Why is vocabulary important in ESP? - Introduction

Vocabulary and English for Specific Purposes Research - Averil Coxhead 2018

Why is vocabulary important in ESP?

There are many reasons why vocabulary is important in ESP, and each chapter in this book begins with reasons for investigating this field. Overall, there are several main reasons common to all these areas. The first reason is closely related to a feature of specialised vocabulary in ESP, which is its limited range of use (Nation, 2013). Defining this lexis can be difficult because we need to decide whether only words which are closely related to the subject are specialised or only those that are unique to the subject area are specialised. If we take the first approach, then the definition is much wider and inclusive. If we take the second approach, then the definition is much narrower and exclusive. For this reason, estimating the size of a technical vocabulary is difficult, because a great deal depends on which approach is taken. Estimates of how much technical vocabulary might be in a text can range from 20% to 30% of a text (Chung & Nation, 2003). If up to one word in three in a line of discipline-specific text could be technical in nature, then the sheer amount and frequency of discipline-specific lexical items in specialised texts is a powerful reason why this vocabulary is important.

Nation (2013) points out that Medicine and Botany are fields with large technical vocabularies. Second and foreign language learners need a large vocabulary to cope with their studies in academic or professional environments. Evans and Morrison (2011, p. 203), in a paper on the first-year experience in English-medium higher education in Hong Kong, found a lack of technical vocabulary to be a major source of difficulty for students. In research into vocabulary in trades education, students report the same problem (Coxhead, Demecheleer & McLaughlin, 2016). Vocabulary research in EAP can help identify the single words and multi-word units these learners need. It can also find out more about the vocabulary these learners use in their writing — for example, Hyland and Tse (2007) and Durrant (2014, p. 353) found that vocabulary use differs across disciplines. To use Durant’s examples, philosophy students use specialised adjectives such as ontological, engineers use specialised nouns and Science students use specialised verbs.

Another reason why specialised vocabulary is important is that knowledge of the vocabulary of a field is tightly related to content knowledge of the discipline (Woodward-Kron, 2008). In a longitudinal study of undergraduate students’ academic writing in Education, she writes:

The specialist language of a discipline is intrinsic to students’ learning of disciplinary knowledge; students need to show their understanding of concepts, phenomena, relations between phenomena etc. by incorporating the specialist language and terminology of their discipline into their writing accurately. They also need to adopt the specialist language in order to make meaning and engage with disciplinary knowledge.

(Woodward-Kron, 2008, p. 246)

This engagement with disciplinary knowledge and vocabulary is important also because it signals belonging to a community which shares the same concepts and understandings of a field (Ivanič, 1998; Wray, 2002).

Technical vocabulary in a field may or may not be shared with other technical areas, and learners do not tend to meet this specialised or technical vocabulary outside the discipline of their studies. Medical vocabulary, for example, is typically not included in everyday conversations in English. Plumbing vocabulary tends not to be well known outside the field but can become particularly important in the event of a burst pipe or worse. That said, we all need, at some point, to communicate with plumbers and medical professionals, and it is important that these specialists also know how to help non-specialists understand what they are saying. Vocabulary research can help these endeavours also.