The complexities of language and language learning.
t is difficult to come to an understanding of the nature and benefits of teaching ESP unless one has a grasp of the full complexity of language, and hence of language learning.
Language is multifaceted to the extent that human activity is various. There is an enormous variety of walks of life, each of which has its own language and cultural setting. We may divide these walks of life into two categories: those that are common to everybody and those that are concerned with specialised topics familiar only to a few.
Obviously, those walks of life which are common to many people are concerned with everyday existence. Examples of these universal topics are socialising, shopping, travelling, eating out, telephoning friends, greetings and introductions, and reading newspapers. So, when one learns a language, one must be exposed to linguistic items relating to these universal topics. This is the task of a General English course.
Yet in addition to such topics, there is an enormous range of specialised topics which are of significant importance only to sections of the population. Examples of these are as follows: sports, hobbies and interests, business, banking and finance, medicine, academics, literary criticism, travel and tourism, biology, chemistry, physics, agriculture and law. The list is endless. Everybody will have some need to discuss at least some of these topics, so it is common, in General English courses, to find material pertaining to some of them. However, such material caters only to the interest of the layman, the man in the street who might read an article on such a topic in the newspaper. The extent to which an individual will need language pertaining to any of these specific topics depends upon how important the topic is to him in his everyday life. If the topic is not at all important for him, there is no need for him to know any of the linguistic items pertaining to it. At the other end of the scale, when we reach the stage at which any topic constitutes an individual's profession, it becomes crucial that he have a mastery of the specialised language pertaining to it.
Each topic will contain certain tasks, specific to it, which an individual will need to accomplish and which require him to use language. Here are some examples taken from different fields:
University Professor: Giving lectures, participating in seminars, reading and writing papers for publication, reading and writing books, discussing academic topics with students and conducting examinations, oral and written.
Businessman: Giving presentations, negotiating, participating in meetings, writing reports, press releases, letters, faxes and memos, telephoning, note-taking, socialising and entertaining.
Research Scientist: Writing the results of experiments, writing reports on the significance of the results, giving presentations, participating in seminars, reading recent research.
Professional Sportsman: Giving interviews to the press, discussing tactics, giving instructions.
These lists are quite general in scope. It is possible, and desirable, to define the fields of expertise more specifically so that the accompanying tasks can be defined precisely. In addition, each defined task should be divided into its various subtasks, so that the linguistic items to be learned may be identified more easily.
In general, we may state the situation as follows. Human life, and hence human language, is concerned with many and various topics. Each topic requires certain communicative tasks to be performed, and these tasks require mastery of certain task-based skills. Such skills are: reading and writing texts of various styles register and lengths, listening in various styles, accents and registers, speaking appropriately in a variety of contexts including socialising, negotiating, interviewing, presenting information and pronouncing material in a clear and culturally acceptable way. People who are engaged in different activities need to master different skills.
In order to acquire the desired skills, a range of linguistic items specific to each skill must be mastered.
Specialised vocabulary: Each field will have vocabulary which is special to it. Some of the words may have meanings specific to the field, different from their meanings in everyday life.
Register: Basically, register is concerned with the levels of politeness and formality to be found in language and the attitudes or values conveyed by certain words and phrases. Within each field, there will be specific registers to be learned. Speaking and writing in different social and cultural contexts require language with different levels of formality and politeness. Register is very complex and highly developed in English and includes not only certain forms of grammatical structure, but also specific kinds of vocabulary. Using even a single word inappropriately can have disastrous consequences.
Functions: Each field will have different linguistic functions which need to be performed, such as apologising, complaining, introducing, requesting, refusing requests and making suggestions. Each function may be performed in different registers.
Structures: Certain tasks require certain structures much more than others. For example, a mastery of the various forms of conditional sentence is essential for writing philosophy, but is hardly needed at all for writing personal letters.
Now let's turn to the complexities surrounding language learning. Given the complexities of language just outlined, how do people manage to acquire a mastery of even their own language, never mind that of a foreign country? It seems that there is simply too much to learn, and each aspect of language contains a mountain of difficulties and material to be learnt. Actually, the answer to the problem is simple. It is that nobody needs complete mastery of a language.
To illustrate the point, consider the case of someone who has acquired enormous linguistic competence relative to others in society, a British university professor in English Language and Literature. Let's consider such a person's linguistic needs. He will, of course, require language pertaining to everyday life, and his hobbies and interests. He will also need to be acquainted with the language of academic research in general. More particularly, he will need the language of literary criticism and, since he must be familiar with all periods of English literature to some extent, he will possess a knowledge of vocabulary, structures and expressions which were in common use in the past yet which are no longer used. In addition, being highly educated and mixing with the intellectual elite of his country, he will have a knowledge of vocabulary, expressions and register which enables him to display at least a passing acquaintance with political and current affairs, including recent developments in science and technology.
In short, his linguistic competence will be enormous. However, we should not be misled by this. Compared with the totality of the English Language, his competence will be small. There will be vast areas of language of which he is completely ignorant. He is unlikely, for instance, to be able to carry on a conversation about banking and finance, business, and any number of other specialist areas such as law, agriculture, biochemistry, medicine, physics, mathematics and logic, etcetera. Further, his knowledge of politics, current affairs and science will be limited to what can be expressed in layman's terms. So, we see that our Professor of English does not possess such a great competence after all. However, he does possess, in abundance, the particular linguistic competencies he needs in order to function well in everyday life and to pursue his career effectively.
I chose the above example precisely because it shows the linguistic limitations of a person who is one of the most competent users of English available. In the case of other people, their linguistic competence is much smaller and the amount they don't know is much greater. From this discovery we can draw some highly significant conclusions. Each language is so vast and complicated that it is literally impossible to master it completely. Indeed, to try to do so would result in a massive waste of learning resources.
As a matter of fact, when native speakers learn their own language, they learn what they need, when they need it.
Each of us grows up in a particular cultural and social environment within our own country. This environment will determine what kind of language we use in everyday life as we grow up. For instance, someone from the North of England, growing up in a working class home, is likely to speak highly colloquial English in a low register and have a distinctive pattern of pronunciation. By contrast, someone growing up in a middle class home in the south-east of England is likely to speak much less colloquially, use a higher register and have standard pronunciation. Further linguistic differences will appear as the cultural and social setting has an effect on hobbies, interests and occupation. Consequently, people in different social groups will have their own vocabulary, register, functions and pronunciation. As we move to an individual level, we will find that everybody has a different vocabulary and style of speaking dependent upon his precise position in society. As people find themselves in different positions in society their activities change, so their linguistic needs change and they learn accordingly.