From pure fantasy to practical questions 1

An Introduction to Applied Linguistics. Second Edition

November 23, 2007

How should we understand the term applied linguistics? As this lively and thoughtful book makes clear, the question is not a simple one.

For some people, linguistics is the academic study of language, while its applied sibling reflects on professional practice outside academia that involves language in some way.

Traditionally, this has mostly meant the teaching and learning of languages, and that is at the heart of this book.

Language teachers need to know about language, but they also need expertise in teaching. Hence applied linguistics is often interdisciplinary, whereas departments of linguistics typically stress the distinctness of their field.

The problem with this simple picture is that many people find it misleading and unhelpful. Alan Davies notes that even some people in his core area avoid the term applied linguistics, using educational linguistics or language and education instead. Why, they ask, privilege linguistics in the name for the interdisciplinary mix?

Another widespread view says that language teaching is not central because applied linguists cover a wider area. Davies recognises this by embracing lexicography, translation studies, language planning, forensic linguistics and clinical linguistics.

In each case, powerful voices would object to being included; his territorial claim on the study of language and gender would get particularly short shrift.

Others find the simple picture alarming. Davies presents definitions by prominent scholars that refer to "real-world" language problems. There is a fairly transparent reproach here towards pure, or theoretical, linguists, who by implication deal with a different type of problem: perhaps "fantasy-world" problems, or at least abstract ones. Davies offers no apology. In fact, he goes further, suggesting that applied linguistics should see itself as the driver, with linguistics "following behind to respond to the practical questions applied linguistics raises". He calls on his colleagues to theorise, but to take theories from many places, not just linguistics.

Davies is unimpressed by "critical" approaches to applied linguistics, which he accuses of crude Whorfianism - the belief that language strongly determines the way we think. I was disappointed to find a lengthy discussion of postmodernism, though the conclusion - thankfully - is that it has little to offer in this field. Will many students come to an introductory textbook such as this one with philosophical baggage about metanarratives? If they do, then Davies is right to tackle them head on.

The book is dependable and enlightening when Davies talks about language teaching and testing, with good accounts of how to resolve problems in these areas. The sections on contested zones such as language and the law are brief, and it is sometimes hard to see if Davies is doing more than asserting his right to them, like an explorer who plants a flag in the Arctic ice and then clears off. This book is opinionated and eclectic - but in view of the field it introduces that's probably about right.

Who is it for? Undergraduate students of linguistics, masters-level students in applied linguistics, language in education, language planning and language teachers.

Presentation: Clear, often polemical - a good read.

Would you recommend it? Yes.

Raphael Salkie is professor of language studies at Brighton University.

An Introduction to Applied Linguistics. Second Edition

Author - Alan Davies
Publisher - Edinburgh University Press
Pages - 224
Price - £55.00 and £17.99
ISBN - 9780748633548 and 33555

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