English for Specific Purposes: What does it mean?

1. Growth of ESP

From the early 1960’s, English for Specific Purposes (ESP) has grown to become one of the most prominent areas of EFL teaching today. Its development is reflected in the increasing number of universities offering an MA in ESP (e.g. The University of Birmingham, and Aston University in the UK) and in the number of ESP courses offered to overseas students in English speaking countries. There is now a well-established international journal dedicated to ESP discussion, “English for Specific Purposes: An international journal”, and the ESP SIG groups of the IATEFL and TESOL are always active at their national conferences.
In Japan too, the ESP movement has shown a slow but definite growth over the past few years. In particular, increased interest has been spurred as a result of the Mombusho’s decision in 1994 to largely hand over control of university curriculums to the universities themselves. This has led to a rapid growth in English courses aimed at specific disciplines, e.g. English for Chemists, in place of the more traditional ‘General English’ courses. The ESP community in Japan has also become more defined, with the JACET ESP SIG set up in 1996 (currently with 28 members) and the JALT N-SIG to be formed shortly. Finally, on November 8th this year the ESP community came together as a whole at the first Japan Conference on English for Specific Purposes, held on the campus of Aizu University, Fukushima Prefecture.

2. What is ESP?

As described above, ESP has had a relatively long time to mature and so we would expect the ESP community to have a clear idea about what ESP means. Strangely, however, this does not seem to be the case. In October this year, for example, a very heated debate took place on the TESP-L e-mail discussion list about whether or not English for Academic Purposes (EAP) could be considered part of ESP in general. At the Japan Conference on ESP also, clear differences in how people interpreted the meaning of ESP could be seen. Some people described ESP as simply being the teaching of English for any purpose that could be specified. Others, however, were more precise, describing it as the teaching of English used in academic studies or the teaching of English for vocational or professional purposes.
At the conference, guests were honored to have as the main speaker, Tony Dudley-Evans, co-editor of the ESP Journal mentioned above. Very aware of the current confusion amongst the ESP community in Japan, Dudley-Evans set out in his one hour speech to clarify the meaning of ESP, giving an extended definition of ESP in terms of ‘absolute’ and ‘variable’ characteristics (see below).

Definition of ESP (Dudley-Evans, 1997)

Absolute Characteristics
1. ESP is defined to meet specific needs of the learners
2. ESP makes use of underlying methodology and activities of the discipline it serves
3. ESP is centered on the language appropriate to these activities in terms of grammar, lexis, register, study skills, discourse and genre.

Variable Characteristics
1. ESP may be related to or designed for specific disciplines
2. ESP may use, in specific teaching situations, a different methodology from that of General English
3. ESP is likely to be designed for adult learners, either at a tertiary level institution or in a professional work situation. It could, however, be for learners at secondary school level
4. ESP is generally designed for intermediate or advanced students.
5. Most ESP courses assume some basic knowledge of the language systems

The definition Dudley-Evans offers is clearly influenced by that of Strevens (1988), although he has improved it substantially by removing the absolute characteristic that ESP is “in contrast with ‘General English'” (Johns et al., 1991: 298), and has included more variable characteristics. The division of ESP into absolute and variable characteristics, in particular, is very helpful in resolving arguments about what is and is not ESP. From the definition, we can see that ESP can but is not necessarily concerned with a specific discipline, nor does it have to be aimed at a certain age group or ability range. ESP should be seen simple as an ‘approach’ to teaching, or what Dudley-Evans describes as an ‘attitude of mind’. This is a similar conclusion to that made by Hutchinson et al. (1987:19) who state, “ESP is an approach to language teaching in which all decisions as to content and method are based on the learner’s reason for learning”.

3. Is ESP different to General English?

If we agree with this definition,, we begin to see how broad ESP really is. In fact, one may ask ‘What is the difference between the ESP and General English approach?’ Hutchinson et al. (1987:53) answer this quite simply, “in theory nothing, in practice a great deal”. When their book was written, of course, the last statement was quite true. At the time, teachers of General English courses, while acknowledging that students had a specific purpose for studying English, would rarely conduct a needs analysis to find out what was necessary to actually achieve it. Teachers nowadays, however, are much more aware of the importance of needs analysis, and certainly materials writers think very carefully about the goals of learners at all stages of materials production. Perhaps this demonstrates the influence that the ESP approach has had on English teaching in general. Clearly the line between where General English courses stop and ESP courses start has become very vague indeed.

Rather ironically, while many General English teachers can be described as using an ESP approach, basing their syllabi on a learner needs analysis and their own specialist knowledge of using English for real communication, it is the majority of so-called ESP teachers that are using an approach furthest from that described above. Instead of conducting interviews with specialists in the field, analyzing the language that is required in the profession, or even conducting students’ needs analysis, many ESP teachers have become slaves of the published textbooks available, unable to evaluate their suitability based on personal experience, and unwilling to do the necessary analysis of difficult specialist texts to verify their contents.

4. The Future of ESP

If the ESP community hopes to grow and flourish in the future, it is vital that the community as a whole understands what ESP actually represents. Only then, can new members join with confidence, and existing members carry on the practices which have brought ESP to the position it has in EFL teaching today. In Japan in particular, ESP is still in its infancy and so now is the ideal time to form such a consensus. Perhaps this can stem from the Dudley-Evans’ definition given in this article but I suspect a more rigorous version will be coming soon, in his book on ESP to be published in 1998. Of course, interested parties are also strongly urged to attend the next Japan Conference on ESP, which is certain to focus again on this topic.

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