Plaque erected at 4 Bootham Terrace, 24th February 2022
Stephen Pit Corder, known as Pit, was born in York and educated at Bootham School. He was a founding figure in the then new field of applied linguistics. He is especially known for his work establishing the theory of “error analysis” which involves a close linguistic examination of what learners actually say and write, and helps to explain how second languages are acquired. Corder is also known for his related work on the grammatical competence that learners develop during the acquisition process; it commonly differs from that of native speakers (part of the “interlanguage hypothesis”). His ideas are considered innovative and were revolutionary both in applied linguistics and second-language acquisition. They became the frame on which many later linguists built new theories and approaches. Pit Corder is considered one of the most influential applied linguists of the 20th century.
Corder was born in York to a Quaker family on 6 October 1918. His father was English and his mother Dutch. Dutch was his second language, although those who knew him note that he rarely used it in daily life. The family lived at No.4 Bootham Terrace and Corder attended Bootham School, a Quaker boarding school where his father, a former pupil, was a master. Corder then attended Merton College, Oxford, 1936-9, where he took a second-class degree in Modern Languages (French and German). While at Merton, he also engaged in sport, including association football and hockey, and he rowed with the college boat club.
During the Second World War, Corder’s Quaker beliefs led him to resist taking a directly active part in hostilities. Instead, between 1939 and 1944, he was registered as a conscientious objector and drove ambulances for the Friends Ambulance Unit in Finland, Norway, Egypt and Greece. Owing to the war, his interrupted studies and service with the ambulance unit, his formal graduation was reserved until his return to England in 1944. Following the war, Corder taught French at Brookfield School, Wigton, Cumberland from 1944 or 1945 (accounts from Merton College and the University of Leeds archives differ on exact dates) until 1946; this was also the year he married Nancy Proctor with whom he had two sons and a daughter.
Work for the British Council
Between 1946 and 1961, Corder worked for the British Council overseas, including in Austria, Turkey, Jamaica and Colombia, where he taught English and was also engaged in the development of curriculum and teaching materials for the Council. When the Council started expanding, increasing its global remit, and identified the need for more specialists in applied linguistics, Corder studied for a diploma from Leeds University while continuing in the Council’s employment. Following this year of study, Corder’s work with the British Council took him to Nigeria in 1957 where he assisted in the development of materials for teaching English through the medium of television which he was passionate about. It was around this time, in 1960, that he published his first book, An Intermediate English Practice Book, which gained him widespread recognition among teachers of English as a foreign language around the world.
Corder was seconded by the British Council to the University of Leeds from October 1961 to August 1963. From September 1962 onwards, his secondment was funded by Leeds with the guarantee of a permanent post there. During the secondment, his research had priority but with the expectation that he would go on to teach linguistics in the School of English. He was appointed to the permanent post in September 1963 and resigned a year later to take up the position of Director of the School of Applied Linguistics at the University of Edinburgh. Applied linguistics was only emerging as a distinct discipline in its own right at this time; it is distinguished by its pragmatic nature, its aim to solve real world problems, and an underlying emphasis on matters of social justice. In this regard, it seems likely that Corder may have been influenced by his Quaker roots. York Quakers, in particular, have a long and honourable history of practical engagement with matters of social justice.
During his time at Edinburgh, he published several books and articles, notably ‘The significance of learners’ errors’ in the journal International Review of Applied Linguistics in 1967, Introducing Applied Linguistics in 1973, and Error Analysis and Interlanguage in 1981. At Edinburgh, Corder held the first chair in applied linguistics and, during his two decades there, turned the department into a world-leading centre for research in the field. He spent the rest of his professional life at Edinburgh before retiring to the Lake District that he loved, leaving all his academic books to his old department. He was distinguished with the title of Professor Emeritus in 1983, the year he retired from Edinburgh.
Corder was the first chair of the British Association for Applied Linguistics (BAAL) and held the post from 1967, the founding year, to 1970. The annual BAAL Conference, which was held at York St John University in the centenary of his birth (2018), commemorates Corder every year with a lecture named in his honour.
In 1990, Pit Corder passed away at his home in the Lake District, leaving a legacy of more than two decades’ worth of practical enquiry and theoretical research into second-language acquisition and teaching. His thinking is still hugely influential and is taught in applied linguistics programmes around the world. In addition to his academic legacy, for which he was deeply respected and admired, he was loved and admired by all those who knew him; his former colleagues all remember him warmly. A flavour of this can be felt in the obituary that Professor Henry Widdowson wrote: ‘Pit Corder influenced other people without deliberate intent. He did it by being the person he was. He did not direct people into ways of thinking; he stimulated them to find their own.’ Similarly, Professor Gillian Brown, in another obituary, emphasised that he was ‘a very nice man,’ while noting that ‘his major contribution lies in the part he played in constructing the intellectual underpinnings of applied linguistics as an independent discipline’.
Written and researched by Hannah Bungard & Alexandra Ruhl
- Gillian Brown, ‘Pit Corder, a personal memory’, Second Language Research Vol.6, Issue 2, December 1990 (Newbury Park, California, US: Sage Publishing) pp155-7
- Pit Corder, ‘Talking shop: Pit Corder on language teaching and applied linguistics’, ELT Journal, Vol.40, Issue 3, July 1986 (Oxford: Oxford University Press) pp185-190
- Alan Davies, Pit Corder obituary, ‘Notes on the History of the British Association for Applied Linguistics 1967-1997, produced on the occasion of the 30th BAAL annual meeting University of Birmingham, September 1997’
- A.P.R. Howatt, ‘The Academic Works of S. Pit Corder (1918-1990), A Bibliography’, University of Edinburgh, Applied Linguistics, Vol.12, Issue 1, March 1991 (Oxford: Oxford University Press) pp96-101
- H.G. Widdowson, ‘In memoriam Pit Corder’, Applied Linguistics, Vol.11, Issue 4, December 1990 (Oxford: Oxford University Press) p321
- Merton College Archives and Library Special Collections, Merton College, Oxford
- Leeds University Library Special Collections and University Archives, University of Leeds