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Revisiting the Target Language Democratisation narrative

Back in the early days of English Language Teaching, teachers were keen to make all learners speak the Queen’s English and viciously suppressed linguistic diversity. Thus, they perpetuated Imperial rule, long after the Empire had imploded. Then, in the 1980s, Braj Kachru argued that some varieties of English had become established in post-colonial settings, and it was deeply unfair to exclude them from teaching. Adherents of the ‘Standard Language Ideology’, like Randolph Quirk, fought back in defence of that ‘single monochrome standard’ which ‘looked as good in speech as it did in writing’, but Kachru held his ground, and his view eventually prevailed. Then, in 2000, Jennifer Jenkins published The Phonology of English as an International Language, which legitimised ‘foreign’ accents, and introduced a new, even more democratic and even more inclusive way of thinking about English. This means that we can now teach English unencumbered by possible feelings of guilt. 

Or so the narrative goes…

It is a neat, linear, plausible story, with clearly-defined heroes and villains, and a predictable happy end. It is a narrative found in many accounts of the historical development of ELT, and is often repeated in the English as a Lingua Franca literature. As a matter of fact, and in the interest of full disclosure, it is the story that I narrate in Chapter 2 of my own thesis.

So what’s wrong?

But it would seem that this account, which I will provisionally call the Target Language Democratisation narrative, may not be entirely consistent with the historical record. And this is just a fancy way to say that it could very well be sham.

Earlier today, I was reading The Linguistic Sciences and Language Teaching, a book written by M. A. K. Halliday, Angus McIntosh and Peter Strevens in 1964, and here’s something rather unexpected I came across:

One of the most important changes that took place in the period between 1950 and 1960 was the acceptance that ‘to speak like an Englishman’ was not the obvious and only aim in teaching English to Overseas learners (as far as speaking ability was imparted at all): in this respect British acceptance of variations of accent in English used overseas has run ahead of American views. Although linguistic theory was applied to language teaching by American workers long before it became a widespread practice to do so in Britain, the linguistic consequences of social and political changes, and especially of newly won political independence, have been recognised and accepted by the British while many American language teachers remain troubled but unconvinced. Some American language teachers accept only American forms of English, but in the eyes of the British language-teaching profession one or other of the varieties of English that are growing up may in specific cases be of a kind more appropriate to the local educational systems than any form current in the British Isles. This acceptance is accorded to varieties of English such as those labelled ‘Educated Indian English’, ‘Educated West African English’. (pp. 203-204,  emphasis added)

If this account is true, it seems that Quirk’s objections notwithstanding, there was already a strong tradition in British ELT of accepting and tolerating diversity in ELT. And this trend began at least 30 years before Braj Kachru wrote about World Englishes. This passage also seems to cast doubt on narratives such as the one found in Phillipson’s (1992) Linguistic Imperialism, that claim that ELT had always been hostile to vernacular varieties of English, and that the ‘centre’ of the English speaking world (the Anglophone West, that is) had always been keen to impose its norms on the ‘periphery’. While a single source cannot constitute proof, the extract above is hard to reconcile with Phillipson’s version of ELT history.

Why should this matter?

These may seem like trivial points, and I will readily concede that they make little substantive difference to actual teaching today. But still, I think that they carry two somewhat important implications which should not be overlooked. Firstly, the discrepancy between the Target Language Democratisation narrative and the account found in this book from the early 1960s calls into question the extent to which canonical versions of ELT history are grounded on historical data. This is a disturbing question, which has also been posed by Richard Smith elsewhere, and one which perhaps needs to be asked more persistently.

Secondly, such discrepancies raise the question of how and why ahistorical accounts of ELT come to be established. As critical professionals, we need to ask ourselves why the nuanced statements made by Halliday, McIntosh and Strevens have failed to register in the history of the profession. I can only speculate that our understandings of the past are always mediated by the perceptions of those who came in prominence more recently, and these perceptions may have been oversimplified in the context of the heated lingua-political debates of the 1980s. If the invectives sometimes found in the English as a Lingua Franca literature are any indication, some of us have been rather too eager to reduce alternative viewpoints to straw-men arguments. This tendency is certainly problematic in the context of scholarly debate, and raising such oversimplified accounts to historical status is even more troublesome.

And what about fixing this mess? To me, it sees that there’s a need to retell the history of our profession — this time drawing on the findings of a rigorous, data-driven research agenda. We need to go back to the original documents, the books and writings of previous times, and we need to record the insights of those people who were involved in shaping the profession as it took its early steps, perhaps as a matter of urgency. There’s lots of work to be done, so if there’s anyone out there looking for a PhD topic, this might be a worthwhile one.


  1. A great post, Achilleas. The influence of ELT in the teaching of other languages runs so deep that such a revision of ELT history (or narrative?) would benefit everybody. We urgently need a genealogy of SLA and FLT.

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