[This is Part 2. It'll  make more sense if you read Part 1 first]

So … what’s the point of articles? The best way to think of them is like the indicator lights on your car. You use these to communicate three things: that you’re about to turn left, that you’re about to turn right, or that you’re planning to go straight on (signalled by not using the lights).

There are three ways that this is a useful analogy. Firstly, think back to when you were learning to drive. Indicators were the easiest thing to forget. It was easy enough to use the steering wheel, and the pedals and gears were complicated but learnable. But when you’re concentrating on all those things, who has time to think about indicators?

Do they allow you to go faster? No. Do they make your life as a driver easier in any way? No. So what’s the point? If you think back to Dorota’s question in part 1, these were basically the same questions that she asked about articles.

The answer to both  questions, of course, is that indicators and articles aren’t there to help you,  the driver / speaker. They’re there for the other drivers / listeners who have to work out your intentions and avoid crashes. I’ll explain this in much more  detail as the series progresses.

Secondly, as I’ve just mentioned, non-use of indicator lights communicates an important message. In the same way, non-use of articles often communicates something very specific. That’s why we talk about three articles in English: a/an, the and Ø, where Ø is the zero article, i.e. the absence of an article.

Thirdly, when we’re learning to drive, it doesn’t really matter if we forget to use indicators from time to time. We’re driving slowly enough, and there’s a big letter L on top of the car telling other drivers to expect us to make mistakes, and to take care around us. Learner English speakers don’t have L- plates, but they do tend to speak slowly and have quite strong accents, so it doesn’t really matter if they don’t use articles.

But think back to Dorota – she was extremely fluent and natural-sounding in English, so her non-use of articles was much more of a problem – like driving at 100 km/h with no indicators.

Actually, it’s worse than that. Here’s a summary of the  main message communicated by each article and each indicator:
  • - left indicator / a /an: Watch out – I’m going to change direction.
  • - right indicator / Ø: Watch out – I’m going to change direction.
  • - no indicator / the: Don’t worry – I’m continuing in the same direction. 
  • As you can see, skipping articles isn’t exactly like not using indicators. It’s like signalling right all the time. So Dorota was driving at 100 km/h with her right indicator flashing all the time. An accident waiting to happen.

    OK, so that’s the theory. I’ll bring this much more  down to earth in part 3.

    To be continued  ...
    [This post comes from my ESP blog, Specific English]

    In a much earlier post on this blog, I raised the idea that there are basically two approaches to ESP course designEnglish for … and English  through …

    Just to recap, with an English for … approach, we are teaching learners the specific language and skills they need in order to function effectively at work in English. The starting point is the  needs analysis, which generates a series of situations where the learner may need to use English, whether in speech or in writing. There’s a strong emphasis on functional language presented in context and skills work, especially role-plays, to practise it.

    With an English  through … approach, on the other hand, the focus is on developing learners’ level of English, and the ESP field simply provides the context. Such a course might be built around, for example, a traditional grammar syllabus, but the examples and practice sentences could be related to the ESP field. There’s a strong emphasis on learning vocabulary and reading articles about the ESP field.

    Because the books I’ve worked on have all been skills-based, I’ve tended to stay around the English for … side. That’s not to say there’s anything wrong with an English through … approach. I  think there’s a place for both.

    In fact, what I’ve come to realise is that it’s better to think in terms of a scale, with extreme English for … at one end, extreme English through … at the other, and most ESP fields, and therefore courses, somewhere in between. Not long ago, I wrote a
    blog post, arguing that there’s not much you can do with Financial English apart from vocabulary and reading texts, so I’d put Financial English somewhere near the English through ... extreme. Of course, surely there’s still some useful functional / situational stuff you can do, but it's hard to argue that Financial English is a proper genre with its own grammar and style.

    Further out on that wing, I’d say, is English for Oil and Gas, which is a great topic for vocab and reading texts, but I really can’t imagine any situations that both an oil rig engineer and an oil trader might both find themselves in, and therefore much in the way of functional / situational language to include in such a course.

