Issues in Educational Research, 4(1), 1994, 35-47.

Teaching English for special purposes: A case study of a Malaysian business organisation

Mani Le Vasan
Language Centre
University of Malaya, Malaysia
Prerequisites for the teaching of English for Special Purposes (ESP) are an understanding of the culture and the identification of target texts (spoken and written) within the community in which the learner wishes to participate. Only when there is awareness and first hand experience of both the community and community specific texts can organised learning of new members take place. This investigation examines a Malaysian business organisation according to Swales' (1990) notion of a "discourse community". It is an empirical investigation of business practices in the business sector in Malaysia. The growth centre of world economy is now in the Asia Pacific region, and this, with the impact of technology, has caused many changes in the business practices in this area. What are these changes? What are the expectations and aspirations and ethos of successful local companies? The insights gleaned from such an investigation will have important pedagogical implications for the training of professionals. It is with these questions in mind that Sapura Sdn Bhd, a very successful national company in the manufacturing sector, was approached to conduct this research.


Malaysia is undergoing economic transformation and is fast entering an era of rapid industrialisation. The principal thrust of development is the promotion of a more balanced, broad-based, resilient and internationally competitive economy so as to provide the foundation for attaining the status of a fully developed nation by the year 2020. This vision of the prime minister, of making Malaysia a developed country, is now popularly known as Vision 2020. The challenges facing the country in achieving this dream are best summed up in the Prime Minister's speech in relation to the Manufacturing sector, "The Government will devise appropriate assistance schemes and will seek to raise the level of management expertise, technological know how and the skills of the employees in this very important and in many ways neglected sector of our economy" (Malaysia: The Way Forward (Vision 2020), 1991, p.19).

The rapid development of information technology, the widespread use of electronic media and the current interest in the development of knowledge and service industries have brought about a new need: competence in English, the language of trade and commerce. Given these changes in the social and economic environment, many Malaysians are now feeling the pressure of being forced to communicate effectively in their second language in the business sector. Coming from a medium of instruction in Malay, many new members of the industry are at a disadvantage, not only because of a lack of general proficiency in English, but more importantly because of ignorance of the variety of English used in business discourse.

This situation is further compounded by Malaysia moving from agriculture based to manufacture-based industries. The change in focus has brought about a need to compete and communicate with the rest of the world, especially with the developed countries who have been the leaders for manufactured goods. Following Green's (1993, p.4) argument that "English language and literacy courses stand as the significant gatekeepers for regulation, membership and access to dominant discourses and traditions, relations of knowledge, power and authority", I suggest that Malaysia's economic interests may be jeopardised through communicative inefficiency in its negotiations with the rest of the world. In order to network with the rest of the world and to take advantage of new office technologies, Malaysians in the business sector must become proficient in the English used in business communities. English has become an agent of social process and change for Malaysians.

Schools and other educational agencies are being called upon to play a more active and appropriate role in preparing young people for entering the post-industrial work world and to help strengthen the hand of the national economy. Like a football coach, the task of the ESP teacher is to know not only the strengths and weakness of the away team but also to be extremely knowledgeable about the rules and regulations of the game so as to well equip the home team for the sport. In the ESP context, effective teaching of skills means effective operation of mechanisms within the industry. The ESP teacher must first understand the society and the mechanisms that operate in that society before s/he can begin to equip new members with effective skills.

Views of language that inform this investigation

Many theories of language have not been very successful in second language teaching because they have not addressed the essentially social nature of the individual or the manner in which individuals develop and build meaning through social processes. There is therefore a need to shift towards discourse orientation and approaches which focus on the social, interactive nature of learning and meaning. Social semiotics provides for such an approach. Halliday (1985) and Hodge and Kress (1988) propose that an appropriate model for language teaching practices will begin by addressing the nature of language as a social semiotic. Within such a model language is seen as one primary resource with which humans build meaning. Human action is seen as an inherently social phenomenon in its sources, functions, contexts and effects. Following this perspective, the business organisation is viewed as a "a social institution" (Halliday, 1978, p.183). From a linguistic point of view it is seen as "a communication network" (Halliday, 1978, p.154). In this network, there will be sharing of experience, expression of social solidarity, decision making, planning and forms of control, transmission of orders and so on. Or, as Halliday puts it, "Language is one of the ways in which people represent the meanings that are inherent in the social system. " (1978, p.162) The structure and culture of the institution will therefore be entrenched in the language and in the different types of interaction, or "realisation of the meanings" (Halliday, 1978, p.163).

