Matt Firth has built up a reputation for himself as one of the leading European practitioners in the field of English for Specific Purposes or ESP. Based in Austria, Matt also works in Switzerland and Liechtenstein. You´re most likely to have heard his name in connection with legal English, an area of ESP he has extensive experience in and one that he has put a great deal of effort into opening up to novices considering entering it and current ESP teachers who may need guidance and support. Mattis a university lecturer, course designer, online trainer and teacher trainer as well as being the co-author of Introduction to International Legal English (Cambridge University Press) with Amy Krois-Lindner. In this interview, Claire Hart puts seven statements about ESP to Matt and he responds with some very convincing answers that may lead you to reassess the stereotypes and preconceptions about ESP teaching and learning you believed to be facts.
Matt Firth teaches Legal English at the University of St. Gallen, Switzerland, the Hochschule Vaduz, Liechtenstein and the Management Centre, Innsbruck. He is secretary of the European Legal English Teachers’ Association (EULETA) and runs regular workshops for teachers of Legal English. Matt is Production Manager with TransLegal, with whom he developed both the PLEAD Legal English blended learning course (together with Boston University and Cambridge University Press) and TransLegal’s Legal English Dictionary app. His recent publications include Introduction to International Legal English (with Amy Krois- Lindner), the Cambridge Academic English C1 Teacher’s Book and a regular Legal English column for Business Spotlight. See www.legalenglishtrainer.com for more details.
Claire Hart: 1) You need to be an expert in the area you´re teaching in, e.g. law, engineering, in order to teach English to those working in that area.
Matt Firth: No, certainly not. I’m not an expert in gardening, animals or Linda McCartney, but have taught materials based on each of these three topics during my career in EFL. It’s all about exploiting the information gap. We have the specialist language knowledge, our students have the specialist subject knowledge and this creates an information gap that we can exploit to provide some genuinely authentic tasks. I mainly teach lawyers, and they regularly have to explain aspects of their legal systems to clients from other jurisdictions. I will often follow up a language activity with a few questions that dig deeper into the learners’ legal systems, and they are always very pleased when they have the opportunity to display their specialist knowledge in English. The learners get useful language practice, and I learn something new about some aspect of Liechtenstein company law, for example. I can then use this information to help develop further materials specific to my students’ particular needs.
This doesn’t mean that we can go in to class not knowing a thing—as with any English course we need to be familiar with the materials we are using as carrier content—it means understanding them, knowing how to pronounce the words and knowing a little about the kinds of contexts in which they are used. While we are not expected to be experts, and our role is to teach language not content, it is certainly useful to know a little about the area in which our students work.
Claire Hart: 2) It´s impossible for those who haven´t studied the subject area or worked in that area to ever become an expert teacher in it.
Matt Firth: This is no truer of ESP as it is of any other area of life. I’ve never taken any formal courses in cooking, but consider myself a pretty good cook. I’ve never studied German, but am now pretty fluent in the language. And I know almost everything there is to know about the Beatles. I did study law, and yes, it certainly helped me during the early stages of my career. But this was more a case of simply being interested in the subject, and such an interest is essential for any ESP teacher. Most of what I know about commercial law I have learned from my students though!
The key thing here is to have the confidence to ask, and to make it clear from the start that you are the expert in the language, they are the expert in the subject area, and that you will both learn from each other as the course progresses.
Claire Hart: 3) ESP teachers aren´t qualified to teach what they´re teaching.
Matt Firth: That depends on the teacher in question. I think that the CELTA plus some experience of teaching general English would be a minimum before specialising. However, it depends on the individual. Someone with experience in the field in which they will be teaching may find that the CELTA, together with the in-course teaching practice, is enough. I would certainly encourage people involved in ESP to consider further qualifications. I have recently completed the online Cert IBET (Certificate in International Business English Training), and found it to be an excellent course. I would recommend the IBET to anyone considering a career in ESP. While the focus is business English, rather than ESP, many of the skills we learned during the course are transferable.
Claire Hart: 4) ESP teachers don´t deserve to be paid more than any other teachers
Matt Firth: This will sound trite, but I think that we all deserve to be paid what we are worth. With no offence meant to those teaching a general English course from an established course book, any course that trains the drafting of contracts in English will take more preparation and is also likely to be a higher stakes course for all involved; the teacher should, therefore, be paid accordingly. Good law firms invest a lot in professional development. If they understand that what they are getting from me is a highly specialist course developed in accordance with their specific requirements, then they should be prepared to pay a premium. Of course, at the start of my career in legal English I was more limited as to the kinds of courses I could teach, and a more general legal English course aimed primarily at law students will not be as well paid as one specially designed for partners in a law firm. As with other professions, the more experienced and established you become, the more you are able to specialise and negotiate a higher fee.
Claire Hart: 5) ESP is all about (specialised) vocabulary: learners just need to know the right
Matt Firth: If that were the case, all learners would need is a good professional English dictionary app. Specialist vocabulary is certainly important, but so are the universal problems that are also experienced by learners of general English, such as the correct use of prepositions, tenses and other problem areas with which we are all familiar. What is different in an ESP course is the context in which they are taught. If you are learning English for law, you are better off taking a specialist legal English course that focuses on these problems as they relate to the ways in which you need to use English, for example, the task and text types with which you have to be familiar. Add to this all of the profession-specific skills such as drafting contracts, understanding and interpreting legislation and conducting a successful lawyer-client interview in English and it quickly becomes clear that ESP consists of far more than simply specialist vocabulary, important though it is.
Claire Hart: 6) Course book materials are not adequate for teaching and learning ESP, you need to
use authentic materials instead.
Matt Firth: This will depend on the course. However, in my field there are at least two excellent course books available and these suit most of the courses I am currently teaching. As with all other courses, these classes can become dull for both the teacher and the students if the course if they simply consist of ploughing through a course book chronologically, so spice it up with some of the photocopiable activities form the teacher’s book or accompanying website. At the start of each of my courses, I ask the students to go through the map of the book and note down any areas that might be useful to them that are not covered by the book. They then help me to source good carrier content that I can develop into supplementary materials designed to suit their specific needs.
Claire Hart: 7) Most ESP teachers feel like they are working in isolation: the support networks for them aren´t there.
Matt Firth: I can understand this feeling, and felt quite alone at the start of my career in legal English too. Happily, I found a group of like-minded teachers who organized the occasional informal gathering of Legal English teachers. This went on to become a successful teaching organization: The European Legal English Teachers’ Association (EULETA) and we have now run yearly conferences and workshops since 2007. My feeling is that there are lots of smaller, specialist teaching associations out there—a few searches on Xing/LinkedIn should be enough to put you in touch with teachers working in similar areas of ESP. BESIG is a great place to start: it could probably be more accurately described as PESIG, with the ‘P’ standing for ‘professional’. A quick look at the conference abstracts from the past few years shows that there are many people out there teaching to highly specialized groups. In my experience, such teachers are usually very generous with their time – and more than ready to help a colleague.