By Dick Tibbetts - University of Macau, Macau
We try to teach ESP to low level students and beginners and it doesn't work. Employers and administrators demand results. They have students with little English and they need English users who can conduct business in English or get degrees etc. and so they give them to us. If we tell them that NSs have a vocabulary of 20K word families and that in real business and academic situations a lot of these words come into play, even if infrequently, they will reject our 5 year immersion courses and find someone who will promise the earth.
I don't do much ESP but I do run courses with an EAP bias. I try and keep them general but the university has some students with 1800 words or less studying business admin. and humanities subjects so they want them to write academic reports and papers and to be able to communicate sophisticated ideas.
What happens? Well, firstly, they are expected to write in a genre that they cannot read. They do not have the vocabulary to read academic journals and papers and can barely understand their textbooks. We have a textbook that tries to get around this by using texts from newspapers and magazines and then asking the learner to write essays full of "nevertheless" and "moreover".
I firmly believe that you cannot write in an academic genre unless you can read and understand that genre. Each academic genre is special to its subject. Some social sciences have more use of first person pronouns than more technical papers. A scholar who is an authority in a field can use more first person pronouns than a student. And there are many other differences.
A second problem is that if the learner has a small vocabulary they find it difficult to place the meaning, context and collocations of the sophisticated words they are being taught. They also find it difficult to see the rationale behind the "rules" they are taught to write by.
Even with more advanced students there is still a real problem. Take a learner with 6000 words plus the EAP list and subject specific vocabulary. They can read academic material and with a 95% comprehension can often guess unknown words from context. However, these unknown low frequency words they come across are not there for trivial purposes. Most of them are there because they are necessary for meaning and expression of the topic. When it comes to writing, the poor student is expected to write with the same sophistication as the NSs they compete with in the international job market and with a similar degree of expertise as found in the articles they read. When they write they will find that every 20 words there will be a word
they need but do not have.
It's a mess.