The mechanism in this communication chain or network, is linguistic and can be described by a researcher. The knowledge gained would make newcomers and ESP teachers aware of the ways in which communities actively participate in the building of social reality in language, because the different ways of working are encoded in the linguistic patterns used by that social group. The individual is seen as a social being achieving a sense of membership into the ways of working of the community, especially where such ways are linguistic. The individual is initiated through guidance and experimentation with the models of other experts in the community.

In short then, this approach holds the view that if one is to see a real change in ESP education for a particular business organisation, one needs an understanding of the business discourse community as a whole before one can focus on the individual member's communication needs within the setting.

Purposes of the investigation

This investigation into the business community of Sapura was a preliminary one, not so much to get data but to gain insights. The primary purpose was to establish the norms, values and beliefs of the community. The other purpose of this investigation was to identify the most popular channel of communication of the telecommunication companies of Sapura.

Sapura is an extremely large organisation, and it is beyond the scope of this paper to study the whole organisation complete with its 36 subsidiaries. The inquiry therefore will first investigate one strand of its subsidiary companies, the telecommunications block, in greater detail. The companies chosen were Apple Uniphone Sdn Bhd, Sapura Advanced Systems Sdn Bhd and Micro Express Sdn Bhd.


To achieve these purposes I adopted Swales' (1990) notion of a sociorectorical network and Draft's (1989) social entities/activity systems. Using Swales' categories, I analysed the target community in terms of its (1) participatory mechanisms; (2) information exchange; (3) high level of expertise; (4) common goals; (5) community-specific genres (spoken and written); and (6) a highly specialised terminology. Interviews, questionnaires and extensive field notes provided the data for this analysis. The second part of the investigation focused on electronic discourse in one form - email.

The interview procedure was a structured interview lasting 35 minutes each with 10 managers. A structured interview format was chosen to ensure that there was no miscomprehension of questions and information; only one interviewer, myself, was used for all the interviews to ensure consistency and reliability. The interviewees in this study were basically people in companies who are in the forefront of technological change. Only managers with experience in their jobs were interviewed as this was felt to be important for obtaining accurate and informed responses. These managers were chosen because they are successful in their field and it was thought that their responses would provide insights into how successful managers respond to new changes in the industry, while at the same time, because of their position, they would be able to give informed responses about their organisation.


The overall purpose of the analysis was to identify the different cultures, sets of values, norms and beliefs that are reflected in the different organisational structures.

Characteristic one - Participatory mechanisms

All of the companies chosen are bound by a form of organisation which is the basis of the company's strengths and weaknesses. Following the Torrington model of organisational structures, Sapura can be viewed as having a pyramidal structure, or the bureaucratic form (see diagram on the next page). The hierarchy permits the structure to be expressed as a set of successively more detailed levels. This concept of levels begins with the assumption that there are systems embedded within systems - a hierarchy of systems.

Participatory mechanisms in Sapura Pty Ltd

Participatory mechanisms in Sapura Pty Ltd

At the top level, the system consists of the executive chairperson, the executive vice-chairman and the group managing director, who concern themselves with the strategic view of the organisation. This strategic view involves planning for the future of the enterprise and organising its resources. The main concerns of this layer are broad long-term, unstructured and externally oriented.

