark multiple traits 

    One of the challenges human markers face in scoring speaking and written items is assessing many traits on a single item. For example, when assessing and scoring speaking, they may need to give separate scores for content, fluency and pronunciation. 

    In written responses, markers may need to score a piece of writing for vocabulary, style and grammar. Effectively, they may need to mark every single item at least three times, maybe more. However, once we have trained the AI systems on every trait score in speaking and writing, they can then mark items on any number of traits instantaneously – and without error. 

    AI’s lack of bias

    A fundamental premise for any test is that no advantage or disadvantage should be given to any candidate. In other words, there should be no positive or negative bias. This can be very difficult to achieve in human-marked speaking and written assessments. In fact, candidates often feel they may have received a different score if someone else had heard them or read their work.

    Our AI systems eradicate the issue of bias. This is done by ensuring our speaking and writing AI systems are trained on an extensive range of human accents and writing types. 

    We don’t want perfect native-speaking accents or writing styles to train our engines. We use representative non-native samples from across the world. When we initially set up our AI systems for speaking and writing scoring, we trialed our items and trained our engines using millions of student responses. We continue to do this now as new items are developed.

    The benefits of AI automated assessment

    There is nothing wrong with hand-marking homework tests and exams. In fact, it is essential for teachers to get to know their students and provide personal feedback and advice. However, manually correcting hundreds of tests, daily or weekly, can be repetitive, time-consuming, not always reliable and takes time away from working alongside students in the classroom. The use of AI in formative and summative assessments can increase assessed practice time for students and reduce the marking load for teachers.

    Language learning takes time, lots of time to progress to high levels of proficiency. The blended use of AI can:

    • address the increasing importance of formative assessment to drive personalized learning and diagnostic assessment feedback 

    • allow students to practice and get instant feedback inside and outside of allocated teaching time

    • address the issue of teacher workload

    • create a virtuous combination between humans and machines, taking advantage of what humans do best and what machines do best. 

    • provide fair, fast and unbiased summative assessment scores in high-stakes testing.

    We hope this article has answered a few burning questions about how AI is used to assess speaking and writing in our language tests. An interesting quote from Fei-Fei Li, Chief scientist at Google and Stanford Professor describes AI like this:

    “I often tell my students not to be misled by the name ‘artificial intelligence’ — there is nothing artificial about it; A.I. is made by humans, intended to behave [like] humans and, ultimately, to impact human lives and human society.”

    AI in formative and summative assessments will never replace the role of teachers. AI will support teachers, provide endless opportunities for students to improve, and provide a solution to slow, unreliable and often unfair high-stakes assessments.

    Examples of AI assessments in ELT

    At Pearson, we have developed a range of assessments using AI technology.


    The Versant tests are a great tool to help establish language proficiency benchmarks in any school, organization or business. They are specifically designed for placement tests to determine the appropriate level for the learner.

    PTE Academic

    The Pearson Test of English Academic is aimed at those who need to prove their level of English for a university place, a job or a visa. It uses AI to score tests and results are available within five days. 

    English Benchmark

    English Benchmark is also scored using the same automated assessment technology. This test, which is taken on a tablet, is aimed at young learners and takes the form of a fun, game-like test. Covering the skills of speaking, listening, reading and writing, it measures the student’s ability and suggests follow-up activities and next teaching steps.

  • Two ladies in a pottery studio, one with a clipboard, both looking at a laptop together
    • Business and employability
    • Tips for careers using English

    11 ways you can avoid English jargon at work

    By Pearson Languages

    From “blue-sky thinking” to “lots of moving parts”, there are many phrases used in the office that sometimes seem to make little sense in a work environment. These phrases are known as ‘work jargon’ – or you might hear it referred to as ‘corporate jargon’, ‘business jargon’ or ‘management speak’. It’s a type of language generally used by a profession or group in the workplace, and has been created and evolved over time. And whether people use this work jargon to sound impressive or to disguise the fact that they are unsure about the subject they are talking about, it’s much simpler and clearer to use plain English. This will mean that more people understand what they are saying – both fluent and second-language English speakers.

