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English for specific purposes

As with most developments in human activity, English for Specific Purposes was not a planned and coherent movement, but rather a phenomenon that grew out of a number of converging trends. These trends have operated in a variety of ways around the world.

The end of the Second World War in 1945 announced an age of enormous and unprecedented expansion in scientific, technical and economic activity on an international scale. This expansion created a world unified and dominated by two forces — technology and commerce — which in their relentless progress soon generated a demand for an international language. For various reasons, most notably the economic power of the United States in the post-war world, this role fell to English.

The effect was to create a whole new mass of people wanting to learn English, not for the pleasure or prestige of knowing the language, but because English was the key to the international currencies of technology and commerce. Previously the reasons for learning English (or any other language) had not been well defined. A knowledge of a foreign language had been generally regarded as a sign of a well-rounded education, but few had really questioned why it was necessary. Learning a language was, so to speak, its own justification. But as English became the accepted international language of technology and commerce, it created a new generation of learners who knew specifically why they were learning a language businessmen and -women who wanted to sell their products, mechanics who

had to read instruction manuals, doctors who needed to keep up with developments in their field and a whole range of students whose course of study included textbooks and journals only available in English. All these and many others needed English and, most importantly, they knew why they needed it.

The teaching of English for Specific Purposes has generally been seen as a separate activity within English Language Teaching, and English for Specific Purposes (ESP) research as an identifiable component of applied linguistic research. Tony Dudley-Evans and Maggie Jo St John believe that for some of its teaching ESP has developed its own methodology, and its research clearly draws on research from various disciplines in addition to applied linguistics. This openness to the insights of other disciplines is a key distinguishing feature of ESP which is seen as underlying much of the practice and research.

If ESP has sometimes moved away from trends in general English Language Teaching, it has always retained its emphasis on practical outcomes. The main concerns of ESP have always been, and remain, with needs analysis, text analysis, and preparing learners to communicate effectively in the tasks prescribed by their study or work situation. It is often said that ESP lacks an underlying theory. A theory of ESP could be outlined based on either the specific nature of the texts that learners require knowledge of, or on the basis of the needs-related nature of the teaching. It is, however, interesting and significant that so much of the writing has concentrated on the

procedures of ESP and on relating course design to learners' specific needs rather than on theoretical matters.

The study of languages for specific purposes has had a long and interesting history going back, some would say, as far as the Roman and Greek Empires. Since the 1960s, ESP has become a vital and innovative activity within the Teaching of English as a Foreign or Second Language movement (TEFL/TESL) (4). For much of its early life ESP was dominated by the teaching of English for Academic Purposes; most of the materials produced, the course descriptions written and the research carried out were in the area of English for Academic Purposes. English for Occupational purposes played an important but nevertheless smaller role. In recent years, however, the massive expansion of international business has led to a huge growth in the area of English for Business Purposes. Within ESP the largest sector for published materials is now that of Business English, and there is a burgeoning interest from teachers, publishers and companies in this area.

ESP is part of a more general movement of teaching Language for Specific Purposes. LSP has focused on the teaching of languages such as French and German for specific purposes, as well as English. In many situations the approaches used are very similar to those used in ESP; some, however, place a much greater emphasis on the learning of vocabulary.

A definition of ESP To get a better understanding of the notion of ESP we are going to look at four definitions of ESP found in the literature.

Hutchinson and Waters (5) see ESP as an approach rather than a product, by which they mean that ESP does not involve a particular kind of language, teaching material or methodology. They suggest that 'the foundation of ESP is the simple question: Why does this learner need to learn a foreign language?' The answer to this question relates to the learners, the language required and the learning context, and thus establishes the primacy of need in ESP. Need is defined by the reasons for which the student is learning English, which will vary from study purposes such as following a postgraduate course in an Englishspeaking country to work purposes such as participating in business meetings or taking hotel bookings. These purposes are the starting points which determine the language to be taught.

Strevens' (7) definition of ESP makes a distinction between four absolute characteristics and two variable characteristics. The absolute characteristics are that ESP consists of English Language Teaching which is:

  • designed to meet specified needs of the learner;
  • related in content (that is in its themes and topics) to particular disciplines, occupations and activities;
  • centred on language appropriate to those activities in syntax, lexis, discourse, semantics and so on, and analysis of the discourse;
  • in contrast with ‘General English'.

The variable characteristics are that


  • may be restricted as to the learning skills to be learned (for example reading only);
  • may not be taught according to any pre-ordained methodology.

Robinson (6) also accepts the primacy of needs analysis in defining ESP. Her definition is based on two key defining criteria and a number of characteristics that are generally found to be true of ESP. Her key criteria are that ESP is 'normally goal-directed', and that ESP courses develop from a needs analysis, which 'aims to specify as closely as possible what exactly it is that students have to do through the medium of English. Her characteristics are that ESP courses are generally constrained by a limited time period, in which their objectives have to be achieved, and are taught to adults in homogeneous classes in terms of the work or specialist studies that the students are involved in.

