Students Staff

17 August 2015

Personal tribute to Terry Culhane

Filed under: People pages — Tags: — Communications Office @ 11:17 am

Paddy O’Toole gives his own personal tribute to his former close colleague Terry Culhane, who died recently.

Terry Culhane was a pioneer in applied linguistics. The linguistics was the early phase of M.A.K. Halliday’s “Scale and Category Grammar” (now Systemic-Functional Linguistics), together with recent work in word frequency counts, and the work of our colleagues in the “Contemporary Russian Language Analysis Project”. The context was a university which had committed itself (under Albert Sloman’s guidance) to a focus on Russian and Latin- American  languages as a key to the future, and (under Peter Strevens’ inspiring and energetic Directorship) a Language teaching and study Centre separate from “discipline-oriented” departments of regional cultural and historical/sociological studies. The time was the mid-1960s, when the technologies of tape recorders, slide projectors and language laboratories were equipping the revolution in language teaching away from “grammar and translation” pedagogy to the context and situation of spoken language in use.

Terry, who had, like me, studied Russian during his National Service in the 1950s, had taught Russian in high schools and was an active member of the British ATR (Association of Teachers of Russian), joined the staff of the Language Centre in 1965, teaching our Preliminary Year of intensive Russian in the School of Comparative Studies. We were both closely associated with the Contemporary Russian Language Analysis Project directed by Jeff Ellis and Jean Ure, who had been colleagues of Michael Halliday and Peter Strevens at the University of Edinburgh.

Jeff and Jean ran a course for the young linguists in their research group, exploring the potential and problems of applying Hallidayan English grammar and semantics to contemporary spoken and written Russian, as collected on portable tape-recorders and in printed texts in Moscow. Terry and I participated in these workshops and learned a lot about linguistic priorities in teaching Russian: why vocabulary should be kept relevant and manageable; why the grammar should be introduced gradually and in relation to frequency of usage in everyday spoken language (e.g. not all of the difficult “verbs of motion” in one book chapter, as we had had to learn them, and constantly revisited and revised through dialogues, drills, reading and songs)

With the assistance of our Russian-speaking colleagues Peter Mirsky and Slawek Wolkowinsky we taught the 1965 Russian Preliminary Year using an American language laboratory course, but felt the need to have a stronger visual component to reproduce the reality of social contexts of language in use.  In that year we were approached by a BBC radio producer to write and broadcast a new Russian  language beginners course on Radio 3.

There had been two previous BBC radio courses  for Russian learners. Like other courses in recorded form (Linguaphone, etc.) these had tended to fragment  the world into situational topics (“The Family”, “Shopping”, “At the Post Office”), thus focusing on what we would learn to call  — following Halliday — “Ideational” vocabulary, but  largely ignoring the social “Interpersonal” and “Textual” functions of language which comprise vital components of the grammar, lexis and phonology.

What Terry and I proposed was a more complex language source-text and set of  learning aids:

  1. A story-line, like  a kind of Russian soap opera, where, over 20 half-hour radio lessons, a tourist from Kiev, Boris Petrovich, would land at the airport in Moscow, go through passport and baggage checks, get  to know a young Muscovite, Misha, sign up at a hotel, walk around the centre of the city, encounter  a friend of Misha’s, Nina, in a café and invite them to a concert – all involving the Interpersonal functions of recognizing, greeting, discussing, appraising and disagreeing. Indeed, when the restaurant service was poor, or the shower in his hotel room ran cold, our hero’s Interpersonal vocabulary included complaints and expletives. There were also telephone conversations involving more constrained — but for any tourist equally vital — communicational formulae.
  2. This series of dialogues was broadcast by the BBC on Tuesdays with repeats on  Fridays for the sake of  listeners who wanted to consolidate their comprehension, and each of the three dialogues for the week were performed by Russian native speakers, first at normal speed, and then broken up into twice repeated phrases for the listeners to repeat. Terry and I had many productive arguments and much fun composing these dialogues and then attempting to wrestle the new vocabulary into songs which I composed with quasi-Russian tunes to round off each broadcast. Fortunately, Terry shared my commitment to song as a vital element in language learning and contributed many good ideas about subject matter, phrasing, rhyming and rhythm.
  3. We had also had experience with language laboratory drills as an important device for consolidating new vocabulary,  grammatical structures  and intonation and for forcing students to “relive” the language of the radio dialogues. Terry covered a great deal of this writing and recording. We were fortunate in having two new colleagues in the Language Centre. Slawek Wolkowinsky, who checked our Russian and composed short reading texts to recapitulate the lexical and grammatical content of the broadcast dialogues; and John Midlane, who had also learned his Russian during his military career and had a passion for efficient organization. In close collaboration with us as authors, he contacted evening institutes all over Britain – and eventually in Holland and Ireland – to whom we  dispatched “kits” of drill texts and recordings, reading texts, programmed introductions to the pronunciation and written alphabet of Russian and sets of flash-cards for focussing Russian conversation in class.. We even conducted aural tests of the ground covered to date in the tenth and twentieth lessons and were able to moderate the results as compiled by local class teachers and award a modest certificate to successful students – also a “first” in radio language courses.
  4. The BBC were pleased with the thoroughness and popularity of this comprehensive application of linguistics to language learning  and repeated “First Year Russian” in the following winter (1967 – 68).

Terry was away on sabbatical leave the following year, so was unable to participate in writing the follow-up course “Second Year Russian” commissioned by the BBC. Building on  the firm linguistic and pedagogical guidelines we had laid down in FYR, I contributed the scripts and accompanying drills for this course which was broadcast over the next two winters. The task was easier, since the first course had already covered much of the basic grammar of spoken Russian and it was possible to make the contexts for the new dialogues more varied and ambitious. Rather than detaining Boris Petrovich in Moscow, I had him go home to his family in Kiev and thence with a girl friend to Odessa and Yalta in the Crimea. Rather than composing songs to fit the constraints of the dialogues, I sang authentic folk and popular songs to round off the broadcasts.

Thanks to a keen postgraduate student, Robert Sale, in the MA in Applied Linguistics course in what was by now the “Department of Language and Linguistics” at Essex, Terry’s and my “First Year Russian” was republished by Oxford University Press as “Passport to Moscow” (1972). The sequel “Second Year Russian” was republished in 1976 by OUP as “Passport to Odessa”. Both courses in their republished form were enhanced by the inclusion of situationally relevant cartoons from the pages of the Soviet satirical magazine “Krokodil”, which Terry and I enjoyed choosing.

In 1980 Terry went on to publish a self-paced introduction for people planning to visit Russia for the Olympic games, “Russian Language and People” (BBC Publications). This enjoyed considerable success due to its carefully staged linguistic content, its coverage of Russian culture and the accompanying TV films for which Terry was a consultant during filming in Moscow. It was revised by Terry Culhane and Roy Bivon in the 1990s.

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