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Review of  The Cambridge Handbook of Language Policy

Reviewer: Meghan Kerry Moran
Book Title: The Cambridge Handbook of Language Policy
Book Author: Bernard Spolsky
Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Linguistic Field(s): Applied Linguistics
General Linguistics
Historical Linguistics
Issue Number: 24.31

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EDITOR: Bernard Spolsky
TITLE: The Cambridge Handbook of Language Policy
SERIES TITLE: Cambridge Handbooks in Language and Linguistics
PUBLISHER: Cambridge University Press
YEAR: 2012

Meghan Kerry Moran, Department of English, Applied Linguistics Program, Northern Arizona University


“The Cambridge Handbook of Language Policy” aims to provide a comprehensive overview of the subject, to be used as a resource in academia. It consists of five major parts: Definition and principles, Language policy at the macrolevel, Non-governmental domains, Globalization and modernization, and Regional and thematic issues. Each of these sections is subdivided into multiple chapters, each elicited from respected scholars in the field of language policy.

Beginning with an introduction and overview by Bernard Spolsky (editor), Part I (Definition and principles) continues with Björn Jernudd and Jiří Nekvapil’s ‘History of the field: a sketch,’ which explains the gradual emergence of language policy both as a phenomenon and as a researched field within the last century. Denise Réaume and Meital Pinto discuss language policy in an abstract (decontextualized) manner in ‘Philosophy of Language Policy,’ examining arguments in favor of unilingualism and multilingualism, and showing the complexity of arguments surrounding the idea of language rights. In chapter 4, ‘Language policy, the nation and nationalism,’ Sue Wright explains the idea of the nation-state and the formerly prevalent policy of one-nation, one-language. She then describes how this policy is quickly disappearing in the context of globalization and post-colonialism. Ofelia García then takes over with ‘Ethnic identity and language policy,’ in which she compares four cases (Luxembourgish; Maori; Tseltal and Tsotsil; and Gallo) with regard to their strength of ethnic language identity and focus on language policy. She highlights the link between language and ethnic identity but also the hybridity of ethnic identities and language practices. Julia Sallabank describes the way in which nationalism, globalization, and modernism negatively affect the vitality of smaller languages; her chapter, ‘Diversity and language policy for endangered languages’ fits into this section because of its coverage of the terms ‘endangerment,’ ‘moribundity,’ ‘attrition,’ ‘obsolescence,’ and ‘loss.’ To conclude Part I, David Robichaud and Helder De Schutter note the importance of arguments in support of the dominant language as opposed to small or minority languages in ‘Language is just a tool! On the instrumentalist approach to language.’

Part II (Language policy at the macrolevel) consists of eight chapters. ‘Language policy at the supra-national level,’ by Fernand de Varennes, follows nicely from the previous chapter in that it looks at the notion of language rights in the face of a practical issue, namely ease of communication, in international organizations such as the United Nations. Colin H. Williams contextualizes language policy even further with the description of how some nations deal with heterogeneous states, i.e., Spain, the United Kingdom, and Canada, in ‘Language policy, territorialism and regional autonomy.’ No discussion of language policy could take place without the mention of imperialism, which Robert Phillipson does in ‘Imperialism and colonialism.’ Imperialism has led to a surge in language debates and policies in the former colonies, with the colonial languages often being seen as symbols of colonial oppression while at the same time serving as a link to communication in an increasingly capitalist society. However, language policy functions as much on small scales, such as municipalities, as it does at the national level. In ‘Language policy at the municipal level,’ Peter Backhaus examines a number of different municipality-level policies, such as those in Tokyo, Ottawa, Upper Nazareth, and cities in Kosovo, the United States and South Africa. Chapter 12, ‘Language policy and management in service domains: Brokering communication for linguistic minorities in the community,’ by Claudia V. Angelelli, considers the even narrower context of service domains in the three settings of health, police, and the legal system, which often lack the necessary professional interpreters to facilitate communication and grant equal rights to citizens. Richard D. Brecht and William P. Rivers further the discussion of language in specific domains with their argument detailing ‘US language policy in defence and attack.’ The last two chapters in Part II focus on language policy in a globalized educational context, coming at it from two different, but related perspectives: ‘Language policy and medium of instruction in formal education,’ by Stephen L. Walter and Carol Benson, and ‘Language policy in education: additional languages,’ by Jasone Cenoz and Durk Gorter.