    Legal English, on the other hand, is out towards the other wing. There’s plenty of functional / situational language shared by all lawyers, and this especially true when it comes to written legal English, especially the language of contracts, which is a recognizable genre of English, with its own grammar rules (wherewith and all that) and style.

    Where’s all this leading? Well, for me, as an English-for guy, there’s one ESP field that beats all the others: Aviation English: the language that all pilots and air traffic control officers (ATCOs) use to communicate with each other around the world. The language is English in the sense that it uses English words, but it also has its own very specific grammar, vocabulary, spelling and pronunciation rules. Or, to echo the title of my blog, it's a really specific English.

    Take a look at the numbers 0–9 in aviation English: zerowun, too, tree, fower, fifesix, seven, ait, niner

    Wuntoo and ait are pronounced as normal numbers, but the spelling is designed to discourage pilots and ATCOs from trying to pronounce them the way they are spelled. Tree  is easier to say than three. Fower (which rhymes with flower) also avoids a tricky vowel sound. Niner has an extra  syllable to avoid confusion with five … sorry, fife. Cool, huh?

    The grammar of aviation English is also a bit  quirky: ‘Request taxi for departure’ is not an imperative (Please  can you request a taxi) but an actual request (I am requesting  permission to use the taxiways to get to the holding point for departure).  In a way, it makes sense to mark a request by starting with the word request, but when you first come across it, it’s pretty  weird.

    One final example: here’s a weather forecast, which  all pilots and ATCOs would understand immediately: 
      METAR KBUF 121755Z AUTO 21016G24KT 180V240 1SM R11/P6000ft -RA BR BKN015 OVC025 06/04 A2990.
    I won’t go through it all, but 121755Z is simply the date (the 12th) and time (17.55 GMT). 16G24KT is the wind speed: 16 knots, gusting (G) to 24 knots. 1SM is the visibility: one statute mile. And -RN BR describes the weather conditions: light  (-) rain (RN) and mist (BR).

    So … it really does  seem to be a different language, which is why in my title I’ve called it the  purest form of  ESP. And it’s also why I had a bit of an identity crisis:  how could I call myself an ESP all-rounder when, never having taught or studied  aviation English, I had such a big gap in my ESP  portfolio.

    So that was why,  about two years ago, I couldn’t turn down the chance to co-author the teacher’s  book for Flightpath:  Aviation English forPilots and ATCOs, which came out earlier this year.

    Fortunately, my co-author was Philip Shawcross, a  world-class expert on aviation English, and the President of the ICAEA  (International Civil Aviation English Association).

    So it meant my main  job was ask Philip thousands of really stupid questions – the sort of questions  that a new teacher of aviation English might be expected to ask. This was a  technique I’d perfected while working on my legal English teacher’s books, but  it still meant a year of very very hard work for all involved. But I’m very  proud of the finished product.

    Now all I need to complete my ESP portfolio is something on oil and gas … only kidding.

    Related posts:
    Two approaches to ESP course  design
    Financial English - if such a thing  exists 
    Where was I?
    [This is the first post from my grammar blog, Grrrammar. As promised, I'll be re-posting on this blog too.]
    Many years ago, one of my colleagues came down to the factory in southern Poland where I was based, in order to teach an intensive English course with a manager called Dorota. Her level of English was incredible: she was extremely fluent and accurate, and didn’t seem to need an English course at all. By the end of day 1, my colleague was feeling bad: he felt that he hadn’t been able to teach her anything new during the whole day.

    When I spoke to him at the end of day 2, however, he was feeling much better. He had identified Dorota’s main weakness in English. She never used articles (a/the). 

    Dorota was Polish, and Polish people are well-known for having problems with articles; after all, there are no articles in Polish. But Dorota didn’t have a problem with articles – she simply didn’t use them at all.

