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Teachable versus Unteachable Materials;
Two Examples of English for Military Purposes
by Neil McBeath
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The following paper is not original work. It has been compiled from papers that I have presented at different conferences, from papers that I have published and from papers that are awaiting publication (McBeath 2005a; 2005b; 2006a; 2006b; 2006c; 2006d; 2007a; 2007b; 2007c; Forthcoming a; Forthcoming b)

From January 1981 to June 2005, I served as a uniformed education officer in the Royal Air Force of Oman. Although I say it myself, I was an extremely good officer. At any rate, I was good enough to be the only British education officer to receive the WKhM (Wissam al Khidma al Mumtazza – Distinguished Service Medal) from His Majesty the Sultan. The criteria for such an award are “outstanding service and devotion to duty over an extended period of time.” I left Oman because of threats I received from the British civilian in charge of the Curriculum Development Cell – the man responsible for the IT backup for the RAFO Target course.

I mention this because I do not want to give the impression that this paper is simply a hatchet job on former colleagues. The points I am making, the failures and shortcomings that I expose, have an academic legitimacy. The fact that so many different academic fora have been prepared to publish my accounts is, I think, indication of the fact that my concerns are genuine, and that they resonate with other practitioners.


I would like to start with a quotation:-

“There are certain truths which stand out so openly on the roadsides of life, as it were, that every passer-by may see them. Yet, because of their very obviousness, the general runoff people disregard such truths, or at least they do not make them the object of conscious knowledge. People are so blind to some of the simplest facts of everyday life that they are highly surprised when somebody calls attention to what everybody ought to know.” (Hitler 1925/1939; 238).

The above quotation is contentious, more because of its source than because of what it actually says. Since 1945, it has become academically impossible to suggest that Adolf Hitler was ever right about anything, but the essential truth of this quotation is so self evident as to need no defence. In this paper, I intend to examine some obvious truths, some simple facts of everyday life, and explain how these impinge on the Royal Saudi Air Force English Course, and the Royal Air Force of Oman’s Target course.

Fact One:- Both these courses are designed for serving members of the armed forces in AGCC states.

Fact Two:- The armed forces, in any country, form their own discourse community.

Fact Three:- When we teach the language used by any specific discourse community, we are teaching language for specific purposes.

English for Specific Purposes.

In February 2006 I gave a paper at the Fourth TESOL Arabia ESP SIG Conference, which was held at the University of Sharjah. The paper was entitled “ESP is NOT TENOR Plus.” ESP means English for Specific Purposes, and TENOR is Abbott and Wingard’s (1983) term for the Teaching of English for No Obvious Reason. I believe that ESP and TENOR are at opposite ends of the English Language Teaching continuum.

Somewhere along that continuum lies General English – always open to the charge that it is either too specific or not nearly specific enough to be of use to any particular group of students. Reda (2003) has pointed out that most General English courses are, in fact, based around anything up to 24 principal topic areas, and that the term should more accurately be English for Limited Purposes, but I would suggest that this separation of ESP, General English and TENOR helps to explain some of the negativity to which Costley (2007) refers.

Cozens (2006; 7) states that “some teachers would argue that there is, indeed, no need for ESP, and that all language needs can be taught through ….. a general language programme.” Mellor-Clarke (2006; 46) points out that “In LSP teaching, some teachers may feel threatened by dealing with specialist ‘content’ in the classroom.”

Assuming this is true, it would go a long way to explaining comments like “I don’t see why I should know about military ranks”, and “My brother’s an engineer, and he’s never had to describe a screwdriver” with regard to the RSAF English course materials.

I say explain, but not excuse. In the fist instance, teachers may not need to know about military ranks, but if they are teaching service personnel, then their students must master this information. The second objection misses the point completely. Native-speaking brothers, be they engineers or anything else, can be assumed to be conversant with what Hutchinson and Waters (1979; 7) describe as the lexis of “popular technology”. RSAF cadets will also be familiar with the concepts of “popular technology”, but they will only be able to express them in Arabic. This dichotomy can be resolved if teachers follow Bell’s (2006; 36) advice and “adapt their teaching to suit the context in which their students are studying and approach the teaching of specialized vocabulary accordingly.”

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