Devil’s Advocate vs Evan Frendo on Specificity & ESP

This series is inspired by a conversation between Mike Hogan and myself about examining the controversies in ELT. We wanted to consider the different positions taken by different members of the industry. However, to do so, we’d need a debate, a disagreement of sorts. And it became apparent that we either tend to agree with members of our PLN (flying creatures of the same feathers and all that), or would keep an open mind and be fairly polite and supportive of one another (that is why we tweet and blog). Seeing that, the only way to get a real debate going was to actively play Devil’s Advocate (DA).

The following debate took place as an Instant-Messaging Chat on Skype. The statements of here are of the DA and in no way represent my beliefs about teaching. This is merely a tool to spark a dialogue between you, the reader, and all those involved in this project. You can find previous instalments of DA here.

To celebrate our tenth installment of DA, we have Evan Frendo.

Evan Frendo is a freelance business English trainer, teacher trainer and author based in Berlin. A frequent speaker at conferences, he also travels regularly in Europe and Asia to run courses or to work as a consultant. Evan has published various books over the years, including “How to teach Business English” (Longman, 2005), and most recently, four books in Pearson’s new Vocational English series. To find out more visit his blog, where he discusses topics and issues relevant to anyone involved in business English and ESP.

Chia: I am extremely excited about having you on DA today, Evan!

Evan: Hi Chia – good to be here 🙂

Chia: The expert in how to teach Business English and ESP himself!

Evan: LOL that’s a nice way to start. Shall we stop now so I can quote you?

Chia: Hahaha…I quote you ALL THE TIME!

Evan: I’d prefer if you just tell people to buy my books, to be honest.

Chia: That I do too…

But I’m here in the position of DA today, and so you must forgive me if I am not so cordial for the rest of this conversation.

Evan: Ok.

Chia: So, Evan, aside from books for teacher training, you also write books for ESP, don’t you?

Evan: Yes that’s right. I started off writing ESP materials for corporate clients, and  nowadays I also write for various publishers.

Chia: But isn’t that a contradiction in terms? ESP suggests a needs-analysis-based tailormade English course…So how can you write one-size-fits-all coursebooks for ESP students?

Evan: Haha. That’s a quote from one of my talks, where I discussed this very question. Yes, you’re right, it can appear to be a contradiction, but only if you see the coursebook as setting the syllabus. If you use it as a resource coursebooks can be very useful.

Is the ESP coursebook like these pinafores?
They are specifically for children, but does the one size fit all kids?
ELTpics: Photo by @fionamau

Chia: And what are these books a resource for? Is it not just focusing on the industry-specific lexis and terminology needed?

Evan: Yes, they’re a resource for the teacher and students to use.  ESP is not only about lexis and terminology. It is also about genre and context and getting an insight into the discourse communities that the learner wants to become effective in.

Chia: But that’s just it. Aren’t the discourse community and the genres and contexts specific to that community too specific to be covered in a published-for-everyone-in-that-industry coursebook? Are you sure the book isn’t just a resource for a general industry, and not a specific discourse community?

Very often, we use labels like EAP (English for Academic Purposes) or English for Oil and Gas or English for Business, and we call it ESP. But they are merely generic labels and do not really represent the discursive variation within the specific discourse communities.

Tate sells clothes to the young & trendy and Face Shop sells cosmetics to women.
Having a target market do not make them specialised shops with niche markets.
Photo by Chia Suan Chong

Evan: Yes, absolutely. As in so much in ELT, it really depends on your teaching context. For some courses, such as pre-experience learners in tertiary education, an ESP book / general business English coursebook may be quite a useful window on the world they aim to work in.  For others such coursebooks may be quite irrelevant.

Chia: Are you admitting that such books might be over-generalised and only useful for pre-experience learners who don’t yet know about the discourse community they are about to enter and so we can pull the wool over their eyes and feed them some generic lexical chunks which they might or might not encounter in their discipline/target situation?

Evan: No, not at all. That is a cynical view of coursebooks. The thing is, teachers and learners need some way to access the target discourse. Often in ESP the reality is that the teacher is not an expert, and nor is the learner.

So the course book is simply one way of accessing that target discourse, in other words, of providing ways to work with the sorts of language and contexts that have been identified in a needs analysis as most relevant to the learners. The point is that if we don’t have some way of accessing this target discourse we could end up focussing on things which are not necessarily a priority.

Windows into different discourse communities?
Photo by Mike Hogan

Chia: That is all good on paper. But in actual facts, how does one first of all identify the kind of language and the target discourse that is most relevant to the learners? How can we ensure the reliability of the Needs Analysis instrument? And how can we then satisfactorily match a coursebook to the needed language and discourse?

