LINGUIST List 12.1088

Thu Apr 19 2001

Review: Critical Applied Linguistics

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  1. Nadia Economou, Review of Pennycook

Message 1: Review of Pennycook

Date: Thu, 19 Apr 2001 15:33:15 +0300
From: Nadia Economou <>
Subject: Review of Pennycook

Pennycook, Alastair (2001). Critical Applied Linguistics: A
Critical Introduction. Mahwah, New Jersey & London,
Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, xv + 206 pages, ISBN 0-8058-

Reviewed by: Nadia Economou, Institute for Language and
Speech Processing

The book 'Critical Applied Linguistics: A Critical
Introduction' presents an overview of what constitutes
Critical Applied Linguistics (CAL) from a critical point of
view. The term was first coined more than ten years ago (in
1990) to express the author's dissatisfaction with what
constituted applied linguistics, an area totally unaffected
at that time from the influence of critical pedagogy,
critical discourse analysis and critical ethnography.
Nowadays, CAL constitutes a (post)modern approach to the
discipline that may cause positive or negative feelings but
cannot be contested or ignored any more.

The first question that comes to mind is 'What is CAL?' The
question is not easy to answer since the terms 'applied
linguistics' and 'critical' are controversial by
themselves. The first chapter of the book, 'Introducing
Critical Applied Linguistics', sets out to define the
terms, bearing in mind that it is not yet an established
domain of work; the author not only introduces the new
discipline, but also produces CAL deriving from his ten
years of experience in the field. The term 'applied
linguistics' can be used to denote anything that has to do
with second or foreign (though not first) language teaching
(strong version); the weak version has to do with language
related issues in professional settings (encompassing
translation, speech pathology, etc). Pennycook bridged the
gap between the two and defines applied linguistics as a
semi-autonomous and interdisciplinary domain (drawing from
sociology, education, anthropology etc) that deals with
language use in translation, education, literacy, speech
pathology etc.

The term 'critical' seems to be even more controversial.
One common use has to do with the development of objective
methods for problem solving and text understanding.
According to the opposite view, critical distance and
objectivity could not be achieved without engaging with
social critique. Being critical, then, means that CAL
should move beyond establishing a connection between
language and the social context towards raising critical
questions to do with power, disparity and transformation.

Moving deeper into the concerns of CAL, it should draw from
the school of thought known as Critical Theory (marxist and
neomarxist tradition) to deal with questions of inequality
and injustice. Common assumptions and ideas that mainstream
applied linguistics was adopting as given should be
questioned; the new discipline should also be self-
reflexive. Additionally, CAL is not merely adding a
critical dimension to applied linguistics; it also involves
developing a political stance (one that brings the issue of
inequality and oppression to the fore).

The rest of the introductory chapter is about various
domains of CAL, domains that are taken further in the rest
of the book. Among these areas are: Critical Discourse
Analysis and Critical Literacy, translation, language
teaching and language testing, language planning and
workplace settings. Pennycook borrows from the above areas
(always with a critical view) and tries to draw the
affinities and overlaps between them and CAL.
Representative works are sketched in each field and various
aspects and themes are identified within the scope of the
discipline of CAL. In chapter 2, The Politics of Knowledge,
Pennycook takes up the question of the relationship between
doing critical work and theorizing. He objects to the
various arguments put forward by those who maintain that
critical work entails animosity to theory and suggests that
to perform CAL, we need a theoretical framework about
politics, social structure, pedagogy and language. To give
a concrete example: if one is doing research on young
children learning to write in school, s/he is expected to
have a good grasp of the respective theoretical
backgrounds; to perform the same research within the scope
of CAL, the researcher further needs a theoretical grasp of
the concepts of discourse, ideology, sexuality etc. Taking
up the notion of politics, Pennycook relates it to that of
power operating through all domains of life. The interest
shifts from politics to power, empowerment and its
relationship to language. This question is dealt with in
various parts of the book. The author identifies four
relationships between knowledge and politics that may be of
use for CAL. The first is that of liberal ostracism, based
on liberalism and structuralism. The author heavily
criticizes this stance because it denies the politics of
language and arrives at the conclusion that critical is

The second position which is at odds with the view that
Pennycook develops for CAL is the anarcho-autonomous
position related to Noam Chomsky. The author sketches
Chomsky as a self- defined radical anarcho-socialist who
'manages' to separate the political from the academic
analysis of language. Emancipatory modernism is the third
position which, unlike the previous one, brings the
relationship of language study to social issues and leftist
politics to the fore. Major proponents of this view are
Wodak, Kress, Fairclough and other critical discourse
analysts who seek to link the scientific analysis of
language to the study of politics. Pennycook draws a lot
upon this work when presenting the complexities of the CAL
model; however, he condemns its unreflexivity and
determinism as well as the belief that the acquisition of a
scientific knowledge of reality can by itself lead to

Pennycook adheres to the fourth position, that of
problematizing practices, which derives from the critique
of the previous one. It is based on the poststructuralist
and postmodernist position and views language as political
in itself; it avoids the limitations of the emancipatory
modernists by being self- reflexive and relationist.

