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Revista de Lenguas Modernas, N° 23, 2015 / 379-386 / ISSN: 1659-1933

English for Specific Purposes:

Brief History and Definitions

Carolina González Ramírez

Escuela de Lenguas Modernas
Universidad de Costa Rica

English for Specific Purposes was born in the 1960s as a technical texts-analysis
area. The study of language use over language form strengthened at the end of
the decade and materials development became a popular trend. The 1970s and
1980s witnessed the consolidation of the movement in the emphasis on language
skills and booming research. Central concepts such as genre, rhetorical moves
and expert consultant were introduced. Research has boomed in the last 20 years,
specially in the international context, where new journals and vast submission of
papers have shown the increased importance of ESP. The evolution ESP and its
definitions have developed hand by hand. Seen as an approach by some and a dis-
cipline by others and displaying changing characteristics of variables, ESP has
and will always shape itself to meet learners’ specific professional or vocational
language needs and thus possesses immediate relevance and validity, for as stat-
ed by Harding (2007), ESP teaches “the language for getting things done” (p. 6).

Key words: ESP, history of ESP, ESP definitions, ESP development, learners’ needs

Inglés con Fines Específicos (o ESP por sus siglas en inglés) nació en la década
de 1960 como un área dedicada al análisis de textos técnicos. El énfasis en el uso
del lenguaje en lugar de su forma se fortaleció a finales de la década, al igual que
la tendencia de desarrollo de materiales. Las décadas de 1970 y 1980 vieron la
consolidación del movimiento a partir del énfasis en las destrezas del lenguaje y
el gran aumento en investigación. Se introdujeron conceptos claves tales como
género, movimientos retóricos y asesor especialista. La investigación en el área
ha prosperado en los últimos 20 años, especialmente en el ámbito internacional,
donde nuevas revistas especializadas y la gran cantidad de artículos presentados
para publicación comprueban la actual relevancia del área. Así como ha evolucio-
nado el campo de ESP, así también han cambiado las definiciones dadas a este.
Ya sea que ESP se considere una estrategia o una disciplina, o que cambien sus
características o variables, ESP siempre se ha adaptado y continuará adaptán-
dose para satisfacer las necesidades vocacionales o profesionales de su población
meta, por lo que siempre tendrá un valor añadido de inmediatez y actualidad,
pues como lo indica Harding (2007), ESP enseña el lenguaje para llevar a cabo
(“the language for getting things done” (p. 6).

Palabras claves: historia de ESP, definiciones de ESP, evolución de ESP, necesi-

dades del estudiante de ESP

Recepción: 21-5-14 Aceptación: 1-6-15

380 Revista de Lenguas Modernas, N° 23, 2015 / 379-386 / ISSN: 1659-1933

English for Specific Purposes: Specific Purposes (ESP) to the end of

Brief History and Definitions Second World War. In the new com-
merce-driven world, many saw the

nglish for Specific Purposes need of learning English, which was
(ESP) has become a fruit- considered the accepted international
ful field over the last language. Nonnative speakers saw it
three decades. As a learner-centered as the new lingua franca that respond-
approach, its main purpose has been ed to their needs of cross cultural com-
that of fulfilling the specific needs of munication, business doing, and infor-
target learners to satisfy either their mation sharing (Teodorescu, 2010).
professional or vocational demands. During the 1960’s, changes in the
But how did it come to this aim? What world’s markets resulted in the rising
is the history of ESP both as a theory of ESP as a discipline. According to
and research field? By learning how Hutchinson and Waters (1987), ESP
the origins of ESP have responded to emerged due to the development of the
society’s needs and history, a wider world’s economy, which entailed the
perspective on its past and current progress of technology, the economic
relevance might be gained, which can power of oil-rich countries, and the in-
lead us to better understand the cur- creasing amount of overseas students
rent trends and concepts of the field. in English-speaking countries (pp. 6-7).
The first part of this review of the Also, according to Johns and Dudley-
literature intends to give an overview of Evans (1991), the international com-
the origins and history of ESP by look- munity recognized the importance of
ing at its development and characteris- learning English not only as a means
tics in each decade since its beginning in to achieve the transmission of knowl-
the 1960s. Occasionally, decades over- edge and communication but also as a
lap, for changes do not happen in isola- neutral language to be used in inter-
tion but usually conflate and interact. national communication (pp. 301-302).
The second half of this paper ad- The first boost of ESP came from the
dresses the main definitions that have register analysis of scientific and tech-
been given of ESP while emphasizing nical writing. Logically, the movement
those of the most relevant practitioners gave special importance to semi- or
and researchers in the field. The move- subtechnical vocabulary. Smoak (2003)
ment’s main features are highlighted describes the instructors’ believed job
and explained when appropriate, since as “to teach the technical vocabulary of
it seems that a comprehensive defini- a given field or profession” (p. 23).While
tion of ESP cannot be detached from at this detailed study of language in spe-
least mentioning some of its key char- cific registers demonstrated a very pos-
acteristics and elements. itive, early interest in functional lexis,
it showed an extreme concentration
on form and offered little explanation
History about why and how the sentences were
formed and combined as they were.
Hutchinson and Waters (1987) Rhetorical and discourse analysis
traced the early origins of English for attempted to answer these questions
GONZÁLEZ. English for Specific Purposes... 381

