Just to recap, with an English for … approach, we are teaching learners the specific language and skills they need in order to function effectively at work in English. The starting point is the needs analysis, which generates a series of situations where the learner may need to use English, whether in speech or in writing. There’s a strong emphasis on functional language presented in context and skills work, especially role-plays, to practise it.
With an English through … approach, on the other hand, the focus is on developing learners’ level of English, and the ESP field simply provides the context. Such a course might be built around, for example, a traditional grammar syllabus, but the examples and practice sentences could be related to the ESP field. There’s a strong emphasis on learning vocabulary and reading articles about the ESP field.
Because the books I’ve worked on have all been skills-based, I’ve tended to stay around the English for … side. That’s not to say there’s anything wrong with an English through … approach. I think there’s a place for both.
In fact, what I’ve come to realise is that it’s better to think in terms of a scale, with extreme English for … at one end, and extreme English through … at the other, and most ESP fields, and therefore courses, somewhere in between. Not long ago, I wrote a blog post about Financial English, arguing that there’s not much you can do with it apart from vocabulary and reading texts, so I’d put Financial English somewhere near the English through ... extreme. Of course, surely there’s still some useful functional / situational stuff you can do, but it's hard to argue that Financial English is a proper genre.
Further out on that wing, I’d say, is English for Oil and Gas, which is a great topic for vocab and reading texts, but I really can’t imagine any situations that both an oil rig engineer and an oil trader might both find themselves in, and therefore much in the way of functional / situational language to include in such a course.
Legal English, on the other hand, is out towards the other wing. There’s plenty of functional / situational language shared by all lawyers, and this especially true when it comes to written legal English, especially the language of contracts, which is a recognizable genre of English, with its own grammar rules (wherewith and all that) and style.
Where’s all this leading? Well, for me, as an English-for guy, there’s one ESP field that beats all the others: Aviation English: the language that all pilots and air traffic control officers (ATCOs) use to communicate with each other around the world. The language is English in the sense that it uses English words, but it also has its own very specific grammar, vocabulary, spelling and pronunciation rules. Or, to echo the title of my blog, it's a really specific English.
Take a look at the numbers 0–9 in aviation English: zero, wun, too, tree, fower, fife, six, seven, ait, niner. Wun, too and ait are pronounced as normal numbers, but the spelling is designed to discourage pilots and ATCOs from trying to pronounce them the way they are spelled. Tree is easier to say than three. Fower (which rhymes with flower) also avoids a tricky vowel sound. Niner has an extra syllable to avoid confusion with five … sorry, fife. Cool, huh?
The grammar of aviation English is also a bit quirky: ‘Request taxi for departure’ is not an imperative (Please can you request a taxi) but an actual request (I am requesting permission to use the taxiways to get to the holding point for departure). In a way, it makes sense to mark a request by starting with the word request, but when you first come across it, it’s pretty weird.
One final example: here’s a weather forecast, which all pilots and ATCOs would understand immediately:
METAR KBUF 121755Z AUTO 21016G24KT 180V240 1SM R11/P6000ft -RA BR BKN015 OVC025 06/04 A2990.I won’t go through it all, but 121755Z is simply the date (the 12th) and time (17.55 GMT). 16G24KT is the wind speed: 16 knots, gusting (G) to 24 knots. 1SM is the visibility: one statute mile. And -RN BR describes the weather conditions: light (-) rain (RN) and mist (BR).
So … it really does seem to be a different language, which is why in my title I’ve called it the purest form of ESP. And it’s also why I had a bit of an identity crisis: how could I call myself an ESP all-rounder when, never having taught or studied aviation English, I had such a big gap in my ESP portfolio.
So that was why, about two years ago, I couldn’t turn down the chance to co-author the teacher’s book for Flightpath: Aviation English forPilots and ATCOs, which came out earlier this year.
Fortunately, my co-author was Philip Shawcross, a world-class expert on aviation English, and the President of the ICAEA (International Civil Aviation English Association).
So it meant my main job was ask Philip thousands of really stupid questions – the sort of questions that a new teacher of aviation English might be expected to ask. This was a technique I’d perfected while working on my legal English teacher’s books, but it still meant a year of very very hard work for all involved. But I’m very proud of the finished product.
Now all I need to complete my ESP portfolio is something on oil and gas … only kidding.
Two approaches to ESP course design
Financial English - if such a thing exists
Where was I?