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Pedagogy and education

On the experience of development of ESP course for special purposes of the students majoring in International Relations and Regional Studies

Maikova Tatyana

Senior Lecturer of the Department of Foreign Languages, Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences at Peoples' Friendship University of Russia

117198, Russia, g. Moscow, ul. Miklukho-Maklaya, 10/2, of. 502

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Abstract: The article describes the experience of author's participation in the development of ESP course (English for Specific Purposes) for students majoring in International Relations and Regional Studies, as well as examines the theoretical prerequisites for creation of similar courses. Having compared the terminological and discursive approaches towards development of the course in the sphere of humanities, preference is given to the latter. The article analyzes the offered by foreign linguistics integrative (CLIL) approach towards learning English language for special purposes, which implies combining the study of language and specialty discipline within the framework of a single course. Although the idea raises obvious interest, the authors of the course choose a rather traditional approach. The texts underlying the course are subordinate to its key objectives. Since the course is centered upon productive competences – mainly speaking – it predetermined the choice of factographic type of texts over analytical. Another method for increasing motivation is the use of illustrations, video and audio materials. The article also considers the problem of authenticity and scientific objectivity of the selected texts, since the views established in the Russian and foreign humanities may differ. The number and types of activities are determined by the specific needs of the students. Special emphasis is placed on determination and interpretation of metaphors in the scientific discourse of humanities.


Language for Special Purposes (LSP), English for Special Purposes (ESP), course design, discursive approach, Content and Language Integrated Learning, learning materials, authenticity, objectivity, metaphor, vocabulary retention

English is a commonly recognized language of international scientific exchange, and therefore is to be taught as a means of communication rather than a mere set of knowledge and skills – the challenge addressed within the framework of teaching Language for Special Purposes (LSP). LSP perspective has been one of the priority areas in Russian and Western linguistics and FL teaching methodology for several decades now. While Russian linguistics formulated principal theoretical and methodological prerequisites for LSP teaching methodology as early as in the 60-70's in the works by V.V. Vinogradov, O.S. Akhmanova, R.A. Budagov, etc, Western linguistics started to take an increased interest in this field in 1970s. [1].The scope of LSP teaching is cross-disciplinary and encompasses functional stylistics, intercultural communication theory, the study of professional sub-languages, FL teaching methodology with regard to different age-groups and categories of learners, etc.

In contrast with traditional grammar-based teaching, LSP is centered upon content and context [12, 466-467] and is aimed at catering to learners’ needs in their own academic or occupational environment [4]. Among the reasons that had a significant impact on the LSP development were a fundamental change in linguistics, with its focus shifted from language to speech within specific forms of communication, greater emphasis put on significant differences between written and oral discourse, as well as the rise of corpus linguistics and other technological advances. The fact that language usage in particular areas of vocational activity is largely confined to a limited set of expressions gave rise to a new course design where learning is built around the learners’ true professional needs. As T. Hutchinson put it "ESP is an approach to language teaching in which all decisions as to content and method are based on the learner's reason for learning" [11]. At the same time, T. Dudley-Evans defines ESP teaching as related to or intended for special disciplines, with methods different from those typical of teaching General English and aimed primarily at adults with intermediate or advanced knowledge of the language [8].

Of late, a new important development in ESP teaching has been suggested, called Content and Language Integrated Learning (CLIL) defined by Coyle, Hood and Marsh [7, 1] as “a dual-focused educational approach in which an additional language is used for the learning and teaching of both content and language. That is, in the teaching and learning process, there is a focus not only on content, and not only on language. Each is interwoven, even if the emphasis is greater on one or the other at a given time”. Although the method has been gaining ground in Europe and is practiced as part of mainstream education or in the form of pilot projects, it still remains a topic of animated debate. The authors’ chosen approach in the course design effort is that teaching LSP is not intended to replace content teaching or provide additional information on the discipline itself, but to further the skills of academic reading, writing and speaking. As A. Ivanova put it, “the task is to teach students to master specific linguistic means within the sublanguage of science in a particular field, identify the author’s communicative intention, be able to interpret and express it verbally and in writing" [3].

English as LSP relies heavily on the interplay of linguistic competencies such as reading of authentic academic texts, academic writing on topics of scientific interest, delivering reports at conferences and symposia and participation in academic debate. Like any other LSP, the sublanguage of social sciences includes both terminological and non-terminological elements, which are basically the words of a spoken language as well as grammatical and stylistic elements of discourse. In its early days LSP teaching put greater emphasis on terminological components as units used to encode and distribute knowledge and their usage was seen as the only distinctive feature of specialized communication, then, following progress in LSP studies, attention shifted to recurrent syntactic features and other non-terminological elements, while in more recent times a discursive approach with its focus on text and language in use has prevailed [9]. It should be noted, however, that in social sciences in general terminology plays less of a role. While technical science terms are mostly homogeneous and precise, terminology in the sphere of social sciences and humanities is more likely to have a generic sense that might be understood even outside of professional communication [2], and thus requires less attention as part of a LSP course.

Both terminological and non-terminological professional lexis is normally obtained and replenished through reading specialized texts. l Text selection and processing for a training toolkit is to be subordinated to a greater task of presenting terminology in the systemic perspective. The systemic nature of terminology is realized in a language through a set of conceptual and structural links between the terms. In terminological studies more importance is traditionally attached to paradigmatic relations such as synonymy, antonymy, hyponymy and hypernymy, while in teaching LSP, syntagmatic relations – the ones between linearly ordered elements of scientific discourse – come to the fore.

