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Review of  Professioneel taalgebruik in het economische beroepenveld

Reviewer: Heli Tissari
Book Title: Professioneel taalgebruik in het economische beroepenveld
Book Author: Pauline Koeleman
Publisher: Netherlands Graduate School of Linguistics / Landelijke (LOT)
Linguistic Field(s): Applied Linguistics
Issue Number: 31.2883

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The book under review concerns how to teach business students to use the Dutch language well. More specifically, it investigates what should be taught to future accountants and organizational development advisors. Since it concerns the Dutch language, the book is written in Dutch. However, it is of relevance to any university teacher who teaches language use to business students.

Pauline Koeleman has given her PhD thesis a rather long title. The main title summarizes the topic very well: “Professioneel taalgebruik in het economische beroepenveld”, which could be translated as “Professional language use for the economic profession”. The subtitle of the book specifies that the study investigates the need for developing the language curriculum of business universities (“Behoefteanalyse voor (taal)curriculumontwerp in het hoger economisch onderwijs”). To put it more simply, the study explains why and in what ways the curriculum or curricula should be developed.


The thesis consists of ten chapters, a bibliography, four appendices and summaries in Dutch and English. The first chapter discusses what the official aims of language teaching are at Dutch business universities, specifying, for example, what kind of goals the Dutch government has set for it. A central idea is that the quality of the teaching should be improved in a changing study climate. The main aim of the study is to assist in this. Towards the end of the chapter, the author lists her research questions and explains the structure of the book. She systematically reminds the reader of each research question later when it becomes relevant in a chapter. The umbrella question that subsumes all the rest of the questions is what university teachers can learn from actual professional practice.

The second chapter is dedicated to language(s) for specific purposes (LSP) where English for specific purposes (ESP) plays an important role. One of its subsections in fact discusses the difference between these two, emphasizing that the USA and Great Britain have played a major role in the development of ESP research and teaching, in contrast to Central European countries having been strong in the development of LSP. The chapter begins with a historical overview and then continues to a more detailed discussion of what kinds of issues have characterized LSP research. Koeleman divides them into absolute and variable characteristics, suggesting that some issues always play a central role, while there is variation in how the rest are understood and approached. Her list of absolute characteristics begins with the centrality of learners’ needs. In her own study, the notion of discourse community receives a central role.

In the third chapter, Koeleman focuses on explaining what a needs analysis is and what her needs analysis is like. Again, the chapter is based on a historical overview. Eventually, the author explains her decision to base her own study on Huhta et al.’s book “Needs analysis for language course design” (2013), with a couple of exceptions. She defines ‘discourse community’ in a different way, following Beaufort (1997). Moreover, she has a somewhat different understanding of how this concept should be coupled to a needs analysis. She selects a group of business professionals to represent the discourse community and studies how they speak, write, listen and converse with people. She wants to investigate how the workplace influences these practices, and is interested in communicative chains.

To explain all this further, Koeleman deals with her methodology in Chapter Four. She underlines that the method is ethnographic: she has visited workplaces and collected data on site. She has decided to study two groups of organizational development advisors and two groups of accountants who work in three different organizations which she calls Bank Holland, Centrum Nederland and Dienst Accountancy en Advies. It is important to her to study both profit and non-profit organizations. She explains that she has collected the data in several ways over a period stretching from 2014 to 2016. The data consists of materials that the professionals read, semi-structured interviews, participant observation, and further interviews. The data collection and analysis have proceeded side by side and instructed each other. A particular feature of Koeleman’s research is that she has accompanied some professionals during a normal working day.

Before analyzing the linguistic behavior of each group of professionals, Koeleman includes a short chapter that describes what she calls the two professional contexts. To be more precise, chapter five tells us about the two professions of organizational development advisors and accountants. It explains what kind of rules determine their behavior, what kind of values they share, and the different kinds of roles that they can have. It also gives a brief overview of recent developments in each field. The focus is on the Dutch context and on the organizations that she has chosen to participate in.

The main bulk of the book consists of the four chapters that present the actual analysis, group by group. Chapters six to nine are about organizational development advisors who work in Bank Holland, organizational development advisors who work at Centrum Nederland, accountants who also work at Centrum Nederland and accountants who work at Dienst Accountancy en Advies, respectively. Although there is plenty of variation in their work and in the collected data, each of these chapters has a similar structure.

First, Koeleman explains what kind of organization the professionals work in. Each of these sections discusses the values of the organization and how the organization is currently being developed. These sections include information about previous and current language training inside the organization.

Secondly, Koeleman explains what kind of roles the professionals have, which groups they belong to, and how independent they are in their work. She is interested in how free they are to make decisions of their own both in general and as regards language use. She also tells us what kind of values the professionals have in their particular group and what kind of media they use to communicate. The values of the organization as a whole and of the particular group can indeed vary, for example, as regards independence of action and formality of language use.