    The preference for plain English stems from the desire for communication to be clear and concise. This not only helps fluent English speakers to understand things better, but it also means that those learning English pick up a clearer vocabulary. This is particularly important in business, where it’s important that all colleagues feel included as part of the team and can understand what is being said. This, in turn, helps every colleague feel equipped with the information they need to do their jobs better, in the language they choose to use.

    Here, we explore some of the most common examples of English jargon at work that you might hear and suggest alternatives you can use…

    Blue-sky thinking

    This refers to ideas that are not limited by current thinking or beliefs. It’s used to encourage people to be more creative with their thinking. The phrase could be confusing as co-workers may wonder why you’re discussing the sky in a business environment.

    Instead of: “This is a new client, so we want to see some blue-sky thinking.”

    Try saying: “This is a new client, so don’t limit your creativity.”

    Helicopter view

    This phrase is often used to mean a broad overview of the business. It comes from the idea of being a passenger in a helicopter and being able to see a bigger view of a city or landscape than if you were simply viewing it from the ground. Second-language English speakers might take the phrase literally, and be puzzled as to why someone in the office is talking about taking a helicopter ride.

    Instead of: “Here’s a helicopter view of the business.”

    Try saying: “This is a broad view of the business.”

    Get all your ducks in a row

    This is nothing to do with actual ducks; it simply means to be organized. While we don’t exactly know the origin of this phrase, it probably stems from actual ducklings that walk in a neat row behind their parents.

    Instead of: “This is a busy time for the company, so make sure you get all your ducks in a row.”

    Try saying: “This is a busy time for the company, so make sure you’re as organized as possible.”

    Thinking outside the box

    Often used to encourage people to use novel or creative thinking. The phrase is commonly used when solving problems or thinking of a new concept. The idea is that, if you’re inside a box, you can only see those walls and that might block you from coming up with the best solution.

    Instead of: “The client is looking for something extra special, so try thinking outside the box.”

    Try saying: “The client is looking for something extra special, so try thinking of something a bit different to the usual work we do for them.”

    IGUs (Income Generating Units)

    A college principal alerted us to this one – it refers to his students. This is a classic example of jargon when many more words are used than necessary.

    Instead of: “This year, we have 300 new IGUs.”

    Try saying: “This year, we have 300 new students.”

    Run it up the flagpole

    Often followed by “…and see if it flies” or “…and see if anyone salutes it”, this phrase is a way of asking someone to suggest an idea and see what the reaction is.

    Instead of: “I love your idea, run it up the flagpole and see if it flies.”

    Try saying: “I love your idea, see what the others think about it.”

    Swim lane

    A visual element – a bit like a flow chart –  that distinguishes a specific responsibility in a business organization. The name for a swim lane diagram comes from the fact that the information is broken up into different sections – or “lanes” – a bit like in our picture above.

    Instead of: “Refer to the swim lanes to find out what your responsibilities are.”

    Try saying: “Refer to the diagram/chart to find out what your responsibilities are.”

    Bleeding edge

    A way to describe something that is innovative or cutting edge. It tends to imply an even greater advancement of technology that is almost so clever that it is unbelievable in its current state.

    Instead of: “The new technology we have purchased is bleeding edge.”

    Try saying: “The new technology we have purchased is innovative.”

    Tiger team

    A tiger team is a group of experts brought together for a single project or event. They’re often assembled to assure management that everything is under control, and the term suggests strength.

    Instead of: “The tiger team will solve the problem.” 

    Try saying: “The experts will solve the problem.” 

    Lots of moving parts

    When a project is complicated, this phrase is sometimes used to indicate lots is going on.

    Instead of: “This project will run for several months and there are lots of moving parts to it.”

    Try saying: “This project will run for several months and it will be complicated.”

    A paradigm shift

    Technically, this is a valid way to describe changing how you do something and the model you use. The word “paradigm” (pronounced “para-dime”) is an accepted way or pattern of doing something. So the “shift” part means that a possible new way has been discovered. Second-language English speakers however, might not be familiar with the meaning and might be confused about what it actually means.

    Instead of: “To solve this problem, we need a paradigm shift.”

    Try saying: To solve this problem; we need to think differently.”