Learning English for specific purposes

Aligning ESP more closely with “acquisition planning” (Ferguson 2010), Dudley- Evans and St John (1998: 4-5) distinguish ESP teaching from general English classes in terms of teaching methodology. The authors define ESP on the basis of a set of characteristics, some absolute, others variable. The former include needs-based course design, teaching methodology and activities that cater for target disciplines/ professions, and language and skills amenable to these activities and contexts. Variable characteristics relate to the learners for whom the courses are designed; these tend to be adults enrolled at higher-education institutions or business professionals, thus chiefly intermediate or advanced students. Furthermore, variable characteristics indicate that ESP may involve discipline-specific teaching situations, in which the methodology applied differs from teaching English for general purposes.

As shown in Figure 1, there are several levels of ESP, each with different degrees of specificity in course design (see Hutchinson and Waters 1987: 17 and Robinson 1980: 7 for alternative classifications).

Classification of ESP (Dudley-Evans and St John 1998

Figure 1: Classification of ESP (Dudley-Evans and St John 1998: 6)

Apart from the broad division into English for Academic Purposes (EAP) and English for Occupational Purposes (EOP), the above classification in terms of professional domains branches into ever more fine-grained distinctions. Cases in point, while not represented in Figure 1, are the distinctions between English for General Academic Purposes (EGAP) vs. English for Specific Academic Purposes (ESAP), on the one hand, and English for General Business Purposes (ESBP) vs. English for Specific Business Purposes (ESBP) on the other. The latter distinction is useful, blending as it does professional criteria, such as pre-experience, in-service or post-experience training, with pedagogic ones, such as course duration (intensive or extensive), participants (in-company or open-registration courses), group size (one-to-one or small groups), location (in-house, residential, non-residential courses), trainers (employed by company or external) or mode of learning (class teaching, self-study). Placing English for Business Purposes within English for Occupational Purposes rather than English for Academic Purposes is problematic, though, as “[t]he academic business English required by students on courses in disciplines such as business, finance, accounting and banking has more in common with the study of other EAP disciplines” (Dudley-Evans and St John 1998: 53).

To quote Upton and Connor (2012: 3151), the “level of specificity called for in ESP instruction has been a controversial question that has simmered for a long time”. The debate has centred on two extreme, mutually exclusive, positions. Broad definitions of specificity imply that language pedagogy rests on a shared pool of linguistic resources that should be taught to students across the board, assuming that there is a common core of language shared by academic disciplines. This view has appealed to scholars (e.g., Dovey 2006) highlighting the importance of “transferable skills”. On the other hand, conceiving of specificity in a narrower sense (e.g., Hyland 2002) entails that the language needs in specific subject areas and disciplines differ from those in more general academic areas and contexts. The first approach is characteristic of a so-called wide-angled approach to ESP, while the latter is referred to as narrow-angled (Basturkmen 2010: 37).

The explanatory power of narrow-angled approaches, in particular, has been called into question. First, from a pragmatic perspective, it seems natural that speakers generally accommodate to both addressee(s) and communicative contexts. Thus, “in one sense all uses of English, as of any other language, are specific. All uses of the language serve particular purposes. Whenever I indulge in utterance, I fashion the form of my message according to communicative requirements” (Widdowson 1998: 3: italics in original). Second, from a learner-centred perspective, the distinction is artificial, if not meaningless, since it suggests an a priori, top-down classification, disregarding the real learning environment. “To many ESP practitioners [...] the wide versus narrow approach debate is a nonissue because instructional decisions should have more to do with the learners themselves than with instructor preference or beliefs” (Belcher 2006: 139). A third concern about narrow-angled approaches has arisen from considerable corpus-based evidence for the existence of a general academic vocabulary (e.g., Evans and Green 2007), and hence an increased need for general English for Academic Purposes rather than English for Specific Purposes.

A lot depends, of course, on the conception of specificity itself. Rather than as a yes-no variable, specificity may be construed as a continuum. According to Basturkmen (2010: 57), the cline of specificity ranges from wide-angled, general ESP courses such as “Business English”, focusing on a broad scope of Business English skills across business fields and subfields, to more specific, narrow-angled courses such as “English for Financial Auditors”, or the even narrower option of English for Financial Auditors at a particular accounting firm, for example. ESP courses such as “English for Accountants” / “English for Financial Accountants” would occupy the middle of the scale. Designing courses on the basis of their specificity of purpose is, however, not without problems since this approach appears to impose external requirements - institutional, political or purely linguistic - on course design, giving rise to teaching “language for other people’s purposes” (Belcher 2009b: 1). Instead, the students’ language learning purposes should be in focus, that is, the student roles carved out in a particular instructional context or learning environment.

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