P is for (Thomas) Prendergast

6 08 2017

Thomas Prendergast.jpgThe mention of Thomas Prendergast in my last post sparked a couple of enquiries. Who was he and what was his method?

For all his working life, Thomas Prendergast (1806 – 1886) was, like his father before him, a civil servant in the East India Company, during which time he learned at least two of India’s indigenous languages, Hindustani and Telugu. On retirement in his fifties, he returned to England where (now blind) he spent his remaining years developing what he called his ‘Mastery’ system, published in 1864 as The Mastery of Languages or, the Art of Speaking Foreign Tongues Idiomatically, along with accompanying teaching materials in a variety of languages.

Essentially, his method involved the cumulative memorization of a set of exemplary sentences and the subset of sentences that can be derived (or ‘evolved’) from each of them. With remarkable foresight, Prendergast had observed that children seem to achieve fluency by memorizing entire sequences of words – what we would now call chunks or constructions. They are also able to combine and re-combine these elements in creative ways. Accordingly, Prendergast set about trying to identify the most frequent constructions, albeit only those that qualified as well-formed sentences. Prendergast’s sentences were not graded from the simple to the more complex. Rather, they were deliberately contrived to pack in as much syntax as possible, the test of their usefulness being the number of less complex sentences that could be generated from them. Because children are able to derive the grammar from constructions without explicit instruction, Prendergast was adamant that all grammar explanation was ‘prohibited’.

Prendergast’s Mastery system seems to have enjoyed some degree of success in its time and was adapted to the teaching of a number of languages. It was soon overtaken, however, by the arrival of the Reform Movement, and the kind of ‘direct method’ that was popularized by M. Berlitz.

Nevertheless, in many ways, Prendergast’s system prefigured developments in methodology that were way ahead of their time. One of these was the use of what later came to be known as substitution tables: i.e. tables that display the way that words and sentence elements can be combined. Also, his belief that mastery of a limited ‘core’ of structures and vocabulary could serve as a foundation for later proficiency contrasted with his contemporaries, for whom principles of selection or grading were largely ignored. But perhaps most remarkable was his insight that fluency, at least in part, results from having a memorized store of fixed and semi-fixed formulaic utterances. Unfortunately, by supposing that these ‘chunks’ consisted of whole, syntactically well-formed sentences, his method – in Howatt’s words – ‘turned the wrong corner’ (2004, p. 176). It would take another half-century before this misstep would be corrected, and the units of fluent production would be re-envisaged, neither as words nor sentences, but as ‘word groups’ (Palmer 1921).

Nevertheless, to give you a flavour of just how innovative Prendergast was, here is a selection of quotes:

On grammar

‘Although no one has ventured to maintain that the words “language” and “grammar” are synonymous, there prevails the notion that a knowledge of grammar is equivalent to a knowledge of the language to which it relates’ (1868, pp. 78-79).

‘Grammar is sometimes defined to be the law by which language is regulated; but in reality, grammar is deduced from language, and is not the regulator, but the regulatee’ (1864, p. 191).

‘No definition of the term “grammar” enables us to understand why that science should be studied first’ (1868 p.65).

‘The definition which styles it “the art of speaking correctly” has so little truth in it, that many persons who are well-versed in grammar are either incapable of speaking at all, or else, when compelled, are so embarrassed by the conflicting recollections of rules, exceptions, cases, tenses, moods, and genders, that they cannot help speaking incorrectly. The grammar itself is the cause of their speaking ungrammatically’ (1868, p.79).

‘Usage is the only law. Usage constitutes the whole code’ (1864, p. 203).

 Mastery title pageOn acquisition

Studying a language is not acquiring it’ (1864, p. 200).

‘Some say that we must think in a foreign language before we can speak it well … But it is not by thinking in a language, but by not thinking in it, that children speak it idiomatically and fluently’ (1868, pp. 233-4).

‘Illiterate people and children acquire the power of speaking the most difficult languages with fluency, by learning a very few practical sentences, and by ringing the changes on them’ (1864, p. 209).

‘Children and imbeciles succeed, in spite of their ignorance of grammar and books’ (1864, p. 209).

 On vocabulary learning and chunks:

‘[Oral] composition is not the compounding of sentences according to the prescriptions of the grammarian; but it is the putting together of idiomatic phrases by intelligent efforts of memory’ (1868, p.32).

‘[Children] import an idiomatic combination of words, together with the ideas belonging to it; they immediately begin to employ it for practical purposes without alteration; and they repeat it so often that it becomes stereotyped in the memory’ (1864, p.34).

‘Language is a tree which is propagated not by seeds, but by cuttings; not by words but by sentences’ (1864, p. 19).

On idiomaticity

‘Many adults live abroad for years without ever attaining this power of expressing themselves idiomatically; and many teachers are staggered by their most advanced pupils’ total incapacity in this respect. The failure arises solely from their not having committed idiomatic sentences to memory at first.’ (1868, p.44)

On memorization:

‘To reproduce sentences verbatim, is to speak idiomatically; and therefore the genuine colloquial knowledge of a language is attained by repeated efforts of the memory, not by vigorous exertions of the reasoning faculties’. (1864, p.48)

‘When a man has committed to memory a few well selected sentences, each containing different constructions, and has acquired the power of putting them together in all their variations, one rapid perusal of the grammar will suffice to convince him that he is already in possession of the whole syntax of the language’ (1864, pp. 209-210).

