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Date: Wed, 2 Mar 2005 22:04:25 +0800 From: David Deterding Subject: Controversies in Applied Linguistics
EDITOR: Seidlhofer, Barbara TITLE: Controversies in Applied Linguistics PUBLISHER: Oxford University Press YEAR: 2003
David Deterding, NIE/NTU, SingaporeOVERVIEW
This book collects together a range of articles that engage in lively debate over various issues connected with applied linguistics. In each of the five sections, there is first an overview by the editor, Barbara Seidlhofer, to provide some background for the controversy that is dealt with in that section, then the full texts of the articles which contributed to the debate are reprinted from the journals they originally appeared in, and finally there are substantial suggestions for further reading for those who want to pursue the issue in more detail.
The five controversies covered are:
the status of English as a global language; the use of corpora in language teaching; the nature of critical discourse analysis; second language acquisition; and the scope and nature of applied linguistics itself.
In a sense, most of these different strands touch on one central issue: the increasingly dominant role of English throughout the world, as an overriding concern is that the status of English brings with it a heavy dose of cultural imperialism. Some of the questions that arise as a result are: Is this imperialism exacerbated by the use of genuine corpus-based materials? What can language teachers do to teach English successfully without imposing a British or American ideology on the rest of the world? And do applied linguists have a duty always to address their subject within a social context and thereby promote a radical agenda that seeks to eliminate the evils of imperialism and racism, or can research on the subject be pursued independently from its social context?
The first controversy, addressing the status of English in the world, starts with a debate between Randolph Quirk and Braj Kachru about whether there is a single English standard or we should tolerate and even promote multiple standards. It then progresses to two sub-strands connected with the perceived imperialism of English. In the first one, there is a spirited debate between Robert Phillipson and a group of international students who had negative reactions after reading his book on linguistic imperialism as part of their graduate seminar at Purdue University. And finally there is a heated exchange when Phillipson berates David Crystal for evading his duty to give greater consideration to the social and political consequences of the worldwide spread of English in his book on English as a global language.
The second controversy discusses the use of corpus-based materials in language teaching. Ronald Carter advocates focusing on genuine data, arguing that it is condescending to suggest that foreign learners cannot handle such materials, and furthermore that avoidance of real language data condemns learners to achieving only a mediocre level of proficiency, forever preventing them from gaining access to the inner circle of native speakers. But others, including Luke Prodromou and Guy Cook, stress that real, corpus-based materials with all their pauses, mis-starts, and overlapping speech, are not always the most appropriate materials for teaching, and furthermore that corpus data are generally completely embedded in the cultural context they occurred in, so if we really want to promote English as a world language divorced from its historical ties with Britain and America, we should be adopting locally appropriate materials in each part of the world.
The third controversy considers the nature of discourse analysis, with Henry Widdowson suggesting that the subject is inevitably so tightly linked with a political standpoint and so committed to changing the world that it is difficult to maintain any of the objectivity that is essential for an academic discipline. But Henry Fairclough defends the field, emphasising that commitment to a social or political standpoint can often enhance the value of the insights into the biases that exist in texts.
In the fourth controversy, Alan Firth and Johannes Wagner argue that too much of the focus of research into second language acquisition has been based in psycholinguistics, investigating the cognitive development of the individual, and too little has taken a holistic, sociological perspective, considering the environment for learning. Furthermore, they contend that too much research has used experimental settings, to the detriment of naturalistic investigations, and that too little consideration has been given to studying strategies which achieve successful communication that sometimes proceeds quite adequately even when it contains what some people might regard as 'errors'. In response, a number of scholars, including Michael Long and Nanda Poulisse, argue that research methods with controlled variables are essential for rigorous research that produces replicable results, and furthermore that many of the interactions investigated in experimental settings can be generalised to real-life encounters.
Finally, the fifth controversy considers the nature of applied linguistics itself, a field that sometimes seems exceptionally broad and rather amorphous. Should it represent a meeting place for scholars from all disciplines concerned with practical aspects of language? Or should it have its own specialist research agenda? Ben Rampton argues for the interdisciplinary approach, that applied linguistics should be "socially constituted" and thus belong to all the different fields that have an interest in language, while Henry Widdowson argues that this approach would merely generate chaotic confusion, a free-for-all cacophony of unfocused ideas, and instead he insists that in order to achieve academic rigour, applied linguistics must have its own dedicated theoretical methodology, and furthermore it must abide by the guidance of authoritative experts.
This book provides an extraordinarily well-crafted resource for students and scholars who want convenient access to key materials that have contributed to some of the important debates in applied linguistics over the past fifteen years. The structure of the book, with its collation of the full texts of the articles preceded in each section by a carefully written introduction that provides a helpful context for the controversy and then followed by extensive suggestions for further reading, will certainly prove exceptionally valuable to many, many readers.
Of course, there is quite a range in the style of the articles. Some of them, particularly involving Phillipson's contributions regarding linguistic imperialism, get quite antagonistic, so that occasionally more heat than light is generated, while at the opposite extreme some of the other debates, such as that between Carter and Cook on the use of corpora in language teaching, maintain a rather more measured tone, with the participants taking great pains to show respect to each other and stress that there is much that they agree about. While many readers will remain sceptical about Carter's assertion that learners of English "are generally fascinated by the culturally-embedded use of language of native speakers" (p. 97) (do other people really care very much about how the English order their fish and chips?), it is heartening to note that some of the clearest insights from the topics covered in this book emerge from the discussion on the use of corpora, which confirms that it is not necessary to engage in rather unpleasant personal attacks for valuable progress to be achieved in a debate. No doubt Phillipson would argue that the dominant threat of linguistic imperialism is such a vital issue in the world today that adopting a measured, respectful approach is not appropriate and that it is only by aggressively attacking those who are perceived to be defending this hegemony of English that one can hope to achieve anything in the struggle against the new imperialism. I remain unconvinced.
Inevitably, the clarity of the articles also varies quite considerably. Rampton presents his arguments in what is undoubtedly an erudite and highly sophisticated style, but there is much in his contributions that even Widdowson admits he cannot understand. However, the message of most of the materials does emerge clearly, in general providing us with exceptionally valuable insights into some of the important issues that have concerned the field of applied linguistics in recent years. My one rather minor criticism of this book is that the date of publication of each article is not shown with the text itself but only at the front of the volume, which is a pity as this information is really quite important in evaluating the role of each contribution. But this is rather a minor gripe and it does not seriously detract from the excellence of this fine book.
ABOUT THE REVIEWER:
ABOUT THE REVIEWER
David Deterding is an Associate Professor at NIE/NTU, Singapore, where he teaches phonetics, phonology, syntax, and Chinese-English translation.