    So my colleague spent that evening photocopying whatever worksheets he could find that would help him teach Dorota about articles. There was a list of rules, there was a worksheet on articles and geographical names (e.g. __ Himalayas, __ Mount Everest) and a text with all the articles removed (e.g. My uncle is __ postman. He lives in __ small village in __ England). Armed with all these materials, how could he fail to teach her about articles and improve her English?

    After day 3, I asked him how it had gone. “It was a disaster”, he said. She had  refused to look at the rules,
    and hadn’t touched the  worksheets. “As you said yourself, I speak very  fluently and accurately”, she had explained to my colleague. “Everyone  understands me. Why do I need articles? If I start worrying about which articles  to use, it’ll slow me right down. It’ll make my English worse, not better. What  purpose do they serve? How do they help me? If you can’t answer my question, I’m  not going to learn your stupid, complicated rules”.

    And that was the problem. My  colleague couldn’t explain how articles would help her, and why she should even  consider becoming less fluent in order to worry about these meaningless little  words. That evening, he asked me for my advice, and I was also unable to answer  Dorota’s question.

    But that wasn’t the end for me. I  then worried about Dorota’s question for several years, and searched everywhere  for an answer. Over the years, I’ve had quite a few insights into the purpose of  articles and how they work – perhaps still not enough to satisfy Dorota, but I’d  certainly be able to give her a sensible answer now.

    So that’s the purpose of this series of blog posts. Articles are one of the most misunderstood parts of English grammar. One day I hope to write a whole book about them. So be warned: this series could be quite long.

    To be continued ...
    The Alps by coyote-agile
    Isn't there more to articles than learning about names of mountain ranges?
    This month sees the launch of Business Advantage, a major new series of Business English course books from Cambridge University Press.

    My role was limited but still quite important: I wrote a series of video lessons to accompany the DVDs for the
    Intermediate and Upper Intermediate levels. But it's still nice to have been part of a big project like this.

    For more information, go to the Cambridge catalogue.
    The latest product I've been working on is English360 for Engineering. This is a course designed for self-study or classroom use. It's also a community for engineers around the world to work together in English to solve engineering problems.

    There are four main elements to the course: a skills syllabus, based on Cambridge English for Engineering by Mark Ibbotson; a vocabulary syllabus, based on Professional English in Use Engineering, also by Mark ; a
    new grammar syllbus, written by me, to tie in with the main units; and a series of video case studies specially written by Mark and edited by me. The whole thing is hosted on the English360 platform, which means it's fully interactive.

    For more information, go to engineering.english360.com or search for English360 for Engineering on Facebook.
    Welcome to my new site. The purpose of this site is really threefold:

    Firstly, I've always been frustrated that there's never been a single site where I can showcase my books, especially the Cambridge English for ... series, which I edit. So at last I've got a web address that I can use whenever someone asks me to 'show me your series'. I've also created a bookshop page where people can buy the books directly from Amazon.

    Secondly, I'm going to use this blog to bring together the various bits of writing I do elsewhere. I've had an ESP blog for a few years, Specific English, which has been badly neglected over the years but which still attracts a surprising number of hits and comments. I've also created a grammar blog, GRRRammar, which I've got high hopes for, but which is still waiting for its first proper post. I also post occasionally on the English360 blog, and I'm going to start posting on the English360 for Engineers teacher training blog very soon too. So my plan is to copy all those posts into a single blog here.

    Thirdly, I've got lots of big ideas for taking the world of ESP into new directions. If I ever get time to put these plans into practice, I'll use this website to do it.

    A couple of important things to note about this site. Although there are a lot of references to Cambridge University Press, this site has nothing to do with Cambridge. I'm just promoting my own books, most of which happen to be published by Cambridge ... so far at least.

    The other thing to note is that the site is very much a work in progress. I've tried to put at least something on every page, but I knew that if I waited til everything was ready before publishing, I'd never get round to it. So apologies in advance if some of the pages feel a bit empty.

    So I hope you find something useful or interesting on these pages.