Better Mousetraps for English Language Teaching?*
A Look Back at 50 Years of English Language Teaching

DougBrown_2013H. Douglas Brown

Do you ever look at all the books, courses, methods, and techniques in our English teaching profession and get overwhelmed? Does it seem like every year there’s a new “invention” for teaching in the classroom, one that promises to work better than an existing one? Just when you get a confident grasp of the existing landscape?

Remember the old adage, attributed to Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Build a better mousetrap, and the whole world will beat a path to your door.” Do we have better mousetraps in TESOL today than we did five decades ago? Let’s take a look back.Half a century ago our English teaching mousetraps were all about stimulus-response psychology, pattern drills, error-free “overlearning,” and an obsession for grammar rules. By the 1970s we found that those approaches didn’t work very well, so the ELT profession came up with better mousetraps. What were they? Attention to learners’ errors as windows of opportunity and the interlanguage development of learners, the emotional side of language learning, classrooms as communities of learners, and a focus on the essence of language as communication.

By the 1980s our mousetraps were getting better. But some new ideas were on the horizon for the 90s: a focused emphasis on the strategic nature of language learners, on helping learners to notice aspects of language that needed their attention, and less emphasis on the linguistic forms of language along with more emphasis on the purposes and functions of language. Better mousetraps? I think so, and an excellent sign of a growing, maturing profession.

The 21st century ushered in some revolutionary ideas in the form of what has come to be called the social turn in English language teaching: more cognizance of the quintessential importance of the interpersonal nature of language and communication along with the need for learners to “seize” their identity and agency as full participants in the situated contexts of their language milieu.

Today, “second” language learners are “first” class participants in their language communities. The outdated distinction between native and non-native users of a language is, thankfully, vanishing. The full fruition of English as a global language blurs those linguistic borders. Heritage languages and cultures are celebrated, multilingualism is valued in our “shrinking” globe, and languaculture is a rallying cry for all language users.

Better mousetraps? Yes! We’ve come a long way in half a century. I like to think that our efforts as language teachers have helped to create what Giroux and McLaren (1989) described as a “a better and more humane world.” You have been and will continue to be an instrument of that transformation!

* A reworked version of a presentation at TESOL 2014, Portland, OR, USA on March 27, 2014.