11 January 2013

English for Specific Purposes

It would be easy to imagine that the teaching of English to advanced learners is confined to those teaching English as a Foreign Language in non-English speaking countries like China and many others, but as Jeff Heasman, Dean of the Faculty of Law at Cavendish University explains below, this is far from the truth, and ESP (English for Specific Purposes) is a requirement in many parts of the world where English is an official language – including here in the UK.

English for Specific Purposes

The requirement for good quality training in English for specific purposes (ESP) is not confined to non-English speaking countries, there is also a need in countries where English is an official language.  I say this on the basis of my experience of legal English in Zambia where I am the Dean of the Faculty of Law at Cavendish University and Course Director for TOLES (Test of Legal English Skills).

Whilst English is an official language and the medium of instruction in school, it will often be the second or third language that Zambians speak with their tribal language being another and then either Nyanja or Bemba.  Invariably these other languages will come from the Bantu family.

Whenever I mention to people that I teach legal English in Zambia the typical response is, “well don’t they speak English anyway?”  Yes they do and in fact there are not many significant issues generally with speaking, except maybe the use of emphatic pronouns such as “Me, I am a lawyer”, or issues for the listener with L1 interference tending to result in stress being on the penultimate syllable.

Grammatically there are major issues.  The languages from the Bantu family are littered with multi-purpose prepositions and this can be a significant L1 interference issue in legal English. One only needs to think of the difference between “your response must be submitted within 14 days” and “your response must be submitted in 14 days”.  With there being no particularly clear rules for selecting prepositions in English it means that the use of incorrect prepositions is particularly prevalent and that could have catastrophic consequences in a legal document.

The other issue with legal English in the region is the use of archaic words, Latin and African idiomatic English.  The latter is of course not so much an issue when dealing with people   in-country but phrases such as “on my side” instead of “in my opinion” may cause some confusion when dealing with native English speakers on an international level.

The use of archaic words and Latin can be classified as the lack of recognition for the need to use plain English.  Some argue that the use of Latin is acceptable between practitioners or a practitioner and their professional client but I totally disagree.  I also believe that using language that will affect a client’s ability to read and understand what a lawyer is saying or writing hinders access to justice.  Therefore, I also believe that there is a need when teaching ESP to emphasise plain English alternatives where Latin or archaic words might otherwise be taught.

My experience from Zambia is never to assume that just because English is an official language in a country that the levels of ESP are at native level.  For the reasons stated above, they most certainly are not!

For more information please visit SIMON & SIMON’s English Language Course page.

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