and in doing so, as Dudley-Evans (2001) el for needs analysis and Hutchinson
commented, “introduced the idea of re- and Waters’ influential papers. The
lating language form to language use, latter two authors questioned many
making use the main criterion for the ESP long-held ideas and believed that
selection of ESP teaching materials” ESP students should be led towards
(p. 22). This new movement in ESP developing the “underlying compe-
prioritized the rhetorical functions of tence” (1987, p. 70) to eventually be-
language over its form since, as Male- come independent learners. Closely re-
ki (2008) clearly explained, discourse lated to this concept, Hutchinson and
analysis “focused on the communica- Waters outlined the concept of learner-
tive values of discourse rather than centered approach, which focuses on
the lexical and grammatical properties the process of learning, emphasizes the
of register” (ESP Background, para. exploitation of the learner’s already
4) and reinforced the area’s empha- possessed skills (acquired at work or
sis on research and analysis of texts. through academic study), and takes
In this regard, Johns (2013) described into account students’ different learn-
through a series of sample research pa- ing styles (Dudley-Evans & St. John,
pers the shift of emphasis of ESP dur- 1987, pp. 25-26).
ing this period, going from statistical The decades of the 70s and 80s
grammar accounts to a deeper interest were also witness to controversy in
in the relation between grammar and ESP. The analysis of ESP resulted
rhetoric. However, the discourse anal- in two main views: that of “the wide-
ysis of ESP was primarily concerned angle approach,” which advocated for
with language and gave no attention to the teaching of English through topics
the development of study skills. This, beyond students’ specialist areas, and
then, became the focus of EAP during the “narrow-approach,” which claimed
the late 1970’s. that the focus of the language stud-
Skill-based courses at the end of ies should be on the students’ specific
the 70s intended to address the learn- area of development. Another debate
ers’ specific foreign language needs; to of the 70s and 80s what that of skill
do so, needs analyses had to be car- specificity. Some research studies
ried out. The movement believed that proved monoskill emphasis useful,
teaching how language works was not specially in regard to reading, but the
enough; the language-learning pro- ESP community considered that such
cesses involved should be addressed “concentration on one skill is limiting”
as well so that learners would trans- (Johns & Dudley-Evans,1991, p. 305)
fer these study skills to their real life and that working on several skills si-
tasks. Consequently, the learners’ pur- multaneously would actually enhance
pose for learning the target language the language learning processes.
became of utmost importance and so Johns and Dudley-Evans (1991) also
did needs analyses (Maleki, 2008). pinpointed that in “the late 1970s
The decades of 1970’s and 1980’s and 1980s, theoretical work seemed
saw the consolidation of the ESP move- to lag behind materials development”
ment. Numerous articles on the field (p. 303), which became a new trend of
were published, such as Munby’s mod- ESP work and research at the time.
382 Revista de Lenguas Modernas, N° 23, 2015 / 379-386 / ISSN: 1659-1933

