A.P.R. Howatt, A History of English Language Teaching

A.P.R. Howatt – A History of English Teaching.

or, Notes towards a cynical history of Teaching English as a Foreign Language

This is the story of the rise of English Language Teaching (ELT) – a neat catch-all and hopefully neutral phrase to describe the teaching of English to folks who don’t happen to have English as their first language without bringing up patronising or imperialist connotations (three pages of the preface debate this point). I’m going to concentrate on Part Three, which is on twentieth century developments in the profession.

This section of the book is essentially the history of how various disciplines involving the study of English as a language were welded together into one field (the territory of English Language Teaching, although this phrase was only introduced post-war, by the British Council), only for the centre to lose its hold with the coming of air travel and the end of Empire, causing the industry’s various components to spin off under the new auspices of business and tourism.

The disciplines were:

–> Non-native teaching of English in continental European schools and universities

–> Tutoring and private classes from native speakers to rich (and primarily European) individuals (though by around 1890 ‘average people’ had begun to attend classes abroad with greater regularity).

–> Education in the colonies (English as a Second Language) – generally low-ability, but certain ‘high-flyers’ would go on to attain the level needed to properly fit in with the workings of empire.

–> Refugee education (in London, mostly).

In the first half of the twentieth century, the practitioners in these various fields slowly came together (in one case, after a chance meeting on a ferry), shared ideas, and set up institutions to regulate and instruct. There then arose several authorities to regulate methodology and working practice.

  1. The British Council, founded in 1934 “to counter fascist propaganda in the Mediterranean”. Its courses proved extremely popular, and gave it a permanent foothold in Cairo, for example. The post-war impoverishment of Europe meant that the sector receded for about ten years after 1945, and only really flourished in the last remnants of the Empire, where teaching English was a top priority pre-pullout. This meant that organisations such as the British Council took on greater importance (that is, for those who had previously only taught in rich countries or in Britain), “rapidly becoming the key agency in providing a career structure for the fledging profession” – a link with the colonies, a forum from which writers and pedagogues could distribute theory to a market.
  2. The BBC World Service, which began transmitting five-minute English lessons twice a day during World War II. More information on both the Council and the World Service can be found here.
  3. The University of London, where in 1948 Bruce Pattison became the first Chair of the teaching of English as a foreign language. He wanted to design a programme that would “attract overseas students to London as well as encourage British teachers to work abroad” – maximise the reach of the industry, in other words.
  4. The publishers: university programmes created a greater market for textbooks and teaching resources, from Oxford, Longmans and (to a lesser extent) Macmillan.

If you weren’t, for example, an officer in the Indian Education Service (partaking of the acronym ESL, English as a Second Language, which suggested in its coining that “English should function as a second language for specific purposes which could not easily be met by the mother tongue”), then your working life looked something like this:

“Until 1960 most British native-speaker teachers of EFL [English as a Foreign Language] continued to follow the kind of career pattern we saw with Harold Palmer back in 1902. The starting point might be a newspaper advertisement or a trip to somewhere interesting ‘on spec’, and if a job materialized in a Berlitz School or something similar, fine – but, it would probably disappear next June, because there were no evening classes in the summer – and the process would have to start again. TEFL was a seasonal job, like hop-picking – and it was not expected to last long.”

The inability of teachers to travel quickly and cheaply between countries allowed for this centralisation back in Britain. The sixties marked the arrival of cheaper air travel (though nothing like today, obviously – conditions keep getting better), and Howatt repeatedly emphasises that 1960 is a crisis point, the year when everything changed. Britain allowed its remaining colonies to (mostly peacefully) transition to independence, and early the next year there was a large ELT conference in Makerere, Uganda. The attendees were English teachers from twenty countries, most of which were soon-to-be independent African colonies, as well as a handful of Americans and a couple of unidentified advisers on resources and materials.

The author is careful to demonstrate that the failings of the conference did not reflect failings in the ELT institutions, as the academics in general did not attend. The most contentious issue to come out of the conference was the proposal that ‘English is best taught monolingually’, and according to Howatt this leads to two, strictly unrelated (he is adamant on this point) conclusions: English should be taught without translation, and other school subjects should be taught in English.

“There is after all a world of difference between a language teaching method which ultimately derives from a theory of language learning, and a national education policy which reflects a particular array of cultural and socio-political priorities.” ‘Ultimately derives from’ is the interesting argument. The book identifies three reasons why certain thinkers or schools decided to teach in English exclusively in the first place (the so-called Direct Method):

1)      ‘Distrust’ in the idea that individual words could be translated appropriately between languages.