Below the strategic level is the tactical layer (or the custodial sub system) which concerns itself with managing the specific sub groups of the company. These middle managers organise the tasks of the enterprise as efficiently as possible. They convert the broad goals that are defined at the strategic level into tactics that can be implemented to achieve these goals. The viewpoint and information needs of this layer are intermediate, between those of the strategic level above and the operational level below.

The next level, the operational level of the organisation has specific tasks that need to be performed to achieve the goals of the company. These tasks are relatively narrow, short-term, structured and internally oriented. The information needs at this level are stable and predictable provided that the strategic goals of the enterprise do not change. All the various levels are thus participatory mechanisms that interact between the levels and amongst each level for Sapura's quest for survival.

Characteristic two - Information exchange

Sapura functions as an open system, one which processes inputs from its environment. These inputs (stimuli), usually in the form of information, are used by the open system to function and survive. As a dynamic open system, Sapura processes information in order to change itself and grow. Sapura inputs information from both the environment and from within the company. These inputs are of two types, maintenance and signal. Maintenance inputs energise the system and enable it to function. In Sapura, these are the daily routine activities that enable all sub-systems to function and be orchestrated. Signal inputs provide the system with new information to be processed. These are all stimuli that arise from the larger environment also known as the Supra system. These stimuli take the form of new businesses, purchase orders, joint ventures etc. Inputs/stimuli such as these undergo change before they leave the enterprise/company as outputs back into the environment for further interaction. Sapura's outputs are in the form of information, products, services or energies.

Information exchange in the open system of Sapura

Information exchange in the open system of Sapura

Thus, Sapura is a dynamic open system or network that exists, interacts and becomes dependent for survival on participation and information exchange not only within the system but also with the Supra system or the environment.

Characteristic three - High level of expertise

A questionnaire administered to senior and middle managers revealed that all except one had university degrees. In addition, they all had further specialised skills through on-the-job and in-house training. All had a minimum of five years of job experience and were experts at the computer terminal. The company is highly automated and computer technology is fully utilised. All the managers were either hooked up to a computer terminal or had access to one.

Characteristic four - Common goals

The overriding ethos of the structure, function, genre and very existence of the business organisation is based on competition and profit. This single minded devotion to profit is reflected in every aspect of the organisation including language. Language (written and spoken) is used to generate, negotiate for and maintain the profit margin. Profit is the bottom line; it determines and affects the language at all levels in the hierarchy from the top, right down to the individual salesperson in the company. Profit is also the reason behind all writing in the organisation from extensive reports right down to individual lexical items. This is in fact the raison d'etre for language competence in the organisation. Language holds the key to the success of the business organisation.

Characteristic five - Community specific genre

In an attempt to discover the kinds of written documents routinely used in the company, storage cabinets holding old documents were examined. I was allowed access only to old documents as the bulk of the current business documents were deemed confidential by the management. The genres used by all levels of the company are: proposals, reports, feasibility studies, tenders, quotations, projects, briefs, faxes, bulletin boards, email, minutes, letters, memos, brochures and press releases. All these genres are created and perpetuated within the community for community specific purposes.

The interview with the managers disclosed that the purposes are common knowledge within the community and documents are routinely used by members in their transactions. The bulk of written documents produced was essentially documents that already have a definite, repeatable format. The trend is that more and more documents are produced electronically and stored in disks instead of filing cabinets. According to my study, as well as other studies in this region (Chan, 1993), word processing/personal computers and electronic mail are currently the most widely used and most popular systems. Everyone in these three organisations is hooked up with email and it has become a very important and popular form of communication both within and outside the organisation. Email, though used extensively, did not have a specific format that everyone subscribed to and therefore became a concern for further study.

Role of language in profit
Role of language in profit

Characteristic six - Highly specialised terminology

Many of the documents analysed used specialised terminology pertinent to the activity the enterprise is involved in, namely: telecommunications, information technology, and manufacturing. There is a great use of acronyms and specialised language making it sometimes difficult for the lay person to understand the discourse. However, it does create a sense of camaraderie within the community as members communicate in their own "lingo".


