Saturday, September 16, 2006

ENGLISH FOR SPECIFIC PURPOSES: A SHORT NOTE

English for Specific Purposes (ESP) was a relatively new development when I started my career as a teacher of English language skills in 1974. I was drawn to it as it emphasized teaching and learning of English for a specific goals rather than for a general or broad purpose. Though the meaning and signification of the term has undergone changes over the past thirty years and is continually undergoing modifications, the ‘S’ and ‘P’ of ESP are still relevant and worth pursuing. The researchers in ELT and EST across India should develop the ideas that will define the classrooms of the 21st century.

Every tertiary level English teacher will agree that people study English mostly as a communication tool: English is the new Latin—the language of education and academic exchange, of science and technology, of international travel, of economics and business, of politics and diplomacy, of infotainment (motion pictures, popular music, advertising and the press), and of internet. English has expanded so much during the last two decades that that a linguist like David Crystal reminds us that 96 per cent of the world’s languages are now spoken by just four per cent of the people. To participate in modern society as well as in the emerging knowledge society, therefore, competence of both speech and writing is necessary, as part of ‘specific purposes’ teaching.


In addition, I also agree with the view that ‘purposes’ of ESP are open to negotiation and it is the teacher’s responsibility also to appreciate what is not identified and itemized beforehand. In fact, a practical teacher should be able to operate within, what John Swales calls, the “here and now” state of affairs. It is with some sort of inbuilt flexibility and utilitarian purposes that one teaches ESP.

As its practitioner at Indian School of Mines, Dhanbad, I could realize how the Western, EFL dominated ESP was different from ESP in an ESL context like ours. I had an opportunity to learn and reflect even as teaching the language for immediate, specifiable, defined, and limited objectives appeared more relevant than the ‘general’ English. The classroom realities vis-à-vis the linguistic and educational thinking of the 1980s have not changed much, and so, these are still valid for the ESP/EST teacher and teacher educator.

Though ESP as an approach is now firmly established, it still has fewer supporters in the country, possibly because nobody wants any changes in the conventional teaching-learning practices? As practical teachers, however, we need to gain insights into the potential of classroom for empirical data and make useful short-cuts by looking back to work already done or contributions made from other places.



We also need to recognize certain sociolinguistic realities that have implications for the classroom practices. It is reported that there are 320 million people in the world whose mother tongue is English and it is estimated that over 1.7 billion people speak English. Nearly a quarter of the world’s population speaks English to some extent just as two thirds of the world’s children know some English. Since the internet is the main carrier of English as a transnational medium, non-native speakers have in recent years exercised greater control over its use in ways native speakers may or may not agree. The massive cyber presence of English and the computer mediated communication have “completely revolutionized all our previous concepts to do with language,” cautions David Crystal.

The yardstick of the British or American native speakers for international tests, such as TOEFL, GRE, IELTS or ARELS is now reduced to a means to control ‘standard’ English. I am not alone when I insist that none need to perform as British or American native speakers. It is simply unrealistic and damaging to the interests of the non-native speakers of English who constitute a majority now. I have always told my students that they need not mimic or sound like Londoners or North Americans. The fact is, the features of native English pronunciation actually make the language harder to understand in inter- or intranational contexts, or for practical purposes. Now nobody needs to speak the socalled standardized English. Professor David Crystal, too, appreciates this reality and favours the “local taste” of English in India and elsewhere (The Hindu, October 12, 2004). It is now firmly established as supranational.

In this light the ESP programme in an ESL situation – as English medium learning environment—should focus on developing academic communication skills as well as providing an opportunity for personal language and learning skills development. The teachers, aware of the similarities and differences between ESL, EFL, and EIL, need to integrate language and learning strategies with an understanding of the uses of English in the world today, and in particular, in international and intranational contexts. They need to teach with a positive attitude for international and intercultural communication, negotiating linguistic and cultural differences.

Academic communication skills, both written and oral, have to be imparted in such a way that students in their contexts are able to identify their own language learning needs and to set their own language learning goals; they should be equipped with abilities to reflect on and respond to their own language learning development with skills and strategies that help to relate to an autonomous approach to learning.

It is indeed important to recognize the complexity of language and communication skills development and follow an eclectic approach, with awareness of discourse practices, patterns of rhetorical organization, sentential relationship, grammatical cohesion, usage, discourse markers, translation and interpreting etc, consolidating the achievements of the past.



R. K. Singh
Professor of English & Head
Dept of Humanities & Social Sciences
Indian School of mines
Dhanbad 826004 Jharkhand, INDIA
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