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The Benefits of ESP

Chris Wright, Ph.D.

The complexities of language and language learning
What is English for Specific Purposes?
The benefits of English for Specific Purposes
Common sources of ESP
How to derive the maximum benefit from ESP



In this paper I propose to analyse the benefits of English for Specific Purposes (henceforth, ESP) and to determine the way to derive the maximum benefit from ESP courses. In section 1 I discuss a necessary precursor to understanding ESP, the complexities of language and language learning. In section 2 I outline the nature of ESP. Then, in section 3, I state the benefits of ESP courses. In section 4 I state the defects of two common sources of ESP training and finally, in section 5, I put forward suggestions as to the way in which companies and academic clients may derive the maximum benefit from commissioning ESP courses.

1. The complexities of language and language learning.

It is difficult to come to an understanding of the nature and benefits of teaching ESP unless one has a grasp of the full complexity of language, and hence of language learning.

Language is multifaceted to the extent that human activity is various. There is an enormous variety of walks of life, each of which has its own language and cultural setting. We may divide these walks of life into two categories: those that are common to everybody and those that are concerned with specialised topics familiar only to a few.

Obviously, those walks of life which are common to many people are concerned with everyday existence. Examples of these universal topics are socialising, shopping, travelling, eating out, telephoning friends, greetings and introductions, and reading newspapers. So, when one learns a language, one must be exposed to linguistic items relating to these universal topics. This is the task of a General English course.

Yet in addition to such topics, there is an enormous range of specialised topics which are of significant importance only to sections of the population. Examples of these are as follows: sports, hobbies and interests, business, banking and finance, medicine, academics, literary criticism, travel and tourism, biology, chemistry, physics, agriculture and law. The list is endless. Everybody will have some need to discuss at least some of these topics, so it is common, in General English courses, to find material pertaining to some of them. However, such material caters only to the interest of the layman, the man in the street who might read an article on such a topic in the newspaper. The extent to which an individual will need language pertaining to any of these specific topics depends upon how important the topic is to him in his everyday life. If the topic is not at all important for him, there is no need for him to know any of the linguistic items pertaining to it. At the other end of the scale, when we reach the stage at which any topic constitutes an individual's profession, it becomes crucial that he have a mastery of the specialised language pertaining to it.

Each topic will contain certain tasks, specific to it, which an individual will need to accomplish and which require him to use language. Here are some examples taken from different fields:

University Professor: Giving lectures, participating in seminars, reading and writing papers for publication, reading and writing books, discussing academic topics with students and conducting examinations, oral and written.

Businessman: Giving presentations, negotiating, participating in meetings, writing reports, press releases, letters, faxes and memos, telephoning, note-taking, socialising and entertaining.

Research Scientist: Writing the results of experiments, writing reports on the significance of the results, giving presentations, participating in seminars, reading recent research.

Professional Sportsman: Giving interviews to the press, discussing tactics, giving instructions.

These lists are quite general in scope. It is possible, and desirable, to define the fields of expertise more specifically so that the accompanying tasks can be defined precisely. In addition, each defined task should be divided into its various subtasks, so that the linguistic items to be learned may be identified more easily.

In general, we may state the situation as follows. Human life, and hence human language, is concerned with many and various topics. Each topic requires certain communicative tasks to be performed, and these tasks require mastery of certain task-based skills. Such skills are: reading and writing texts of various styles register and lengths, listening in various styles, accents and registers, speaking appropriately in a variety of contexts including socialising, negotiating, interviewing, presenting information and pronouncing material in a clear and culturally acceptable way. People who are engaged in different activities need to master different skills.

In order to acquire the desired skills, a range of linguistic items specific to each skill must be mastered.

Specialised vocabulary: Each field will have vocabulary which is special to it. Some of the words may have meanings specific to the field, different from their meanings in everyday life.

