ESP:Principles and parameters [Archives:2007/1074/Education]

August 6 2007

Arif Ahmed Al-Ahdal
[email protected]
MA Participant , CIEFL
Hyderabad, India

English for Specific Purpose is an off-shoot of language for specific purposes (LSP) and a branch / sub-movement of ELT which began in the 1960s. It is a short term, need-based course for a group of learners pursuing a common goal for which they are likely to be more motivated. It is all about 'relevance' i.e. it is more concerned with a learner as an individual.

ESP can mean English for special or specific purposes. When we say English for special purposes the focus is more on English (special English). When we say English for specific purposes, the focus is more on the purpose i.e. the learners' needs. In both ways, it focuses on developing the learners' communicative competence in specific fields such as Medicine, Tourism, Business, etc.

Let us now look at a few definitions of ESP by some pioneers in the field. Peter Strevens (1988) states that English for Specific Purposes is a particular case of the general category of special-purposes language teaching. He defines ESP in terms of its absolute and variable characteristics:

(a) Absolute characteristics:


– designed to meet specified needs of the learners;

– related in content to particular disciplines, occupations and activities;

– centered on language appropriate to those activities in syntax, lexis, discourse, semantics and so on and analysis of the discourse;

– in contrast with 'General English'.

(b) Variable Characteristics:

– ESPmay be restricted to the language skills to be learned (for example reading only);

– may not be taught according to any pre-ordained methodology.

The word specified mentioned under the Absolute characteristics suggests that the learners are in a position to specify their needs.

The definition given by John Munby (1978) says that “ESP courses are those where the syllabus and materials are determined in all essentials by the prior analysis of the communication needs of the learner”.

It is believed that not two people can have identical needs. Ideally an ESP course should involve one tutor to cater for the needs of one student. This is emphasized in the definition of Robinson (1980): “Quintessential ESP, if we can pinpoint it, is perhaps this: materials produced for use once only for one group of students in one place at one time”. This definition suggests that with time, technology changes and the needs of learners also change. It is, however, an exaggerated statement to show the importance of learners' needs in an ESP situation.


“What distinguishes ESP from General English is not the existence of a need as such but rather an awareness of the need”. Hutchinson and Waters (1987).

The above statement suggests that in an ESP situation, the awareness of learners is of great importance. It is much higher than that of the EGP.

ESP differs from general English in that it is based on a close analysis of the learners' communicative needs for a specific occupation or activity, as well as a detailed analysis of the language of that occupation or activity (Strevens, 1980). Unlike in general English courses, in an ESP course, English is taught “not as an end in itself but as an essential means to a clearly definable goal” (Mackay, 1978, p.28), and it is taught “for a clearly utilitarian purpose of which there is no doubt” (Mackay, quoted in Robinson, 1980, p.6). The learners and their purposes for learning English constitute the major difference between ESP and EGP. ESP learners are highly motivated because their needs are catered to. EGP helps students to cope with any course. It gives them the ability to generate more language. EGP learners, if well-taught, can use English to cope with the language in any undefined tasks. In an ESP situation, however, learners are trained to perform some particular, job-related functions; they learn the language in order to communicate a set of professional skills.