LINGUIST List 10.2002

Wed Dec 22 1999

Review: Davies: An Intro to Applied Linguistics

Editor for this issue: Andrew Carnie <>

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  1. Terese Thonus, Book review: Davies

Message 1: Book review: Davies

Date: Sun, 19 Dec 1999 18:09:39 -0800
From: Terese Thonus <>
Subject: Book review: Davies

Davies, Alan. (1999). An Introduction to Applied Linguistics: From Practice
to Theory. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

Terese Thonus, California State University, Fresno.

 As the foundational text in the new series Edinburgh Textbooks in
Applied Linguistics, An Introduction to Applied Linguistics: From Practice
to Theory is written for three audiences: "first-time students of applied
linguistics, people working professionally with language and those generally
interested in the relationship between linguistics and applied linguistics."
The first chapter, "History and 'Definitions,'" seeks to distinguish the
terms linguistics, linguistics applied, and applied linguistics. Davies
defines by contrasts: Linguistics reifies language; applied linguistics
reifies language practices. Linguistics-driven applied linguistics,
linguistics applied, seeks data to support linguistic theory; "it takes for
granted that the methods and findings of linguistics are of value to others
to solve their problems" (p. 13). On the contrary, "what applied
linguistics does is to illuminate its language encounters by reference to
linguistic theories" (p. 9).
 The juxtaposition of the two gerunds in the title of the second chapter,
"Doing Being Applied Linguistics," is purposeful, expressing Davies' notion
of AL as a problem-solving approach to language in context. Experience
precedes theorizing, Davies argues: "Applied linguistics is most usefully
defined functionally, by observing what its practitioners do" (p. 16). The
chapter is constructed around five case studies in language program
evaluation, literacy acquisition, pedagogical grammar, workplace
communication, and critical pedagogy. Despite this wide variety of
"doing/being," the author critiques the over-expansion of the field, noting
that, for example, the number of subdisciplines recognized by AILA creates a
situation in which "any kind of activity remotely connected with language
can be brought under the applied-linguistics umbrella" (p. 20).
 Chapter 3, "Language and Language Practice," further illustrates the
"applied" nature of AL: "Where the applied linguist starts is with a
necessary question, necessary in the sense that it arises as a problem
demanding action within the language situation" (p. 46). Three problem
areas are exemplified: clinical linguistics, language in situation
(language planning in India), and language and gender ("Gender in language
therefore is more the concern of the linguist, while language in gender more
that of the applied linguist" (p. 48).
 Chapter 4 addresses the area most often considered the "proper concern"
of AL: language learning and teaching. Here again, the author appeals to
case studies to exemplify AL practice, with special focus on the British
Council English Language Testing System (ELTS) evaluation. Davies adopts a
defensive position against those who may criticize the "wide-ranging
eclecticism by the applied linguist," alleging superficiality, lack of a
strong theoretical base, and excessive demands on professional preparation
(p. 73).
 The next chapter, "Applied Linguistics and Language Use" further
expounds the inductive practice of AL by analyzing issues in forensic
linguistics, stylistics, lexicography, artificial languages, and language
correctness. In contrast to the linguist, who according to Davies is likely
to treat these as language problems only and simply tell society it has "the
duty to behave differently" (p. 92), the applied linguist treats such
problems as socially embedded and handles them within their contexts. AL
"does not necessarily solve but it does hope to explain" (p. 93).
 Chapter 6, "The Professionalizing of Applied Linguistics" traces the
origins of AL to the American journal Language Learning and to Edinburgh,
London, and other British universities in the 1940s and 50s. Davies notes
that from the beginning AL has attracted "those who are already working in
the field" (p. 111). They "begin their courses by not seeing why applied
linguistics asks the questions it does ask and end their courses by asking
those very questions themselves" (p. 119). Davies defines AL as a "weak"
profession; as it lacks a regulatory body, it instead defines and governs
itself through an "ethical milieu" and a developing "esprit de corps" (p.
 The final chapter labels AL "No 'Bookish Theoric.''' Practice is
everything, Davies argues, and AL theory derives from practice: "Applied
linguistics does not need a unitary theory; what it requires is an openness
to influences and theories from elsewhere, so that professional applied
linguists can adopt a theorising approach to language problems" (p. 142).

 Davies' prose is erudite and well researched, reflecting the decades of
experience he brings to the field. Broader academic knowledge is brought to
bear on the LA-AL distinction which underlies all argumentation in the book.
The work is peppered with references to Quakerism, postmodernism, and
quotations from such writers as Shakespeare, Chekov, and Gertrude Stein.
 Davies includes excellent examples of AL in practice from all over the
world, including but not limited to his own practice. An admitted weakness
of the volume is its focus on what Davies describes in the preface as "what
is done in English and in the United Kingdom." Although he promises that
subsequent volumes in the series will seek to remedy this bias, what may
motivate it is the LA orientation of most American and "other" applied
linguistics, an orientation that readers of the book will quickly realize is
not shared by the author. One must applaud Davies for proposing a "strong"
definition for a "weak" profession; what may disturb some readers, however,
is his insistence that LA practice be excluded, resulting in not only a weak
profession but also a very small one.
 To some extent, Introduction to Applied Linguistics is mistitled and
mismarketed. It is, Davies confesses, a "very personal view" (preface), a
meta-analysis of applied linguistics in an attempt to adequately place it
within the larger academic endeavor. In this sense it is not an introduction
at all. The real audience of the book, I would argue, is not "first-time
students of applied linguistics." Although Davies suggests that coursework
in AL is most relevant to graduate students, who bring both academic and
real-world knowledge to the classroom (p. 16), these students be unaware of
the LA-AL distinction, and, as a result, may miss the survey of the field
that the book purports to offer. It seems that the author has taken on an
impossible task, that of simultaneously addressing both the concerns of
disciplinary theorists and those of students. It would have been best to
limit the audience to those "interested in reviewing arguments about the
relationship between linguistics and applied linguistics." It is those with
considerable professional and professionalizing experience, I would suggest,
who can best appreciate and critically evaluate this very theory-driven
 Introduction to Applied Linguistics first caught my eye as a possible
text for a graduate seminar. Having read the volume, I now contemplate it
as an essential text for a faculty reading group and required reading for
all who consider themselves "applied linguists."

Terese Thonus is Assistant Professor in the Department of Linguistics at
CSUF. After spending 12 years as an ESL/EFL teacher in the U.S., Thailand,
and Brazil, she earned her Ph.D in Linguistics at Indiana University, where
the question "What is applied linguistics?" continues to challenge students,
faculty, and administrators. Her current research interests run the gamut
of applied linguistics: oral discourse analysis (particularly writing
tutorial conversations), pragmatics, World Englishes, and second-language
teacher education. 
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