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Review of Discursive Practice in Language Learning and Teaching
AUTHOR: Richard F. Young TITLE: Discursive Practice in Language Learning and Teaching SERIES TITLE: The Language Learning Monograph Series PUBLISHER: Wiley-Blackwell YEAR: 2009
Anne Marie Devlin, PhD Candidate, Department of French, University College Cork
The purpose of this book is to introduce the concept of practice theory into the domain of language learning and teaching. In order to achieve this, Young has drawn extensively from the areas of anthropology, ethnology, sociology, applied and theoretical linguistics to provide a theory which synthesizes important findings from those domains. The fundamental starting point of the book is that all talk is essentially practice (performance) in context. The author continues by expanding the concept of context and moving it from the narrow focus of the text to bringing in what he refers to as a 'network of physical, spatial, temporal, social, interactional, institutional, political and historical circumstances.' (p. 2). Considering the broad focus of context allows the author to place prominence on answering the key questions of 'where?, when?, who?, why? and how?' oral and written texts take place. This insightful approach not only gives equal status to language and context, but also takes into consideration the often overlooked area of nonverbal resources, noting that semiotic resources such as gaze, gesture and body positioning are integral components of constructing a participation framework. By doing so the author has laid down a challenge to others working in the field of second language acquisition to expand their sights to include the broad focus of context and to award a place to the study of non-verbal resources.
Chapter 1 deals with Young's explication of discursive practice. He deconstructs the various meanings afforded to both 'discourse' and 'practice' by different theorists before laying down his interpretation of each word and then skillfully reconstructing the phrase 'discursive practice' to embody the current interpretation. The chapter then proceeds to focus on the relationship between Discursive Practice (DP) and the second half of the title 'Language Learning and Teaching'. With the purpose of exploring that connection, Young poses another more fundamental question, i.e. 'what is the relationship between Discursive Practice and language?' He provides a brief overview of the history of modern linguistic theory before looking at social and cultural context and concluding that language learning and teaching are practices which also occur in a social context and that these contexts must be addressed.
The historical roots of discourse practice are explored in greater depth in Chapter 2. Young begins by describing the controversy of the 1997 Firth and Wagner paper, 'On Discourse, Communication and (Some) Fundamental Concepts of SLA Research', which highlighted the dichotomies within the field, mainly based on cognitive vs. social models of Second Language Acquisition research. He then goes back in time to explain how the controversy arose. By doing so, he shows the changing nature of the study of language: from language as a separate entity to one where it is considered as occurring 'somewhere, somewhen [...] produced by somebody' (p. 46).
Chapter 3 is devoted to the investigation of context. It starts with the premise that talk and context are inseparable. This premise is underpinned by a study of the Bakhtinian insights into genre, chronotope and heteroglossia. The concept is further developed by detailed explorations of four different approaches to language in context: an applied linguistic perspective, an ethnographic perspective, emotional perspectives, and political perspectives. Using research findings, he teases out the pros and cons of each approach with particular attention paid to the amount of time spent analysing language and that spent analysing context. Results show that the first approach spent little time on context; whereas the remaining three threw only a cursory glance at the analysis of language. He concludes that the aforementioned approaches are inadequate to fully explain the symbiotic relationship between talk/language and context.
Young sets out to remedy the inadequacy of the above approaches by providing a 'Participation Framework' and an in-depth analysis of discourse resources in Chapter 4. Goffman's 1974 framework is used as a basis for a Participation Framework. Here the positioning of the participants in relation to each other and the built environment are taken into account. The positioning of the participants encompasses nonverbal semiotic systems such as gaze, gestures, facial expressions and clothing. It foregrounds a more holistic interpretation of communication. Of no less importance is the dynamic nature of the participant status. By that is meant that the participant can change roles throughout an interaction. Goffman identifies three main production roles: animator, author and principal; and three main reception roles: addressee, auditors and unofficial participants or eavesdropper. Young exemplifies these positions and their dynamic nature with reference to a number of texts. This is followed by a detailed study of discourse resources. He highlights three such resources: verbal, interactional and nonverbal resources. The author then subjects the 2002 Young and Nguyen 45 second transcript from a 12th grade physics class to analyses using each one of the resources. Young considers Halliday's Systemic Functional Grammar (SFG) as the optimal framework for analysing verbal resources. This is due to its positioning of context as integral to a description of language. The interactional resource is analysed by means of Conversational Analysis (CA) with its emphasis on structuring talk and turn-taking, and the analysis of the text culminates with a Discursive Practice (DP) interpretation. By doing so, Young subtly highlights the shortcomings of SFG and CA as complete tools for analysing talk-in-interaction and points to the superior nature of DP to successfully integrate all three resources.