Part III (Non-governmental domains) covers ‘Language policy in the workplace’ (Alexandre Duchêne and Monica Heller), ‘Language policy and religion’ (Christina Bratt Paulston and Jonathan M. Watt), and ‘Language policy in the family’ (Stephen J. Caldas). An increasingly mobile workforce as well as the change from a more mechanized workplace in which talk is not encouraged to one in which linguistic encounters are common, unique, and encouraged makes the first of these chapters necessary. Paulston and Watt explain language management in two case studies (Islam and Quranic Arabic and missionaries’ spread of language) using Dell Hymes’ framework of ethnography of communication. Caldas lays out the decisions that families make, whether consciously or subconsciously, that determine which languages will continue to thrive and which will not, including if and how to raise children bilingually. Part III ends with a topic that may not normally receive its due in language policy scholarship, i.e., ‘Language policies and the Deaf community,’ by Sherman E. Wilcox, Verena Krausneker and David F. Armstrong.

The theme for Part IV (Globalization and modernization), although threaded throughout the Handbook, receives its own set of chapters here. Kendall A. King and Adam C. Rambow’s ‘Transnationalism, migration and language education policy’ revisits language policy in the classroom as it struggles to deal with globalization and the growth of technological literacies. John Edwards’ ‘Language management agencies’ details the tension between descriptivists and prescriptivists and the role of language agencies in this debate. The agencies’ activities tend to focus on status planning (also called prestige planning) and corpus planning, which includes purism, spelling and writing reform, and the development of terminology that reflects the modernizing world. Zooming in on one of these aspects, specifically the writing system, Florian Coulmas and Federica Guerini (‘Literacy and writing reform’) acknowledge the current growth and favorability of using the Roman alphabet while understanding the difficulty involved in undertaking a mass writing reform. Mary Carol Combs and Susan D. Penfield, in their chapter ‘Language activism and language policy,’ describe how activism can occur both centrally and at the grass roots level. Theirs is not only an overview of language activism, but also a call to action. Lastly for this section is ‘English in language policy and management.’ Here, Gibson Ferguson recognizes the massive expansion of English and explains that this is occurring not only due to language diffusion from English-speaking nations, but also because of English’s inherent value in the realm of academia as well as its necessity in cross-cultural communication.

The final section of the Handbook, Part V, focuses its attention on ‘Regional and thematic issues.’ Joseph Lo Bianco begins by describing the ‘National language revival movements: reflections from India, Israel, Indonesia and Ireland,’ considering them all ‘classic cases’ while maintaining the importance of context in any discussions regarding language policy. Sinfree Makoni, Busi Makoni, Ashraf Abdelhay, and Padzisai Mashiri then cover select African countries, briefly explaining different language policies in the colonial and post-colonial period (‘Colonial and post-colonial language policies in Africa: historical and emerging landscapes’). In chapter 27, ‘Indigenous language planning and policy in the Americas,’ Teresa L. McCarty details the narratives of language loss in the native populations of North and South America and the resulting language policies aimed to slow or stop this decline. Ulrich Ammon discusses ‘Language policy in the European Union (EU)’ and the advantages and disadvantages of the strong views the EU has on language protection and maintenance. In ‘Language policy management in the former Soviet sphere,’ Gabrielle Hogan-Brun and Svitlana Melnyk examine the roles that Russian and national (‘titular’) languages have played in the nation rebuilding of the last two decades. To round out the geographical sphere, and the Handbook as a whole, Richard B. Baldauf Jr. and Hoa Thi Mai Nguyen explain the variety of contexts and factors that come to play in developing ‘Language policy in Asia and the Pacific.’


“The Cambridge Handbook of Language Policy” claims to be the first handbook to give a comprehensive view of the field as a whole. Surely it is the most extensive text published on the subject to date, a resource that all language planning and policy scholars should own, and a clear textbook option for a course in language policy.

Spolsky’s introduction to and overview of the remaining 29 chapters in the handbook do an excellent job of orienting the reader. The chapters undoubtedly cover many of the most important aspects of language policy, from the one-nation, one-language idea, to the tensions between language rights and practicality, post-colonialism, globalization, language endangerment, and language activism, among others. All parts of the globe are covered, and less commonly researched populations such as Deaf and illiterate communities receive justified attention. Many of the most prominent scholars in the field have contributed their thoughts and research.

