Harold Edward Palmer
Harold Edward Palmer, usually just Harold E. Palmer (6 March 1877 – 16 November 1949), was an English linguist, phonetician and pioneer in the field of English language learning and teaching. Especially he dedicated himself to Oral Method. He stayed in Japan for 14 years and reformed its English education. He contributed to the development of the applied linguistics of the 20th century.
Palmer was born in London. In 1892-1893, he studied in France. In 1902, he went to Belgium and started teaching English at Berlitz school. In 1903, he established his own school. In 1915, he started teaching at University College London. In 1922, he was invited by Masataro Sawayanagi, Kojiro Matsukata and went to Japan. In Japan, he became 'Linguistic Adviser' to the Japanese Department of Education. In 1923, he established the Institute for Research in English Teaching (IRET), now the Institute for Research in Language Teaching (IRLT), and became the first director. He founded the Institute's Bulletin. In 1935, he was awarded D.Litt. by Tokyo Imperial University. In 1936, he returned to England and became consultant for Longmans, Green. In 1937, he published Thousand-Word English with A. S. Hornby, the main creator of the first Advanced Learner's Dictionary. During World War II he lived in England, and assisted the war effort with his language skills, publishing three booklets about the French language, to assist soldiers preparing for the invasion of Normandy.
Harold E. Palmer did more than any other single individual to establish English language teaching (ELT) as an autonomous branch of language education in the first half of the twentieth century and to give it the ‘applied linguistic’ direction to which it has remained loyal ever since.
The main aim in publishing his Selected Writings (IRLT 1995/1999) and this accompanying volume is to preserve this legacy and to ensure that it is available for study by future generations. The importance of identifying roots and sources in fostering a strong sense of professionalism – in this case among language teachers worldwide – cannot be overstated.
Palmer was a prolific writer but one or two of his works stand out as being of special significance. The first would have to be The Scientific Study and Teaching of Languages (1917), which offered a theoretically motivated but eminently practical model of language teaching drawn from many years of personal experience. Secondly there was his Principles of Language-Study (1921), which successfully married the needs of the language classroom to principles of learning theory derived from contemporary psychology. In addition, we should mention Palmer’s great work of linguistic description A Grammar of Spoken English (1924), which applied his research and that of former colleagues at London University (in particular Daniel Jones) to pedagogical needs, and finally his most influential practical teaching manual English through Actions (1925), which gave English teachers workable activities and exercises to develop their pupils’ oral proficiency.
The emphasis in all these works is on the teaching of the spoken language, reflecting the ‘paradigm shift’ in twentieth century linguistics away from studying the written language (especially in the context of ‘great literature’) and towards research and teaching based on the everyday speech of ordinary people. This speaking/writing contrast was important in Palmer’s own work, but he extended the argument much further by pointing to a fundamental distinction between (a) learning to speak a foreign language by using what he called ‘spontaneous’ language acquisition capacities, and (b) learning foreign language literacy skills through the use of ‘studial’ capacities developed through formal education. This distinction has been echoed in recent times by the (narrower) ‘acquisition’/’learning’ distinction developed in the USA.
Another Palmerian idea born before its time, so to speak, was the use of graded listening tasks in the early stages of language learning (‘imperative drill’ was Palmer’s term – Total Physical Response (TPR), as developed in the late 1960s, involves very similar procedures).
Palmer’s contribution to ELT consisted of much more than a few isolated ideas. With his detailed and theory-based models of syllabus and course design and his principled but practical approach to classroom methodology, he laid the essential groundwork on which the profession could build a strong and flexible structure.
In a more narrowly applied linguistic connection Palmer’s best-known work was in the field of lexicology, and the research he undertook at the Tokyo Institute for Research in English Teaching (IRET) in the 1920s and 30s eventually bore fruit in major publications which appeared in the UK after World War II, often completed by other writers. For example, there was the General Service List of English Words (Longman, 1953, edited by Michael West) and successive editions of the (Advanced) Learner’s Dictionary of Current English (Oxford University Press, 1948 onwards, edited by A.S. Hornby et al.), both foundation stones of modern ELT and Foreword both owing much to Palmer’s pre-war research.
It is equally important to recognize Palmer’s contribution to applied linguistics in Japan. While most of his energies were devoted to the improvement of English teaching there, he also found time to deal with topics of even more specific relevance such as The Principles of Romanization (1930). For this and other works he was awarded a D.Litt. by Tokyo University before he finally returned to England in 1936.
