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A history of Headway

The English language coursebook Headway has been a best-seller for years, but not everyone realizes how old the series is.

The first clear reference to it is in some notes of Geoffrey Chaucer’s. He made several trips to France, Spain and Italy, during which he was believed to have earned a little extra cash through Englissh langage techynge. In his notebook are found references to the -ynge form and the past participle with y- (as in yclept). Then there is this tantalizing line:

Newe Heedweye Chapitre 1: grammeere: wenden: I wende, thou wendest, he wendeth, we wende, ye wende, they wenden.

But what did the book look like in those days? The answer is: surprisingly like it does now. One of our earliest glimpses of the distinctive cover is in this picture of a 16th century Florentine woman. Evidently she was learning English when the portrait was painted.

By the 17th century Headway’s prestige was such that princes and even popes were relying on it.

Headway’s success continued into the 18th and 19th centuries. In 1793 the French Revolutionary politician, Jean-Paul Marat, evidently needed to brush up his grammar with Headway Pre-intermediate. And that was what Charlotte Corday found him doing on 13 July.

The success story continued into the last century. When Stalin met Roosevelt and Churchill, he wanted to understand what they were saying privately. Fortunately, he had Headway’s listening exercises to help him.

Today, of course, Headway is by far the best-selling English language coursebook. Approximately a billion copies are sold every year, bringing the publishers a revenue greater than the GNP of Sub-Saharan Africa. (Source: Journal of Madeup Statistics, 2004)

And the future? If aliens ever visit the Earth, we know what they will use to communicate with us...