The futility of ESP
Dozens of acronyms have popped up in the past 40 years or so in the EFL (English as a Foreign Language) industry: ESP (English for Specific Purposes), EAP (English for Academic Purposes), EBP (English for Business Purposes), ESAP (English for Specific Academic Purposes) and EOP (English for Occupational Purposes), to name but a few.
The need to move from general English to specific English at a certain point in a student’s learning process is warranted, but the multitude of fields that industries have spawned gave rise to a variety of English courses. This belief that we need to adopt ESP programs, particularly in an EFL framework, is a travesty.
In Taiwan, many departments of applied English incorporate ESP courses that are designed to meet the needs of local industries; such courses generally focus on tourism, business, healthcare and journalism. However, virtually none of the applied English students who take these courses end up working in these industries.
First, applied English is so blurry a major that employers would think twice before considering these graduates for a position in a very specialized field, especially journalism or business. It would be akin to handing the controls of an aircraft to a truck driver.
It would stand to reason if students majored in business, journalism or tourism and they took course-specific English classes, but to simply take those courses without any proper training is futile and irrelevant.
Even those who receive occupational training are bombarded with technical terminology and scripted dialogues that are rarely realistic. The majority of future employees rarely use what they learned in ESP classes simply because ESP is usually nothing but a litany of technical terminology and artificial dialogues.
Second, for lower-tier institutions of higher education, the aforementioned departments apply the logic that because National Taiwan University does it, so should they. Not many considerations are factored into this equation; at times the whole course outlines are lifted, but no eyebrows are ever raised.
Third, many of the students who choose applied English are students whose grades are not good enough for them to pursue other majors like business and journalism. Now that the door to tertiary education is wide open, English departments are generally a safe haven for all, to the point where some students do not speak one word of English, particularly in evening classes.
Finally, the fact that such students’ level of English proficiency is so weak that even mastering a basic level of general English becomes a colossal project means venturing into a specialized field amounts to linguistic suicide.
Most students who have not achieved a decent level of English proficiency by the time they enroll in college will find it difficult to make any significant progress in mastering English. Additionally, since these courses are electives, many students take them simply to accrue more credits for graduation.
Those who think that they are going to college to improve their language skills are often disappointed when they have to take courses such as linguistics and Western literature — which, oddly enough, do very little to boost the communicative language learning among these students.
One might then ask why we continue to incorporate these courses in college curricula. The answer is financial benefits and cosmetic touches — textbook writers and publishers rake in profits, because with each new acronym comes a load of textbooks. Schools make students and parents believe that these courses are a ticket to better employment.