Register: Basically, register is concerned with the levels of politeness and formality to be found in language and the attitudes or values conveyed by certain words and phrases. Within each field, there will be specific registers to be learned. Speaking and writing in different social and cultural contexts require language with different levels of formality and politeness. Register is very complex and highly developed in English and includes not only certain forms of grammatical structure, but also specific kinds of vocabulary. Using even a single word inappropriately can have disastrous consequences.

Functions: Each field will have different linguistic functions which need to be performed, such as apologising, complaining, introducing, requesting, refusing requests and making suggestions. Each function may be performed in different registers.

Structures: Certain tasks require certain structures much more than others. For example, a mastery of the various forms of conditional sentence is essential for writing philosophy, but is hardly needed at all for writing personal letters.

Now let's turn to the complexities surrounding language learning. Given the complexities of language just outlined, how do people manage to acquire a mastery of even their own language, never mind that of a foreign country? It seems that there is simply too much to learn, and each aspect of language contains a mountain of difficulties and material to be learnt. Actually, the answer to the problem is simple. It is that nobody needs complete mastery of a language.

To illustrate the point, consider the case of someone who has acquired enormous linguistic competence relative to others in society, a British university professor in English Language and Literature. Let's consider such a person's linguistic needs. He will, of course, require language pertaining to everyday life, and his hobbies and interests. He will also need to be acquainted with the language of academic research in general. More particularly, he will need the language of literary criticism and, since he must be familiar with all periods of English literature to some extent, he will possess a knowledge of vocabulary, structures and expressions which were in common use in the past yet which are no longer used. In addition, being highly educated and mixing with the intellectual elite of his country, he will have a knowledge of vocabulary, expressions and register which enables him to display at least a passing acquaintance with political and current affairs, including recent developments in science and technology.

In short, his linguistic competence will be enormous. However, we should not be misled by this. Compared with the totality of the English Language, his competence will be small. There will be vast areas of language of which he is completely ignorant. He is unlikely, for instance, to be able to carry on a conversation about banking and finance, business, and any number of other specialist areas such as law, agriculture, biochemistry, medicine, physics, mathematics and logic, etcetera. Further, his knowledge of politics, current affairs and science will be limited to what can be expressed in layman's terms. So, we see that our Professor of English does not possess such a great competence after all. However, he does possess, in abundance, the particular linguistic competencies he needs in order to function well in everyday life and to pursue his career effectively.

I chose the above example precisely because it shows the linguistic limitations of a person who is one of the most competent users of English available. In the case of other people, their linguistic competence is much smaller and the amount they don't know is much greater. From this discovery we can draw some highly significant conclusions. Each language is so vast and complicated that it is literally impossible to master it completely. Indeed, to try to do so would result in a massive waste of learning resources.

As a matter of fact, when native speakers learn their own language, they learn what they need, when they need it.

Each of us grows up in a particular cultural and social environment within our own country. This environment will determine what kind of language we use in everyday life as we grow up. For instance, someone from the North of England, growing up in a working class home, is likely to speak highly colloquial English in a low register and have a distinctive pattern of pronunciation. By contrast, someone growing up in a middle class home in the south-east of England is likely to speak much less colloquially, use a higher register and have standard pronunciation. Further linguistic differences will appear as the cultural and social setting has an effect on hobbies, interests and occupation. Consequently, people in different social groups will have their own vocabulary, register, functions and pronunciation. As we move to an individual level, we will find that everybody has a different vocabulary and style of speaking dependent upon his precise position in society. As people find themselves in different positions in society their activities change, so their linguistic needs change and they learn accordingly.

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2. What is English for Specific Purposes?

Now that we are acquainted with the complexities of language and language learning, we are in a position to define the concept of English for Specific Purposes. We know from the above discussion that different human activities require different communication skills, which in turn require mastery of specific linguistic items. ESP is, basically, language learning which has its focus on all aspects of language pertaining to a particular field of human activity, while taking into account the time constraints imposed by learners. Within this broad definition, we may identify two central areas: content and methodology.