Finally, instructor’s specialization was Johns (2013, p. 11). Genres may also
an issue of concern as well. According be related and based on other genres, a
to Johns (2013), a study carried out complex relationship that continues to
by Tarone et al in 1981 not only main- enrich ESP genre analysis.
tained the rhetorical-grammar relation- The concept of rhetorical moves is
ship but also introduced the concept of also highly salient in ESP. The moves
using the area specialist as a content- contribute to constituting a genre and
expert consultant. From that moment serve a communicative purpose sub-
on, “subject-specialist informants” (p. ordinate to the overall communicative
8) were more commonly involved as purpose of the text. In traditional genre
part of ESP research. Content and skill analysis, a text’s moves or “functional
specificity, material design, and the in- components” (Connor, 2000, p. 2) are
structor as an expert were topics of de- used for some identifiable rhetorical
bate during the 70s and 80s. purpose that is clearly different from
Another important contribution other parts of the text. Such differen-
to ESP during the 80s, in the view tiation is observable in the text’s divi-
of Johns, was the introduction of two sion into meaningful units through the
key ESP terms: genre analysis and use of subtitles, sections, key words,
rhetorical moves, which continue to and transitions, among others. Connor
be subject of intense research work in (2000) states that although moves can
ESP (pp. 11-12). vary in size, they “all contain at least
Genre analysis was and continues one proposition” (p. 6) based on both
to be a flourishing area of study. Pal- the general rhetorical objectives of the
tridge (2013) affirms that today’s defi- text and the community’s agreements
nition of genre is based on Swales’: “a on the form of a text. In the analysis of
class of communicative events with rhetorical moves, indicators of both the
some shared set of communicative text function and its boundaries and
purposes” (p. 347). Delimiting what divisions are necessary.
a discourse community’s genre is During the last twenty years the
“establish[es] the constraints on what ESP field has increased dramatically.
is generally acceptable in terms of how Hewings (2002), co-editor of the jour-
the text should be written or spoken, nal English for Specific Purposes, ana-
what issues it will address, and how it lyzed the issues of this journal for the
can do this” (Paltridge, 2013, p. 347). last twenty years and came up with
Identifying an aimed genre may help some interesting conclusions in his ar-
ESP students reproduce it and par- ticle “A History of ESP Through ‘Eng-
ticipate in it successfully by imitat- lish for Specific Purposes.’” First, the
ing conventions and limitations of the increased number of studies conduct-
text. There might be genres, however, ed outside the U.S. and U.K., such as
that vary in their linguistic and rhe- Central and South America, China and
torical features, but all of them should Hong Kong, demonstrates the grow-
have a communicative purpose. Such ing acceptance of ESP as an academic
a purpose may change over time and discipline –a conclusion also drawn by
can even vary across cultures—a con- Johns and explained below. A second
cept referred to as “genre volatility” by interesting conclusion explained in his
GONZÁLEZ. English for Specific Purposes... 383

article is the specificity towards which Finally, Hutchinson and Waters (1987)
ESP, which includes EAP and EOP, is polished the concept of ESP and estab-
headed. Thirdly, the topics observed lished the importance of teaching stu-
seem to have become more EOP orient- dents the skills and language that they
ed and apparently, they have obviated need to achieve their desired language
more general program descriptions. performance.
The current trend, according to Hew- It has certainly been a changing
ings, is text or discourse analysis. This but fruitful road for ESP, and even
tendency proves, as he mentioned, the if some say that the evolution of this
“growing realisation that to provide area of language study has responded
convincing and effective ESP courses mainly to teaching procedures and ma-
or material, we need to know a consid- terials development, its principles and
erable amount about target situations” theory have been more clearly outlined
(Topics of papers, para. 7). Teaching and shaped by the passing of time.
ESP means, therefore, a deeper knowl-
edge of the context and the texts that
occur within it. Definitions of ESP
The decades of the 1990s and 2000s
have seen a rapid increase in research Dudley-Evans and St John (1998)
and have continued the expansion on address three of the most widely-rec-
major ESP topics. According to Johns ognized definitions in the field in their
(2013), the emergence of international book Developments in ESP: A Multi-
journals as well as the marked rise in disciplinary Approach. The first is the
the amount of international submis- one provided by Hutchinson and Wa-
sions and publications have consoli- ters (1987), who viewed ESP as an ap-
dated the importance and relevance of proach, not a product, meaning that it
ESP today. Moreover, the new empha- “does not involve a particular kind of
ses given to already established con- language, teaching material, or meth-
cepts, such as international rhetorics odology” (p. 2). This might be consid-
and learner genre awareness, as well as ered the most general of the defini-
the more profound and continuous re- tions. Dudley-Evans (2001) also cited
search on corpus studies, demonstrate Strevens’ definition, which aims at de-
the steady evolution of research in the fining ESP by distinguishing both its
ESP arena. absolute and variable characteristics.
ESP has existed as a separate Among some of the absolute features,
branch of language teaching for around he mentioned ESP’s relationship with
40 years. At the beginning, it focused other disciplinary areas and occupa-
upon the specific lexicon of technical tions by using their methodologies and
and scientific texts, but it soon changed activities, its focus on and analysis
its emphasis towards the rhetorical of the language related to a particu-
uses of language in precise discourses. lar area, and its contrast to General
Next, the four skills, which were ne- English. Anthony (1997) stated that,
glected by all previous methods, were during Japan’s Conference on ESP,
assessed and addressed through the Dudley-Evans included another fea-
introduction of needs analysis studies. ture within this definition, that “ESP
384 Revista de Lenguas Modernas, N° 23, 2015 / 379-386 / ISSN: 1659-1933

