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Movers and shakers

June 16, 2009

Hello again,

I wonder who you consider to be the most influential people in English language teaching. Perhaps we should start with the...

... Swiss philologist, Ferdinand de Saussure (1857 – 1813). It is largely thanks to him that we concentrate on the language as it is used rather than on its historical development. In other words, we teach the language, not about the language. He also made the crucial distinction between the language system as a theoretical code and the language as it is used by the individual for personal expression.

Since de Saussure, of course, linguistics has become a vast subject of research and much of it is highly abstruse and thus not very helpful for teachers in the classroom. On the more practical side, Harold Palmer (1877 – 1949) had a great influence on how we teach as well what we teach. He advocated the Direct method, which is generally preferred to this day, when he was teaching in Belgium. He also influenced how grammar should be analysed and taught in his Grammar of Spoken English.

For the teacher this need to be aware of language analysis and the development of methods, makes this a vast field indeed and for that reason it is not easy to cover the ground thoroughly. Many figures stand out since de Saussure, but perhaps Noam Chomskey is the best known. He is often seen as the main opponent of the behaviourism that B.F. Skinner believed must underlie how we learn a language. I think Chomsky stands out because he is also a theoretical linguistician thus combining linguistic analysis with the psychology of learning.. Behavourism would probably have died out in language teaching any way, but Chomsky’s refutation of Skinner’s ideas played a big part in its demise. His belief that human beings have an innate language faculty is one of the seminal ideas for our profession and is till debated by leading language psychologists such as Steven Pinker. I was lucky enough to hear Chomsky lecture in Cambridge on one occasion and found him a compelling speaker.

On a personal note, I think the people who stand out are the ones we feel have helped us shape our own ideas about the language and how we should teach it. For me David Wilkins was just such an influence. His description of a notional syllabus, struck me as eminently logical and his ability to balance the relative importance of grammar and vocabulary, paved the way, surely for the lexical syllabus: "Without grammar little can be conveyed; without lexis nothing can be conveyed."

I would love to hear from you which figures consider important.

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  1. Eric Redekop Says:

    As an English teacher in China today, I am expected to have professional training (which I am told is irrelevant), experience (which I am told to forget), and classroom skills (which I am told not to use). On a daily basis, unqualified, inexperienced and unskilled parents and administrators tell me how to do my job. These are the folks who most significantly influence what actually happens in my classroom. I expect this is true everywhere.

  1. Brian Caulfied Says:

    The person who influenced me the most has been James Asher. I think we learn second languages the way we learn our first. We respond to commands. Also having worked in many countries I was also amazed at how foreign workers were able to learn the local language faster than I was. The were paid to do things and not to talk.

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