W is for Women in ELT

30 07 2017

I’ve just written a book on language teaching methods, in which I revisit 30 different methods and their founding fathers. I use the term ‘fathers’ deliberately, since not a single method was designed by a woman – although it’s a safe bet that a good few women were involved in the actual teaching of these methods. Think about it: Thomas Prendergast, Wilhelm Viëtor, François Gouin, Lambert Sauveur, Otto Jespersen, Maximilian Berlitz, Henry Sweet, Harold Palmer, Michael West, Robert Lado, Charles Fries, and so on, and on. The one woman I wanted to include, Sylvia Ashton-Warner (see S is for Sylvia) was ruled out eventually, on the grounds that she was a teacher of first language literacy and never directly involved in second language teaching.

mens group

Where’s Wilga?

In anticipation of my critics, all I can say is that the androcentricity of ELT seems to be deeply inscribed in its history. For example, in a chronology of ‘recent and current trends between 1880 and 1980’ in Stern’s Fundamental Concepts of Language Teaching (1983), the first woman to be mentioned by name is Wilga Rivers, whose book The Psychologist and the Foreign Language Teacher was published in 1964. Until then the field was completely male-dominated – white, middle-class male dominated, to be exact. This diagram, from Howatt’s History (2004) gives a flavor:

Howatt Phase 1

As far as I can tell, the only other woman apart from Rivers who gets a mention in Stern’s chronology, is Sandra Savignon, whose ‘seminal [sic] experiment on a communicative approach’ was published in 1972.  One hundred years of language teaching: just two women.

Of course, women are under-represented in the history of education generally. In a book called Fifty Modern Thinkers on Education: From Piaget to the Present, (Palmer 2001) only seven women are included (although, unaccountably, neither Maria Montessori nor Sylvia Ashton-Warner gets a look in).

But language teaching – and English language teaching – seems to have been exceptionally male-dominated. Why might this be the case?


A male domain

One reason may have been the long association between English and empire, and the way that English language teaching was, as Pennycook (1998, p. 9) puts it, ‘a crucial part of the colonial enterprise’. Teaching English was an extension of colonial rule, and, like all the machinery of empire, an exclusively male domain. Even as the empire was being dismantled, ELT tended to attract young adventurers, often just down from Oxford or Cambridge. As Howatt (2004, p. 241) describes it, ‘long-distance travel was still by sea for most people, so taking up an overseas post was a serious commitment and short-term visits back to Britain were unrealistic for anyone employed outside Europe.’ Many of the outstanding innovators in the British ELT tradition were ‘formed’ in such contexts: Palmer in Japan, West in India,  Halliday in China, and Widdowson and Brumfit in East Africa. The women who may have accompanied them and who no doubt helped sustain their professional activities go largely unremembered and uncelebrated, the one exception being Dorothée, Harold Palmer’s daughter, who collaborated with her father on a book on teaching English through actions. (According to Richard Smith [1999], she also published an annotated phonetic version of a play in three acts called The Mollusc, ‘complete with tone marks’).

Meanwhile, back in Britain, English language teaching was largely centered in London, the leading ELT institutions being the University of London, the BBC, and the British Council, none of which at the time were known for their gender inclusivity. You can’t help suspecting that an old-school-tie network effectively excluded women from anything but the most menial positions. A case in point was the novelist Olivia Manning, whose husband taught literature for the British Council in the 1940s, and whom she dutifully accompanied to Rumania, Greece, Egypt and Palestine, picking up whatever work she could.

peace corps teacher.png

Peace Corps teacher, 1960s

It wasn’t until the 1960s and 1970s that organizations such as the Peace Corps in the US and The British Council in the UK made it easier for women to launch their careers in ELT. As an example, in a recent autobiographical piece, Diane Larsen-Freeman (2017) describes how she taught with the Peace Corps for two years in North Borneo before returning to the US to study for a master’s degree in linguistics. She was among the many (notably North American) women, such as Evelyn Hatch, Elaine Tarone, Patsy Lightbown and Nina Spada, who helped establish applied linguistics as a discipline in its own right.

Even so, when, in a recent survey (de Bot 2015), over a hundred leading applied linguists were asked to identify the leaders in their field, the majority of those named were men. ‘In addition, men tend[ed] to list more men than women as leaders, and women [did] the same’ (p. 40).

Hence, the greater visibility of women in recent years cannot disguise or excuse the fact that the discourses of ELT are still largely male dominated – for evidence of which one need not look much further than the comments on these posts!

(I am extremely grateful to Nicola Prentis, and the long conversation with her that inspired this line of inquiry).


de Bot, K. (2015) A history of applied linguistics: from 1980 to the present. London: Routledge.

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

Larsen-Freeman, D. (2017) Just learning. Language Teaching, 50/3.

Palmer, Joy. A. (ed.) (2001) Fifty Modern Thinkers on Education: From Piaget to the Present. Oxford: Routledge.

Pennycook, A. (1998) English and the discourses of colonialism. London: Routledge.

Smith, R. (1999) The Writings of Harold E. Palmer: An Overview. Tokyo: Hon-no-Tomosha.

Stern, H.H. (1983) Fundamental Concepts of Language Teaching. Oxford: Oxford University Press.