Evan: Yes, that is actually the key point. People in our profession have been talking about needs analysis for years, but I think the reality is that we don’t do it very well. On one hand, the profession is still developing the tools and techniques that will help us really analyse what our learners really need. On the other hand, a lot of teachers pay lip service to needs analysis. There is a lot that can be done which isn’t being done.

Chia: So what do you think a good needs analysis for ESP purposes should contain then? What do you think is often not being done?

Evan: I think there are two main issues:

First of all, we have too many teachers who have never actually done any discourse or corpus analysis, and really don’t know very much about how communication works or how to analyse the language that the learners might need. Performance-based testing is rare. Without these, we cannot really claim to be doing a needs analysis. So we need to train teachers better.

Secondly, we need to become more persuasive at explaining to our clients exactly what can be done if we have proper access to the workplace. Too many clients (and teachers) think of language learning as something which takes place in a classroom, yet there is so much evidence to suggest that learning takes place in the workplace as well.

Learning does not necessarily have to take place in the classroom

Chia: First of all, can you explain what you mean by ‘performance-based testing’?

And second, what exactly can be done if we have proper access to the workplace? Are you suggesting that teachers record and analyse the conversations and communications that go on in our clients’ discourse community, do a discourse/genre analysis on it, in order to train our clients to become better communicators?

Evan: Ok, what I mean by performance-based testing (or task-based assessment) is that we need to be able to test our learners’ ability to do their job, i.e. to perform. Of course as English teachers we would be focussing on the elements of the job which require English.

So, for example, if someone says they need to present in English, we ask them to do a presentation, and then work on areas that can be improved. It might be language related, or it might be skills related. In other words, we need to be able to work out where they are now so that we can compare it to where they need to be.

And to answer your second question…

Yes, I mean that teachers need access to the workplace in order to understand the target discourse, but also to provide feedback in context, as it were. Sitting in the back of a meeting room taking notes, and then later providing specific feedback to the learner will be much more focussed than any role-play in the classroom. What I am talking about is learning on the job.

‘Performance-Based Learning’
Photo by Mike Hogan

Chia: It seems to me like what you are asking the teacher to do is not only extremely time-consuming, but requires a fair bit of expertise in both genre/discourse analysis and the client’s discipline. I mean, to really assess our learners’ ability to perform in their job, we need to know the target situation and target discourse community well. One sitting is not going to give us what we need to know.

Let’s take your example of presentations for instance. A presentation in an Applied Linguistics academic conference is very different from a presentation at a Civil Engineering academic conference (and I am not just talking about lexis and technical jargon here), which is again very different from a presentation at a board of director’s meeting for Siemens, which is again very different from a presentation pitching new solar equipment to clients in Abu Dhabi.

We can reel off the usual ‘What makes a good presentation’ lesson from ‘Presenting in English’ or whatever the latest coursebook on presentations is, but that isn’t really focussing on their discourse community and their ability to do their job, is it? It’s just paying lip service to the needs analysis.

Academic presentations are a different kettle of fish altogether.
Photo by Mike Hogan

Evan: Yes, maybe you’re right. But it’s still a lot better than what is being done now, where teachers really have no idea of the discourse communities that the learners need to operate in. As you say, it requires expertise. And it is already happening in many corporate training contexts, where people are beginning to recognise that staying in the classroom is extremely limiting.

Chia: I must say that is an interesting idea – having the teacher/trainer in the workplace observing and providing feedback. But surely that can only work in one-to-one training? And subject to the clients’ company allowing such an ‘intrusion’?

Evan: Well, it’s quite common if you have an in-house trainer working full-time in a company.  It’s not seen as an intrusion, but as part of the job. In-house trainers can do much more than someone who simply pops in from time to time to run English classes.

Chia: Ah, okay. So if you are an in-house trainer, I suppose you would have sufficient time and exposure to the clients’ field to be able to familiarise yourself with that specific discourse community. But most teachers/trainers don’t have that kind of luxury, Evan. Yet they pay lip service to a needs analysis which they never really use…and if they do, they simply do it in a generic ‘Let’s look at phrases used to ask for opinions in meetings’ sort of way…

Evan: Yes, I think you’re right. Many teachers are handicapped by their teaching context – no chance to do a proper needs analysis, and no requirement to develop the skills either. Maybe this is a consequence of the way the industry has developed over the years, particularly in the private language school sector. People are willing to pay for teachers to do a job which they are not really trained to do. But that’s another topic …

Chia: Many teachers/trainers feel that their area should be English language teaching. Discourse analysis and the specialisation needed to really deliver true ESP is just way outside their scope, and they are simply not paid enough to deliver that sort of content. Let me throw in another argument here. Most teachers would also argue that a grasp of General English should be enough for learners to negotiate meaning and figure out the conventions of their discourse community on their own, that there are really not enough variations in lexico-grammar to justify a ESP approach.

