Tuesday, August 7, 2007

BASIC English, direct method and the power of branding

Martin McMorrow - Massey University, New Zealand

There have been some interest in the historical subjects of Direct Method and BASIC English over the last week or so. A good source for information about both of them is Howatt's History of ELT. Howatt points out among other things that BASIC stands for "British American Scientific International Commercial" and it's intended to be a kind of language in its own right, simply using English words and grammar as its raw ingredients in the same way that Zamenhof had earlier boiled down lumps of Latin, chunks of Czech etc into his Esperanto gruel. The way in which Ogden selected the vocabulary items for BASIC brings to mind the approach of Roget's Thesaurus - though Jeremy Bentham's philosophy was said to be a major influence. As Howatt describes it, the 850 BASIC words were made up of 150 qualities, 600 things and 100 operations.

In order to stretch this limited lexical stock, Ogden used three main strategies: circumlocution (eg if you can say 'put a question', you can get rid of 'ask'); conversion (lots of the 600 'things' could be used verbally) and combination (phrasal/ prepositional verbs such as get in etc increased the verbal resources exponentially!). Of course, in doing all this stretching, Ogden hugely increased the number of lexical items in BASIC while, strictly speaking, restricting himself to the meagre 850 words. As Howatt neatly puts it "one language learning problem, the number of new words, has been exchanged for another, the multiplicity of meanings that each new word is required to carry" (1984, pp 253-4)

Howatt also points out the weakness of Ogden's project in practical, sociopolitical terms. BASIC was neither fish nor fowl - neither English, nor not English. There were no native speakers of BASIC English and how would you persuade teachers who could speak 'proper' English to 'break the rules' in order to speak BASIC (eg by missing off the -s endings, which were ungrammatical in BASIC). (By the way, I think this is also a contemporary issue in relation to EIL/ELF). Howatt uses Malinowski's notions of 'context of situation' and 'speech community' (which were developing at the same time as BASIC) as a framework for this critique. According to this perspective, BASIC English was "a lost code looking for a speech community" (1984, p. 255). As such, BASIC English in itself was something of a dead end. In the long term it was Malinowski - through Firth and later Halliday - who had the deeper and more enduring influence on language study and teaching.

That said, one aspect of BASIC English - its strongly visual emphasis - links it to the much more successful Direct Method. One key crossover was the book "English through Pictures" by IA Richards and Christine Gibson - surely one of the most influential and enduring EFL publications - even though, it did seal the breach between Richards - an early champion of BASIC English- and Ogden - its purist originator. In BASIC English, preference was given to qualities and things that could be represented visually - and much the same can be said about the DIRECT METHOD. Whenever we mime in class or point to visual aids, aren't we walking with our Direct Method dinosaurs? Howatt has some great quotes from Sauveur's seminal Direct Method work - his 1874 "Introduction". For instance, "Here is the finger. Look. Here is the forefinger, here is the middle finger, here is the ring-finger, here is the little finger, and here is the thumb. Do you see the finger, madame? Yes you see the finger and I see the finger. Do you see the finger, monsieur? - Yes, I see the finger. - Do you see the forefinger, madame? - Yes, I see the forefinger ...." (Sauveur, 1874, p. 10 as cited in Howatt, 1984, p. 200). I think I've done that lesson myself - haven't we all? In fact, I'm sure I've told hundreds of trainee teachers that the first place to look for visual aids is in the mirror. Does this make me a bit of a TEFLosaurus myself - not strictly "Direct" but, at the very least, Direclectic?

About the Direct Method itself, Howatt charts the different stages of its evolution and outstanding success. Howatt explains that the term 'direct method' seems not to have been coined by anyone in particular, but to have "emerged (rather like our contemporary 'Communicative Approach') as a useful generic label to refer to all methods of language teaching which adopted the monolingual principle as a cornerstone of their beliefs" (1984, pp. 207-8). One interesting fact that I'd forgotten was that, apparently, Berlitz himself never referred to the Direct Method - preferring the term Berlitz method. I suppose the generic nature of the term 'Direct Method' ruined it for marketing - brands need ownership and boundaries. If "a language is a dialect with an army and a navy" (Weinreich, 1945, p. 13), then perhaps a language teaching Method is an approach with a lawyer and a PR rep!

It must have been the huge success of Berlitz (nearly 200 schools worldwide by 1914), that propelled the term 'method' into its lengthy commercial life in ELT. It's been tacked onto any number of language school names to suggest the uniqueness of the experience on sale within. Judging by the Callan Method, the Schenker Method etc etc, you might assume the world was awash with innovative, unique ways of learning English. Mind you, a similar interpretation of 'Whoppers' 'Big Macs' etc available on any High Street, might lead you to conclude that we benefit from a rich and varied diet! If only!

Be that as it may, I suspect that the commercial allure of the term 'Method' has long since worn off. Marketing loves language to death. Having consumed 'method', marketing seems to have switched its affections to 'solution' (if the English magazine Private Eye is to be believed - it runs a weekly column on the subject!). Soon, if not already, we can expect to see: MySpeech: a multilevel, multimodal organic language Solution! You read it here first!

Howatt, A.P.R. (1984) A history of English language teaching. Oxford: Oxford University Press (NB an updated second edition is now available) Weinreich, M. (1945). YIVO and the problems of our time. Yivo-bleter 25
(I found this reference at: http://www.edu-cyberpg.com/Linguistics/armynavy.html - which also gives the original Yiddish version: "A sprakh iz a diyalekt mit an armey un a flot"

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