ESP and Common Sense

I remember a number of years ago, after a morning of evaluating student oral presentations with a colleague and wondering why they sometimes said strange things, I mentioned that it seemed to me that people lost their common sense when they were speaking a language they were not very confident in. My colleague – who was a good linguist and had never experiences such issues – disagreed.

It is something, though,  that has stayed with me and it recently resurfaced when I was reading The Reason I Jump by Naoki Yoshida, translated from Japanese by David Mitchell – one of my favourite authors and his wife (Higashida, 2013) . Naoki Higashida was a 13 year old autistic boy when he wrote the book. My daughter is a speech and language therapist and has worked with autistic children and I have lived and worked in Japan so it was particularly interesting. One passage stood out and made me think about the conversation I had had with my colleague years ago:

Non-autistic people can sort out what they want to say in real-time, while they’re having their conversation. But in our case, the words we want to say and the words we can say don’t always match that well. Which is why our speech can sound a bit odd, I guess. When there’s a gap between what I ’m thinking and what I’m saying, it’s because the words coming out of my mouth are the only ones I can access at that time” (Higashida, 2013, p. 33).

I wondered if something similar was happening with my student oral presentations. They were saying what they could, not what they really wanted to say. If this is true with people speaking a language they are not competent in, it might also apply to people – all people – learning to use professional or academic language. Many people have quoted Bourdieu & Passeron’s observation that no-one speaks (or writes) academic English as a first language (Bourdieu & Passeron, 1994, p. 8) so the pressure people are under in professional or academic situations could have a similar result and be treated in a similar way.

Also, I think it applies to me when, for example I am hand-writing. I do not hand-write a lot and I am not a particularly good speller any more, so I think I choose words I can spell, rather than the best word in the context!

This reminds me of another possible connection between professional or academic communication and autism. I remember – I think – a review by Simon Baron-Cohen of a book written by an autistic author. The author was describing the preparations he needed to make before he visited the pub. He said he needed to sit down with a note-book and imagine the kinds of conversations that he might need to take part in when he was in the pub. If he could make notes, that would help him to be involved in the pub talk. Again this is something we advise our professional or academic students to do, before important meetings. In fact, it is something I find I need to do before difficult meetings with, for example, my accountant or the bank manager, or a job interview.

I’m not suggesting that there is a relationship between autism and language learning, but it might be something worth thinking about.

Is it always negative? This is what Haruki Murakami says:

It’s strange, but when I have to speak in front of an audience, I find it more comfortable to use my far-from-perfect English than Japanese. I think this is because when I have to speak seriously about something in Japanese I’m overcome with the feeling of being swallowed up in a sea of words. There’s an infinite number of choices for me, infinite possibilities. As a writer, Japanese and I have a tight relationship. So if I’m going to speak in front of an undefined large group of people, I grow confused and frustrated when faced by that teeming ocean of words. (Murakami, 2007, chap 5).


Bourdieu, P. and Passeron, J.-C. (1994). Introduction: Language and the relationship to language in the teaching situation. In P. Bourdieu, J.-C. Passeron & M. de Saint Martin, Academic discourse (pp. 1-34). Cambridge: Polity Press.

Higashida, N. (2013). The reason I jump. (K. A. Yoshida & D. Mitchell, Trans) London: Sceptre. (original work published 2007).

Murakami, H. (2007). What I talk about when I talk about running: A memoir.  London: Vintage Books.

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