what means 'esp', teacher?

What means ESP, teacher? | Raymond Sheehan | June 17th, 2002

Situation: a colleague doing a Masters in TEFL who knows I'm doing the Aston MSc in TESP grabbed me in the hall today as I was taking up my usual place by the photocopier and wanted to "pick" my cerebral cells on what ESP means. He's doing a module on ESP (from another university!) and was amazed that even though I'm doing a whole degree on ESP, there's no specific ESP module! I tried to explain that the modules I had completed (Lexis, Methodology, Discourse Analysis...) depended on the CPs to inject their own specific focus. His research task was to find out what ESP means today, as distinct from ESP in its theoretical and practical heyday in the 1980s.

Problem: Research Question. Does ESP actually mean anything at all? Is it just an inherited term that we're stuck with? Will we one day develop the theoretical, conceptual and data-evidencing frameworks for ridding ourselves of the concept of ESP? And the distinctions (linguistic? marketing? pedagogical?) that a term such as ESP creates? And what's the universally acclaimed opposite? EN(S)P: English for no Specific Purpose?   What does ESP mean conceptually, commercially and pedagogically in 2002?

Response: My response was based on what I have learnt so far about action research, qualitative research and the SPRE template. I think the most important thing I realised is that the 'S' in ESP is dead (whatever it meant in the first place...) And the 'S' in SPRE is alive. Situation may mean more than 'specific' or 'special'. It's grounded in context and interactional details...

A new definition of ESP would probably require us to state: English for Situation Specific Purposes--and our Response is a syllabus that acknowledges the details and rises to the challenges. My gut reaction complements my possibly more informed reactions: I know that every visit to a post office or restaurant is an ESP situation: laden with very specific lexical and interactional difficulties (not to mind the usual grammatical difficulties that beset me in Spain, you in France or wherever...). Every visit to a restaurant, or gas or petrol pump or service station, in other words, may be an ESP event. Every check in to a hotel (introduction, apologies, clarification, service-specific langage....) likewise.

Evaluation: Where do we draw the line??? EFL? ESP? How do you 'define' ESP'? Is it for real? Or does it matter? If it doesn't matter, how do we help to make it obsolete?


ESP | Jake Kimball | June 18th, 2002

Just some thoughts on ESP:

I'd say that general purpose English meets the needs of certain Ss who are interested in developing communicative competence in English. Then there is the more specialized English geared towards Ss with more specific needs because of their work environment in business, medicine, academics, tourism, engineering, etc. I think ESP encompasses general purpose English but also goes a step further by accommodating Ss special needs, too.

So, an ESP program would be geared to (syllabus content and instruction) the needs of those Ss who happen to be a special group with unique work related needs.  

I'm not so sure that my checking into a hotel or buying gas is an ESP situation. It is a specific situation that requires the use of specific language due to its being a specific speech event. I'd categorize it as belonging to the kind of general purpose English which can be found in most textbooks based on a Notional-Functional syllabus...I think.   

ESP I see more as particular to a field of study. Workers in a specific industry would need to use jargon that common customers wouldn't know much about, or even care to know.   ESP would be more content specific than general purpose English.    Ss in need of ESP need training to read manuals and trade journals, to participate in meetings or seminars, to conduct meetings/events, or even chit chat with collegues in staff room or pub in an intelligent manner, etc.

I think it's for real and it does matter to our Ss who happen to be involved work in an industry where ESP is crucial to their success, especially in medicine, law, business, etc because general English just won't give them the competitive edge they need.


Re: ESP | James Hobbs | June 19th, 2002


I really enjoyed your post. I've never really sat down before to think about exactly what ESP means. Echoing Jake's thoughts, I'd say that the essence of the specific/non-specific distinction lies in the Target Discourse Community. Using English to buy petrol is certainly a case of using English for a specific purpose, but the group of people who do this (i.e. anyone who drives a car) clearly does not constitute a specific discourse community. On the other hand, if for example you're teaching a group of biology students to read research articles on biology, I'd put that under the ESP banner because the syllabus content is drawn from the language of a specific TDC and the purpose of the course is to enable students to gain access to that TDC.

Having said that, I share your doubts as to whether the specific/ non-specific distinction is either a) necessary or b) useful. Perhaps it is to some degree just a marketing ploy, a buzz phrase in the same sense as "long life" batteries or "high grade" audio tape - it has an aura of something positive about it, but perhaps few ever stop to think about exactly what that something is. If the ESP label leaves us with a subconscious feeling that teaching biologists how to read research papers is somehow a nobler pursuit than teaching kids how to buy apples at the supermarket, then perhaps it is a label that we'd be better off without?


Re: ESP | Raymond Sheehan | June 23rd, 2002

James and Jake:

Thanks for your messages on ESP. I think the connection, James, between ESP and target discourse communities goes a long way towards answering my question; and Jake's reminder is also difficult to take issue with: that ESP when related to precise professional needs gives clients/learners "a competitive edge" because courses have been tailor-made to their demands. One problem, though, as Jake seems to indicate in his final question, is that ESP courses then become (or may be perceived as) "prima donna" courses in the repertoire, costing more in time, effort, thought and materials--and money. And if that is true, it may well be to the detriment of "general" language courses.

I think my question arose from the "fact" that over the years we have minimised the ESP distinction by borrowing more and more from ESP rationale in order to implement better "general" language courses. It would surely be cheeky, nowadays, to offer a course without taking learners' needs and preferences into account, both before and during a course, although what we call "needs analysis" can take many different forms. Similarly, the value placed on "authentic" materials and tasks is common to both ESP and "general" English, as is the growing trend towards learners' and teachers' own lexical/structural discovery of the language through corpus-based activities.   And as we, as CPs, research more and more the specifics of our particular teaching contexts, shouldn't we have increasing doubts about any language course that passes itself off as general, made for the masses, addressing no specific needs and no specific group of learners?



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