Since CAL has to do with a political vision of language,
Chapter 3, The Politics of Language, is devoted to language
use in different contexts. The first part of the chapter
deals with the areas of liberal and critical
sociolinguistics. The former was developed as a reaction to
conservative positions that maintained that nonstandard
varieties of language result in the intellectual
disadvantage of their users. One of the shortcomings of
liberal sociolinguistics is that it promoted a view of
society that leaves unexamined notions of social class and
had nothing to say about how inequality is produced,
sustained and overturned. It also insists upon
appropriateness, teaching the appropriate form at the
appropriate time, a concept which has been widely
criticized within the framework of Critical Discourse

Language planning and language policy are also examined as
part of the work of CAL since they are considered
inherently political. To illustrate his points, Pennycook
looks at different ways of understanding language policies
in the context of several frameworks for understanding the
Global Role of English. He briefly delineates each
approach, the implications for English language teaching
and the problems arising. Half of them are dismissed as
non-critical, others because they promote pluralism for its
own sake. What CAL could benefit from the existing
sociolinguistic and language planning frameworks is the
link of diversity to broader questions of power, inequality
and racism. Resistance to oppression imposed by ideology
and social structure is a key element for critical
theorizing. Together with appropriation, they are the
central concerns of postcolonialism. Instead of being a
mere temporal progression of colonialism, postcolonialism
should be treated as an opposition to the negative effects
of colonialism. A such, postcolonialism challenges the core
of Western civilization and thought as this developed under
capitalism and imperialism. The emergent postcolonial
perspectives offer us new ways of thinking about diversity
and language, mainly by adding a) a historical
understanding of language use (lack of historical
perspective constituted a major problem for applied
linguistics), b) a nonessentialist stance emphasizing
appropriation and hibridity, and c) focus on the local
context of language. Chapter 4, The Politics of Text,
concentrates on the critical analysis of texts and
discourse and seeks to illuminate questions of relation of
texts to social and political contexts, as well as issues
concerning the role of ideology in text production and

To the extent that critical literacy emphasizes the
relation between language and social change, diversity and
enfranchisement, it falls within the scope of interest of
CAL. Pennycook recognizes Critical Discourse Analysis as
one of the most influential approaches to text analysis in
applied linguistics and devotes a considerable part of this
chapter to give an overview of the approach, discuss the
key concerns and limitations. Critical Discourse Analysis
shares with CAL the interest in a political view of
language, the close relation of language and society as
well as the belief that this type of work can bring about
social change. At the same time, Pennycook points out that
the notions of discourse and/or ideology have not been
sufficiently disambiguated in CDA because they derive from
the different positions its proponents hold about language,
truth and power. Pennycook continues with a detailed
critical evaluation of the work of quite a few of the
adheres of CDA, like van Dijk, Fairclough, Wodak, Foucalt
and Pecheux, Kress, Hodge and Trew, Maas etc. Critical
language awareness is the third field covered in chapter 4.
Pennycook chooses to look at it in a broader context and
not as an extension of CDA or the pedagogical element
missing from CDA. Thus, critical language awareness
encompasses, among others, the work of Fairclough and his
colleagues who apply the principles of CDA to classroom
language, as well as the genre-based literacy movement
developed in Australia. Genre theory is being criticized
for lacking an adequately developed theory of language and
power and relying on the structuralistic systemic-
functional model.

Towards the end of chapter 4, Pennycook devotes some space
to critical pedagogy as developed in the North American
context, based on the work of Freire. The key feature of
critical pedagogy is that of voice; what is left unclear is
how using one's voice can lead to change.

Drawing from all the above approaches, and especially CDA,
the author moves beyond them to build a model of Applied
Postlinguistics; the following are its key features: 1)
literacy is always political, 2) literacy practices are
embodied in a highly complex social context, 3) the
processes of text production and interpretation are highly
significant, 4) textual analysis is social analysis and 5)
need for pedagogical action, resistance and change.

Chapter 5, the Politics of Pedagogy, is probably closer to
what Widdowson would have accepted as CAL, since it deals
with issues related to classrooms and pedagogy. The
classroom is seen as a kind of microcosm where the
political relations of the outside world are reproduced. To
put this another way, whatever is done or said in a
classroom has social and political implications. Three
alternative conceptions of school and society are
delineated. According to the Standard View, classrooms are
places where knowledge is neutral, equal opportunities are
offered for everyone and social relations are absent. The
Reproducive Standpoint promotes the view that knowledge
reflects dominant interest and classrooms reflect external
social roles, thus, reproduce social inequalities. Finally,
according to the Resistance Standpoint, all knowledge is
political and classrooms are sites of social struggle.