Content is concerned with how narrow or broad the scope of a particular course is, when compared with the totality of the language. So, for instance, a course in English for Business Purposes will be concerned with developing all of the linguistic skills which are required in order to function at a professional level in the world of international business. For some people, even a course entitled "English for Business Purposes" will prove to have too broad a scope and for them, a course designed for their specialisation within the field of business will be appropriate, for instance in Advertising, Accounting, Marketing or Human Resources.

The content of any ESP course should be determined by a comprehensive needs analysis. This is absolutely crucial if the course is to be maximally effective. A good needs analysis will be composed of the following:

(i) Placement testing. This consists of administering tests designed to assess general English ability and ability to perform adequately in business contexts. Such testing enables the trainers to determine the starting level of courses in the training programme.

(ii) Linguistic needs analysis. This enables trainers to determine the type, content and duration of courses to be included in the programme. With respect to content, required skill development, linguistic structures, lexical items, functions and levels of formality will be identified.

(iii) Learning needs analysis. This enables trainers to identify learners' attitudes towards different kinds of teaching methodology, learning tasks and activities. Hence, they are able to develop courses and practice materials which use the learners' preferred methods of learning, so that learning is more effective.

(iv) Learner perceptions analysis. Here, trainers attempt to discover trainees' perceptions of themselves and others as part of their company culture, and their relationships with people from other company cultures. They also try to identify communicative problems which arise not from linguistic inadequacy, but from differences in culture or communicative style (linguistic or non-linguistic) that can lead to conflict and misunderstanding. This enables them to develop appropriate communicative and cross-cultural strategies in course design.

Methodology is also of crucial importance. Since ESP courses aim to develop linguistic skills relating to particular spheres of activity, not only the nature of the linguistic items introduced, but the ways in which they are introduced and how they are practised, are highly significant.

In general, we may say that learning on ESP courses should take place in contexts which are as authentic as possible and content-based. The requirement of authenticity means that learning materials should use actual texts produced by people working in the ESP field under consideration. For instance, a class on how to write business reports should use good examples of reports produced by actual businessmen. A class devoted to the oral skills needed to function in the currency exchange market should use, as listening materials, recordings of conversations carried out on the telephone by actual dealers.

The requirement that the learning materials be content-based means that they should focus on specific problems that people are likely to encounter in their everyday working lives in the ESP field. For instance, to develop fluency in a course on negotiating, a case study which presents a real negotiating situation faced by actual companies could be used. Within the context that learning materials should be authentic and content-based, many important linguistic items relevant to the ESP field may be introduced and practised.

The result of this methodology is that learning has greater relevance to the employment situation. In turn, this means that trainees will have greater inter-est in the course and greater learning will ensue.

The extent of the authenticity of the learning materials will vary depending upon two related factors: the language level of the trainees, and the degree of linguistic complexity of the skills presented and practised. If the language level is low, then perforce the degree of authenticity will be compromised. As the language level increases, the degree of authenticity becomes greater.

With respect to the degree of linguistic complexity of skills introduced and practised, the situation is more complex. At first, specific linguistic items are mastered in small scale activities. For example, imagine a range of linguistic functions connected with greeting new clients: introducing yourself, directing them to the room where discussion will take place, telling them where to sit, asking them if they would like tea or coffee to drink and finding out if they take milk and sugar. Real-life social interactions must be observed in order that the trainees may see what precise phrases people use to perform the functions just mentioned, and then there must be opportunity to practise in an authentic context. However, such an activity is very simple and isolated. Such contexts are useful for introducing and practising specific linguistic items.

