March 20, 2007

The Intensive Language Program

In a couple of earlier posts ("A tale of two societies", 3/1/2007; "Linguistics in 1940", 3/11/2007), I discussed the mobilization of linguists during the second world war, and wondered who organized it and how it happened. There's a lot of information about this process in J Milton Cowan, "American Linguistics in Peace and at War", pp.67-82 in K Koerner, ed., First person singular II: autobiographies by American scholars in the language sciences. I've now gotten a copy, and I thought it was interesting enough to pass some of it on to you.

Here's the first installment -- pages 71-73, presented under the heading "The Intensive Language Program (ILP)":

It began in 1939 and what follows is largely an account of the development of ideas generated by Mortimer Graves, the Executive Secretary of the American Council of Learned Societies. Graves reasoned simply and directly that if those linguists he'd been giving grants to could analyze unwritten American Indian languages, they could certainly do other languages and why not some likely to be of strategic importance in the world-wide conflict he was convinced was inevitable? He set up a committee to explore the founding of a National School of Modern Oriental Languages and Civilizations (on the model of the London School) and one on Intensive Language Instruction (primarily Chinese, Japanese and Russian). These were staffed by professional linguists and others interested in improving language instruction in the widest sense. He secured funding from the Rockefeller Foundation and had an impressive on-going operation almost a year before the actual outbreak of hostilities. At the January 1941 meeting of the ACLS secretaries he was urging me to get a release from my University to go to Washington and take over the detailed operation of what had hten come to be called the Intensive Language Program.

Graves liked simplicity. One example will serve to show his directness. Mary Haas was doing research in indigenous Indian languages at the University of Michigan. There happened to be a group of Thai students there. Mortimer asked Mary to shelve the Indian for the time being and make an analysis of Thai. He provided fees for the Thai students who participated and who were known as informants (following the then current anthropological practice; we all lived to regret that term). When she was well along with the analysis he asked her to run a class in which the students would work directly with Mary, observing her analytic techniques, learning what Thai they could in this process but also learning how to analyze a language. Meanwhile she converted what knowledge she had gained into teaching materials to be used in class. This was the genesis of the 'linguistic method' of language teaching, later known as the 'Army Method' of which more later. Mortimer sent subsidized students to participate in this bootstrap operation.

After we entered the War, things went fast. I moved to the ACLS in Washington and left my wife in Iowa to conduct the regular business of the Society's Treasurer. Our family was not finally reunited in Silver Springs, Maryland, until a year and a half later.

The first act of the Intensive Language Program (ILP) was to corral the practicing linguists. Those who had not already been drafted were protected so that they would work for the Program. Those who had been inducted were retrieved through the military system and put to work on linguistic projects of held in cold storage. We didn't lose a single linguist! much of this was due to Mortimer's knowing whom to talk to, most of it resulted from persuasive argument stressing the national need which was pretty well recognized in the higher circles of government, and some to sheer luck. [...]

The stage was then set for a fabulous civilian-military operation covering the production and publication of language teaching materials in dozens of languages and full-time intensive instruction in those languages on a scale not only never realized before, but hardly ever dreamed of. Before we get to a description of these, let us note that some pretty impressive experience had been piled up in the civilian sector by the ILP.

On this core the Summer Program for 1942 speaks for itself: fifty-six courses, in twenty-six languages, in eighteen universities, involving some seven hundred students in by far the most impressive array of intensive language instruction ever presented in American academic life. (Graves & Cowan 1942:3)

Posted by Mark Liberman at March 20, 2007 06:06 AM