ELT and me: A story with no history?

Written by Michael McCarthy

I was recently invited to contribute an article to the CUP journal Language Teaching, looking back over my career as an English language teacher, applied linguist and academic. In a strange sort of way, I discovered my own history by writing about it, a truly pleasurable experience. But in doing so, I realised how much I had lacked a proper historical perspective during most of my fifty-odd years in the profession. Great changes have happened during that half-century, and they happened all around me as I soldiered on, blissfully ignorant of the ideas that were pushing the profession forward.

My career started in the mid-1960s, when structuralism was popular in language teaching, alongside traditional Latin-modelled grammar-translation approaches, and most English language teaching was a mix of the two. At the time, and for a couple of decades after that, I knew almost nothing of the giants whose shoulders I was standing on. It is only in the last decade, for example, that I have taken the time to familiarise myself properly with the works of Harold E. Palmer, that great pioneer and father-figure of modern applied linguistics. In the course of corpus work on spoken grammar with the late Ronald Carter in the mid-1990s, which subsequently bore fruit in the Cambridge Grammar of English and the Touchstone and Viewpoint courses published by CUP, I became aware that Palmer had published a grammar of spoken English in 1924[1], almost seventy years before we embarked on our project. It was only about five years ago that I read it, and what a truly monumental work it is. Palmer’s approach was founded on the tradition of ‘scientific’ grammars of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, with an emphasis on phonetics as the starting point of understanding and learning a language. His grammar was strong on dialogue: in his examples, we see not only what speakers say but how listeners react, something that we have been able to observe more closely nowadays with the luxury of spoken corpus data. Palmer would have probably given his eye teeth to have access to a spoken corpus.

It was not only Palmer’s contribution that I was ignorant of. My first job, in a Berlitz language school in Spain, demanded no more of me than delivering a pre-ordained structural syllabus through the official textbook. I didn’t understand the principles of structuralism and slot-and-filler paradigms; I suppose I just assumed it was the right way of looking at language. Meanwhile back in my homeland of Britain, J. R. Firth and his followers, most notably Michael Halliday and John Sinclair, were forging a new grammatical and lexical approach, based on the relationship between language and its contexts of use, quite different from structuralism, an approach later to crystallise into systemic-functional linguistics and corpus linguistics.

I caught up with the missing history of my profession when I became a university academic in the 1980s and I have tried in recent years to pay homage to our applied linguistic forebears. However, because of the explosion of research in books and journals and now online, and the dizzyingly increasing pace of publication, we are in danger of losing our sense of historical continuity. As a frequent reviewer of scholarly works submitted for publication, I never cease to be amazed by how few lists of references ever cite anything published before 1990. What I learnt in my quest to discover my own history is that so many ideas we think of as novel and ground-breaking are in fact reinventing wheels and turning over already well-tilled ground.

We ought not to neglect ‘old’ research. It’s often a treasure-house of gems and pure gold; you just have to be patient, track it down on library shelves instead of instantly downloading a pdf, dust it off, and take plenty of time to read it.

[1] Palmer, H. E. (1924). A Grammar of Spoken English on a Strictly Phonetic Basis. Cambridge: W. Heffer and Sons Ltd.


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