Once isolated linguistic items have been mastered in the context of such small scale activities, and once the linguistic skills required become more complex, there emerges a need for more complex practice situations, based upon real-life situations. For this, case studies may be used in order to practise specific skills in reading, writing, listening and speaking and later, simulations based on real-life problem situations which require usage of a wide range of skills pertaining to the particular ESP context. An example of a simulation might be where the trainees are split into two teams, each representing the negotiating squad of a different company. Each team is given information concerning its respective company, and its aims in negotiating a given deal. They then work out their strategy, prepare their presentation, prepare their best and worst outcomes and what outcomes they are willing to accept in particular situations, and then actually negotiate the deal. Such a task requires enormous linguistic competency in speaking, listening, reading, and writing and, of course, a wide range of specific skills within these broad categories. After the simulation, feedback is provided to enable trainees to improve their performance. Once the stage is reached where trainees can function effectively in a simulation, they are ready to function as professionals in their field, in an international context.

In addition to this simple model where the degree of authenticity of activities increases as the degree of complexity of linguistic items taught increases, we should be aware that in complex activities, simple linguistic items may be presented and practised. For instance, in a simulation, useful vocabulary, structures and functions may be introduced or revised.

The methodology just outlined has a fringe benefit, in addition to the desired goal of developing linguistic skills for use in specific contexts. The skills and linguistic items learned will not be useful only in the ESP context. Some of them, for instance structures and register skills, will be readily transferable to other contexts.

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3. The Benefits of English for Specific Purposes.

Now that we understand the concept of ESP in sufficient detail, we are in a position to state its benefits. Basically, these are threefold.

Firstly, there is learning speed. ESP results in faster acquisition of required linguistic items. This is because it follows the pattern of native speaker acquisition of language for specific purposes, in which speakers learn what they need, when they need it, in authentic, content-based contexts. ESP not only follows this pattern, but improves upon it by providing an opportunity to learn in an accelerated, intensive context.

Secondly, there is learning efficiency. On an ESP course trainees make the maximal use of their learning resources, all of which are brought to bear on acquiring specific, pre-identified linguistic items and skills. Obviously, the needs analysis is of vital importance here, since it enables trainers to determine the specific requirements of trainees.

Thirdly, there is learning effectiveness. On completion of an ESP course, trainees are ready to use language appropriately and correctly in job related tasks, tasks which have been identified prior to the course by means of a needs analysis. So, upon completion of the course, English is usable immediately in the employment context. In addition, trainees are prepared for further job-related training in English, such as an MBA. Such preparation will result in greater academic performance since no time is wasted in acquiring necessary language.

We may bring out the benefits of ESP further by contrasting ESP courses with General English courses. Such courses deal with many different topics, necessarily at a superficial level. In addition, they deal with many different skills, usually attempting to give equal treatment to each. Due to the general nature of these courses, no needs analysis is conducted, and hence there can be no attempt to cater to specific learning needs of particular students. These courses are, for the vast majority of students, extremely useful, which is why they comprise the vast majority of English courses. However, for students with specific learning needs, they are seriously lacking. Their scope is too wide. Trainees learn many irrelevant things. Relevant material, if it is included at all, is treated in insufficient depth. These deficiencies have the following consequences for trainees with specific learning needs. The acquisition of required linguistic items is slow and minimal. Learning resources are wasted in acquiring irrelevant items. Upon completion of the course, trainees are not prepared to function effectively in international employment contexts.

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4. Common Sources of ESP

Common sources of training in ESP include courses in local language schools and existing textbooks.

Firstly, consider the situation in local language schools. They need to attract large numbers of students in order to survive. In addition, they cannot afford to pay teachers for preparation of courses and materials. Consequently, the scope of ESP courses in such institutions will necessarily be very broad, there will be no needs analysis and courses will not be prepared with specific groups of students in mind. Any group of students with specific needs will study much irrelevant material and relevant material, if there is any, will be treated in insufficient depth.

As an example, consider a language school which offers a course in English for Business Purposes, running for 10 weeks, two hours a day. Such a course, if it is at all organised (some are not) is likely to include material on some, but not all, of the following topics: letter writing, telephoning, marketing, personnel, finance, meetings, presentations, negotiating, socialising and reports. Given the time constraints, none of these topics will be treated in depth, and there are many additional topics, relevant to certain special interest groups, which cannot be treated at all. Now suppose that you have trainees who have a general proficiency in English yet who need to develop skills in giving presentations in English, or talking about foreign exchange markets. It is not useful or cost effective to send them to our hypothetical, yet typical, course in Business English at a local language school. Both time and money would be wasted.

