English for Specific Purposes vs General English

Guest Blogger: James Brooks is a translator and university-level English teacher specialising in English for Specific Purposes. He is also the founder of TeachTranslateTravelRepeat, which offers resources and classes for Scientific, Medical and Technical English.

So you have been learning English for a while now. You have learnt some valuable things like “Where is the nearest train station?” and “Can I have some vinegar with my fish and chips, please?” It is helpful for travelling or even living in an English-speaking country but you want to learn English for your job. However, you haven’t learnt enough to help you there yet. “Where is the nearest pharmacy” will probably not help you in a courtroom. “How much is a pint of beer” will not help you discuss your mechanical engineering design project with your colleagues in the UK. You probably won’t hear “I would like to order the salmon en croute” in a clinical trial. What can you do? 

Now that your English is at a higher level (i.e. B2-C2 on the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages – CEFR) and you have taken some classes here on English Like A Native, it is time to consider some more specialised steps.

English for Specific Purposes

Unlike general English, English for Specific Purposes (ESP, or English for Specific Academic Purposes – ESAP – when connected with research and academia or English for Occupational Purposes – EOP – when focusing on specific jobs) focuses on a field or topic and how English is used in that context. As you can imagine, there are several types of ESP – as many as there are fields and jobs! We are going to look at some of the most common:

  1. Scientific English
  2. Medical English
  3. Technical English
  4. Legal English

How is ESP different from General English? 

In general, ESP follows a more rigid set of structures than General English does. Telling someone about something in General English can be very unstructured and jump back and forth between multiple points. In ESP, explanations must flow well from one point to another.

Let’s look at a few more language differences:. 

  • General English is full of rules and exceptions to the rule. On the contrary, ESP has fewer exceptions. 
  • General English likes to use flowery language and variety; ESP avoids these at all costs, preferring to be factual and accurate rather than “interesting”. 
  • In ESP, words have more strict definitions and mean one thing while words in General English can have multiple definitions and mean many things. 

When talking about writing, ESP becomes very formulaic to follow these rules. It also uses language devices that are seldom seen in General English, such as hedging

All of these things combined make ESP a foreign language for everyone, even native English speakers. Now let’s look at the more common types of ESP in more depth:

What is Scientific English?

What is Scientific English

Scientific English is a type of ESP used by the scientific community. You can hear it in the lab, in the field, at conferences and during scientific presentations, and see it written in publications such as articles and textbooks. Scientific English can be broken down further into specific types based on the underlying principles of each discipline: biological, chemical, physical, and social (e.g. psychology, geography, sociology) sciences. Each of these has slight differences, usually in the structure of their journal articles.

 

So where did it come from and why do we need it? Scientific English has been around in some form or another for nearly 700 years. Since the end of World War 2, when English became the dominant language for all fields of science, Scientific English has been adopted by the scientific community for almost all publications, conferences and communication between scientists. As a result, a set standard of rules was needed so that everyone would understand each other no matter where they come from. The result is modern Scientific English. 

How are Scientific English and General English different?

In some ways, Scientific English is easier than general English. General English can be very complicated with its grammar, verb tenses and sentence structures. In contrast, Scientific English by definition uses less complex sentences. The purpose of Scientific English is to communicate as quickly and efficiently as possible while telling people about a discovery you have made. Science is difficult enough. Complex grammar and structures are avoided to make the research easier to understand. Especially when writing, sentences are made as simple as possible. For a well-written scientific article, your questions should be about the science, not about language. 

 

In addition to simple grammar, Scientific English is very structured. This is why scientific articles are usually split into four or five sections: Introduction, Materials and Methods, Results, Discussion and (if separate) Conclusion. Specific information goes in specific places in the article. For example, if you need to find out how an experiment was done, you should look in the Materials and Methods section. If you want to find out the result of the experiment, you should look in the Results section. If you want to find out why the author thinks the result happened, you should read the Discussion section. To find out the final message about what was learnt, read the Conclusion section or, if they are not separated, the last paragraph or two of the Discussion section. 

