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Absolute and variable characteristics of esp

English for Specific Purposes (ESP) is often underestimated because of teachers' attitudes which are often characterized either by condescension or reluctance. This is manifested in the belief that often prevails among teachers that ESP is for those who cannot teach the "real" language. A good example of this situation is "English in other departments" or "The Language Unit" at university where teaching this component of the students' program of studies is generally the responsibility of junior members of staff and where it is a "slot-filling" subject in the teachers' timetables. This underestimation may be due to the fact many language teachers are not aware of what it means to be an ESP teacher, and what it takes to be successful in this practice.

The situation is even more complicated as there is not even a separation between ESP and English for General Purposes (EGP) when it comes to syllabuses and methodology, and who is better trained to teach what. Needs assessment, which is a major component of ESP, never exists, and, if does, it is never systematic, but rather based on teachers' intuitions. Moreover, the methodology adopted in teaching never differs. That is, a teacher would enter a class with the same kind of methodology in mind regardless of the aims of each program. Unfortunately, programs are always put "in the same basket" and are always simply labeled as programs for "Teaching English". As a matter of fact, English is not always just English for there are particularities that ought to be taken into consideration when designing syllabuses and practicing teaching depending on the objectives set for each situation.

The aim of this paper is to give the general characteristics of English for Specific Purposes Course. The first section draws a distinction between ESP and EGP in terms of theory and practice. The second section discusses in detail what is meant by ESP and presents researchers' views of ESP regarding its absolute and variable characteristics. Then, the paper explains the reasons that led to the emergence of ESP highlighting the historical points that gave rise to this kind of English teaching. This is followed by a discussion of the three different types of ESP; namely, English as a Restricted Language, English for Academic and Occupational Purposes (EAOP), and English with Specific Topics. In the fifth and last section, the paper focuses on the applied aspects of ESP through explaining the five principles of ESP that have been frequently addressed in the literature. These five principles or conceptions are: authenticity, research-base, language / text, need and learning / methodology.

The question of the difference between ESP and EGP has been addressed in the literature in terms of theory and practice. Hutchinson and Waters [1; 13] state that there is no difference between the two in theory; however, there is a great deal of difference in practice. ESP differs from EGP in the sense that the words and sentences learned and the subject matter discussed are all relevant to a particular field or discipline. The design of syllabuses for ESP is directed towards serving the needs of learners seeking for or developing themselves in a particular occupation or specializing in a specific academic field. ESP courses make use of vocabulary tasks related to the field such as negotiation skills and effective techniques for oral presentations. A balance is created between educational theory and practical considerations. ESP also increases learners' skills in using English.

A deeper investigation, however, of the difference between the two is required. English for General Purposes (EGP) is essentially the English language education in junior and senior high schools. Learners are introduced to the sounds and symbols of English, as well as to the lexical/ grammatical/ rhetorical elements that compose spoken and written discourse. There is no particular situation targeted in this kind of language learning. Rather, it focuses on applications in general situations: appropriate dialogue with restaurant staff, bank tellers, postal clerks, telephone operators, English teachers, and party guests as well as lessons on how to read and write the English typically found in textbooks, newspapers, magazines, etc. EGP curriculums also include cultural aspects of the second language. EGP conducted in English-speaking countries is typically called ESL, and EGP conducted in non-English-speaking countries is normally called EFL. EGP is typically viewed as a level that precedes higher-level instruction in ESP if ESP programs are to yield satisfactory results.

English for Specific Purposes, however, is that kind of English teaching that builds upon what has been acquired earlier in EGP with a more restricted focus. It aims at acquainting learners with the kind of language needed in a particular domain, vocation, or occupation. In other words, its main objective is to meet specific needs of the learners. Of course, this indicates that there is no fixed methodology of ESP that can be applicable in all situations, but rather each situation and particular needs of learners belonging to a particular domain impose a certain methodology of teaching.

Thus, ESP is centered on the language appropriate to the activities of a given discipline. According to Hutchinson and Waters [1; 21], "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." In this connection, Dudley-Evans [3; 340] explains that ESP may not always focus on the language for one specific discipline or occupation, such as English for Law or English for Engineering. University instruction that introduces students to common features of academic discourse in the sciences or humanities, frequently called English for Academic Purposes (EAP), is equally ESP.