Secondly, think about commercial learning materials, in the form of textbooks on topics connected with English for Specific Purposes. For ease of expression, some of the following remarks will be directed at books on English for Business purposes, but they should be understood as applying to textbooks in all ESP fields. In addition, it should be understood that there are some very good textbooks in the fields of ESP, but they are few and far between. Hence, the following remarks have a general significance.

The scope of existing materials is often not appropriate to the needs of a particular group of trainees. Textbook courses are too broad or too narrow, too long or too short.

Existing materials are often too integrated with respect to the skills of reading, writing, speaking and listening, and the presentation of specific linguistic items. This means that it is very difficult for the trainer to select activities which will be of help to particular groups of students, without also teaching them something that they don't need. Hence, there is little scope to teach according to the needs of particular classes.

Existing materials are not geared towards the linguistic and cultural needs of trainees from different cultures in general, Korean trainees in particular. Some existing materials contain little material which is relevant to business, i.e., they are not content-based. Other materials are content-based, but still have significant problems. In some cases the business information is simplistic management theory. In others the courses attempt to deal with business problems rather than teach simple theory, but the problems presented are naive, simplistic and lacking in authenticity.

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5. How to derive the maximum benefit from ESP

We have seen that the central concept of ESP is that of providing trainees with what linguistic items they need, when they need them. We have also seen that the usual suppliers of ESP, in the form of local language schools and existing learning materials, cannot satisfy the requirements of this central concept. The crucial, insurmountable problem is that in their very nature they cannot cater to the needs of particular groups of trainees in companies and banks. Local language schools need to attract large numbers of students and cannot analyse the needs of particular groups, so their courses are very general. (Some of them, especially in the United Kingdom, do offer to analyse specific needs and to design courses for specific groups, but companies should beware. The schools' budget simply does not allow them to pay trainers to do a proper job. What is advertised as "a complete needs analysis and course design" usually ends up as a one hour meeting with the trainees and a couple of hours' thinking at home). Existing learning materials are aimed at a very general readership also. They have to be; otherwise they would not sell enough copies and the publishing company would go bankrupt. In addition, the use of local language schools and existing materials offers no accountability for results. It is possible to spend an enormous amount of money and for there to be no improvement in the relevant linguistic ability of the trainees.

Hence, in order for training in ESP to achieve optimal success, there must be a much closer relationship between the company and its ESP supplier.

Firstly, the ESP supplier must conduct a comprehensive needs analysis and hold a detailed discussion of training requirements with the company. The nature of a needs analysis has already been outlined, in section 3 above. Secondly, by using the results of the needs analysis, the ESP supplier must be able to cater to the company's specific training requirements at various levels of detail: programme design, course design and materials design. (The exact level of detail required depends upon the company). With respect to programme design, a general structure should be developed which indicates what types of course will be offered, their duration and scheduling. Sketches of the content of each proposed course should be provided.

Each course designed should contain the following:

* Course objectives

* Analytical contents which provides the logical plan for the course. It contains such things as linguistic and non-linguistic study items (structures, vocabulary, functions, register, body language)

* Schedule

* Trainers'notes. These contain more detailed information than that in the analytical contents, and provide the basis for materials design as well as giving guidance to trainers.

* Practice materials.

* Placement and progress tests.

In general, in order to allow the greatest possible scope in using the course in training specific groups, the courses should be modular. This means that they should contain a general course syllabus plus many isolated practice acivities for different skills, which trainers can use or not, depending upon the needs of particular groups of trainees. They should also contain practice materials which cater to problems in communicating encountered by the specific nationality groups being trained.