  1. Sapura Sdn Bhd, has all the attributes of Swales' notion of a discourse community.

  2. This discourse community has a shared social purpose of profit making at all levels. The driving motivation of the organisation is profit (although this is never overtly stated) with ancillary purposes like customer satisfaction, after sales service, training and so on.

  3. This business community is involved in social practices that are peculiar to the community. (ESP teachers, being language teachers, belong to the academic community and are therefore not legitimate members of the business community. They first need to understand the culture and language of the business community before they can equip new members with the necessary communication skills to function in that community.)

  4. English is the primary language of communication. All documents large and small, informal and formal are written in English. Malay, the dominant language of the country, was not used even in the daily routine matters of the company.

  5. Email is the preferred form of communication inter/intra company of the telecommunication strand of Sapura.

Email: Preferred channel of communication

Email is the nerve of the communication network in Sapura; it is so much a part of their lives that using it is second nature to them. To them, email is as essential to business as breath is to life. Managers were asked to comment on the uses of email, the amount of time spent on email a day, and why they chose this particular medium for communication. All managers indicated that they used their email in 80-100% of their tasks and used it many times routinely in one working day. Since this is an important and common form of communication, some of the email texts were examined for their community specific purposes.

Uses of email in Sapura (in house and with the Supra system)

  1. Short messages - to members within organisations: to inform of meetings, taking of action on certain phenomena and to orchestrate inter-department information flows.

  2. Solidarity - information about company recreation, establishing ties - camaraderie in the form of off colour jokes.

  3. Technical diagrams - graphics imported from overseas and locally.

  4. Writing of memos - more informal communication within the organisation

  5. Routine house-keeping matters - keeping tabs on who is on medical leave, who is on fieldwork etc.

  6. Global market information - new releases, summaries of market competition.

  7. Negotiation - new businesses, quotations, tenders etc.

Some reasons why email is the chosen channel of communication

  1. Email is preferred for speed of communication. At the touch of a button a piece of information is simultaneously sent to as many people as intended inter/intra organisation at one and the same second.

  2. It is cost - effective. Not only is it cheap after the initial outlay of setting up, it also cuts down the amount of paper being used and cumbersome filing system.

  3. Empowering effect. The user is able to get instant information literally at her/his fingertips. Networking ensures keeping abreast with changes in the marketplace, positions, politics etc.

  4. Saves time and energy. Networking allows members to keep in touch with peers, clients, branch members and industry co-runners, thereby creating solidarity and goodwill and also maintaining the competitive edge without having to leave the confines of the office.

  5. Cuts down on third party in communication system. With direct communication through email there is less dependence on postal and courier services and unavoidable delays.

  6. Big-Brother effect. Since all communication in the office is served by a central system, the powers that be can at any time check any individual's mail. The individual, while functioning in his/her own right is first and foremost an employee and therefore totally answerable to the company. Another big brother effect is that at the stroke of a key, members can check on-line if other members and subordinates have actually checked their mail and responsibilities for the day right down to the day, hour and minute.

  7. Storage space. With on-line communication information and documents can now be stored on storage disks with memory as large as hundreds of gigabytes, thereby cutting down on physical size of office storage space.

  8. Ease of Use. User friendly system allows use with minimum instruction.

Essential information in all email in Sapura

General discourse features found in email discourse in Sapura

This computer communication straddles the literacy continuum (oral and written). In terms of linguistic features, that is formal or informal, it does not occupy a static place in the oral/written continuum. The form changes from "writer style" to "talker style" depending on the interactant's voice, topic and intent. Computer communication within the Sapura telecommunications block is very context- dependent. Outsiders would have difficulty understanding the discourse if they are not given the background or context in which the communication takes place. Because it is context bound, members understand each other very well despite incomplete sentences and lack of logical cohesive devises in the traditional sense, within the texts.

In face-to-face conversation, for example, the new speaker relies on paralinguistic cues like pauses, eye contact etc for the cue to speak, but such cues are not available in on-going computer conversation. One needs to rely on a new set of cues that seem to play the same role as paralinguistic features in actual face-to-face conversations.