2)      Early structuralist writing on word meaning (proto-Saussurian) – words mean with reference to the other words that they are and are not linked with, rather than through reference to physical objects or other non-linguistic entities.

3)      Dissatisfaction with the methodologies of translation-based teaching – word lists, memorisation, trick questions based on false friends or easily confused expressions.

But what about 4) The rising number of English teachers living in countries whose languages they were unable to speak? As teaching became professionalised, and especially as English education in the colonies became a serious matter, it was more and more common for teachers to spend only one or two years in each posting, and then leave for pastures new. Might that not be a more compelling reason for the absence of translation in new methodologies? It’s certainly how it feels today – entry-level TEFL-I courses (e.g. the CELTA) are full of prohibitions on translating or allowing students to see you have a level of proficiency in their language, but it could hardly be otherwise, as ninety per cent of the teachers on it have no other option. So it’s a relief for them to see necessity packaged as theory.

Come on, even Jeremy Harmer spotted this: “[No translation in class] stems from the advent of the direct method at the beginning of the twentieth century […] and from the training of native-English speaker teachers who either had to deal with multi-lingual classes and/or teach in countries before they were themselves competent in the language of their students.” The idea that the theories came up in a vacuum of good practice is pretty wishful thinking.

So Commonwealth schools generally committed themselves to teaching in English and excluding other languages (which also necessitated the employment of foreign teachers, especially in an advisory capacity). For Howatt, this is neither here nor there: English teaching is about “responding to the practical consequences of different policies, not assessing the policies themselves”.

Let’s move on. (More on Makerere here)

The end of empire wasn’t the only reason for change. “After 1960 everything in Britain began to change. Growing economic prosperity and the expansion of air travel not only eased the difficulties of teachers working abroad but also brought an increasing number of students to the UK. Some saw tuition as a useful addition to a holiday, for instance, while others were preparing to enter courses in higher education, which was also expanding fast”, which is more or less the target market today.

Again, “in some respects this expanding activity was merely a reflection of the burgeoning tourist trade, but there were also more academic reasons, including the growing number of overseas students planning to take postgraduate qualifications in the UK”. This is something that persists to the present day – students are often obliged to take ‘pre-sessional’ courses, at considerable expense, as a precondition to entry, because it’s understood that their EFL qualifications garnered in their home country have been awarded by gone-native examiners who no longer have the heart or discriminative faculties to judge what is intelligible and what isn’t (and their schools are looking for passes), and students/clients are generally rich enough to pay for as many exams as they are told to.

The other big money-maker nowadays is teacher training, which perhaps crystallised when in 1967 the Royal Society of Arts “was persuaded to launch a ‘Certificate in the Teaching of English as a Foreign Language’”. “[By 1960] there were enough private language schools in Britain itself to justify a formal self-regulatory body […] There were also a few larger organizations which could offer serious in-house training courses and even the beginnings of a ‘network’, among the best-known in the early 1960s being the British Centre, International House, and Eurocentre, all of which had strong connections abroad.” This is a polite way of saying that the industry began to reshape itself around a system of paying for qualifications and accreditation in England, and then using contacts from these schools to find work abroad (which persists today, at least in terms of the first stage).

Experienced teachers needed career progression based around increasing salaries, which could be difficult to achieve in a profession governed by flat-rate hourly teaching fees, and so a pyramid began to form by which the more experienced could return to England and afford the high prices of accommodation and eating out that would otherwise have floored them, unaccustomed as they are. Obviously this runs most smoothly if the same schools teach the trainees (allowing for a never-ending teacher-observes-trainee-teaches-class resolution of the academic timetable), and this has knock-on effects for accreditation, as suggested by this recent story: Is a TEFL diploma worth more than a relevant MA? (although, as said before, the universities are doing pretty well themselves out of EFL, so it’s not worth getting too worked up about it).

And hopefully the pyramid keeps getting bigger, otherwise the scheme falls to pieces, notwithstanding the ‘backpacking teachers’ who jack it all in after a couple of years travelling in Asia and populating the shoddiest schools, oiling the buy-in stage of the pyramid without rising and fulfilling the need of certain more experienced teachers to have fresh pliable meat and little chance of censure for their conduct (or nightlife, I imagine, in certain cases).

This is the new breakdown of the industry, then:

–> Teaching would-be tourists and businessmen in Europe and Asia

–> Teaching would-be university students in England

–> Teaching or supervising in the Commonwealth.