The afore-said principles were laid as groundwork for a course design of ESP for International Relations and Regional Studies majors. These principles might be formulated as follows:

1. The course should be catered to learners’ needs in their occupational environment.

2. The course should require at least intermediate initial knowledge of the language.

3. The course should not be seen as a form of content teaching.

4. The course should be based on a discursive approach with its focus on text and language in use and less emphasis on terminology.

Besides, in designing an ESP course its authors came to address a number of other issues, the primary being learning objectives. Given the fact that the course graduates are certified as translators/ interpreters in the sphere of professional communication, the decision was to put more emphasis on productive competences such as speaking and writing. This defined the requirements that learning materials were to meet, such as authenticity, motivational character, scientific relevance, scientific objectivity, common line of subject matter. Besides, despite the fact that the course employs various types of learning materials (textual, audio and video materials), it was designed as virtually text-based.

Since speaking was prioritized over other linguistic competencies, learning materials were to be motivational, i.e. arousing in the learners a desire to speak out. First and furthermost this applied to the texts per se. It should be noted here that International Relations and Regional Studies as an academic discipline tap into a wide range of texts – from factual to analytical to purely theoretical. Upon an intense round of testing, the authors opted for those based on factual information at times in combination with a bit of analysis due to a number of reasons. Firstly, a sequence of events forms a kind of storyline, easy for the learners to extract and reproduce orally or in writing. Secondly, this kind of text is more likely to arouse a vivid interest in the learners thus getting them more motivated. For this very purpose of motivation the course also includes other linguistic and non-linguistic means such as illustrations as well as tasks based on video and audio materials.

Materials were basically retrieved from online open access sources and underwent further processing. Their choice was conditioned by several factors. Firstly, each chosen text was to cover a topic along a general line of the course. Secondly, they were to be of some interest in terms of language itself and contain relevant terminological and non-terminological lexis. Thirdly, the texts had to be authentic, and finally they had to be scientifically objective. The latter two turned out to be quite intertwined. While there is no doubt that LSP teaching should be based on authentic materials, in social sciences it is not always easy to avoid some kind of a political bias, especially when it comes to contentious issues such as colonialism or behind-the-scenes politics. Thus the authors opted for the texts free of non-disclosure of material facts, those containing sufficient amount of information in an objective perspective. Obviously, all the afore-said also applies to video materials. Besides, the selected videos represent a variety of accents and are diverse: from video lectures to short documentaries to scenes from feature films. The resulting materials were also to meet the criteria of a given length, empirically defined as roughly 6,000 characters per text or a 3-minute video. To this effect, the texts were trimmed, merged or even compiled from several if necessary. The videos were also trimmed, the chosen parts cut out and reassembled.

Every text is prefaced and followed by a number of exercises, the first being a short phonetic drill (except for the video-based assignments). It is followed by ‘explanatory’ pre-reading exercise where the learners are asked to look up for additional information elsewhere if necessary, which implies some kind of extensive reading, or suggest an explanation for metaphor-based expressions from the text. The latter is intended to achieve two goals – 1) to raise the learners’ metaphor awareness and 2) to teach them to paraphrase. As previous research has suggested, enhanced metaphoric awareness through activities that help learners to draw associations between metaphorical expressions and their direct meanings may lead to higher retention rate of vocabulary [9]. It should be noted here that metaphor is not uncommon of scientific discourse, social sciences being no exception, and is no longer understood as a pure figure of speech basically used for aesthetic purposes, but rather as a fundamental mechanism of human thinking. Thus, metaphors are pervasive in scientific writing.

The text is meant for intensive reading (careful and thorough reading for specific details). While doing the reading, the learners are supposed to distinguish the core of the text from the supporting ideas and at the same time recognize hidden meanings and references. Each text is immediately followed by a comprehension exercise, one of three types, – direct questions, True/False questions, elaboration on specific points. This helps get the learners involved in oral discussion and at the same time clarify the concepts that might have remained somewhat vague.

Further lexical exercises are intended to meet the needs of the learners to build a consistent body of lexis that is specific to and occurs frequently in their area of study. A good command of lexis is also key in tapping into resources otherwise inaccessible because of the language barrier – scientific journals, specialized websites, and professional communication with peers abroad. The authors are of the opinion that vocabulary acquisition might be facilitated in two ways – through ‘research’-based activities and through repeated exposure to the same pieces of lexis. By ‘research’ here we basically mean a form of contextualized presentation of a new vocabulary when the meaning is to be deduced and matched with the suggested definitions. The course also offers other type of text-related activities, such as gap filling, collocation grids, etc. This also applies to video-based assignments, with the only exception that the presentation is oral and the work starts with writing the new words down by ear in small chunks of context. It should be noted here, that the course does not utilize Russian-to-English translation type of activities on the level higher than mere set expressions, since the problems of translation proper go beyond the ESP scope and require special attention as part of translation-related disciplines.

At the moment the course is run as a pilot project at Foreign Languages Chair of Social Sciences and Humanities Department of RUDN University and shows promising results in terms of learners’ motivation, retention of vocabulary, and fluency in specialized reading and speaking.

To generalize on the LSP course design effort described here, several points might be made. Firstly, LSP course has to address the learners’ needs in their own vocational environment and their reasons to learn. Secondly, its design is to be built around desired competencies, such as academic or technical reading, writing or oral type of occupational communication. Though all types of learning materials might be employed in an ESP course, it remains largely text-based. Types of texts selected for the course are basically defined by learning objectives. The texts are to meet the requirements of authenticity and scientific objectivity, cover a consistent line of topics, and be of a certain length. The number and types of text-based activities are conditioned by specific learners’ needs.

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