LINGUIST List 12.2583

Tue Oct 16 2001

Review: Brumfit, Individual Freedom & Language Teaching

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  1. [iso-8859-1] ´┐Żlisabeth Le, Book review: Brumfit, Individual Freedom and Language Teaching

Message 1: Book review: Brumfit, Individual Freedom and Language Teaching

Date: Tue, 16 Oct 2001 07:44:09 -0600
From: [iso-8859-1] ´┐Żlisabeth Le <>
Subject: Book review: Brumfit, Individual Freedom and Language Teaching

Brumfit, Christopher (2001) Individual Freedom and Language Teaching:
Helping Learners to Develop a Dialect of their Own. Oxford University
Press, xvi+207pp, paperback ISBN: 0-19-442174-0, GBP17.95, Oxford
Applied Linguistics series.

Elisabeth Le, University of Alberta


In this book, Christopher Brumfit attempts to develop bases for an
educational linguistics by exposing his view of language in the world in
relation to the practice of language teaching. To that effect, he explores
a few disciplines beyond linguistics that inform our understanding of
language in social use. The book is divided into six parts, and each of
their chapters addresses a particular educational problem in a specific

Part one: Language and Education

Language occupies a central place in the educational process (Chapter 1:
Language, linguistics, and education). Language and education go hand in
hand as it is through language that we can communicate and connect to the
cultures of our ancestors and contemporaries. Successful communication is
not an identity of aims between partners, but the willingness to remain in
contact with each other (Chapter 2: Understanding and the acquisition of
knowledge). In a classroom, this can be achieved thanks to a context of
shared knowledge set up by teachers. However, for individualized learning
to take place, learners have to be able to distance themselves from the
culture they receive by reflecting on their own knowledge. In a second
language classroom, acquisition of knowledge is therefore very dependent on
the cultural contexts of each learner's individual background, of the
members of the group to which learners attach themselves, and of the
speakers of the target language. Teachers typically address a group and not
individuals, and to construct a context of shared knowledge, they must rely
on classifications and simplifications (Chapter 3: Simplification and the
teacher). However, categories with which they operate (e.g. the four skills
of listening, speaking, reading, and writing) originate from theories whose
validity becomes challenged as our understanding of language and the world
changes, and some categories may become the greatest barrier to improvement
of practice. Thus, it is crucial for educational theoreticians and applied
linguists to work with teachers and offer them not only categories, but
also the possibility to reject them on the basis of their teaching experience.

Part two: Second language learning

The most widely accepted goal in second language teaching is communicative
competence (Chapter 4: Teaching communicative competence). For it to be
achieved, it has to be thought of as a dynamic concept, and teaching must
centre in learners. Thus, the context in which language is taught, the type
of language-using community with which communication is supposed to take
place, the relationship between the learners' culture and the target
culture, and the extent to which learners are free to use their own
language are important factors in the teacher's class preparation. If,
following Halliday, we consider that acquiring a language is learning
"how to mean", then language acquisition is not the learning of structures
but of culture, because meaning is socially constructed (Chapter 5:
Language, culture, and English for Academic Purposes). Providing means
to communicate effectively with any group thus implies to recognise and
present alternative conceptual frameworks and cultural assumptions of
national communities, social groups, or disciplines.

Part three: Language in British education

The concept of language as presented above (Chapters 1 to 5) has important
implications for the education system, and unfortunately, these have not
been adequately recognized in practice as the British system demonstrates
(Chapter 6: Language in education: coherence or chaos). An appropriate
framework for considering language in any education system would be: 1)
language of personal life; 2) language for education / public life; 3)
language knowledge and awareness; 4) more distant cultures: foreign or
classical languages.

Part four: Literature and education

Literature as it enriches our imaginative, metaphorical and symbolic needs
represents another socially constructed language practice. Its place and
content in the curriculum are tightly linked with questions of power,
because the choice of texts to be considered as literature and to include
in a program reveals what the decision makers think a society has been and
should be (Chapter 7: Literature, power, and the 'canon'). Teaching
literature introduces learners to a view of the world, and allows them to
define themselves through contact with others' experience. Not only the
content of literature but also what we do with it needs to be debated. The
goals for literature teaching will determine the means by which to assess
literary competence (Chapter 8: Assessing literary competence). These means
must reflect the principle that testing should be part of the overall
teaching-learning process.

Part five: The politics of language teaching

The manner in which a specific curriculum is planned may interfere with
teachers' personal belief systems (Chapter 9: British cultural studies).
Although learning depends on interaction between the new and the old, most
discussions in the British cultural studies have focused on ways and means
to present one or the other critical perspective on Britain, and the
question of the relation of this material to learners' previous
understanding has not been sufficiently addressed. The teaching of English
as a world language (Chapter 10) provides another example of the necessity
to analyse the cultural context of the learners. Which type of English is
to be taught and for which purposes must be decided in connection with the
learners' needs for interactions. The question of language and power that
any decision on syllabus content raises should be addressed in teacher
education programs. The role of language rights is to guarantee what is
essential, e.g. the right to practise the language of one's choice
(Chapter 11: The English language and language rights).

Part six: Research and understanding

Because of the different types of behaviour required by research and
teaching, and because of the connection that research in education must
have with the classroom context, educational research should combine
research from external perspectives, collaborative research between
teachers and outsiders, and research from within teaching itself (Chapter
12: Research in the language classroom). Educational research cannot rest
on outsiders only nor on teachers only (Chapter 13: Teaching, researching,
and knowledge). The role of applied linguists in this domain is to be
engaged in a process of understanding in their concern for language in the
world, and to see language through its multiple manifestations (Chapter 14:
Educational linguistics, applied linguistics, and the study of language
practices). The "dialect of their own" that human beings speak is key "for
understanding what human beings are, and how they think and learn" (p.187).


As its title indicates, the question of freedom is at the core of this
book. Considering what we know about language and about learning processes,
what can we do to help teachers in their efforts to have learners develop a
dialect of their own? Human beings should be free to develop the dialect of
their own that they will use for communication. This dialect reflects their
relationship with varied cultural contexts, and thus its study reveals who
they are. Language cannot be separated from culture, and in decisions on
which language to teach, what to teach and how to teach, care should be
taken that the learners' culture and needs be taken into account. For this
reason, research in language teaching must include the collaboration of
educational theoreticians, applied linguists and teachers.

This book addresses an important question that is very relevant both to
teachers and to learners. Teachers often feel that they have to follow what
theoreticians tell them to do while these theoreticians do not have any
knowledge of the classroom context. Brumfit explains why and how they
should collaborate, and thus where lies their respective freedom of action.
 As for learners, the centrality of language in education renders crucial
any decision made on matters of language teaching.

Although the book does not present any difficult concept nor any very new
ideas, its general argumentation is not easy to follow because of its
organisation. Each chapter discusses a specific topic, and few links are
made between them. This fan-shaped presentation is followed within several
of the chapters as well, and unfortunately no summary helps put together
the main ideas presented. The interest of the book lies in that it brings
together several questions that are usually considered separately. It would
have greatly helped if the reason they are here together had been
emphasised more clearly. A final chapter synthesising the author's
positions on each issue would have been a very useful counterpart to the
preface that presents the key beliefs underlying the book arguments. Thus,
the book would probably have much more impact.

Elisabeth Le is Assistant Professor of Applied Linguistics at the
University of Alberta (Canada). She co-ordinates language courses and
teaches a graduate seminar in language teaching strategies. Her main
research interests are in Critical Discourse Analysis.
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