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?

german-school-for-native-children

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).

References

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.