English for Specific Purposes Research Paper Starter

English for Specific Purposes

(Research Starters)

English for Specific Purposes (ESP) is a subfield of English as a second language. The goal of ESP is to provide English language training to individuals entering specific academic or professional contexts. Education, linguistics and communication are three of the most important disciplines influencing ESP theory and practice. In particular, corpus linguistics has had a great impact in recent years on the development of ESP language materials. In the classroom, ESP draws on theories of experiential learning and intercultural communication to provide task based approaches that help students develop sociocultural competence. This article provides a brief overview of the major theoretical bases and practical realizations of the ESP field.

English for specific purposes (ESP) is a subfield in the field of English as a second language. Courses in ESP are designed to teach English and communication skills needed within a particular discipline or career. For instance, courses in medical, business, and scientific English are commonly offered. These give professionals practice using English in simulated and authentic job tasks. The goal is to provide the English skills needed to function well within the professional role.

As a field of study, ESP is informed by theories in education, linguistics, and communication. One of the most central tenets of the field is that language required within a particular discipline may differ from language in other disciplines in terms of grammar, vocabulary, register, discourse, and genre (Dudley-Evans, 2000). Thus, one of the research goals within the field is to identify the characteristics of specific texts that mark them as being part of a discipline.

Pedagogically, ESP classes are guided by the philosophy that courses should be experiential and needs driven. This means that courses are designed with the understanding that ESP students need practical lessons that simulate real life experiences. Rather than attempting to teach everything there is to know about the English language, teachers focus on the language that is necessary to function in a particular role. They may utilize the methodologies and activities that are common to the area of study. Furthermore, since most students taking ESP courses are adults, lessons may draw heavily upon students' prior knowledge of content and language systems (Anthony, n.d.).


Discourse Communities

The principle theory underlying ESP is that language will vary according to the context in which it is used. Over time, variations in language use have been found both in the structure of texts and in their linguistic features. Genre analysis is the subject that deals most extensively with variations in the structural elements of texts. Genre analysts argue that within discourse communities (groups of people who communicate with one another regularly with a shared purpose or who have similar interests) members develop similar ways of speaking and writing to one another. Therefore, the texts produced within a discourse community will tend to share common elements and to be structured alike (Dudley-Evans, 2000). Genre analysts work to identify and understand the patterns of occurrence of elements in a text that give them form. Swales' (1990) highly regarded genre analysis of academic research articles is a case in point. He proposes that research articles can be broken down into a series of moves and steps. The introduction of an academic research paper, his work shows, usually contains three main moves:

  • Establish a topic for the research and present key findings of previous research;
  • Establish a need for additional research by highlighting a deficiency in current research;
  • Indicate how the writer's research will fill the gap.

Within each of these moves are a series of steps that writers typically follow to fulfill their communicative purpose. Important for the field of ESP is that members of a discourse community recognize the essential and optional moves and steps of a specific genre. For instance, members of a business community would recognize the elements of a business memo as including the date, to and from lines, subject line, body, etc. Thus, in teaching ESP, especially writing, instructors help students to notice the textual elements they must reproduce in order to create texts that meet discourse community expectations.

Along with structural elements, linguistic features of the text may be affected by genre or discourse community style. Researchers have found differences in how writers in various disciplines use verb tenses and modality (Salager-Meyer, 1992), first person pronouns (Hyland, 2001), and hedging (the use of words and phrases to suggest tentativeness or possibility) (Hyland, 1994). For instance, in academic and medical discourse, it is common for scholars addressing one another to increase their use of hedging. Instead of using I know, which presents a degree of definiteness, they use terms such as suggest, assume, or perhaps it could be, to indicate that their understanding is open to alteration if presented with contradictory evidence (Varttala, 1999).

Corpus Linguistics

The textual element that seems to be most impacted by variations in discipline and/or purpose is vocabulary, or lexis. Corpus linguistics is the field of study that examines word usage in both spoken and written text. Through the analysis of computerized corpora (collections of texts that include millions of words), linguists can identify words that frequently occur both within the general English language and a variety of its subsets. Moreover, corpora can be used to identify the most common meanings a word assumes within a given corpus as well as the most common grammatical patterns associated with its use. This information is helpful from an ESP perspective because it provides a means for focusing student learning. In ESP, students are not interested in learning every meaning and grammatical pattern of a word, but only those that will be useful within a given context. With the use of corpora, instructors and publishers can choose to focus on lists of words and grammatical patterns that are common to the target field. Consequently, publishers have developed multiple resources, including textbooks, dictionaries, and computer programs, that target ESP learners. These resources provide explanations of the most common word usages so that students do not waste their time learning a meaning or grammatical pattern that they will never encounter....

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