A career in phonetics, applied linguistics and the public service: Talking with John Trim (part 1)

Post written by David Little and Lid King, based on an article in Language Teaching 

John Trim was born in 1924 and died in January 2013. His father was a docker and his mother the daughter of a printer; both were active in the local Workers’ Educational Association. John described the atmosphere of his home as ‘intellectual, internationalist and socialist’. He won a scholarship from his primary school to Leyton High School, where he learned French and German. For the first term – which John missed because he had pneumonia – his French teacher taught the language entirely in phonetic transcription in order to lay the foundations of accurate pronunciation. In his second year John had to choose between Latin and German. He chose German because he was not yet thinking in terms of university, and here too he encountered a teaching approach that was strongly oral. From these beginnings John went on to study German and phonetics at University College London before becoming a leading phonetician, a founding father of applied linguistics, head of the Department of Linguistics at Cambridge, director of the Centre for Information on Language Teaching and Research, adviser to the Council of Europe’s modern languages projects for three decades, and a powerful advocate of communicative approaches to language teaching and learning.

In the summer of 2011 we recorded an extended conversation with John in which we ranged widely over his family background and education, his academic career, his extensive experience of language education policy development and implementation, and his three decades of work for the Council of Europe. In the first of two extracts from the recorded conversation, we draw on all the topics we discussed apart from the Council of Europe work, which will be covered in a second extract, to be published in a later issue. The present instalment abounds in nuggets of information not available elsewhere: the extraordinary circumstances of John’s appointment to a lectureship in Phonetics at UCL; J. R. Firth’s aversion to the word ‘cheerio’; John’s part in a television panel game in which experts listened to recorded voices and fantasised about the kind of people they belonged to; his involvement in the development of the BBC’s language courses for television; how the University of Cambridge came to establish a Department of Linguistics; what motivated John’s move from Cambridge to CILT; the Graded Objectives Movement and its impact; the challenge of implementing educational change; the replacement of grammar schools by comprehensives; the difficulty of matching policy to available resources; and much more. Readers of the interview who knew John Trim personally will catch many echoes of his conversational style.

You can read the entire article from Language Teaching here.

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