The dust has not settled yet in the area of ESP and no one would expect the ESP community to have a clear idea about what ESP means. Some scholars in this field have simply described it as the teaching of English for any purpose that could be specified. Others, however, were more precise, describing it as the teaching of English for academic studies or the teaching of English for vocational or occupational purposes.

Anthony refers to the considerable recent debate on the meaning of ESP despite the fact that it is an approach which has been widely used over the last three decades. However, Strevens [5;17] distinguishes between four absolute and two variable characteristics of ESP in his definition. In terms of absolute characteristics, ESP consists of English language teaching which is (a) designed to meet specified needs of the learner, (b) related in content (i.e. in its themes and topics) to particular disciplines, occupations and activities, (c) centered on the language appropriate to those activities in syntax, lexis, discourse, semantics, etc.and analysis of this discourse, and (d) in contrast with General English. In terms of variable characteristics, ESP may be, but is not necessarily, (e) restricted as to the language skills to be learned (e.g. reading only), and (f) not taught according to any preordained methodology.

Dudley-Evans [4; 40] offered a modified definition for ESP. The revised definition Dudley-Evans and St. John postulate is the extension of the definition proposed by Strevens [3; 15] in terms of absolute and variable characteristics. According to Dudley-Evans and St. John, in terms of absolute characteristics, ESP (a) is defined to meet specific needs of the learner, (b) makes use of the underlying methodology and activities of the discipline it serves, and (c) is centered on the language (grammar, lexis, register), skills, discourse and genres appropriate to these activities. In terms of the variable characteristics, ESP (a) may be related to or designed for specific disciplines, (b) may use, in specific teaching situations, a different methodology from that of general English, (c) is likely to be designed for adult learners, either at a tertiary level institution or in a professional work situation, and could also be for learners at secondary school level, (d) is generally designed for intermediate or advanced students, (e) assume some basic knowledge of the language system, and (f) can be used with beginners [1; 14].

A comparison of this latter definition with that of Strevens reveals that DudleyEvans and St. John have removed the absolute characteristic that "ESP is in contrast with General English" and added more variable characteristics. They assert 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. The definition Dudley-Evans offered is clearly influenced by that of Strevens [3; 68], although he has improved it substantially by removing the absolute characteristic that ESP is "in contrast with 'General English'’ [4; 18], 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 Dudley-Evans' definition, one can see that ESP can be (though not necessarily so) concerned with a specific discipline, nor does it have to be aimed at a certain age group or ability range. ESP should be seen simply 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 and Waters [3; 108] 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". A broader definition of ESP is that provided by Hutchinson and Waters [2; 15] who theorize ESP as an approach to language teaching which takes into account the learners' reasons for learning in making decisions related to content and method. Commenting on this definition, Anthony [3; 57] states that it is not clear where GPA fends and ESP starts. Numerous non-specialist ESL instructors use an ESP approach in that their syllabuses are based on analysis of learner needs and their own personal specialist knowledge of using English for real communication.

Perren [4; 70] noted that the terms "special language" and "specialized aim" are confused although they refer to entirely different notions. Mackay and Mountford [5; 79] explain that the only practical way in which we can understand the notion of "special language" is as a restricted repertoire of words and expressions selected from the whole language because that restricted repertoire covers every requirement within a well-defined context, task or vocation. On the other hand, a "specialized aim" refers to the purpose for which learners learn a language, not the nature of the language they learn. Consequently, the focus of the word "special" in ESP is on the purpose for which learners learn and not on the specific jargon or registers they learn. As such, all instances of language learning might be considered ESP.

Hutchinson and Waters [3; 89] identified three key reasons they believe are common to the emergence of all ESP: the demands of a Brave New World, a revolution in linguistics, and focus on the learner. As to the first reason, they explain that two historical periods played an important role that led to the creation of ESP; the end of World War II and the Oil Crisis in the 70s. On the one hand, the end of the Second World War declared an era of expansion in scientific, technical and economic activity world-wide. The role of international language fell obviously to English because of the economic expansion of the United States in the post-war world.

On the other hand, the Oil Crisis of the early 1970s resulted in Western money and knowledge flowing into the oil-rich countries. The language of this knowledge became English. This led consequently to exerting pressure on the language teaching profession, which boosted in this part of the world, to deliver the required goods. English now became subject to the wishes, needs, and demands of people other than language teachers.