To simulate these paralinguistic cues and features and create a sense of personal involvement, interactants use graphical representation, for example, exclamation mark, bold print, elongated vowel sounds, stress through underlining, and so on. These interactants use discourse features from both oral and written discourse. They change "voice" and indicate this range of personal involvement through pronoun use, choice of diction and graphical marks (Le Vasan 1994). Computer conversation displays both the transience of speech and permanence of writing. The retention of the message can be for the life of one screen full only or for posterity.

Contrary to popular opinion this of course indicates that computer conversation is personal, interactive and very warm. It also exhibits characteristic forms of written discourse because interactants decide on the "voice" ahead of time - from solidarity to unscrupulous business person. This is also seen in the way the language moves along the oral-written continuum. The sender's role very much paces the language and chosen voice which to a certain extent also shape the voice of the response. Interactants become very adept at creating meaning in this system and communication is certainly not as passive as one has been led to believe.


This initial inquiry into the business organisation has confirmed the researcher's hunches that the business sector is a sociorectorical community that is involved in social practices that are peculiar to the community. To bring about meaningful changes in ESP education, one first has to study the setting or context where communication takes place, and all its social practices and values, before one can begin to understand the language skills needed by new members of the community.

The integration of office technologies, computers, email, faxes, voice machines, implies the need of an English Language communication skills program that enables one to function and communicate within the limitations and advantages of these office technologies. Such a program would enable new members to learn to operate in the target language by learning how expert members of the community already function and use the language for this specific social need in the community. It also implies that ESP teachers must become community sensitive analysts of target texts because the language learners in this community are the real content experts while the ESP teacher is only the informed facilitator of how language functions in these community specific texts, in community-specific contexts. Teachers thus need to work with target texts themselves to ensure that there is a good match between learner needs and community demands.

The company Sapura recognises the importance of management having strong communication skills in English. Many if not all upper and middle management are Malaysians who have graduated from foreign universities, implying that local graduates do not yet have the command of English required by the company. Greater proficiency in the English language would enable graduates from local universities to be more marketable in the private sector, and more importantly it would help them function effectively and adjust quickly to the communication needs within the organisation.

In the teaching of written discourse, it is possible to replicate some of the activities of the business community because writing is a time delayed activity and therefore can be done in the classroom, provided community values (already identified above) are in place. While this is true for most of the genres in written business discourse, it does not hold true for email which is not a time delayed activity most of the time. The fleeting yet semi-permanent nature of the email makes it an enigma that warrants further research.

These findings indicate that more research is needed into email but it is beyond the scope of this paper to provide that detail. Such research is currently being carried out as a doctoral dissertation by the writer.


I would like to acknowledge my appreciation to Sapura Sdn Bhd for their cooperation in helping me conduct this research.


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Halliday, M. A. K. (1985). Spoken and written language. Geelong: Deakin University Press and republished in 1989 by Oxford University Press, London.

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Halliday, M. A. K. & Hasan, Ruqaiya. (1985). Language, context and text: A social-semiotic perspective. Geelong: Deakin University Press and republished in 1989 by Oxford University Press, London.

Le Vasan, M. (1994). A Semiotic analysis of one email transaction in business. Paper presented at the International conference on "Professional Communication in the work place." Hong Kong City Polytechnic, March 28-30.

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Author: Mani Le Vasan is a lecturer with the University of Malaya, Malaysia. She teaches English as a second language and English for specific purposes at the Language Centre of University Malaya. She is currently doing her PhD in the area of business discourse. She spent ten months on a sabbatical attachment with the School of Education at Murdoch University where she was introduced to the field social semiotics. Her interests include ESL, ESP and educational technology.

Please cite as: Le Vasan, M. (1994). Teaching English for special purposes: A case study of a Malaysian business organisation. Issues In Educational Research, 4(1), 35-47.

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