Next, Koeleman zooms in at particular ways of using language and particular instances of language use. For example, she introduces examples of emails, letters and extracts of recorded conversations. She considers the different roles of the professionals in different situations. A major dividing line is whether the professionals communicate with each other or with laypeople, but she also considers hierarchical relationships between people at a workplace. Both in this and the previous section of each of the four analyses, she reflects on the professionals’ linguistic behavior in the light of what they have told her in the interviews. Lastly, she summarizes each analysis in a concluding section.

Lastly, chapter ten contains an extensive summary and discussion of the entire analysis. There, Koeleman returns to all her research questions and summarizes her findings in a number of tables which bring together and compare all the four groups of professionals. She shows once again that there are both similarities and differences between both professions and each of the organizations that the organizational development advisors and accountants work in. She stresses that the organizations are not stable but in a state of change. Furthermore, she specifies the contributions of her study to the development of research methods, to language science, and to society, the last meaning, above all, how her study contributes to the development of language teaching at business universities. She shows that she is aware of the limitations of her study, but is not afraid of making recommendations. Lastly, she suggests further relevant study topics.

Koeleman’s recommendations can be summarized as follows: To begin with, she recommends that business students first be introduced to characteristics of language use that are common across different specializations. Later, they can be divided into smaller groups where they learn things that concern them as, for example, future accountants or organizational development advisors. In addition, she recommends that university teachers constantly follow and research developments in professional language use to identify current needs. This will add to the value of the teaching for the job market. In her view, students should practice and learn to understand authentic language use from the professional world. They should begin to discern why professionals behave differently in different situations and why they make certain kinds of choices, so that they will be able to ask the right kind of questions when they move on to an actual working life environment and begin to learn from their seniors. Koeleman also makes recommendations as concerns further use of the ethnographic method to analyze the use of the Dutch language in different professional contexts.


This book discusses many topics that are relevant not only to teaching Dutch at business universities but also to LSP teaching across languages. These include ways to research professional language use and develop its teaching at the university level, ways in which professionals communicate with each other and with laypeople, various media of communication, and characteristics of different organizational contexts. Therefore, it is a pity that the book is not accessible to people who cannot read Dutch. At the same time, it is fully understandable that the thesis is written in Dutch since it concerns the use and teaching of the Dutch language.

To give a more specific example of a topic that is relevant across many if not most languages is whether and when the professionals are expected to communicate in a formal manner and what this entails. For example, the fact that the accountants deal with legal matters means that the use of legal language is more relevant to their linguistic practices than to the organizational development advisors’ language use. All the organizations strive at communicating with laypeople in a more understandable way, but this aim is not realized in exactly the same way. An accountant may need to use a legal term and then explain its meaning to the layperson. To contrast, one of the organizational development advisors explains that when they meet people with little power in the organization, they usually need to focus on responding to their emotions, while they can use professional terminology with middle and top managers. One of the major findings of the study in fact is that even a single professional needs to vary their language use to quite an extent across contexts. They also need to be able to choose the right medium for the communication.

A central strength and even a potential weakness of the study is that it has been reported so systematically. Koeleman returns time and again to each research question and subtopic; sometimes it can even be discerned that copy-pasting has occurred and that she has forgotten to change a word. This means, on the other hand, that a reader interested in a particular organization, work context or professional group can simply read one or two relevant chapters. Likewise, it is possible to acquire a good general understanding of the findings and the relevance of the research by reading the final chapter. Reading the entire book is rewarding in the sense that it gives an interested person glimpses of language use and users’ self-reflection across many different contexts.

I have taught a course designed by my previous colleagues at Stockholm University, called Effective Communication, where business students participated, among others. Although it was about effective communication in English, this book would have been helpful in explaining facets of professional communication to them and even students representing other fields such as architecture or medicine. It confirmed some of my suspicions; one of these has been that informal language use can occur even in surprising contexts in highly paid professions. However, Koeleman’s thesis also suggests that an employer can still focus on grammar and punctuation alongside such communicative skills as beginning an email message with the most important point. Having read the book, I would now emphasize the variety of workplace contexts even more than before, including talk about different house styles and different tasks which require different approaches.


Beaufort, Anne. 1997. Operationalizing the concept of discourse community: A case study of one institutional site of composing. Research in the Teaching of English 31(4), 486-529.

Huhta, Marjatta, Karin Vogt, Esko Johnson & Heikki Tulkki. 2013. Needs analysis for language course design: A holistic approach to ESP. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Dr. Heli Tissari is a docent of English philology at the Department of Modern Languages at the University of Helsinki. She has previously worked at Stockholm University where she taught several courses attended by business students, among others.