 

Each section also has specific rules about which tenses to use and what information goes there. For the introduction, you tell the reader about what has been done already about this research topic (past tense) and tell your reader any information they need to know to understand the rest of the article (present tense). For the materials and methods, these are materials you bought and experiments that you did in the past, so usually, the simple past is used – “We mixed chemical A and B in a flask at 40°C for 10 minutes”. For the results you use the past tense for what you got directly from the experiments and the present tense when talking about figures and images – “As you can see in Figure 1, …” For the discussion and conclusion, you use the past tense to relate your ideas to research done by other people, the present tense to talk about why you think something happened, and maybe also using the “will” future to talk about the next question that you will research because of the current experiments.

 

Finally, the structure of presenting information is very straightforward, unlike General English. Think of a novel. Sometimes authors will tell you a story but they start in the middle. Over time they give you some more background information, then some action happens, then more background information, etc. It is great for a Hollywood film but Scientific English does not do this. When you introduce information, you do it in two ways: point-first or point-last. For point-first, you think your audience can understand your hypothesis without help, so it is the first thing you tell them. You then back it up with data, facts and observations that support this argument. For point-last, your audience needs help with understanding your argument, so you do the opposite. You start with the data, facts and observations and build up to your hypothesis. Using a combination of these structures helps to create the perfect publication. 

 

All of these points and more combine to create a type of English that scientists around the world can trust to communicate their research accurately, precisely and effectively. 

What is Medical English?

What is Medical English?

For those in the medical field (doctors, nurses, medical technicians, medical receptionists, medical secretaries, etc.), you need Medical English for your job. General English is often used when dealing with patients (who have no idea about medicine), but General English is insufficient when talking with other medical staff about the health of patients.

Medical English is similar to Scientific in many ways. The medical field takes science and applies it to the human body to treat and potentially cure diseases and ailments, so many of the scientific and medical ESP rules are the same. There are some crucial differences though, which make Medical English its own ESP.

For those working on the front lines with patients, you are more likely to use Medical English when creating patient charts and writing referrals, medical reports, and other documents meant for medical professionals. These documents often have many standardised abbreviations, set phrases and specialised vocabulary. 

For those doing medical research (for example clinical trials), there are many more similarities with Scientific English, especially in terms of structure, presentation and language used. Clinical trial reports are like scientific articles but they need to be hundreds of pages long. Where scientific journal articles can omit “obvious, commonly held” information within a field, clinical trial reports need to give all information about every patient and patient group in the trial. Also any side effects no matter how insignificant have to be reported and theorised about. 

How is Medical English different from General English?

Depending on the format (medical chart, clinical trial publications, etc) Medical English shares some of the same differences to General English as Scientific English does. However there are some additional ones to be aware of. If you have ever read a medical chart in English, you will know that it is difficult to find a full sentence in English. For example: 

Lung exam 5/4/2022. Hyperresonant percussion and distant breath sounds throughout. Occ wheezes. Good candidate for a scooter to carry him the necessary distances in his home to use toilet/sink and kitchen facilities. Home seems amenable to this device.

This style gives information about the patient without any additional, erroneous words. Short, sweet and to the point. There are also words missing, especially articles (a, an, the) in this style and the subject is assumed to be the patient, so it is omitted. This helps keep medical English short and to the point – why restate something that everyone knows?

Medical English, therefore, allows medical professionals to communicate effectively, precisely and accurately in a way that couldn’t happen with General English.

Technical English

How is Technical English different from General English

In the world of engineering and technology, Technical English reigns supreme. Technical English is the language of user instructions, technical manuals, specifications and many other documents and conversations needed to design, create, distribute and explain products. Engineers, product managers, technical secretaries, quality assurance managers and many others need to communicate in a simple, easy to understand way.

