What is English for Specific Purposes (ESP)? Why ESP? Those are some common questions that are often arise when we talk about the area of English language. We typically know that the most common area of English is General English (GE) or English as a Second Language (ESL) or even English as a Foreign Language (EFL) but some people do not have a clue of what ESP is. In fact they do not even know that the term exist in English language. If you can spend a few minutes and try to focus about English in a wider perspective, you will start to realize that English is used everywhere! We tend to think that English is only needed by linguists, grammarian and those who are in the English linguistics field however, the truth is English is vastly used in almost all profession. For example, medical students need English for their Medical courses and even pilots need English for their aviation courses. Therefore, English for Medical Purposes and English for Aviation were established to suit those specific needs. According to Crystal (1999), English for Specific Purposes (ESP) can be simplified as the use of a particular variety of the language in a specific context of use. In addition, Robinson (1991) has talked about ESP as a ‘language in context’ and the courses are designed based on the learners’ communicative needs (Munby, 1978). Robinson (1991) has also stated that:
“ESP courses are those where the syllabus and materials are determined in all essentials by the prior analysis of communicative needs of the context.” Robinson (1991: 20)
However the crucial question is how is English for Specific Purposes (ESP) different from English as a Second Language (ESL), also known as General English? To have a greater understanding about English for Specific Purposes (ESP), I will talk about the chronological development of English and through this basis then we will be able to trace the history and development of ESP as a field of language.
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To begin with I am going to talk about the development of English, particularly English as an international language. When a language is called the lingua franca, we clearly know that it is a language that is widely used as a means of communication among speakers of other languages. The acknowledgement of English language as the lingua franca of most activity in the international setting has been generally recognized (Faiz, 2010) and it is not a shocking phenomenon that most people learn English just to communicate with English speaking people. In the era of globalization, people have now realized the importance of English and the need to master the English language therefore the role English has expanded tremendously. This can be seen in the use of English at a higher level of education as in ‘specialized area of research and scholarship’ (Faiz, 2010) and the most apparent proof can be seen in the number of English speakers. Estimates of the numbers of English speakers are difficult to make however, according to Fennel (2009) the numbers of English native speakers are approximately 350 million.
According to Hutchinson and Waters (1987), ESP was not a ‘planned and coherent movement’ but it has emerged because of numerous unified trends based on notably three main reasons that have been identified in the emergence of ESP: the demands of a Brave New World, a revolution in linguistics, and focus on the learner. Hutchinson and Waters (1987) have emphasized two key historical periods that gave life into ESP. In 1945, it was the end of the Second World War which had brought with it an ” … age of enormous and unprecedented expansion in scientific, technical and economic activity on an international scaleâ€¦” which was then had given rise to the creation of two forces: technology and commerce world which then had initiated a ‘demand for an international language’. Because of the importance of technology and commerce in this period, the demand for English to suit those needs had vastly expanded and people now learn English because of very specific reason: because English had become the language of technology and commerce. Long time ago, the learning of English (or other language) was never this lucid. People used to ponder why it is essential to learn a language, now that English had become so powerful and influential; corporate people used English to promote their product globally, technicians who had to use English to read the manuals, researchers who needed English to be able to read textbooks and journals in English for their research. Because English was crucially imperative, it had created a brand new type of learners who indeed understand why they need English for and they surely know how to strike while the iron is hot. In addition, the Oil Crisis of the early 1970s was one of the factors that contributed to the development. English had suddenly become a big business and due to this it had created time and money constraints that lead to ‘the need of cost effective courses which clearly defined goals’. English has now become ‘subject to the wishes, needs and demands of people other than language teachers’ (Hutchinson & Waters, 1987, p.7).
Another factor that contributes to the emergence of ESP is a revolution in linguistics. In this period of time, the demands of English courses for specific need were increasing while at the same time new ideas began to take place in the field of study (Hutchinson & Waters, 1987). The conventional linguists sought to describe the features of language (grammar), whereas the radical pioneer in linguistics put a focus on the ways in which language is used in real communication (Widdowson, 1978). The outcome of the research was that language, whether it is spoken or written, varies in certain ways and contexts. In another words, the language use will varies in given the particular context in which English is used, the variant of English will change. This idea was taken one step farther. If language in different situations varies, then it is possible to tailor language instruction to meet the needs of learners in specific contexts. Hence, there was an immense increase of in the late 1960s and the early 1970s in researching particular areas of English as we can see in the attempts of describing English for Science and Technology (EST) by Ewer and Latorre (1969), Swales (1971), Selinker and Trimble (1976) and many others. In this phase, it can be concluded that by analyzing the linguistic characteristics of the specific area of study or work, we would be able to identify the English needed by a particular group of learners. Therefore, the guiding principle proposed for ESP by Hutchinson and Waters (1987: 8) “Tell me what you need English for and I will tell you what English you need” is precisely true to its meaning within the ESP context. I am absolutely agreed to their saying because we can only give what they want by knowing what they want (the word ‘they’ refers to the learners of English).
