ESL for Specific Purposes – Myth or Reality?

Image source:
Image source:

To function or not to function? That is the question. Have you ever been faced with a 36-hour business English intensive course that aims to bring beginner-level students to a “functional” level of fluency in a work-place setting? Do you think this type of course can be successful in developing “functional” fluency? I think not.

There currently exists a panoply of “function-specific” ESL courses, from business correspondence to academic purposes. While it is possible to teach an advanced student to draft conventionally proper business letters, it is virtually impossible to do the same with a beginner. In order to meet this demand however, many institutions offer short courses which are function-specific. In other words, the ESL course will not cover, say, the present perfect, its meaning, its use and its practice, but will solely focus on a stock transcript of a receptionist answering a phone, replying to an email and greeting a client. Students are encouraged to practice these transcripts and substitute portions to match their own work reality. This is all fine and dandy when real people follow the transcript, but how often does that happen? There are 3 major erroneous assumptions in the world of language teaching and learning that makes these function-specific courses attractive to language institutions and their students, even though they probably do not lead to authentic language pragmatics.

The Quick Fix

This erroneous assumption begins with the student’s misplaced motivation, or should I say, extrinsic motivation. The student probably needs language skills for some external reason, i.e. a promotion, a job, an important presentation, etc. The interest here is related to the job and not the development or authentic language ability for its own sake. This is only human nature. Which one of us would rather take the long ponderous road to a destination if we can take a shortcut? The problem here is that the shortcut is full of traps and tangential thorny paths that lead many a student astray. As the TOEIC test points out – it takes 3000 hours for a beginner to develop to the advanced level. That is a long road – the only authentic road. A 36-hour business ESL intensive can perhaps arm students with a few exponents, but once the conversation veers onto a “thorny path”, all bets are off if they do not have an authentic mastery at the required language level. Unfortunately, it’s usually the diploma that counts in these situations and not real pragmatics.

 English is Easy!

Yes, compared to Math, Chemistry, maybe Philosophy, English is perceived as an easy topic. After all, it’s just learning to talk to one another, right? Yes and no. While schools have been creating Math courses that scaffold complex problems over nearly 20 years of schooling for students, language courses do not have such a levelled approach. Especially when it comes to adults, many institutions engage in “ad hoc” placement with no other measurement for progression than the regular “beginner, intermediate, advanced, etc.” But where is our 3000- hour curriculum? Because that’s what it takes. English is not easy. It is comprised of nearly 2 millennia of culture, including various modern cultures that employ it. It has a huge amount of vocabulary that must be maintained with rigorous reading, not to mention the vast amount of idiomatic expressions which, in some cases, requires knowledge of etymology.

The Functional Approach

I have been told by many talented ESL teachers to stay away from the more academic / scientific approach to learning English, because it affects the student’s motivation negatively. I have been told to simply keep it functional, light and fun. In other words, don’t spend three classes on developing authentic pragmatics with the present perfect tense across all possible functions (i.e. at work, at home, at the store, anywhere, etc.). No, only focus on what English speakers might say, using the present perfect at work. Keep your exercises simple and provide many transcripts that illustrate work situations. Once the students can repeat the transcripts from memory, congratulate them and spend time encouraging them to continue with the next transcript. As a teacher, I have a major issue with this. What other discipline does the same? I am hard-pressed to name one. In what other discipline do we state something like, “no, don’t apply differential calculus to all possible applications. No, keep it simple and light and focus on only one function.” If math curriculums were taught this way, we would have very inflexible, perhaps even useless engineers who would not be able to think outside of the box. We may be encouraging our students, but we are also lying to them.

In conclusion, learning English (or any language) takes time and it’s certainly not easy. It cannot be effectively broken down into functions if we want our students to develop authentic, deep, spontaneous language ability. There are no shortcuts!

What’s your opinion? What has been your experience with teaching English for Specific Purposes?

Greetings to all my TESL colleagues at large! My name is Greg De Luca: ESL instructor extraordinaire, education advisor, program developer, innovative researcher in SLA, progressive rock drummer, amateur novelist, decent critic of fine whiskey – and last but not least, a somewhat dejected father of two princess-obsessed toddlers. Self-glorification and whining aside, my goal as guest blogger will be, first and foremost, to promote discussion about the best practices involved in teaching and learning as well as to provide succinct instructional strategies for your teaching practice. My TESL-ing began in Japan in 2004 after graduating from Concordia University’s Creative Writing program. Upon my return to Canada in 2006, I was promptly hired as an ESL instructor for several government-funded, full-time ESL programs at Champlain College Saint-Lambert in Quebec. I recently took on a new role as Education Advisor after obtaining my M.Ed., where I am helping our teachers cope with the challenges of adult instruction.