That’s where Technical English comes in. Technical English is a highly structured, straight-to-the-point language that has a no-nonsense attitude. There are no extra bells and whistles. The shorter and more to the point, the better. For example, think about the last time you read a manual for a product in English. If it was well-written, all the instructions on how to use the product or one of its functions were written as commands: Remove the packaging tape. Open the box. Remove the product. 

Each step must also be unambiguous and in the simplest terms. There is a rule in Technical English: if there is a way for someone to misunderstand something, they will. Instructions must only be read one way – the way you want. If they can be read any other way, they are not good instructions. Usually good documents go through many revisions and tests to make sure they are written the way they were intended to be read. 

Technical English also uses many bullet points, headings and subheadings, and images. There is a saying in English: a picture is worth a thousand words. Scientific English may use images well but Technical English takes it to a completely new level. Have you ever seen IKEA instructions? 

Technical English PDF

Usually their instruction manuals have no words – yet you can understand every picture. 

In Technical English using diagrams is strongly encouraged as long as the diagram or image is clear. The fewer words the better because it means that it is less likely to be understood. This is why technical documents usually have a lot of diagrams and images. 

How is Technical English different from General English?

In many ways Technical English is easier than General English. Like the other ESP mentioned so far, the structure is much more clearly defined. There are no compound sentences and there are very few complex sentences (sentences with dependent clauses). 

If you work in the aviation, aerospace or defence industries, there is also a type of Technical English called Simplified Technical English or ASD-STE100 Simplified Technical English, which goes a step further and has many other rules, including limiting sentence length (no more than 20 words), restricting paragraphs to no more than 6 sentences, and not using the present participle or gerund forms (verb + ing) among other things. There are also very strict vocabulary rules to do with aviation terms that must be used (no exceptions). 

This helps keep engineers communicating efficiently and improving the world around us. 

Legal English

How is Legal English different from General English and other ESP?

For those working in the legal field (lawyer, barrister, paralegal, legal secretary, etc.), Legal English is the ESP for you. It is also the most different from the others on this list.

Legal English has a long and complicated history that has to do with the founding of England. In 1066 the Normans invaded from England. They set up a noble class that spoke French while the average person spoke Old English. At that time there were also 3 different kinds of laws: one that applied to the church (and was written in Latin), one that applied to the nobility (in French), and one that applied to everyone else (in Old English). 

In essence there were 3 different legal systems in 3 different languages. How were they going to create a language that everyone would understand?

The result is Legal English. Legal English uses words in a very specific way as defined by the law. In the UK if you asked the average person if there is a difference between theft, robbery and burglary, they would say no. They mean to take something without permission; to steal. However, in UK law, theft is simple stealing whereas robbery uses force to steal and burglary is entering a place unlawfully to steal something or harm someone. The general public may see them as the same thing but they are very different in the eyes of the law. The punishments are also different for each crime.

How is Legal English different from General English and other ESP?

In many ways Legal English is almost a different language which happens to use English. Each term is strictly defined by the law; however, the law may also change, changing the meaning of these words. 

Legal English also has a unique feature called doublets and triplets. If you have seen police shows, you might have heard the term “cease and desist”. Cease means “to stop” and desist means “to stop”. So why use two terms that mean the same thing? It goes back to the history and different types of laws. Today there is only one set of laws but the terminology still exists. There are also instances where three words that mean the same thing are used.

In contrast with the other ESP mentioned above, which tries to be as short and accurate as possible, Legal English needs to be as accurate and specific in terms of the law as possible. As a result, legal English is rarely short. It usually takes a lot of writing to define terminology, set conditions, and make caveats. As a result, Legal English is usually more complex than General English. If you are unfamiliar with Legal English, it can be almost impossible to understand legal documents. Native speakers also have a lot of trouble understanding Legal English without training.