Chapter 5 represents a change in direction and the focus is transferred to the second part of the title -- language learning. Young posits the question 'What exactly is learning?' -- is it the acquisition or possession of knowledge or participating? He answers the question from a DP viewpoint by surmising that it is both -- that language learning is about changes in linguistic knowledge, but primarily it is concerned with changes in participation. To illustrate his point, he reviews two theories -- Language Socialization and Situated Learning. Once again, through in-depth analysis of texts using CA and SFG, he is able to show that by documenting a learner participating in practices we can see what changes occur. Doing so gives invaluable information not only regarding how participating leads to changes in language used, but also how the dynamic nature of participant status and the presence of other participants can help. Young ends the chapter with the statement: 'it is the participation framework of the practice that affords the possibility for coadaptation and colearning by all participants because what is learned is not the language but participation in the practice' (p. 179).
The natural progression from language learning is to language teaching and testing. Both these issues are considered in Chapter 6. To begin with, Young introduces the concept of Practice Theory to language teaching. Practice Theory focuses on the where, when, who and why of talk. It aims to put language teaching in context. It expands the concept of context from the confines of the classroom and its participants to include 'the architecture of pedagogical practices' (p. 210). This refers back to the discursive resources discussed in chapter 4, i.e. verbal, interactional and nonverbal. Young highlights the very different discursive practices that socialize students inside and outside the classroom. The analysis of Hall's 2004 study into a 'Spanish as a Foreign Language' (SFL) classroom leads him to the conclusion that 'the differences between pedagogical practice and a discursive practice outside the classroom are irreconcilable' (p. 192). The reason he gives for this is the historical privileges afforded to language over practice. However, an alternative approach is suggested and that is a 'systematic observation of the practice in situ' (pp. 193-194). This should ideally take place in the target language country or alternatively through broadcast media. It is envisaged that an expert (teacher) would guide the learners through the discursive resources employed by the participants. However, Young is also concerned with the transferability or portability of such a procedure. What should be learnt is a schema for solving future problems. For that to happen he, controversially, advocates a top-down approach to language teaching -- that instead of having to work out rules and underlying patterns, learners should be provided with them initially. In this way, cross-cultural misunderstandings could be minimalised.
Current language testing contexts come in for considerable criticism. Young questions the portability of test results. How can the results of a knowledge-based test, for example, be transferred to a performance task? He looks at the 'No Child Left Behind' policy, the 'Common European Framework' and the IELTS and TOEFL exams as examples of undemocratic procedures and states that more work is needed to analyse language in test and non-test contexts.
The final chapter, 'Prospects for Practice', summarises the preceding chapters and makes copious reference to the studies used which give practical examples of the theories. It clearly reinforces the nexus between language and context. Young admits that this is not the full picture, but remains strong in his beliefs that the only possible way to understand language and language learning is through a synthesis of dynamic verbal, interactional and nonverbal resources.
From a practical point of view, the book is laid out into clearly delineated chapters and subsections. Each chapter ends with a summary and looks forward to the next. Following chapters make constant reference to what preceded, thus providing useful links. Young builds on what went before. This technique of nuanced layering of information is effectively employed throughout the book. Each chapter describes the progress of language thought or theories, starting with the simple or beginning and then layers on more information in digestible amounts until reaching the main point. In this way, the reader is provided with a thorough understanding of the context and/or time/space relationship between the theories. The book is clearly divided into 2 sections. The first, chapters 1-4, deals with the theoretical and surprisingly, only chapters 5 and 6 deal with the practical implications of DP in language learning and teaching and testing.
