[xmca] Obituary Christopher Brumfit

From: Phil Chappell (philchappell@mac.com)
Date: Fri Jun 09 2006 - 05:52:30 PDT

Christopher Brumfit, 1940–2006

Henry Widdowson
April 2006.

Applied Linguistics 2006 27(2):161-163; doi:10.1093/applin/aml017

Christopher Brumfit died on March 18th this year, as fate would have
it just a few months after the appearance of a special issue of
Applied Linguistics which would have been a particularly fitting
commemoration of the man and his work. The theme of that special
issue was ‘Applied Linguistics and real-world problems’, a title,
which, as is pointed out in the editorial, derives from Brumfit's own
definition of the field as ‘the theoretical and empirical
investigation of real-world problems in which language is a central
Such a definition is general enough to cover a wide range of enquiry
and Brumfit's own particular concern was with problems to do with
language education. Such problems in the real world would no doubt
have impressed themselves on his attention when, on completion of his
studies at Brasenose College Oxford, he went to teach English at the
Tabora Government Boys’ School in Tanzania. Four years later, in
1969, he was appointed lecturer in English methodology at the
University of Dar es Salaam, and produced his first book: A Handbook
for English Teachers. His career in Applied Linguistics had begun. He
may not have called it that at the time, but on his return to the UK
in 1972, he acquired the formal credentials of an MA in Applied
Linguistics at Essex, getting a distinction into the bargain. After
two years as lecturer in English and Linguistics at the City of
Birmingham College of Education, he was then, in 1974, to my own
great good fortune, appointed as lecturer in what was then the
Department of English as a Foreign Language at the University of
London Institute of Education. I arrived in 1977, and there he was,
already making his distinctive intellectual mark.

What was so distinctive, and inspiring, about his intellect was its
independence. Rather than accept current ideas or conventional
assumptions, he would submit them to scrutiny. This was the kind of
non-conformist critical thinking that he encouraged his students to
engage in, and that informed his own research and writing. At that
time, in London, he was applying it in particular to communicative
language teaching, a relatively recent development in those days. It
was an approach he endorsed in principle and indeed the book he
edited with Keith Johnson in 1979, The Communicative Approach to
Language Teaching, was very influential in making it widely known. He
followed this up with his own closely and analytically argued
discussion of the approach in his book Communicative Methodology in
Language Teaching. But these books were not designed to promote a
kind of practice, but to present arguments, to examine the principles
of the approach, and so provide the means whereby teachers could also
think for themselves, and so take an informed decision about how
appropriate it was for their circumstances.

Abstract principle and actual practice – how they are to be related,
and how far they can be reconciled, is a theme that runs through all
Christopher Brumfit's work. It represents a kind of active and
creative interplay of contraries that seems to have been central to
his whole way of thinking. He was on the one hand an idealist, an
intellectual who delighted in rational and fictional abstraction,
whether expounded in the philosophy of Karl Popper, or represented in
the novels of Dostoevsky. On the other hand, he was a realist who
recognized the need to make ideas operational in practice, a
pragmatist who knew how to compromise and negotiate and get things
done. What was remarkable about him was the way he would achieve a
symbiosis between the two. And for him, I think, Applied Linguistics
was just such a symbiotic activity. Real world problems called for an
investigation in which the theoretical and the empirical are not
complementary, but mutually modify each other.

Christopher Brumfit's thinking was radical by being rigorous,
creative by being critical. What was most impressive, and
influential, about him was that he made people think about things in
ways that would not otherwise occur to them. He had a way of drawing
an implication or shifting perspective to reveal things you had not
noticed. In conversation, he would often take you by surprise with an
unusually acute observation in passing about some current fashionable
notion, some recent trend or other. But then there would also be the
mischievous remark with a twinkle in the eye, and tongue (quite
literally) in cheek, the wry smile. For there was far more to him
than intellect, impressive though that was. There was his love of
literature, and his awareness of its significance as representing
realities beyond reason, the aesthetic pleasure he got out of the
play of both ideas and language. There was a sensitivity which
enabled him to engage with students and colleagues alike, and a deep
seated humanism that led to an active concern for moral issues, for
social justice and the opportunity for individual self realization.
He never forgot that the real world problems that Applied Linguistics
is concerned with have to do with people, not experimental subjects
or social categories but essentially with individuals. Significantly,
the last book he wrote was entitled Individual Freedom in Language
Teaching, written when already suffering from his illness.

His influence on the field of Applied Linguistics, and particularly
as it concerned language education, was enormous. And yet he was not
the kind of person one would normally expect to exert such influence.
For he was not a dominant or flamboyant figure, but was on the
contrary rather diffident and non-assertive in manner, socially
rather awkward at times – qualities, one might think, not obviously
suited to leadership. But then he was never a leader in the sense
that he was at the head of some new movement or school of thought. He
was critical without being a critical linguist, concerned with socio-
cultural aspects of language learning without being an adherent of
socio-cultural theory. He embraced no creed, bore no banner for
followers to march behind. For what made him so influential was not
any particular line of thought but the very manner of his thinking.
He showed us how to examine and evaluate ideas and practices and to
be aware of their implications.

Applied Linguistics as an investigation into real-world problems and
how to deal with them is impressively exemplified throughout all of
Christopher Brumfit's work. And he was in his own unique way
practising it right to the end of his life. In spite of pain, he kept
on reading. Just a week or so before his death he told me that he had
been re-reading Elizabethan poetry and with a fresh awareness of its
meaning. It was so characteristic of him that he could find something
positive in being afflicted with terminal cancer. And so consistent
with his way of thinking about Applied Linguistics that he should
show so poignantly how a use of language, seemingly so remote from
current reality, could be made relevant to the most difficult, and
ultimately unresolvable, real world problems of human life.

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