Is the exchange rate just simply not worth our while?
ELTpics: Photo by @acliltoclimb

Evan: Well, maybe that’s where we disagree. For me the whole point of ELT is to help people communicate in the real world. So the more we can find out about that world the more focussed and more effective our teaching will be. There is never enough time to do everything, so we need to compromise and make priorities. Without some sort of needs analysis this is not possible. I think that every teacher does this anyway – all I am saying is that we can get better at it. In answer to your point about General English, this has been a debate in the industry for many years. Is there a core language that we can teach before we move on to the specific contexts people require in their real worlds? I am not convinced. Language only has meaning in context, and if we remove that context we are left with very little.

Chia: I’m definitely not advocating that we remove the contexts, and I do think that sometimes the difference between ESP/BE and General English is just a matter of contexts. e.g. In General English, we teach students to introduce themselves in the context of meeting other students in a classroom or a party. In BE, we teach students to introduce themselves in the context of meeting new colleagues at an office. But the linguistic devices for both contexts are not that different from each other…We could therefore conclude that there is a core language and generic skills that cuts across disciplines, wouldn’t you say, Evan?

Isn’t specificity only possible at higher levels?

Is there a core at the heart of it?
ELTpics: Photo by @thornburyscott

Evan: Yes, in those situations the language might be similar. But I am not sure how many of those situations you are going to find. Even a simple task like answering a telephone is quite different as soon as you go into a workplace context – and I would argue that it makes more sense to focus on the workplace conventions if you have business English learners.

Regarding your point about specificity at higher levels, yes, I think this is a good point. But that it is not to say we cannot be specific at low levels as well. For example, low level business English learners often learn lexis to describe departments and responsibilities – this is specific to business English and would not be covered in a General English course of the same level.

Chia: So you are saying that we can teach Business English even to beginners then? :-)

Evan: For sure

Would I dare say otherwise?

Chia: You present an irrefutable argument here, Evan. I hate balanced people like you…they are just so difficult to put up a fight against!

Evan: Heh heh. Does that mean you’re now going to rush out and buy all those low level business English books you don’t already have? 🙂


Time to rush out a get a copy of Evan’s ESP book for the oil industry
Photo from

Chia: Just the other day, someone in my staffroom saw me holding a coursebook and tried to take a photo of me…and now you’re telling me to BUY one? ROFL

Evan: I’ve heard some people just photocopy the bits they need …


But I’m sure Evan would rather you not photocopy his books!
Photo from

Chia: For the sake of great coursebook writers like you (and all those who wrote the coursebooks featured here on today’s DA), I hope everyone buys the books and not just copies them!

…despite the fact that these books clearly aren’t THAT specific to the needs of the students by nature of the fact that they are published coursebooks…of course.

Evan: Heh heh. No, not at all. That is a cynical view of coursebooks. The thing is, teachers and learners need some way to access the target discourse. Often in ESP the reality is that the teacher is not an expert, and nor is the learner. So the course book is simply one way of accessing that target discourse, in other words, of providing ways to work with the sorts of language and contexts that have been identified in a needs analysis as most relevant to the learners. The point is that if we don’t have some way of accessing this target discourse we could end up focussing on things which are not necessarily a priority.

Hang on. I’ve said that already. You just weren’t listening …

Chia: And here was I thinking ‘Deja Vu! I thought he said that already!’

But seriously, there are some arguments for and against specificity that are really worth examining…and I’m really glad we managed to touch on some of the issues today, and hopefully this will propel readers to reflect on their own practice more and explore this area more.

At the end of the day, specificity versus general aren’t two mutually exclusive concepts, and probably exist on a continuum, don’t you think?

Let’s not overgeneralise! Even Essex has 50 Shades…
ELTpics: Photo by @pysproblem81

Evan: Yes, all good things in ELT exist on a continuum. It’s one of the eternal truths about the profession.

Just like the answer to all questions about teaching is “It depends”.

Chia: Wise words, Evan! Thanks for spending time with me today, and for allowing me and the readers to explore the controversies and debates surrounding ESP and specificity.

