Obituary - John Trim, 1924-2013

15th February 2013 at 00:00

Unlike many of his contemporaries, John Trim saw language as a tool for communication and cross-cultural understanding. The Cambridge academic's legacy can be seen in classrooms across the country.

John Leslie Melville Trim was born in October 1924. An East London scholarship boy, he developed a keen interest in German language and literature, going on to study the subject at University College London (UCL). After the Second World War he felt that an ability to speak German was vital if a new Europe was to be built. Only by comprehending each other's languages would people be able to understand one another.

In 1949 he was offered a position researching and teaching phonetics. After nine years at UCL he became a phonetics lecturer at the University of Cambridge. When he retired in 1978 he was director of the Cambridge linguistics department.

But he also had a significant impact on language learning in schools. When he began his career, languages were taught purely as an accomplishment. Dr Trim, however, felt that their role should be communication and cross-cultural understanding. This attitude trickled down into schools and colleges.

From 1971 to 1997, he was a leading member of the Council of Europe's modern languages project, mapping out the stages of language acquisition. According to his framework, language learners progressed in stages, from basic to proficient user. Translated into 30 languages, this structure enabled teachers to plan, teach and assess more effectively.

With twinkling eyes and broad smile, he made a point of taking the same time to listen to inexperienced students as to eminent colleagues. But he was relentlessly rigorous: in his gentle voice, he would always demand to know how a particular conclusion had been reached. His diction was meticulous, and he expressed his arguments logically and methodically. Thought of as an outstanding scholar, he was also noted for his humility. When another academic apologised for not recognising him at a seminar, he replied: "How would you possibly know what I look like? And, in any case, why would it matter?"

Between 1978 and 1987, he was trustee and then director of the Centre for Information on Language Teaching. He also helped bring together various organisations to create the Association for Language Learning.

In fact, Dr Trim brought language learners together in a range of ways, linking schools and universities. By creating a culture of collaboration within Britain, he hoped to help break down boundaries across Europe. In the same spirit, he regularly visited schools, encouraging teachers to share ideas and methods. Although he was keen to see languages made compulsory for pupils over 14, he felt strongly that teachers should be free to decide how best to teach them. He was still visiting schools while terminally ill with bone cancer.

John Trim died on 19 January. Predeceased by his wife, Marion, he is survived by his four daughters, Elizabeth, Caroline, Deborah and Alison.

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