Chapters 1-4 work on two levels; the first as an exposition of the theory of Discursive Practice. Young skillfully brings together the work of language theories and shows how each contributed to DP in a progressive manner. Each theory or approach is exemplified by lively examples as diverse as catechism classes to Lemony Snicket's 'A Series of Unfortunate Events' novels. However, context is never far from the foreground. Throughout these chapters the expansive nature of context is referenced and leaves the reader in no doubt as to the central message, i.e. that context in its broadest form is integral to the study of language. Each chapter represents a gradual build-up to showcase the wealth of information, which may go unseen, provided by the DP approach.
The second level on which it works is maybe incidental. Possibly without intending to, Young has provided the reader with a historical account of language thought and theory. Instead of focusing on the seemingly irreconcilable dichotomies, he has managed to synthesize fields such as anthropology, sociology, ethnography, philosophy and linguistics showing how each one can positively influence another.
It is in the latter half of the book, however, where the arguments and examples become less convincing. While Young constantly stresses the symbiotic nature of language and context, the learning/development/acquisition aspect tends to be overlooked. His examples may be criticized as showing language in use instead of concentrating on how it is acquired, i.e. how a learner moves from point a to point b. This is exemplified by the engagement between Japanese and American co-workers at a car plant. The extract sheds light on the importance of interactional and non-verbal resources in cross-cultural communication, but does not address language learning or development. It is a clear example of language in use. Two examples were given which are directly concerned with language acquisition -- Young and Miller's 2004 longitudinal study of a writing conference between an ESL student and a teacher, and Nguyen's 2006 study of native speaker trainee pharmacists. And while these examples illuminate the extreme importance of 'practice' and 'participation' in developing language strategies, their focus is on interactional and nonverbal resources. Verbal resources seem to have been neglected.
The argument put forth in chapter 5 is even weaker. The fact that there are wide chasms between what goes on in the classroom and what is needed for discursive practice in the community is well known. However, Young's statement that they are irreconcilable and his advocacy of a top-down approach to teaching will certainly prove controversial. His argument would have benefited from a better example. He uses Kinginger's 2008 study of American students spending a semester in Paris. We discover an unexpected reaction by a French lecturer to a student's request, but are given no indication of the discursive resources -- i.e. verbal, interactional or nonverbal -- used by either participant, and thus guesses are made concerning the exchange based on very limited contextual information. Testing is also dealt with unsatisfactorily. While established tests and frameworks are, maybe correctly, criticized, Young fails to explain the problem and offers no practical solution.
On the whole, the book works extremely well as an introduction to discourse practice. It provides compelling arguments for its use as a tool for analysing language in use, but fails to convince as a means for measuring language development or acquisition. This deficit may be due to the examples chosen by Young, many of which do not take into account all three discursive resources. The questions of 'who', 'where', 'when', 'why' and 'how' are extensively explored, but the reader is left wondering about the role of the 'what', i.e. the language.
Firth, A. & Wagner, J. (1997) On Discourse, Communication and (Some) Fundamental Concepts of SLA Research. Modern Language Journal, 81(3), 285-300.
Goffman, E. (1974). Frame Analysis. New York: Harper and Row.
Hall, J.K. (2004). ''Practicing speaking'' in Spanish: Lessons from a high school foreign language classroom. In D. Boxer & A.D. Cohen (Eds.), Studying speaking to inform second language learning (pp. 68-87). Cleveden, UK: Multilingual Matters.
Kinginger, C. (2008). Language learning in study abroad: Case studies of Americans in France. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell.
Nguyen H.T. (2006). Constructing ''expertness'': A novice pharmacist's development of interactional competence in patient consultations. Communication and Medication, 3 (2), 147-160.
Young, R.F., & Miller, E.R. (2004). Learning as changing participation: Negotiating discourse roles in the ESL writing conference. Modern Language Journal, 88 (4), 519-535.
Young, R.F., & Nguyen, H.T. (2002). Modes of meaning in high school science. Applied Linguistics, 23 (3), 348-372.
ABOUT THE REVIEWER
ABOUT THE REVIEWER:
Anne Marie Devlin is a PhD student at the University of Cork, Ireland. Her
project is concerned with the acquisition of sociopragmatic variation in
highly advanced non-native speaker teachers of English. She is
particularly interested in the role of time spent in the target language
country and the role of identity in the acquisition or non-acquisition of
the above. Other interests include sociolinguistics, second language
acquisition theories, language teaching -- she has been involved in ESL for
the past 16 years -- and teacher training. In addition to this, she is
passionate about the Russian language and literature.