English for Specific Purposes (ESP): A Short Guide for Multinational Companies

English for Specific Purposes (ESP) is a subset of English as a Second Language (ESL). ESP is about more than just vocabulary. It also focuses on methodology. This learner-centered approach focuses on developing competence in a specific discipline, such as business. 

ESP programs differ from general English language courses and contain one or more of the following characteristics:

  1. Designed to meet the specific needs of the learners
  2. Related in content (themes and topics) to specific disciplines or occupations
  3. Use authentic, work-specific documents and materials
  4. Promote cultural awareness and seek to improve intercultural competency
  5. Deliver language training for intermediate and advanced levels
  6. Use different teaching situations or a different methodology

ESP examples

Business English is a rapidly growing field within the area of English language teaching, or, in other words, a subset of ESP. Business English can be further broken down into the areas of business or profession such as: technical English, scientific English, medical, tourism, etc. 

Common areas of business English needs include:

  • English for presentations
  • English for international support centers
  • English for negotiations 
  • English for writing reports
  • English for writing business letters
  • English for meetings, trade shows, or training
  • English for entertaining clients
  • English for tours of facilities 

Common ESPs for business include:

  • English for tourism
  • English for contact centers
  • English for hospitality
  • English for cruise ships
  • English for medical services
  • English for technical manuals

Broadly speaking, business English learners need to acquire:

  • Confidence and fluency in speaking
  • Skills for organizing and structuring information
  • Enough language accuracy to be able to communicate ideas without ambiguity and without stress for the listener
  • Speed of reaction to the utterances of other people
  • Knowledge of vocabulary most commonly used 
  • Awareness of appropriate language and behavior for the cultures and situations in which they will operate

Another example of ESP is missionary work. Missionaries are sent out all over the world with limited knowledge of a language. They are taught the basic concepts and asked to learn more through language study and immersion. When they return, they have strong skills in conversational and spiritual language though they are usually weak in grammar, reading, and writing.

Over the past five years, a specialty of business English has emerged—English for economics.  Rapid development of the world of business, along with an explosion of interest in globalization, global issues, and global education, have driven the need for specialized English in business. We now live in a world in which the economic bases have shifted. New economic powerhouses have emerged, and new markets have opened. New markets require economic exchanges in financial goods and commodities. Today’s economic business world is more closely joined and will continue to drive demand for language skills and ESP.

Context and ESP

Obviously, the demand for ESP is due to the rapid growth of English as the language of business. If 75% of an employee’s English conversations are around technical support for a product, with a basic level of English skills and applied practice with the targeted terminology, the individual can be successful in the workplace.

ESP is designed to reduce the time necessary for an ESL individual to become a successful employee. Context becomes a big part of ESP. Unfortunately, due to the complexity of English, there are many words that have multiple meanings. This is no different in the business world. The chart below highlights a few examples.

Word Meaning in General English Meaning in Business English
Minute One sixtieth part of an hour, or 60 seconds A brief summary or record of what is said and decided at a meeting; made note of in an official memo
Round Shaped like a circle or a ball A meeting in which the participants meet more or less as equals 
Principle A person with the highest authority in an organization, especially in schools and colleges (principal) Money lent or invested on which interest is paid, capital sum
Liquidate To pay or settle Close a business and divide up the proceeds to pay its debts
Portfolio A flat case for carrying loose papers, documents, drawings, etc.  A set of investments owned by a person or a bank 
Composition Something composed; for example, a piece of music, a poem, or a book A business paying off debt or liquidating
Disposal The action of getting rid of something To deal with or sell a bankrupt company
Turnover To face in another direction by rolling The amount of business done by a company within a certain amount of time or the rate at which workers leave a company
Outstanding Exceptionally good or excellent Not yet paid, completed, or resolved
Acquisition An asset or object bought or obtained Act of taking over another company (ex. merger and acquisition – M&A)
Draft A beer  A preliminary version of writing—a plan or sketch
File A tool used for shaping—usually with metal A folder or box for holding papers in an organized way or a collection of data and programs stored in a computer memory

Words of caution for ESP

While the advantages of ESP are clear, there are some drawbacks. First, to specialize in a language, you first need basic understanding and skills in the target language. Specialization comes after.

Second, the limited time and approach tends to pull away from teaching fluency and comprehension to vocabulary and listening. 

Most important is that although ESP courses and general business communication courses make attempts to sensitize students to cultural idiosyncrasies, they often generalize with a list of dos and don’ts.

“Studying problems of international business communication from the linguistic perspective becomes extremely crucial in our age of fast communication when businesspeople prefer to do their business by email, text, virtual meetings, rather than face-to-face interaction. While some misunderstanding might be potentially overcome to a certain extent by personal encounters, negotiations, and business meetings, long distance correspondence usually does not leave any room for clarifying the intended message and therefore has significant more potential for jeopardizing the whole communication.  

Business communication practices can and should be discussed in terms of national culture. Communicators need to become more fully aware of the culturally based stylistic differences.” (Loukianenko, 2004) 

Employees without the cultural understanding (context) of a language are a liability to possible large PR nightmares. Businesses and ESP programs are encouraged to develop cultural understanding curriculum and training.

My experience in Thailand

I had the opportunity to manage a satellite office for a previous employer, and the office was in Thailand. I absolutely loved the experience. What a great culture and people! I was assigned to manage an office with about eight Thai staff.

Our staff was assigned as software testers. As new code was written in the United States, the Thai team would test the code for errors and bugs. This testing worked great because of the time difference. However, I had to learn the hard way that culture might be impeding our success.

I came into the office a bit late one morning and nothing was working. Apparently, someone in the office had broken the software code. The systems were totally down. As I worked through the problem, I could not understand why they crashed—but that wasn’t the biggest issue. 

It took me nearly four hours to explain to the team that what they did was a good thing! I had to explain they would not be fired and that what they had done to the system was exactly what I expected and wanted them to do. 

Shortly after, a friend handed me the book, “Working with the Thais: A Guide to Managing in Thailand.” Would have been nice to have already read it. 

In Thailand, they have a culture of “saving-face,” called gren ji. They avoid confrontation and endeavor not to embarrass themselves or other people. So, as I confronted the team (without understanding this cultural trend), I quickly became frustrated that nobody would tell me what happened.

If language barriers aren’t enough, when you add cultural differences, simple day-to-day challenges can turn into formattable mountains. Be sensitive to the cultural differences and needs of your employees, your language learners, and your ESL staff, and you will see it paid back in great dividends.

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