Language Issues in English for Specific Purposes

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A common area of criticism in ESP is on how language is treated in classes because ESP is geared towards developing certain specific language skills necessary for carrying out learner goals as opposed to English for general purposes, which forward learning all the language skills. The following are some of the language areas that were questioned.

Grammar in ESP

There are many misconceptions about the role of grammar in ESP teaching. It is often said that ESP teaching is not concerned with grammar. ESP practitioners claim that it is incorrect to consider grammar teaching as outside the remit of ESP. How much priority is paid to grammatical weakness depends on the learners’ level in English and whether priority needs to be given to grammatical accuracy or to fluency in using the language.

The following are key grammatical forms:

  1. Verbs and Tenses
  2. Voice
  3. Modals
  4. Articles
  5. Nominalisation
  6. Logical connectors

Vocabulary in ESP

Since ESP is founded on the belief that there is a “specialized language” it follows that there are also “specialized vocabulary” that, most often than not, are exclusive to a particular discipline or area. Thus, Swales (1983) emphasizes the importance of the teaching of vocabulary in ESP. Researchers in ESP identify three (3) levels of vocabulary:

  1. Technical/Specialist vocabulary. Technical vocabulary consists of words or terminologies that are exclusive to a particular discipline or field. These should be highly considered in ESP classes because students would experience difficulties in understanding texts if they don’t understand certain terms.
  2. Semi-Technical and Core Business Vocabulary. Some terms that are present in a particular discipline would tend to have a different definition in a different field. These are categorized as Semi-technical.
  3. General and non-academic. Despite being discipline-specific, ESP should still give ample time in discussing general or “layman’s terms” because these play an important role in their understanding and learning

Discourse and Genre Analysis

Dudley-Evans et.al. (1998 as cited in Robinson, 1991) suggest that ESP needs a system of linguistic analysis that demonstrates differences between texts and text types. They emphasize that genre analysis may be used as a classificatory system; revealing the essential differences between both the genre studied and other genres and also between the various sub-genres. They further point out that genre analysis within ESP is prescriptive, whereas register analysis is descriptive. 

The aim of discourse analysis, particularly the system of analysis of clause relations in written text is to describe relations that are found in all texts. It is concerned with similarities between texts.

Practical concerns in ESP

  • Needs Analysis. As mentioned above, one basic key feature of ESP is that it is “based on needs analysis” which means that ESP lessons are not just dictated by the school but a result of careful study on what the students need. But what is “needs”? Needs may refer to:
    • Study or job requirements
    • Necessary
    • What the learner needs to do
    • Personal aims
    • “Lacks” (or what they don’t have)

There are three basic types of analysis that ESP course developer usually do:

  • Target situation analysis- focuses on the needs of the learners at the end of the language program.
  • Present situation analysis- focuses on the level of the students’ language skills at the start of the language program.
  • Pedagogic needs analysis- focuses on the educational needs of the students such as “What they lack”; “How they learn”; “What cultural differences do they have”
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