What is English for specific purposes (ESP)

English for specific purposes (ESP) is a subset of English as a second or foreign language. It usually refers to teaching the English language to university students or people already in employment, with reference to the particular vocabulary and skills they need. As with any language taught for specific purposes, a given course of ESP will focus on one occupation or profession, such as Technical English, Scientific English, English for medical professionals, English for waiters, English for tourism, etc. Despite the seemingly limited focus, a course of ESP can have a wide-ranging impact, as is the case with Environmental English.

English for academic purposes, taught to students before or during their degrees, is one sort of ESP, as is Business English. Aviation English is taught to pilots, air traffic controllers and civil aviation cadets to enable clear radio communications.

Teaching English for specific purposes should not be considered as a different kind of teaching English language but rather as a method, as it is based on the commonly held beliefs and principles. In this era of globalization, English for specific purposes has become as important as their major related abilities. Take for example English for Agricultural Science, in agriculture-oriented countries; there are organizations which are working for the development of the agricultural sector.

These organizations usually recruit their employees from the graduates of the agricultural universities but unfortunately many of such applicants have only minimum proficiency in English though they are proficient in their technical skills. On the other hand, course design refers to the planning of a course to reach the needed goals. However, the results will be the final outcome of different elements: the needs analysis, the course designer’s attitude, and accessible materials.

ESP is taught in many universities of the world. Many professional associations of teachers of English (TESOL, IATEFL) have ESP sections. Much attention is devoted to ESP course design. ESP teaching has much in common with English as a Foreign or Second Language and English for Academic Purposes (EAP). Quickly developing Business English can be considered as part of a larger concept of English for Specific Purposes.

ESP is different from standard English teaching in the fact that the one doing the teaching not only has to be proficient in standard English, but they also must be knowledgeable in a technical field. When doctors of foreign countries learn English, they need to learn the names of their tools, naming conventions, and methodologies of their profession before one can ethically perform surgery. ESP courses for medicine would be relevant for any medical profession, just as how learning electrical engineering would be beneficial to a foreign engineer. Some ESP scholars recommend a “two layer” ESP course: the first covering all generic knowledge in the specific field of study, and then a second layer that would focus on the specifics of the specialization of the individual.

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