S is for Sexist language

18 03 2012

You know the one about the judge who, on being shown the name of the culprit to be tried, said, ‘I can’t try him – he’s my son!’  Another judge was summoned, who – no sooner given the name of the culprit – said, ‘I can’t try him – he’s my son!’

How can this be?  Well, of course, one judge was the culprit’s father, the other his mother. (I’ve adapted this from an original which was about two surgeons, but you could create a similar puzzle involving two nurses, or two plumbers, or two manicurists, and so on).  The puzzle plays on the fact that, while in English most professions are not marked for gender, we are disposed to assume (foolishly, of course) that the representatives of certain professions are either male or female, by default.

The puzzle wouldn’t work in Spanish, where – apart from anything else – the determiner clearly flags the gender of el juez and la juez. (Not to mention the feminine ending, in the case of the relatively recent form: la jueza).

On the other hand, because the masculine form is the unmarked (i.e. the default) form, when you have a group of judges or architects or surgeons, they are automatically ‘masculinized’, whether or not the group includes any women members. So the puzzle becomes: Dos jueces caminaban por la calle, y los dos dijieron… (Two judges were walking down the street, and both said ‘That’s my son!’  etc).

That the masculine is the default form in Spanish accounts for all sorts of oddities, such as the fact that a parents’ association in Spain is una asociación de padres, even though the only people who attend are las madres. Or that, when you walk up to a crowded stall in the market, you ask ¿Quién es el último? (Who’s the [masculine] last?), even if the bulk of those in line are women.

The invisibility of women that is instantiated in such usages is, of course, way out of step both with reality and with feminist aspirations.  Consequently, this linguistic bias has prompted the publication, in Spanish as in English, of a number of ‘style guides’ that promote the use of non-sexist and inclusive language. The Spanish style guides, however, have irritated the self-appointed guardians of ‘la lengua’, i.e. the Real Academia Española (RAE), to the point that, a couple of weeks ago, a leading Spanish grammarian and lexicographer, Ignacio Bosque, was moved to write a long piece in the national press, signed by 24 of his fellow ‘academicians’, taking these style guides to task. Unsurprisingly, this put el gato (or la gata?) among las palomas (or los palomos?) and, as they say here, the debate was served.

The principle arguments levelled by the (mainly) male academicians at the (mainly) female style guide writers are that their recommendations are

  • inelegant
  • wrong
  • impractical
  • ineffectual
  • misconceived
  • ideological

Inelegance, it is true, often results from the doubling up of gender-marked nouns in the interests of inclusiveness (los hermanos y las hermanas de mi padre y mi madre son mis tíos y mis tías), and an extract from the Constitution of Venezuela that takes this trope to an extreme is quoted with derision.

But worse than inelegant, many of the recommendations are (according to Bosque) simply wrong, and ‘contravene the norms laid down by the RAE’.  In 2008 the then Minister for Equality was roundly mocked for addressing her parliamentary colleagues as ‘miembros y miembras’ (members). The RAE declared this attempt at greater visibility ‘incorrect’.  That coinages like miembra or jueza are wrong simply because they are coinages overlooks the fact that new words are being coined at an astonishing rate (8,500 English words a year, according to a recent study). Language changes, resist it as we may.

Of course, it is not always that easy to unpick the deeply embedded cognitive structures of a language, especially those encoded in its grammar. Attempts to invent gender-neutral pronouns in English have failed miserably. But change does occur, relentlessly, even at the level of grammar. Apart from a few residual suffixes, English lost its gender distinctions long ago, as did Persian, while some languages (e.g. French and, hey!, Spanish) collapsed a three-way distinction into two. Will there still be grammatical gender in Spanish in 500 years? Place your bets.

More serious is the charge that militating for non-sexist language is both ineffectual and misconceived. It’s ineffectual, according to the RAE, because you can’t legislate for language change, which is ironic, since this is exactly what the RAE (through its grammars and dictionaries) has always done. As Deborah Cameron (1990: 162) has argued, ‘defenders of “the language” regard language as their property’, and the tone of the Bosque article is very much ‘back off!’

And the movement for greater inclusiveness is misconceived, so the argument goes, because linguistic change does not effect social change: it merely reflects it. Again, Cameron (1990: 90) is eloquent on this subject:

Anti-feminists are fond of observing that eliminating generic masculine pronouns does not secure equal pay.  Indeed it does not – whoever said it would?  Eliminating generic masculine pronouns precisely eliminates generic masculine pronouns. And in so doing it changes the repertoire of social meanings and choices available to social actors.

Moreover, as she writes elsewhere (Cameron 1995: 143), ‘changing what counts as acceptable public behaviour is one of the ways you go about changing prevailing attitudes – ask anyone who still smokes cigarettes’.

Finally, a great deal of the debate about the RAE communique hinges on the claim that language is ideologically neutral. ‘La gramática no tiene ideología’[i] ran a headline in El País (March 13, 2012). But this is debatable. Languages reflect the cultures out of which they have emerged and bear the traces – the scars, even – of their origins. A language which divides all of creation into two genders, and then selects one of those genders as the preferred form, is ideological to the core.


Cameron, D. (1990) ‘Demythologizing sociolinguistics: Why language does not reflect society’, in Joseph, J.E., and Taylor, T.J. (eds.) Ideologies of Language, London: Routledge.

Cameron, D. (1995) Verbal Hygiene, London: Routledge.

[i] ‘Grammar has no ideology’