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“A step on the way”: progressing scholarly interest in the history of language learning

The article ‘The History of Teaching English as a Foreign Language, from a British and European Perspective’ by A.P.R. Howatt and Richard Smith was published in Language and History in May 2014. In the short time since its publication, it has generated over 23,000 downloads, from readers all around the world. Richard Smith, co-author of the article, gives us his perspective on its success.

Why do you think your article has had such wide readership, spread so consistently around the world?

I can think of several reasons, but a major one must be that it’s available Open Access, and maybe that it’s part of a whole Open Access thematic issue of Language and History on ‘Building the History of Language Learning and Teaching (HoLLT)’. It also has quite a definitive-sounding title. The article is, in fact, partly a state-of-the art summary of previous research into the history of English language teaching, including our own research, so perhaps it comes across as quite ‘authoritative’, and useful for students or student-teachers to read. That could be one reason for its wide readership – we have some evidence that it is being recommended in reading lists on postgraduate and teacher training courses, and this was our deliberate intention. To help establish the usefulness of a more rigorous and nuanced approach to historical research in our field, we set out to complement and provide an alternative perspective to certain textbooks which are very widely used in teacher training courses. To get that message across, and to get the article actually used in teacher training situations, we wrote the body of the article in a deliberately reader-friendly, jargon-free manner.

I did my best to publicize the article personally via Twitter and Facebook within my various professional social networks and via a network (HoLLT.net) that I’m establishing with colleagues, devoted specifically to the emerging field of History of Language Learning and Teaching.

You mentioned that you set out deliberately to establish the usefulness of a more rigorous and nuanced approach to historical research in the field of English language teaching (‘ELT’ or ‘TESOL’). Do you know if the article has had or is having an impact in that respect?

It’s difficult to measure this kind of academic impact, or I’d prefer to say ‘influence’, especially so close to the time when the article was published (only three years ago). All I can imagine – and I stress imagine – at present is that it may be having a practical impact within teacher training. Regarding research, I think the specific argument of the article is being followed: that there’s a need for more nuanced, localized as well as periodized views of history, which break away from the dominance of universal-seeming histories of language teaching ‘method’.

Finally, what made you focus on this particular area of research – the history of teaching English as a foreign language?

Well, it is a bit of a minority interest in English-dominant countries themselves, though there’s been good research in countries like Germany and Japan. I was a teacher of English and teacher educator in Japan for a long while, and that’s where my own interest first developed, as I’ve described in a recent blog post. In a nutshell, I want to build on the foundations laid by my co-author A.P.R. Howatt in his 1984 book A History of English Language Teaching (Oxford University Press, 2nd ed. 2004) to stimulate more interest in and appreciation of history – including ‘local’ history. This will help teachers to develop a sense of perspective and some degree of freedom in relation to the quick-fix or otherwise inappropriate solutions they are often invited to adopt. And the history of language learning and teaching is of scholarly, not just ‘practical’, interest too. ELT is a bit slow to catch up with the field of French as a foreign language teaching, which has had its own learned society and journal for historical studies for more than 25 years. But we’re getting there with the history of English language teaching, and our article is a step on the way.

Richard Smith is a Reader in English Language Teaching (ELT) & Applied Linguistics at the University of Warwick. He founded the Warwick ELT Archive in 2002 and has published widely in the field of history of language learning and teaching, besides other areas. He is a founder and co-convenor of the International Association of Applied Linguistics (AILA) Research Network on History of Language Learning and Teaching. His recent articles include ‘Building applied linguistic historiography’ (Applied Linguistics) and, with A.P.R. Howatt, ‘The history of teaching English as a foreign language, from a British and European perspective’ (Language and History). He recently completed a book on the history of the International Association of Teachers of English as a Foreign Language (IATEFL) with Shelagh Rixon (published in 2017 to mark IATEFL’s 50th anniversary), has co-edited a three-volume collection on The History of Language Learning and Teaching with Nicola McLelland for Legenda (to be published in 2017). He is currently working on two books: a monograph on the roots of ELT as a profession and, with Friederike Klippel and Andrew Linn, a history of the 19th century Reform Movement in modern language teaching.