Each definition has validity but also weaknesses, either in the definition or in the features described. Strevens' definition is the most comprehensive of the three already quoted, but can lead to a certain confusion. By referring to content in the second absolute characteristic it may confirm the false impression held by many teachers that ESP is always and necessarily related directly to subject content. Robinson’s mention of ‘homogeneous classes’ as a characteristic of ESP may lead to the same conclusion. Much ESP work is, by contrast, based on the notion of a ‘commoncore’ of language and skills that belong to all academic disciplines or cut across the whole activity of business. ESP teaching does not necessarily have to be related to content but it should always reflect the underlying concepts and activities of the broad discipline. Thus English for Academic Purposes (EAP), whether it is directly related to the specific disciplines that students are studying or not, should make use of the essentially problemsolving methodology of academic study (8). Similarly, Business English teaching should reflect the business context in which business meetings or negotiations take place (1,2).

It is believed that a definition of ESP should reflect the fact that much ESP teaching, especially where it is specifically linked to a particular profession or discipline, makes use of a methodology that differs from that used in General Purpose English teaching. Methodology here is referring to the nature of the interaction between the ESP teacher and the learners. In more general ESP classes the interaction may be similar to that in a General Purpose English class; in the more specific ESP classes, however, the teacher sometimes becomes more like a language consultant, enjoying equal status with the learners who have their own expertise in the subject matter.

Taking into consideration all the characteristics of ESP and drawbacks Tony DudleyEvans and Maggie Jo St. John developed the fourth definition, where they stress two aspects of ESP methodology: all ESP teaching should reflect the methodology of the disciplines and professions it serves; and in more specific ESP teaching the nature of the interaction between the teacher and learner may be very different from that in a general English class. This is what they mean when they say that specific ESP teaching has its own methodology.

Authors also believe that language should be included as a defining feature of ESP. While the specified needs arising from needs analysis relate to activities that students need to carry out (rather than language), a key assumption of ESP is that these activities generate and depend on registers, genres and associated language that students need to be able to manipulate in order to carry out the activity.

In the definition absolute and variable characteristics are used. The definition is:

    1. Absolute characteristics:
  • ESP is designed to meet specific needs of the learner;
  • ESP makes use of the underlying methodology and activities of the disciplines it serves;
  • ESP is centred on the language (grammar, lexis, register), skills, discourse and genres appropriate to these activities.
    1. Variable characteristics:
  • 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 used for learners at secondary school level;
  • ESP is generally designed for intermediate or advanced students. Most ESP courses assume basic knowledge of the language system, but it can be used with beginners.

We completely agree with this definition and take it as the most perfect one.

Classification of ESP

ESP has traditionally been divided into two main areas: English for Academic Purposes (EAP) and English for Occupational Purposes (EOP). The classification is generally presented in a tree diagram as in figure 1/1 (taken from Robinson, 6: 3-4).

The diagram has, as well as the division into EAP and EOP, a useful division of courses according to when they take place. These distinctions are very important as they will affect the degree of specificity that is appropriate to the course. A pre-experience or pre-study course will probably rule out any specific work related to the actual discipline or work as students will not yet have the required familiarity with the content, while courses that run parallel to or follow the course of study in the educational institution or workplace will provide the opportunity for specific or integrated work.

Another typical tree diagram for ESP, which divides EAP and EOP according to discipline or professional area, is shown in figure 1.2.

In EAP, English for Science and Technology (EST) has been the main area, but English for Medical Purposes (EMP) and English for Legal Purposes (ELP) have always had their place. Recently the academic study of business, finance, banking, economics and accounting has become increasingly important, especially on Masters in Business Administration (MBA) courses, but, as yet, no specific acronym has become established for such courses.

The term EOP refers to English that is not for academic purposes; it includes professional purposes in administration, medicine, law and business, and vocational purposes for non-professionals in work or pre-work situations. It can be thus distinguished between studying the language and discourse of, for example, medicine for academic purposes, which is designed for medical students, and studying for occupational (professional) purposes, which is designed for practicing doctors.

This classification places English for Business Purposes (EBP) as a category within EOP. EBP is sometimes seen as separate from EOP as it involves a lot of General English as well as Specific Purpose English, and also because it is such a large and important category. A business purpose is, however, an occupational purpose, so it is logical to see it as part of EOP.

Within English for Vocational Purposes (EVP) there are two sub-sections: Vocational English, which is concerned with the language of training for specific trades or occupations, and Pre-Vocational English, which is concerned with finding a job and interview skills. It also deals with succeeding in a job through an understanding of employer expectations and policies.



  1. Charles, M. 1994. Layered negotiations in business: interdependencies between discourse and the business relationship. Unpublished PhD thesis, The University of Birmingham.
  2. Charles, M. 1996. Business negotiations: interdependencies between discourse and the business relationship. English for Specific Purposes, 15: 19-36.
  3. Dudley-Evans, T. and St. John, M. J. 1998. Developments in English for specific purposes: A multi-disciplinary approach. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  4. Howatt, A. P. R. 1984. A History of English Language Teaching. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  5. Hutchinson, T. and A. Waters. 1987. English for Specific Purposes. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  6. Robinson, P. 1991. ESP Today: a Practitioner’s Guide. Hemel Hempstead: Prentice Hall International.
  7. Strevens, P. 1988. ESP after twenty years: a re-appraisal. In M. Tickoo (Ed.) ESP: State of the Art. Singapore: SEAMEO Regional Language Centre.
  8. Widdowson, H. 1983. Learning Purpose and Language Use. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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