Materials design is time consuming and hence expensive. So, when they are both appropriate and of the required quality, portions of existing, published practice materials should be used. When this is not possible, original materials should be developed which are of higher quality than published materials and specifically designed for the company. These materials should take into account the linguistic needs, learner perceptions and learner needs identified during the needs analysis. They should also be content-based and contain authentic ESP material for assimilation and discussion. Such activities enable trainees to learn appropriate language in contexts which are job related and stimulating.

There are two ways in which this process of catering to a company's specific training needs can be carried out: completely custom-designed training programmes and one-package training programmes.

In a fully custom-designed programme, programme design and training are separate. The ESP supplier conducts surveys to assess company needs and then, after consultation with training managers, designs a programme, courses and practice activities best suited to company requirements.

* Once completed, the programme, courses and practice materials are printed, bound and delivered to the company.

* The programme can be added to as company needs change.

* The company can be sure that employees are receiving training in the kinds of skills they need most.

* Quality control is easy in such a situation, since the programme is designed specifically for company needs. In addition, each course contains placement and progress tests.

* Such programmes are stable and last for a long time (15-20 years), and so represent great value for money. Over a period of time, the cost of developing a custom-designed programme is much cheaper than paying training fees every year.

Training is a separate issue from design. The ESP supplier can either train your staff for a fee separate from the design fee, or recruit suitably qualified teachers so that the company can operate the programme in the trainees' own country.

In the case of one package training programmes, the company commissions training for a specified period which is directly suited to its training needs. The programme should include the following:

* Consultation with the Training Manager to determine the learning needs of trainees.

* Design of courses appropriate to the requirements which have been determined by consultation.

* Preparation of classes and Training by members of staff employed by the ESP supplier, all of whom should have specific qualifications and experience in Teaching English as a Foreign Language to Adults, both in General English and English for Specific Purposes.

* Testing at the beginning and the end of each course should be available, to enable progress to be ascertained.

It should be noted that in both of these options, the concept of preparation is of paramount importance. The quality of a language course must, of course, be determined by what happens in the classroom; but what happens in the classroom is determined by what happens before any training takes place. The better the preparation, the better the course, and good preparation takes much time and effort.

Thirdly and lastly, the process must be accountable. The company should be able to assess the effectiveness of the training which it has commissioned. To this end, the ESP supplier should ensure that the training programme contains an adequate testing mechanism. Ideally, there should be a test at the beginning of each course, to determine each training starting level concerning the skills under development, and one at the end, to determine the amount of progress made. Such tests have two functions. Taking the results as a whole, they can be used to assess the effectiveness of the training programme. Taking the results of individuals, they can be used to determine individual progress.

At the time of writing the economic climate has led many companies to downsize. In such cases, one of the first departments to suffer is usually the language training centre. That being so, it is becoming less and less feasible to create completely custom-designed language training programmes for individual programmes. Rather, it is becoming more feasible and desirable to commission one-package training programmes with a specific goal in mind.

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We have seen that language is an enormous and highly complex phenomenon, and that it is impossible for any individual to learn even his own language completely. The way in which native speakers maximise their learning resources to combat the problem of achieving competency in their own language is simply to learn what aspects of language they need, when they need it.

ESP, the study of a particular aspect of language so as to be able to accomplish certain tasks, is an attempt to mimic the native speaker's way of learning so as to maximise learning resources. In the intensive, accelerated and subject specific learning contexts of ESP courses, trainees can increase their learning speed, efficiency and effectiveness.

However, the above benefits may only be derived if the ESP course is carried out properly. There are significant drawbacks to using local language schools and existing textbooks as sources of ESP. For the courses to be maximally effective, there must be close contact between companies and the ESP supplier. Then, training needs can be assessed thoroughly and exactly, and programmes, courses and practice materials can be designed accordingly. In addition, progress can be assessed. The result is a smooth running, highly effective mechanism for training which is suited directly to company needs.

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© Chris Wright 1992. All rights reserved