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50th Conference: Foreign language teaching and learning in the 19th century

A blog written by PhD student Ariadni Loutrari

Professor Marjorie Lorch

Written by PhD student Ariadni Loutrari

Marjorie Lorch, Professor of Neurolinguistics in the Department of Applied Linguistics and Communication has broad research interests, including the mental construction of language, the neural bases of bilingualism. More recently Professor Lorch has broadened her research to the history of linguistic ideas in the 19th century with respect to language acquisition, function, and language impairments.

"...innovative system for language learning in the 19th century"

In her talk for the Department’s 50th Anniversary, Professor Lorch referred to the work of Thomas Prendergast, a language ‘methodologist’ who proposed an innovative system for language learning in the 19th century based on his observations from children’s acquisition of their mother tongue and, more interestingly, of additional languages. Professor Lorch’s interest in his work stemmed from the fact that, despite extensive research in the US and countries of Continental Europe, there has been very little investigation into the history of language teaching and learning in Britain. The particular case of Thomas Prendergast has only received limited scholarship.

Thomas Prendergast was a civil servant in Madras, India and retired later in England. Growing up in a multilingual environment as a child in India and living there for about thirty years, Thomas Prendergast emphasised the difference between formal language learning and language acquisition through immersion. He rejected traditional language teaching methods based on grammar-translation, as he observed that children could not rely on such methods in order to acquire a language. Notably, he was the only Englishman who developed teaching methods at this time and produced a number of manuals for communicative purposes in French, German, Spanish, Hebrew, and Latin. These were aimed at self-instruction before travelling to a foreign country, and emphasized developing idiomatic communication.

What is remarkable about his work is his psycholinguistic approach on memory, learning, and the mental lexicon, as Professor Lorch emphasised. As far as memory is concerned, Thomas Prendergast argued that it can work most effectively when one takes many breaks and the language input they receive is small but frequent. Prendergast had also emphasised repetition not of single words but of whole sentences as a useful tool for language learning.  It is of interest that his psycholinguistic insights were validated by empirical research two decades later.

"It is of interest that his psycholinguistic insights were validated by empirical research two decades later."

Thomas Prendergast’s example points to the significance of historical research into theories of language learning and linguistics in general. This talk revealed that modern theory and methodology on language learning seems to have its roots in the past centuries. Professor Lorch’s research highlights the importance of historical research in the area of second language acquisition and linguistics in general.

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