7 thoughts on “ESL for Specific Purposes – Myth or Reality?”

  1. I am an IELTS teacher , and have been teaching since 2011. I believe that tenses should be taught ,but after that in the same class the students should be given a task related to the taught tense. Then ,they should be motivated to go to the lecture stand ,and read the topic. I realized with my experience that they learn fast than expected.
    From Sri Ganganagar.

  2. Thanks for your comment Kulvinder. Sure, they can learn a lot in any given class. As you mention, an effective approach is to follow a warm-up to consolidation flow from start to finish. Warm the up with something light and fun, then move to a topic (presentation, manipulation, discussion), then some controlled practice in which students get busy doing, then some free practice in which they may be asked to “create” something with the topic and finally, consolidate or evaluate by asking students to evaluate each other’s creations. With such an approach, they should develop deeper insight.

    However, my gripe is with courses that don’t seem to target language in of itself, but rather an external application. In other words, the course is not meant to develop English skills, but rather “secretarial” skills in English. If a client suddenly goes off transcript and asks the secretary about how her vacation “has been”, all bets are off.

  3. Brilliant observation. Unfortunately, teaching English is treated as a quick money maker for many unqualified people. You are a native speaker of English who want to travel and make money? Be my guest, all you need is a microwave certificate and bingo! Go teach. This is an insult to the professionalism in essance. If a person can teach a language for simply being a native speaker, then why spend nearly 10 years to become a doctor? Just put a butcher in the operation room to carry out the by-pass surgery. As the author has pointed out, teaching and learning English takes many hours of hard work and continued effort to add to the existing knowledge.

    1. Teaching ESL for specific purposes is a worldwide concern but isn’t famous as teaching English for mastering the four main skills. I agree with the writer that teaching English for business or other specialization is now spreading around the world. The specific courses are attractive for those who are interested in their career and would like to enhance their skill in a specific field. Another important point I would like to mention is when a person would like to take a business English course or a course for Lawyers, he should have an intermediate level so that he can manage studying this specific course. We have a general English course then go to the specific courses. The writer believes that English is an easy subject comparing to maths or chemistry but I disagree because some students believe that English is a hard subject to learn. If we use English for communication without taking care of grammar, it might be an easy subject to learn. Most Second English Speakers struggle when they learn English because of writing, reading and grammar.

      1. Hi Abdulsalam,

        I am the author of the blog post. This writer does not believe English, or any language learning to be easy – just the opposite in fact. The way I approach the subject though is a little ambivalent. Of course, learning to “conjugate” in the simple present is relatively easy. Employing it verbally in impromptu situations can be quite difficult. Mastering any language is a very difficult enterprise.

  4. There are some interesting thoughts in the article (e.g., placement – it’s an ongoing problem in government run programs as they must try to balance class sizes, ‘the books’, teaching loads, etc.). The rigid belief, however, that we must stick to 3,000-hour curricula is not only somewhat self-serving, it is a lot for a new English speaker to take in! “How will I ever manage to complete 3,000 hours, when my wife can’t find work, I have a part-time job and we two young children?” Hoping that all individuals learning English are interested in “authentic language ability for its own sake” and “two millennia of culture” is, if readers will pardon the expression, pie in the sky! In the real world, most people need and want employment – and there is absolutely nothing wrong with teaching them the basic coping language to get them started. Should that be done in a “36-hour Business English intensive course” that claims to take beginners to a functional level of workplace fluency? Personally, I’ve never heard of such a ridiculous course, but, depending on the learner and the teacher, I believe one could certainly learn the basic language of receptionist duties in a very short time period! And what of ‘language learning on the job’? We ESL teachers are NOT the be all and end all when it comes to language teaching/learning. Let’s be somewhat flexible in our approaches!

  5. Thanks for that stimulating post, Greg. I think you have touched on several important points. Perhaps most important is the misconception that incredible learning outcomes can be accomplished in a limited period of time, regardless of what the specific purpose is. However, I also think your post should make us consider the dynamic nature of language use and the need to celebrate this fact in our classrooms, even ones focused on language for specific purposes. Teachers should resist the normative lens that we often cast on these communication acts and consider the possibilities of language use while not losing sight of standard usage. Anyway, congrats on a thought-provoking post!

Comments are closed.