The ten volumes of Palmer’s Selected Writings comprise more than five and a half thousand pages and contain no fewer than fifty-two separate works. Some, like the Scientific Study and the Principles, are well-known but most of the studies included have previously been unfamiliar to readers outside Japan. The collection shows that Palmer could work comfortably in more than one ‘register’; his writing encompasses not only scholarly books and articles but also pamphlets and books for a wider audience (for example, This Language Learning Business (1932)) which provide evidence of his considerable sense of humour. (He had been a journalist before becoming a teacher and his versatility may owe something to this experience.) The IRLT compilation of Palmer’s most significant publications – all of which are currently out of print in the UK – is a detailed and timely reminder of the debt we owe both to the man himself and to his far-sighted Japanese sponsors. In spite of its breadth of coverage, the set does not pretend to offer more than a selection of Palmer’s writings – the ‘essential Palmer’ in fact. This companion volume by Richard Smith succeeds admirably in placing the writings which are included in context, and in indicating the full extent of Palmer’s achievement.
A. P. R. Howatt Department of Applied Linguistics University of Edinburgh, Scotland Synopsis of Harold E. Palmer’s life, career and major publications 1877 6 March: born in London. Family moves to Hythe, Kent, around 1883. Educated in the local elementary school, and by his father.
1890 Enters Prospect House School, a small private school in Hythe.
1892 Leaves school. Goes on six-month exchange visit to Boulogne. On return, pursues interests in geology and works for his father’s stationery, printing, bookbinding and newspaper publishing business.
1897 Begins serious work as a journalist on his father’s newspaper, the Hythe Reporter.
1899 Becomes editor of the Hythe Reporter.
1902 Starts work as an English teacher in a language school in Verviers, Belgium, where he gains his first exposure to the ‘Berlitz Method’.
1903 Sets up his own small language school in Verviers, later to be known as the ‘Institut Palmer’. Experiments to develop his own teaching approach.
1904 Publishes an English course for French-speaking learners, in instalments. Subsequently, writes and publishes several more textbooks, for French and Esperanto as well as English.
1910 First contribution to Le maître phonétique, bulletin of the International Phonetic Association (IPA), which he had joined in 1907.
1914 Outbreak of war forces him to escape from Belgium with his wife and daughter.
1915 Invited by Daniel Jones to give public lectures on ‘Methods of Language Teaching’ at University College London (UCL).
1916 Becomes part-time assistant in Department of Phonetics, UCL, with responsibility for the teaching of spoken English and academic courses on ‘Methods of Language Teaching’.
1917 The Scientific Study and Teaching of Languages.
1918 Begins teaching ‘Methods of Language Study’ at the School of Oriental Studies, University of London.
1920 Becomes full-time assistant in Department of Phonetics, UCL.
1921 Becomes full-time lecturer. The Principles of Language-Study; The Oral Method of Teaching Languages.
1922 Goes to Japan, and takes up post as ‘Linguistic Adviser’ to the Japanese Department of Education.
1923 Establishment of the Institute for Research in English Teaching (IRET) and foundation of the Institute’s Bulletin.
1924 Memorandum on Problems of English Teaching in the Light of a New Theory; A Grammar of Spoken English. Begins development of the IRET’s ‘Standard Course’.
1925 English through Actions (with Dorothée Palmer).
1926 Begins development of the IRET’s ‘Reader System’.
1927 Makes a start on intensive lexicological research.
1929 Eigo no rokushukan (The First Six Weeks of English).
1930 Interim Report on Vocabulary Selection; The Principles of Romanization.
1931 Embarks on eight-month ‘world tour’. Second Interim Report on Vocabulary Selection.
1932 This Language-Learning Business (with H. Vere Redman).
1933 Second Interim Report on English Collocations.
1934 Takes a leading role at the ‘Carnegie Conference’ on vocabulary limitation in New York, and in London the following year. Specimens of English Construction Patterns; An Essay in Lexicology.
1935 Awarded D.Litt. by Tokyo Imperial University.
1936 Returns to England to become consultant for Longmans, Green.
1937 Thousand-Word English (with A. S. Hornby).
1938 A Grammar of English Words; The New Method Grammar.
1940 The Teaching of Oral English.
1943 International English Course begins to be published (in separate Italian, French, Spanish, Dutch, Polish and Czech editions).
1944 Falls ill during a lecture tour in South America.
1949 16 November: dies at home in Felbridge, Sussex.