Evan: I have to say your DA column is great fun. And a great way to think through some of the issues. Thanks for the invite, and keep up the good work. 🙂

Evan’s talks are unmissable!
Photo by Mike Hogan

Epilogue: Evan’s opinions are his own and do not represent any organisations he is associated with. Chia was only playing DA, and truly believes that every teacher should hone their expertise within their field at every opportunity possible. Chia and Evan are still friends, although Evan never fails to remind Chia of the times she failed to come to his talks…but that’s a discourse for another time…and another genre…

‘Where are you from?’ and the issue of diaspora

Yesterday was the American Independence Day…which to me meant only one thing, it’s my London anniversary!

12 years ago, I came into this city by Eurostar from Paris and was struck by how at home the city made me feel.

Now, I am at home.

Last year, I wrote this 11th anniversary post about the 11 things I learnt in London…but the truth of the matter is, when I think of home, I think of London.

When England plays in the Eurocup, I get my St George’s flag out and shout ‘Come on England!’ at the top of my lungs.

When the UK wins a medal in the Olympics, I beam with pride as the national anthem ‘God Save the Queen’ plays.

I identify myself as a Londoner, and I know for sure that I feel more at home here than anywhere else in the world.

Yet, perhaps because I don’t look typically British, a common opening line when people meet me for the first time is to ask, ‘Where are you from?’

Whether it be a business associate I have just been introduced to or a pickup line at a pub, I have always found this opening line rather disconcerting.

I know that those who choose to use this line do not mean any harm, and are probably doing nothing more than making conversation, but I find ‘Where are you from?’ extremely exclusive and divisive…

Let me put it this way,

If a fat person walked into the pub, would you open the conversation with, ‘What on earth have you been eating?’

If a person came in on a wheelchair, would you start by saying, ‘So, pray tell, what happened to you?’

We wouldn’t dream of pointing out the differences between us and them in those situations.

It would definitely be considered a social faux pas.

Yet, it seems okay to most to start a conversation pointing out the difference between me and you because of the colour of my skin and my ethnic origin?

And the irony of it all is that, when asked, many would simply say, ‘We asked you that question only to try and achieve common ground between us!’

Of course, this might be due to our human need to put things in boxes and categorise everything into simple generalisations. The ability to siphon things into neat categories somehow feels comforting…and even necessary in facilitating how we go about our day-to-day activities. Our ‘assumed normality of the world’ is what tells us which conventions to apply to the situations we encounter.

We walk into a pub and order a beer in English because (a) we assume that pubs sell beer, and (b) we assume the bartender speaks English.

We say ‘Awful weather today, isn’t it?’ to our colleagues in the morning because (a) we assume that they hate the cold weather too, and (b) they know that talking about weather is merely a way making small talk and we do not intend to get into a full conversation about the weather.

We make assumptions (some universal, some cultural) everyday and this enables us to have relationships with people…

But does my oriental appearance or me being from a country in South East Asia really help you to know more about me? What does it help you to know?

So, sometimes, when confronted with the conversation opener, ‘Where are you from?’, I answer, ‘London’.

More often than not, I get this response – ‘No! Really! Where are you from?’

Even those who think I am born in London insist on asking that question, hoping I would leave them a clue as to my ethnic origins.

But what does ‘Where are you from?’ really mean?

Does it mean, ‘Where were you born?’

It can’t possibly mean this because I have a colleague who was born to British parents and went to primary school in Singapore, but lived most of his adult life in Manchester. When asked ‘Where are you from?’, his answer is always ‘Manchester’…and no one ever questions him with a ‘No…really! Where are you from?’

Or does it mean, ‘Where were you brought up and educated?’

It can’t possibly mean this either because I have another colleague who was born, brought up and educated in Glasgow but moved to Manchester for his university education and stayed for quite a long time. His accent is much more Mancunian than Glaswegian. And when asked ‘Where are you from?’, his answer tends to be ‘England’ or ‘Manchester’. Again, no one ever challenges that answer.

Or does it mean, ‘Where were your parents from?’

Ah…I have a friend whose parents are from the West Indies but he was born and brought up in London. Should he answer the question with ‘Jamaica’? Why is it that when he says ‘London’, no one raises any eyebrows?

To me, ‘Where are you from?’ means all of those things, but above all, it means, ‘Where do you feel you belong to in your heart?’.

Identity is a complex issue and diaspora and the lack of belonging can make one feel left out, excluded, and ostracised.

My ‘born-in-Singapore’ colleague feels Mancunian, and so does my colleague who was born in Glasgow. Because in their hearts, Manchester is where they belong.

I feel like a Londoner, and London is where I belong.

Happy 12th birthday to me…