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How is learning general English different from learning English for a specific purpose?

Updated: Sep 23


I'm going to answer the most common question I'm asked - What's the difference between learning general English and learning English for a specific purpose? If you have been learning English for a while and now you're working in an English speaking workplace you already need it daily to perform aspects of your job. However, you might have gaps in your knowledge that you want to overcome. You want to refine specific skills to be able to do your job better and to feel more confident. 

When you decide to improve your English specifically for your job, you might decide you want to find something structured to help you. You could choose to approach your learning in two different ways.

A general English approach

You could find a course or an approach to learning English with a teacher, a group in a language school or perhaps even on your own where you spend time finding resources that you're interested in and that you hope are effective. Probably in your course, you'll learn grammar and practice writing for many different subjects and purposes.

On the other hand, if your goal is more targeted, you might choose to learn English for a specific purpose.

Learning English for a specific purpose

Let's say that specific purpose is for your job. For example, if you're an Architect, you might decide that you want to build your vocabulary and improve communication with your colleagues or your clients. You might do this by reading articles and documents relevant to your profession, such as magazine articles and project proposals. Then you could practice negotiation skills and role-plays to practice the situations you encounter in your job daily, such as meetings and telephone calls with other professions and clients.

Can you see the difference yet? Let me explain more. 

A general English approach 

In a general English approach, you're more than likely to do the following:

1. Test your level to find out your English level on the Common European Framework of Reference (CEFR) and then talk about your interests with your teacher.

2. You and your teacher will set some goals to work on the skills that will allow you to reach a higher level on this scale.

3. Your focus in your English course will be to do activities using listening, reading, writing and speaking tailored to your interests. If you're studying in a class with several people, you'll likely cover many different topics. Perhaps you'll just be practising conversational English skills.

An English for a specific job situation 

On the other hand, in an English for Specific Purposes course, You might be tested for your English level, but the main difference is your learning goal won't just be to reach another level. You will:

Identify the problems, challenges and frustrations in your job

With your teacher, you will make specific, targeted goals that will allow you to overcome these problems. For example: perhaps you find business and technical vocabulary challenging, and telephone calls and meetings with clients and colleagues a nightmare because you can't express yourself and you spend half the time trying to understand what they are saying. 

Then your focus in your English course will be to build your English vocabulary, role-play telephone calls and meetings and find strategies to improve your listening.

Can you see the difference yet?


If your English training is specific and structured, it complements the skills and knowledge you already have in your native language. It's now just a matter of finding ways for you to 'bridge the gaps' you have in your knowledge. The material will be interesting, relevant and structured. You'll be more motivated to learn because you'll start to see the difference it makes to your work and your professional and personal life. It's time to start hitting your targets.


Do you think learning English for a specific purpose would work for you?

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