is defined to meet specific needs of the whom ESP is aimed at. In the words of
learners” (p. 2). In addition, the two Smoak (2003), “ESP is English instruc-
variable characteristics are its restric- tion based on actual and immediate
tion in terms of skills to be learned and needs of learners. ESP is needs based
the lack of a pre-established method- and task oriented” (p. 27).
ology. Moreover, Dudley-Evans (2001) Finally, Gatehouse (2001) ad-
briefly explained Robinson’s view of dressed the very name of the field in
ESP as a goal-directed approach that her paper “Key Issues in English for
has a limited time period and is aimed Specific Purposes (ESP) Curriculum
at adults in homogeneous learning Development,” where she discussed
environments. According to Anthony the meaning of the word “specific” and
(1997), Dudley-Evans also stated that clarified that it addresses the specific-
ESP is usually aimed at professionals ity of the purpose or aim of this teach-
or tertiary-level students with some ing area, not the special registers or
target language basic knowledge but is vocabulary entailed (The Meaning of
not limited to these populations exclu- the Word ‘Special’ in ESP, para. 3).
sively. All these absolute and variable All the previous definitions and
features emphasize the purposeful na- statements have contributed, at some
ture of ESP as an approach that shapes point or another through the history of
itself according to the learner’s needs. the field, to better delimit the scope and
In spite of recognizing the strengths aim of ESP. They have all built ESP’s
of these definitions, Dudley-Evans and niche within foreign language teach-
St John (1998) insisted on the idea that ing and they have all emphasized that
ESP should be defined neither as a sub- “in ESP . . . the purpose for learning is
ject-content directed discipline nor as paramount and related directly to what
a distinct area from General English. the learner needs to do in their vocation
They considered ESP a discipline that or job” (Harding, 2007, p. 6). ESP was
attempts to meet the needs of a specific born and will continue to address the
population of students, employs meth- learners’ needs and purpose to learn
odologies and materials from the disci- a language that will most likely help
pline it is centered on, and focuses on them to communicate in a globalized
the language and discourse related to world where the sense of immediacy of
it. Dudley-Evans (2001) also included need can best be fulfilled by English for
three variables: ESP has to be relat- Specific Purposes instruction.
ed to specific disciplines, use a differ-
ent methodology from the one used in
General English, and be aimed at in- Conclusion
termediate to advanced adult learners
(p. 131). Such definition resembles the The early beginnings of English for
one provided by Strevens, which migh Specific Purposes (ESP) in the 1960s
be ranked as the most comprehensible emphasized the grammatical analy-
one, yet Dudley-Evans and St John sis of technical texts. By the end of
modified it by omitting variables such the decade, discourse analysis gained
as the one contrasting ESP to General relevance and in the 1970s, emphasis
English, and including others such as on students’ necessary skills resulted
GONZÁLEZ. English for Specific Purposes... 385

in the development of needs analyses. Dudley-Evans, T., & St John, M. (1998).

During the 1980s, the learner-centered Developments in English for spe-
approach gathered strength and ma- cific purposes: A multi-disciplinary
terials development productions at- approach. Cambridge: Cambridge
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The last twenty years have seen the Gatehouse, K. (2001). Key issues in
spur of ESP as a vast theoretical and English for specific purposes. The
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