Harold E. Palmer (1877-1949) has been identified as a leading figure in the twentieth century history of English language teaching (Howatt 1984: 230) and, along with Henry Sweet (1845-1912), a pioneer in the development of applied English linguistics (Howatt 1984: 326-7; Titone 1968: 70-72). Indeed, as Stern (1983: 100) notes, ‘Palmer is often considered to be “the father of British applied linguistics”’. Howatt (1994: 2915) concurs with this assessment, viewing Palmer as ‘the founder, with Daniel Jones . . ., of what eventually became the British school of applied linguistics’, even though the term ‘applied linguistics’ only itself gained currency after the foundation in Michigan of the journal Language Learning , in 1948. More recently, Meara (1998a) has described Palmer as a ‘colossus’, and his influence as ‘almost immeasurable’.
Howatt devotes a chapter of his (1984) A History of English Language Teaching to Palmer, explaining that his significance lay in his systematic fusing of practical (direct method) teaching ideas with the applied linguistic approach of the late nineteenth century Reform Movement, thus providing the methodological foundations for what came to be a distinctive British approach to the theory as well as practice of English as a foreign language teaching. Howatt has also offered the following, more recent assessment: It is difficult to over-estimate Palmer’s contribution to twentiethcentury English language teaching. . . . After Palmer, ELT [i.e., (the British approach to) English Language Teaching] was no longer merely a junior branch of modern language teaching, but an independent profession which led the way in applied linguistic innovation. (Howatt 1994: 2915)
Nevertheless, Palmer’s contribution to the establishment of ELT appears to have been greatly under-estimated in some recent studies which adopt a historical perspective. Thus, Phillipson’s (1992) critical account of the history of (English) linguistic imperialism and its relationship with ELT refers mainly to post-war English-medium education in (former) British colonies, in particular in Africa, and hardly mentions Palmer’s work. Similarly, Pennycook (1994), in his own account of the ‘cultural politics’ of ELT, lays most emphasis on colonial and post-colonial education (in particular, in Malaysia and Singapore), and on post-war ‘global’ developments, making only passing reference to Palmer’s work. Thus, while these writers have together introduced a necessary critical dimension into studies of ELT history, their focus on post-war developments, and on the teaching of English in colonial and postcolonial contexts has led them largely to ignore Palmer’s pivotal role in the development of English as a ‘foreign’ language teaching. It is to be hoped that future critical studies will redress this deficiency.
Another area of interest is the extent to which Palmer’s thinking may have influenced post-war developments in the USA. It is notable in this connection that Titone (1968) presents a similar evaluation to Howatt’s (cited above), despite writing primarily for an American audience and focusing on the history of foreign language teaching in general: Most of [Palmer’s] insights have become – sometimes without acknowledgement – permanent acquisitions of contemporary applied linguistics.(Titone 1968: 72)
Titone devotes individual chapters to the work of Henry Sweet and Otto Jespersen (1860–1943) as well as to Palmer. He concludes that ‘Palmer went beyond the achievements of Sweet and Jespersen. His closeness to the sophisticated views of contemporary applied linguistics is striking’ (Titone 1968: 70). As we shall see below, a number of North American studies (among them, Haugen 1955; Diller 1971; and Glass 1979) have implied that Palmer influenced wartime and post-war American developments, to a far greater extent than is generally recognized.
Finally, Palmer’s specific contribution to the development of English language teaching in Japan is little appreciated in the west, but is highly regarded in Japan itself. Recently, the issue in ten substantial volumes of Palmer’s Selected Writings (IRLT 1995/1999) has been complemented by the publication of two monographs (Ozasa 1995b and Imura 1997) which have focused attention anew on Palmer’s important work in Japan between 1922 and 1936. Indeed, the continuing Japanese interest in Palmer’s ideas contrasts significantly with a general lack of historical sensibility in western applied linguistic and language teaching circles, where Palmer’s contributions – as with those of many figures from the past – appear to be largely forgotten, in spite of the appreciations cited above and suggestions by, for example, Stern (1983: 517) that a historical perspective can be of value in clarifying contemporary applied linguistic problems.
The significance of Palmer’s work, while highlighted by some scholars, does not, then, appear to be widely appreciated in the west. Accordingly, the present study is intended as an original ‘historiographical’ contribution which might not only help raise awareness with regard to Palmer’s specific achievements and significance but also contribute to the establishment of history as a relevant area of study within applied linguistics. Before describing the intentions and scope of the study in greater detail, we shall provide further justification below by means of an overview of writings in English and Japanese on Palmer which have appeared during the fifty years since his death.