Engineering English: A New Twist on ESL

Jul 6, 2012

by Michael MacRae ASME.org

If you are an aspiring engineering student living outside the U.S., you have more options than ever for studying–and succeeding–at a first-class U.S. engineering school. American colleges and universities are investing in new programs to attract you to their campuses, and many of those initiatives are aimed at supporting your command of the English language.

A basic ability to function in English is essential if you want to score well on the TOEFL or IELTS exams required by most American schools, but that's only the first step, says Julia Youst, an instructor in the Intensive English Language Program at Portland State University.

"The international engineering students who stand out from the crowd have invested the extra time in developing their familiarity with U.S. academic culture in general, while seeking out ways to learn how English is used in real-world engineering settings," says Youst.

Linguists call this Engineering English. Language researchers have developed a Student Engineering English Corpus (SEEC) containing nearly 2 million of the most frequently used words in core textbooks across all engineering disciplines. By organizing these words into logical word families and word types, the SEEC can highlight the formulaic multi-word units or collocations (known as "language prefabs") that engineers most commonly use in their technical communication. The idea is to encourage instructors of engineering-focused English for Specific Purposes (ESP) or English as a Second Language (ESL) courses to emphasize these language prefabs in their curricula.

If you are considering pursuing a U.S. undergraduate or graduate degree in engineering, here are a few ideas that can help you prepare yourself for success in Engineering English.

Bridge to Success

Youst suggests that some students could benefit from selecting a university that offers some form of summer "bridge" program for incoming international students. These programs help students get up to speed in American academic culture and lifestyle, and some engineering schools even offer discipline-focused learning experiences.

"When students begin their regular studies immediately after arriving in the United States, they often get overwhelmed by the shock of adjusting to a new culture, a new language and a new approach to learning. Summer bridge programs are one way to address these issues before they can have an impact on a student's academic performance," says Youst.

One place to search out and evaluate the programs and services offered at U.S. schools is the Web site of the Institute for International Education and its ESL-focused sub-organization known as Intensive English USA.

Resources for Self Study

Wherever you may be in the process of applying to study abroad, it's never too soon to begin the process of honing your Engineering English skills. You can even do it on your own time, through self-study.

One option is Cambridge University Press's Cambridge English for Engineering, a study guide for intermediate and upper-intermediate learners with accompanying audio CD that provides practical lessons for engineers, engineering technicians, or technical managers in any branch of the engineering field.

The course focuses on the use of English when working with drawings, describing technical problems, and discussing dimensions and precision. It's a 10-unit program covering listening, speaking, reading, and writing, with an emphasis on realistic activities that help you practice in professional contexts.

Another source of comprehension practice with an engineering bent is an all-online option from the British Council, the UK's international organization for cultural relations and educational opportunities.

Although there are some differences between British and American English, the British Council site is highly relevant to U.S.-style engineering education. It features a range of scholarly articles in engineering projects, engine design, computer systems and computation, chemical and nuclear engineering, alternative energy, and other technology-focused fields. Articles and streaming video presentations are followed by comprehension exercises that test your grasp of the language.

Communication: Key to Your Degree

Even if you have been told your English skills are high, you can still benefit from some intensive preparation before beginning a regular U.S. academic program, says Youst. "The more students learn how to communicate–really communicate–in the classroom or workplace with other engineers from around the world, the better they will do in an engineering degree program."

Michael McRae is an independent writer.

The more students learn how to communicate–really communicate–in the classroom or workplace with other engineers from around the world, the better they will do in an engineering degree program.Julia Youst, instructor, Portland State University