‘In learning anything by heart, repetitions are indispensable, and the more they are distributed throughout the day, the smaller will be the number required to impress the foreign phrases on the memory’ (1870, pp 6-7).

On task repetition:

‘It is useful [for the learner] to frequent public places as a listener; to ask several people in succession for the news of the day after having carefully read it all beforehand; […] but especially to engage strangers in conversation in subjects which he has previously discussed with others, in order that he may repeat his own questions and observations, with additions and improvements. These second-hand conversations are by far the most instructive. (1864, p. 93)

On partial competence:

‘A language learned in miniature … may seem, at first sight, to be miserably defective; but a vast reduction of labour is effected by this plan, and it creates a great facility for the beginner in supplementing all his deficiencies’ (1864, p. 131).


Howatt, A.P.R. (with H.G. Widdowson) (2004) A history of English language teaching (2nd edition). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Palmer, H.E. (1921) The Principles of Language-study. London: Harrap.

Prendergast, T. (1864) The Mastery of Languages, or the Art of speaking Foreign Tongues idiomatically. London: R. Bentley.

Prendergast, T. (1868) Handbook to the Mastery Series, New York: Appleton and Co.

Prendergast, T. (1870) The Mastery Series: French (new edition). New York: Appleton & Co.


P is for Pronunciation

1 08 2010

Read my lips

I’ve just completed a nine-hour block of sessions on phonology on the MA TESOL course that I’m teaching at the New School. Apart from the inevitable (and sometimes intractable) problems involved in reconfiguring my knowledge of phonology so as to accommodate North American accents, the question that simply will not go away is this: Can pronunciation be taught?

As a teacher, I have to confess that I can’t recall any enduring effects for teaching pronunciation in class – but then, I very seldom addressed it in any kind of segregated, pre-emptive fashion. Most of my ‘teaching’ of pronunciation was reactive –  a case of responding to learners’ mispronunciations with either real or feigned incomprehension. There are only two pron-focused lessons that I can remember feeling good about: one was where I used an inductive approach to guide a group of fairly advanced learners to work out the rules (or, better, tendencies) of word stress in polysyllabic words (the students seemed generally impressed that the system was not as arbitrary as it had appeared), and another where I used a banal dialogue that happened to be in the students’ workbook to highlight the different spellings of the /ay/ phoneme – a lesson that was more about spelling than pronunciation, really – but, again, one that helped dispel the myth that there are zero sound-spelling relationships in English.

As a second language learner, any attempts to improve my pronunciation have fallen (almost literally) on deaf ears. I remember being told by a well-intentioned Spanish teacher: “Your problem is that you use the English ‘t’ sound instead of the Spanish one”. To which I replied, “No, the ‘t’ sound is the very least of my problems! My problem is that I don’t know the endings of the verbs, that I don’t have an extensive vocabulary, that I can’t produce more than two words at a time. … and so on”. That is to say, in the greater scheme of things, the phonetic rendering of a single consonant sound was not going to help me become a proficient speaker of Spanish. Nor was it something I would be able to focus any attention on, when my attention was so totally absorbed with simply getting the right words out in the right order. And nor, at the end of the day, would I ever be able to rid myself of my wretched English accent, however hard I tried (assuming, of course, I wanted to).

Hence, I’m fairly sceptical about the value of teaching pronunciation, and I suspect that most of the exercises and activities that belong to the canonical pron-teaching repertoire probably have only incidental learning benefits.  A minimal pairs exercise (of the ship vs sheep type) might teach some useful vocabulary; a jazz chant might reinforce a frequently used chunk. But neither is likely to improve a learner’s pronunciation. Certain learners (a small minority, I suspect) with good ears and a real motivation to “sound like a native speaker” might just squeeze some benefit out of a pron lesson, but for the majority it will probably just wash right over them.

In An A-Z of ELT, I hint obliquely at these doubts – doubts which I claim are justified by research studies. What studies?

Well, here’s one for starters. In an early attempt to tease out the factors that predicted good pronunciation, Suter (1976) co-opted a panel of non-specialist informants to assess the pronunciation of 61 English learners from a range of language backgrounds and with different histories of exposure and instruction. Twelve biographical factors were found to correlate with good pronunciation, and, in a subsequent re-analysis of the data (Purcell and Suter 1980), these were reduced to just four. These four predictors of acceptable pronunciation were (in degree of importance):

  • the learner’s first language (i.e., all things being equal, a speaker of, say, Swedish is more likely to pronounce English better than a speaker of, say, Vietnamese)
  • aptitude for oral mimcry (i.e. ‘having a good ear’)
  • length of residency in an English-speaking environment
  • strength of  concern for pronunciation accuracy

Significantly, none of the above factors is really within the teacher’s control (although the last – the motivtaional one – could arguably be nurtured by the teacher). Nevertheless, the learners’ histories of instruction seemed not to have impacted in any significant way on the accuracy of their pronunciation. The researchers commented: “One of the most obvious [implications of the study] relates to the fact that teachers and classrooms seem to have had remarkably little to do with how well our students pronounced English”.

Now, is this bad news (we can’t do much to help our learners achieve acceptable standards of pronunciation)? Or is it good news (we don’t have to teach pronunciation, and can spend the time saved on more important stuff)?


Purcell, E.T., and Suter, R.W. 1980. Predictors of Pronunciation Accuracy: a Re-examination. Language Learning, 30, 271-287.

Suter, R.W. 1976. Predictors of Pronunciation Accuracy in Second Language Learning. Language Learning, 26: 233-253.