–> Teaching first- or second-generation migrants from the ex-colonies, in England

–> Teacher training

Let’s turn to the demands on methodology created by tourism. The Council of Europe ‘Threshold Level’ was more or less concerned with this (at its foundation) – it was a standardisation across languages enshrining the skills and vocabulary (topics) that would allow students “cope reasonably well with the everyday communicational demands that a temporary visit to a foreign country normally entails”, although it “was limited mostly to public contexts like shops, entertainment centres, travel facilities, etc. which provided settings in which the foreign language would be encountered.”

Following on from drilling and repetition, ‘situational’ approaches had gained some prominence in the middle part of the twentieth century, with classes based around real-world circumstances such as ‘An Evening Out’ or ‘A Visit to the Theatre’. This lost favour when it was found to not really help potential visitors at all, since they weren’t training to respond to unexpected input, only internalising set phrases (often very formal) and praying to God that their interlocutors would use patterns they were familiar with.

Under the pretext of reacting to developments in psychology and linguistics, the meme of ‘communication’ took prominence, from the 70s onwards. This was mangled over from Chomsky’s work on linguistics (language acquisition devices and so on) and Austin’s on speech acts, but the term that was seized upon was ‘communicative competence’ (and ‘function’ as well, I suppose). Howatt points out that it took on a meaning completely divorced from that which was intended: Chomsky contrasted ‘competence’ with ‘performance’, which was later developed into the idea of ‘communicative competence’, which was finally taken up by ELT to mean ‘being a competent communicator’. This altered definition is at least twice as vague as its original, and probably much more so. The general idea was that students talked and talked and then talked some more, and that they said what they meant – no empty sentences.

The book examines the criticism communicative approaches have faced, although in a tone that suggests they’ve now been taken into account and teaching is evolving onwards and upwards:

“Critics pointed out that courses designed to enable learners to meet immediate communicative needs, usually assumed to be in respect of face to face interaction, tended to focus on a limited range of routine and rudimentary social purposes [we’re back to tourism again]. As a result, learners were rehearsed in a kind of performance repertoire, a facility too facile, to the neglect of a more comprehensive competence which would serve as a more secure investment for subsequent use” (This avoids the question of what such a communicative competence would look like. I like to imagine English learners unable to speak about certain topics, struck dumb in the face of certain types of discourse or insidious function – but the reality is probably more complex that that).

The other big criticism that communicative methods get is something along the lines of ‘oh, some cultures aren’t good at talking about their feelings, we need to be culturally sensitive, different learning styles, etc.’ But a much better criticism would be that the majority of activities designated ‘communicative’ are in actual fact vacuous and fake: the students see that they are expected to participate, and give the teacher what they want, but the supposed aim of ‘say what you mean, mean what you say’ is only attained when the subject matter is bland and uncontroversial. And so lessons are directed at this more and more. I’ve said it more eloquently here.

One final point about communicative classes: “It needs to be said, however, that in most classrooms around the world […] there are too many children for any one of them to produce very much language.” This is exactly the sort of thing the book should have been looking at in more detail – class sizes, wages, course fees, school construction and design, the price of tests (which are after all the real constituents of any history) – but it only appears as a throwaway comment. Communicative classes do tend to work better at private schools, where there are fewer voices in the room.

The book finishes by noting that one of the main trends in current ELT is hand-wringing about the ubiquity of English and cultural or linguistic imperialism, and the domination of ELT by native English speakers – white, Western-looking teachers in most of the expanding markets. The theorists speculates that standard British or American English is no longer the only acceptable form of speaking and writing, that pidgins and creoles and hybrids have just as much right to exist and be praised as any other extant way of using words, while all the businesses associated with their chosen research area still thirst after the cachet (which tends to equate to money) that comes from the perception that it is. Howatt says:

“Even if one accepts the dubious proposition that native-speaker competence constitutes an over-riding qualification for teaching a language, if what EFL teachers teach is no longer exclusively their language, then the basis of their authority would seem to disappear.” The wording edges around its own opposite – native speakers (British, Irish, Canadian, American) are still qualified to teach a certain type of English, which may no longer be thought of as the only English, but it happens to still be recognised as prestigious, academic, cultured, and more sophisticated than its alternatives.

This will be the great battle for the big ELT institutions over the next fifty years – subtly hinting that native-speakers (or, at least, those with British/ American accreditation) teach a more dignified manner of speaking and writing, more suitable for those in the upper echelons of whatever society we are talking about (and their children – especially the children), but at the same time making sure it doesn’t seem like this is what they’re doing. You can’t come out and say it.


3 Responses to A.P.R. Howatt, A History of English Language Teaching

  1. Pingback: Groundless Cynicism | Fight the Landlord

  2. Pingback: A Coda: Makerere | Fight the Landlord

  3. Pingback: On Hiatus | Fight the Landlord

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