The other reason that leads to the origin of ESP is the focus on the learner, which is in this case in the area of psychology. The development of educational psychology has contributed to the emergence of ESP by focusing on the learners and their learning attitudes. It was clear that different learners have different needs and interests which will then affect their learning motivation and the effectiveness of learning. In other words, learners were seen to employ different learning strategies, apply different skills, come up with different learning schemata, and all those things were motivated by different needs and interests. As a result, focus on the learners’ needs and interests were of paramount importance to the methods employed to disseminate linguistic knowledge which will then contribute to the better and faster learning. The idea of designing specific courses to meet these individual needs was a remarkable yet effective thought. It is often heard that ESL is learner-centered or learning-centered as one of its main focus is on the learner. Succinctly, the evolution of ESP was resulted in the combination of three factors that have been discussed above and all the three factors appeared to aim towards a solitary point: the need for increased specialization in language learning (Hutchinson & Waters, 1987).
Let us get back to the questions asked at the beginning: What is ESP and why ESP? Even though it has been explained at the beginning, the need of additional information regarding ESP is still needed in order to have a better understanding towards this subject. It is quite obvious that the learners of English as a Second/ Foreign Language are quite numerous than any other language however quite a number of them do not understand why the need to learn it. Knowing the fact that English is an important world language, this motivation drive them to learn English and besides that some study English because they are forced to do so as it is a compulsory subject at school or even in the university. Taking Malaysia as the nearest and obvious example, English language has been made mandatory since the starting of primary school, which is in Standard One. In fact some kindergartens in Malaysia have started to teach English compulsorily to their kids from the very beginning of school life whether the kids like it or not. On the other hand there are also quite a number of learners of English who learn English because of specific reasons. For example, one would need the knowledge of English in order to survive socially and professionally in an English speaking community.
I have previously explained about the definition of ESP in a simple way, nevertheless the extended definition of ESP is essential so that a more reflective in the field of study and practice and it will also be useful to distinguish it with General English or English Language Teaching (ELT). There are some views and positions of ESP that we can look further. Strevens’ (1988) definition makes a distinction between four absolute and two variable characteristics. In his motion, he says that ESP consists of English language teaching that comprises absolute characteristics, which are:
designed to meet specified needs of the learner;
related in content (i.e. in its themes and topics) to particular disciplines, occupations and activities centred on the language appropriate to those activities in syntax, lexis, discourse, semantics, etc., and analysis of this discourse; and
in contrast with General English.
Besides that, there are also variable characteristics of ESP as ESP may be, but is not necessarily restricted as to the language skills to be learned (e.g. reading only); and it is not taught according to any pre-ordained methodology. Dudley-Evans and St. John (1998) have offered a modified definition of ESP by summing up their position in a two groups like Strevens (1988). Their revised position is as follows:
ESP is defined to meet specific needs of the learner;
ESP makes use of the underlying methodology and activities of the discipline it serves;
ESP is centred on the language (grammar, lexis, register), skills, discourse and genres appropriate to these activities.
ESP may be related to or designed for specific disciplines;
ESP may use, in specific teaching situations, a different methodology from that of general English;
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;
ESP is generally designed for intermediate or advanced students. Most ESP courses assume some basic knowledge of the language system, but it can be used with beginners (1998, pp. 4-5).
In their motion, Dudley-Evans and St. John (1998) have removed the absolute characteristic that ‘ESP is in contrast with General English’ and added more variable characteristics. They have asserted that ESP is not necessarily related to a specific discipline. Furthermore, ESP is likely to be used with adult learners although it could be used with young adults in a secondary school setting. According to Karklina (2002), she argued that what distinguishes ESP from General English is not the existence of a need as such but rather an awareness of the need. She also added that if learners, sponsors and teachers know why the learners need English, that awareness will affect on what will be accepted as reasonable content in the language course and, on the other side, what potential can be exploited. Thus, although it might appear on the surface that the ESP course is characterized by its content (Science, Medicine, Commerce, Tourism, etc.), this is, in fact only a secondary consequence of the primary matter of being able to specify why the learners need English (Hutchinson and Waters, 1987).
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We have now explored English for Specific Purposes (ESP) comprehensively and thoroughly starting from its history and development and we have had better understandings towards this area of English. We could say that English for Specific Purposes has developed out of the need to provide specific courses for students who had to learn English more as a means to an end rather than for the sake of learning English itself. All in all, ESP can be simply deduced as the use of specific variety of English in a specific context to meet specific needs of the learner. The guiding principle proposed for ESP by Hutchinson and Waters (1987: 8) “Tell me what you need English for and I will tell you what English you need” is in perfect accord with the above statement along with the history and development of ESP. Based on the history and development of ESP discussed above, we can see that the learners’ needs of English play an important role in developing and designing the learning materials to fulfill their specific needs.
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