However, there are some aspects of the Handbook that could be improved upon. For instance, although Spolsky provides a solid introduction and overview, a conclusion that tied everything back together is conspicuously missing. This could perhaps be due to the fact that the Handbook is not necessarily meant to be read cover to cover; however, some sort of wrapping up and connecting of the various chapters written by multiple authors would have lent more coherence to the text as a whole. Although the citations were held to the end in order to create an inclusive bibliography, the similar placement of the Notes did not have the same effect. Also placed at the end of the book, readers are less likely to pay attention to them than if they were footnotes or endnotes. Additionally, considering that the Handbook is likely to be used as a textbook or resource for language policy and/or sociolinguistics-oriented classes, it would be very beneficial to have incorporated discussion questions at the end of each chapter to promote reflection, discussion, and analysis. Furthermore, additional visuals (specifically graphs, charts, and maps) would have served to present arguments in multimodalities, thus breaking up the, at times, dense text.

The one component missing from Spolsky’s introduction and overview is his rationale for dividing the Handbook as he did. More justification could have been given for the categories into which the Handbook was divided, as they and their constituent chapters seemed, at times, less than obvious. Thirty chapters are divided into five main parts: ‘Definition and principles,’ ‘Language policy at the macrolevel,’ ‘Non-governmental domains,’ ‘Globalization and modernization,’ and ‘Regional and thematic issues.’ Part I smoothly initiates the reader into terminology and theory of language policy, with chapters ranging from the more abstract and theoretical to the more contextualized and concrete. ‘Language policy at the macrolevel’ includes everything from supranational organizations to policy in the spheres of police, health and the legal system, prompting the reader to question where macro leaves off and micro begins. Part III, ‘Non-governmental domains,’ most likely serves to contrast with the previous part and discusses a few of Spolsky’s ‘domains’ of language management/policy, namely workplace, religion, and family. Oddly, however, ‘Language policies and the Deaf community’ is the last chapter of this part and seems to be a strange addition. The fourth part, ‘Globalization and Modernization,’ is certainly an important enough issue to receive its own section, although some chapters, like ‘Language management agencies’ and ‘Literacy and writing reform’, only loosely correspond to the theme. Lastly, an appropriate selection of chapters was chosen to represent all areas of the world in Part V.

While the Handbook covers an impressive amount of relevant material in its 638 pages, there is a slight degree of overlap and a few items that are noticeably missing. The overlap occurs in the realm of language education policy; it receives two chapters in Part II and is then returned to in Part IV with a perceptible gap between the two. Likewise, language policy of the European Union receives attention in Part II and then again in Part V, mostly because it falls under the dual domains of ‘Language policy at the supranational level’ as well as ‘Regional and thematic issues.’ These matters are small, however, and most likely would not be noticed by the reader. What is slightly more concerning is what is missing. First, there is no chapter on, nor even mention of, linguistic landscape, the burgeoning subfield of language planning and policy research. Refugee populations are largely ignored, as are language policies in refugee camps. Similarly, pidginization and creolization only receive brief attention in Part V. Language education policy, though discussed in at least part of three chapters, could have received its own section due to its importance in the field. This, then, could have included a chapter on phenomena in the mainstream United States educational context such as No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top, and recent Arizona language educational policies.

Despite these suggestions, however, the Cambridge Handbook of Language Policy is a commendable overview of the field of language policy, and one that will serve as an excellent resource for scholars as well as a textbook for students. It fills a gap in the language policy canon, and will fill any individual gaps one might have in their knowledge of the field. Attempting to highlight relevant items from a growing field and summarize them into a 30-chapter text would be a daunting and difficult task, but Spolsky and the contributors have managed to do so with great success and eloquence.

Meghan Moran is a second year doctoral student in the program of Applied Linguistics at Northern Arizona University. She received a Master’s Degree from The Pennsylvania State University in Teaching English as a Second Language in 2008, after which she taught ESOL in a public school in western New York for two years. Her interests include language planning and policy, pronunciation, and the intersection between the two. Upon graduation, she hopes to teach in a university setting.

Format: Hardback
ISBN-13: 9780521195652
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U.S. $ 170.00