The Power of ESP: An Exercise in Conceptualization

Hello, ESPers worldwide!

The 2014 Cross-Strait International Conference on English for Specific Purposes (ESP) took place from 3–5 October at Asia University in Taiwan. At that conference, Margaret van Naerssen gave a presentation titled “ESP Can Be A Really Sharp Tool!” In this TESOL Blog post, I will explain the power of ESP that came across to me in her presentation.

Cross-Strait is a politically neutral term that refers to China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Macau. As explained by Yinghuei Chen, the immediate past chair of the TESOL ESP Interest Section, the 2014 Cross-Strait International Conference on ESP was co-organized by the Taiwan ESP Association, the Chinese Association for ESP, China, and the Asia-Pacific Rim LSP & Professional Communication Association (based in Hong Kong).

Chen has a talent for recruiting outstanding speakers for ESP conferences in Taiwan. The plenary speakers at this conference included David Graddol, Sue Starfield, Kay Westerfield (cofounder of the TESOL ESP Interest Section), Winnie Cheng, Jigang Cai, Betty Samraj, and Chao-ming Chen. This list of ESP scholars from around the world brings to mind Belcher (2013):

In an editorial for an issue of the journal English for Specific Purposes, Paltridge (2009: 1), noting the wide range of countries represented by the contributors, remarked that for ESP research, “there is no Inner Circle,” a reference to Kachru’s (1992) famous configuration of the English-speaking world as concentric circles, with the inner circle consisting of countries where native English speakers are dominant. Paltridge observed that for those engaged in ESP, English is “the property of its users, native and non-native speakers alike”. Probably no research sub-field in English-language teaching (ELT) is more truly international in its foci and its researchers than is ESP. (p. 546)

Because ESP is so international, it is not surprising that some conceptualizations of ESP may differ.

In my own doctoral research on leadership conceptualizations (i.e., how leaders conceptualized leadership), I found that it is important to consider the various inputs into a conceptualization. In this connection, three questions that may help us to identify some inputs into a conceptualization of ESP are as follows:

  1. Who is conceptualizing ESP?
  2. How is ESP being conceptualized?
  3. Why is ESP being conceptualized in this way?

By finding the answers to these questions, we can clarify what is actually meant by “ESP” in the specific contexts.

What I liked about van Naerssen’s presentation at the Cross-Strait conference is her reminder that one conceptualization of ESP in particular is powerful (in my words)! (Note: I was not able to attend the conference, but I could see van Naerssen’s PowerPoint slides.) The powerful conceptualization of ESP she presented at the conference also appears in the TESOL ESP Interest Section PowerPoint presentation titled “English for Specific Purposes: An Overview for Practitioners and Clients” (Knight, Lomperis, van Naerssen, & Westerfield, 2010). The TESOL ESP-IS PowerPoint was created to address two important issues:

  1. the need for clarification of what was meant by ESP, especially in view of misunderstandings about content-based instruction (CBI) and ESP, and
  2. the need for a communication tool that could be used to explain ESP, especially in occupational settings.

What is so powerful about the conceptualization of ESP above? The core principles of ESP (that is, needs-driven, specificity, and relevance) result in the clear and shared vision/goal of the instructor and learners. Further, the instructor and learners are motivated to achieve that vision/goal. (In my opinion, this conceptualization of ESP is similar to leadership in that both describe a collaborative effort among various stakeholders to achieve/create a shared vision/goal.) As van Naerssen makes clear in her Cross-Strait conference presentation, training the teacher of a science class (who has a specific and immediate need to teach that science class in English) how to teach that science class in English is ESP. The power of ESP is in its core principles.

Did you attend the conference? Do you have any insights to share?

All the best,



Belcher, D. (2013). The future of ESP research: Resources for access and choice. In B. Paltridge & S. Starfield (Eds.), The handbook of English for specific purposes (pp. 535–551). New York, NY: Wiley-Blackwell.

Kachru, B. (1992). The other tongue: English across cultures. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press.

Paltridge, B. (2009). Editorial. English for Specific Purposes28, 1–3.

About Kevin Knight

Kevin Knight
Kevin Knight (PhD in Linguistics, MBA, MPIA) is an associate professor in the Department of International Communication (International Business Career major) and has also been working in the Career Education Center of Kanda University of International Studies in Chiba, Japan. In the TESOL ESP Interest Section (ESPIS), he has served as chair and English in occupational settings (EOS) representative, and he is currently the ESPIS community manager. He was also a member of the Governance Review Task Force (GRTF) appointed by the board of directors. In addition, he has been a TESOL blogger in the area of English for Specific Purposes (ESP). He has more than 30 years of professional experience working for private, public, and academic sector institutions including Sony and the Japan Patent Office. His doctoral research on leadership communication (i.e., discourse) as a basis for leadership development was under the supervision of Emeritus Professor Christopher Candlin and Dr. Alan Jones.
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One Response to The Power of ESP: An Exercise in Conceptualization

  1. Amal Aljasser says:

    First, I would like to thank you for your post. Unfortunately, I have not attended the conferences. I guess one could debate that English must be for a specific purpose depending on its context whether it is academic, business, communication or etc. I agree with you that ESP is sometimes not well defined. We really need to have a better understanding of this concept. This understanding should expand to the learners and not just the educators. It is important that a learner has an idea of why s/he want to learn? Where is s/he going to use the language?..etc. Once the context, in which the language is used, is defined, the learning would be meaningful and benificial to the student.

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