Contrary to the optimistic and liberal view of education as
a place where there is possibility for action and change,
critical research on education suggests that schools are
places that promote social and cultural reproduction. The
work of Bernstein and Bourdieu among others are critically
discussed as versions of cultural reproduction.

Critical pedagogy, then, aims at encouraging students to
develop their own voice and resist marginalization and
exclusion. What needs to be further enhanced is the move
from the level of various verbose and at times fruitless
theorizing to pedagogical practice. Identifying the
features and weaknesses of the field is one thing, offering
alternatives, especially in terms of educational practice
is the burning issue.

The rest of the chapter is devoted to postmodernism and
education. Theoretical stances and their shortcomings are
discussed as the author approaches towards a postcritical
pedagogy at the end. Chapter 6, the Politics of Difference,
takes over the issue of difference, an area that the author
suggests is totally missing from the concerns of applied
linguistics; instead, a number of problematic constructions
of Otherness thrive. Much research on second language
acquisition work, for instance, insightful in many
respects, ignores questions of difference. Even research in
TESOL and applied linguistics where terms like 'foreign' or
'other' abound, promote a fixed picture of culture, where
the English speaking culture is the normal and modern and
the cultures of others are fixed, traditional and strange.
Once we overcome this idea of cultural and social fixity,
we can acknowledge that second language classrooms, applied
linguistics courses etc. are related to identity formation
and transformation. The domain of language, gender and
sexuality is suitable for discussing the issue of
difference within the framework of CAL. According to the
dominant approach, since men have power, their language is
more powerful and the possibility of change presupposes
that women are taught to use powerful language. Adopting
the difference perspective means that we adhere to the view
that men and women are specialized separately, they use
language differently and misunderstand each other; the way
out is to teach men and women to understand their
competitive and comparative ways. Both views are
problematic in their treatment of gender and a third
position, the performative one, is developed as the
alternative. According to it, gender and sex are not given
categories but interrelate with other forms of power; the
male and female identities are performed through language.

Since language and identity are closely interrelated, it is
an essential concern of CAL to work with student identities
formation and the subject positions made available in their
classrooms; alternative types of responses are explored
towards a model of Engaged Research. Key elements for CAL
are working with the desires and interests of the
participants and promoting transformation and change.
Participatory action research and critical ethnography work
towards that direction.

In Chapter 7, Applied Linguistics with an Attitude,
Pennycook recapitulates the critical themes dealt with
throughout the book. The second section of the chapter
offers guidelines for critical praxis; CAL is seen as a
separate area of study, deriving from applied linguistics
and borrowing from critical pedagogy and Critical Discourse
Analysis. Research from different domains, anthropology,
sociology, psychology, education and cultural study can
benefit from the insights offered by CAL.

In the final section, the author expresses his concern for
the role of CAL. Almost by definition, critical theories
are marginalized theories and the question is, What is
going to happen if more and more research takes place in
the field? Would CAL become mainstream applied linguistics
and, if so, with what consequences? Other critical stances
e.g. critical pedagogy, critical discourse analysis have
followed a process of watering down.

Overall, the book is addressed not only to those interested
in (critical) applied linguistics but also to (critical)
discourse analysts, educators, translators, speech
therapists etc. Undergraduates lacking a background in at
least some of the fields covered may find it at times dense
and difficult to follow. Therefore, in my view the audience
is very broad in terms of research interests but, at the
same time, it needs some familiarity with the areas
covered. The tables summarizing the points made in sections
of the book were extremely helpful.

As the author points out in page 24, he does not want to
distinguish between theory and practice, ideas and
applications; he discusses the theory together with its
implications. Therefore, those interested in conducting
research within the field of CAL should not look for a
guidelines section on how to proceed. Instead of
delineating the space for the development of CAL the
purpose of the author was to present different areas from
which CAL can draw lessons and speculations.

Finally, another point that seems blurred is how we should
proceed from theory to action. We work with critical
concepts such as patriarchy, capitalism, imperialism, but
how do we work against them? On page 73, the author states
'we need a position in critical applied linguistics that
suggests a complex interplay between language and social
relations, that suggests that the work we do may have
potential for change'. I am not sure that in the book I
found ways of working towards that direction. Taking the
example of the elimination of sexist language, we did
manage to impose non-sexist use of language but did we
manage to eliminate gender inequality? Language change may
produce social change but we should not overestimate its
strength; it's one thing to raise people's consciousness
and intervene in their use of language and another thing to
bring social change as a result of language change.

About the reviewer: Nadia Economou holds a Ph.D. in
Educational Linguistics from the University of Lancaster,
U.K. She has taught courses in General Linguistics and
Discourse Analysis in private institutions in Greece. She
is currently working as senior researcher in the Division
of Educational Technology at the Institute for Language and
Speech Processing (ILSP).
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