The second very important reason that had a tremendous impact on the emergence of ESP was a revolution in linguistics. Most of the work of linguists in the 60s and 70s of the past century focused on the ways in which language is used in real communication contrary to the works of traditional linguists who set out to describe the features of language. Hutchinson and Waters [3;99] point out that one significant discovery was in the ways that spoken and written English vary. In other words, a particular context in which English is used would impose, in a way or another, the variant of English. This idea was taken one step further. If language in different situations varies, then tailoring language instruction to meet the needs of learners in specific contexts is also possible. Hence, in the late 1960s and the early 1970s there were many attempts to describe English for Science and Technology (EST).

The final reason that Hutchinson and Waters [1; 34] mention to have influenced the emergence of ESP has more to do with psychology than linguistics. More attention was given in the 70s of the past century to the means through which a learner acquires a language and ways in which it is learnt. Hence, there was a shift of focus from methods of language learning to the different learning strategies, different skills, different learning schemata and different motivating needs and interests that are employed by different learners. This consequently led to a focus on learners' need and designing specific courses to better meet individual needs. The result of this was a natural extension of "learner-centered" or "learning-centered" perspectives on ESP.

In brief, according to Dudley-Evans, there are three features common to ESP: (a) authentic materials, (b) purpose-related orientation, and (c) self-direction. These features are indeed useful in attempting to formulate one’s own understanding of ESP. Revisiting Dudley-Evans' [3;56] claim that ESP should be offered at an intermediate or advanced level, one would conclude that the use of authentic learning materials is entirely feasible. The use of authentic content materials, modified or unmodified in form, is indeed a feature of ESP, particularly in self-directed study and research tasks. Purpose-related orientation, on the other hand, refers to the simulation of communicative tasks required of the target setting, for example, student simulation of a conference, involving the preparation of papers, reading, note taking, and writing. Finally, self-direction is characteristic of ESP courses in that the point of including self-direction is that ESP is concerned with turning learners into users. In order for self-direction to occur, the learners must have a certain degree of freedom to decide when, what, and how they will study. There must also be a systematic attempt by teachers to teach the learners how to learn by teaching them about learning strategies [4; 54].

According to Swale, five conceptions are considered to be the foundations, essential features or basic principles of ESP. Swale [2; 49] uses the term 'enduring conceptions' to refer to them. These five conceptions are: authenticity, research-base, language/ text, need and learning/ methodology. These five conceptions originate from both the real world (the 'target situation' of the ESP) and ESP pedagogy. It is therefore crucial to discuss each of them in an attempt to survey the development and directions of ESP. As a matter of fact, each of the conceptions will identify a focus-based approach to ESP and serves as a contribution to the concept of ESP itself.

Since the end of World War II, ESP has received much attention amongst educational and applied linguists. This attention is justified due to the dominance of English in the fields of economics, politics, media, technology and medicine. Each of these fields, as well as others, requires its unique way of teaching based on the needs of their learners. Teaching language in general, and English, in particular, is no longer just a matter of application that serves all needs through any kind of syllabus and methodology.

Rather, it is a regulated application that deals with each situation or given discipline independent of the other. And unless language teachers are trained enough to handle such situations and realize the idiosyncrasies of ESP, fruitful outcomes would never be reached.

All researchers interested in assessing the progress of ESP as a component of ELT agree that one of the most constraining factors to this progress is the lack of "specialized teacher-training" [5; 76]. This situation applies even more emphatically in many countries, to this date, very little attention has been given to the training (pre or in-service) needs of teachers, quite a number of whom have ended up teaching in contexts where they are required to demonstrate skills which are normally available only to practitioners trained to teach ESP.



  1. Allen, J. P. B., & Widdowson, H. G. (1974). Teaching the communicative use of English. International Review of Applied Linguistics. XII (I).
  2. Allwright, R. L. (1982). Perceiving and pursuing learners’ needs. In M. Geddes, & G. Coffey, B. (1984). ESP-English for specific purposes. Language Teaching, 17 (1).
  3. Anthony, L. (1997). ESP: What does it mean? Retrieved from the World Wide Web on Dec. 5, 2006, on CUE.
  4. Clapham, C. (1996). The development of IELTS: a study of the effect of background knowledge on reading comprehension. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  5. Carver, D. (1983). Some propositions about ESP. English for Specific Purposes, 2, 131137.

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