 

Legal English is also more specific to the country than other ESP. There is some slight variation in most ESP based on country/dialect (e.g. truck vs lorry) but because Legal English is connected directly with the local law (e.g. English law vs Scottish law vs UK law or US Federal law vs California law), there are as many different varieties are there are legal systems. For example, learning UK Legal English does not prepare you for US Legal English. The terms used in UK police dramas on TV can mean something different than in US police dramas. It all depends on the law.

Where can I find out more information about ESP?

There are a couple of ways to find out more about the various ESP:

Ask your boss, programme coordinator or professor

If you work for a company, legal firm, or another place that you think uses ESP, ask your boss or HR department. They may offer ESP classes you can join.

If you are a student you can ask your professor or study programme coordinator. They may be able to point you in the right direction. If your university has a language centre, they may offer ESP classes. 

Language learning and language exchange apps

Unfortunately, apps like Duolingo and Babbel can’t help you with ESP. They want to have a wide range of learners, so they still stick with General English. 

At the time of writing, there are currently no apps that specialise in ESP specifically. However, some apps that may help are language exchange apps like Tandem and HelloTalk. The concept is simple: penpals in the age of the internet. You find people who speak a language you want to learn and in return, you practise your language with them. You can try this with ESP too. However there are some drawbacks:

  • It can be difficult to find people who want to practise your language, especially if you speak a language that is not very popular. These apps also often have few English speakers in comparison with speakers of other languages, so you often have to compete for their attention.
  • After finding an English speaker, it is often difficult to find someone who knows ESP. ESP are very specialised, so you need to find someone who knows the ESP you want to learn. It can be like trying to find a needle in a haystack.
  • If you do find someone, they need to be willing to teach you and explain things well. Usually, the users of these apps do not want to teach their language to you. They are there to practise with you. Many of them also do not know how to explain language concepts, let alone more complex ESP concepts. 

Dictionaries, handbooks and documents

If you think your English is good enough, you could try the “sink or swim” method – try reading documents written in that ESP. If you are a lawyer, read legal documents. For example, if you are interested in US Legal English, read some opinions from the US Supreme Court about their cases. If you want to work for a research company, read some of their latest journal publications. This will be very difficult in the beginning but you may start to see patterns, learn new vocabulary and get an idea for sentences, paragraphs and overall structures.

Reference materials such as medical, scientific and legal dictionaries can also be a good resource for learning the meaning of specialised terminology. The Free Dictionary offers medical, legal and financial dictionaries online, which are 100% free to use. 

Reading reference materials and dictionaries can be very dry (or boring) and may not make sense without context, so only do this in moderation. It will also not help you learn the rules for your ESP and how to apply them. 

Online

If it looks like there are no classes you can take and you can’t find anyone on a language exchange app to help you, the best place to turn to is the Internet. There are a few but growing number of resources that can help you. 

 

YouTube can be a good place to start learning vocabulary for ESP, especially in the legal, medical and scientific fields. Some English speakers have made videos about medical, scientific and legal terms. These English teachers usually are not specialists in the field they are talking about, so the terminology is basic or from a General English point of view. 

If you want to learn Legal English, there are many resources available to you, such as the British Legal Centre (specifically for Legal English in the UK), which offers free Legal English classes. Other institutions also offer support or classes for various locales of Legal English. In Google search for “Legal English” and the name of the country you are interested in (e.g. “Legal English Canada”) to find specific ones for you.

Some universities have also made their ESP materials from courses they teach available online either for free or via a subscription service. The type of class and quality vary, so make sure to read reviews and figure out which one is best for you.

One such specialist resource is TeachTranslateTravelRepeat (TTTR for short), which specialises in Scientific, Medical and Technical English.

TTTR’s page on Scientific English is a good resource for those who want to learn Scientific English. Individual courses are currently (as of May 2022) being developed at TTTR for the biological, chemical, physical, and social sciences. These will be available soon at the link above. The same basic principles of the resources available also apply to Medical and Technical English. More materials and classes for these specific types of ESP will be available in the near future as well.

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