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Review of  Language and Education

Reviewer: Gail Karen Al Hafidh
Book Title: Language and Education
Book Author: Ruqaiya Hasan Jonathan J. Webster
Publisher: Equinox Publishing Ltd
Linguistic Field(s): Applied Linguistics
Book Announcement: 24.861

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''Language and Education: Learning and Teaching in Society'', by Ruqaiya Hasan, is the third volume of a series of linguistic texts addressing key issues at the heart of language pedagogy. The book is organised in three sections and comprises the written versions of talks (apart from Chapters 4, 8 and 10) given by the author over a period of 50 years. Hasan herself reflects that during that time there were changes in attitudes and foci of discussion but that many issues remain core: learner identity; the role of language in all processes of teaching and learning; and finally, the relationship between language, culture and the process of education. Referring constantly to the respected and influential works of Saussure (1966), Labov (1970), Bernstein (1990), and Halliday (1991), to name but a few, Hasan develops the notion of ‘semantic distance’ to explore the different ways in which meaning is constructed and argues, using Systemic Functional Theory as her conceptual framework, that learning linguistic rules in isolation, and out of semantic context, is absurd.

Section 1: On Learning and Teaching

Section 1 contains 4 chapters, with the fourth being co-authored by David Butt, on Bernstein’s (1999) paper entitled ''Vertical and Horizontal Discourse; an essay''. Chapter 1 reiterates the importance of grammar in supporting meaning and claims that lexicogrammar is central to what teachers are using to facilitate both the production of and the interoperation of meaning. Citing linguistic giants such as Halliday, Mathiesen, Vygotsky and Chomsky, Hasan discusses the role of both semiotic and non-semiotic experience in the construction of meaning and concludes that every experience is relevant in this process. She uses examples of grammatical analysis of the process of teaching to support her claim that wording and meaning are inseparable and to further her argument that “reflection literacy” is about enabling “enquiry into the inferences of what the analysis ‘is saying’” (p. 44). The discourse of teaching and learning is therefore more than just a mechanical exchange of ideas; it is an exchange also of experiences and a fluid construction of meaning thereof, according to Hasan.

Chapter 2 goes on to look at modes of learning and teaching, where Hasan maintains that language is the most powerful semiotic tool because it is ''so versatile” (p. 54). Hasan draws a distinction between unofficial pedagogy (i.e. local pedagogy) and that which is planned and organised in an organised curriculum. She argues that curricula reflect the nature of the society in which they are planned such that a “closed curriculum” (p. 65) that has strict categories may reflect a more highly hierarchical society. In this way, Hasan implies that curricula are “subtle indicators of a society’s predispositions” (p. 65) and stresses the importance of opening up education systems so that society can embrace its potential.

Chapter 3 begins with a discussion of the linguistic debate about the nature of differences between languages and separates the two key camps as those who agree that the ‘semantic space’ in all languages is the same (i.e. Universalists) and those who don’t (i.e. Particularists). Hasan maintains that “semantic distance” (p.83) results in different semantic interpretations across cultures and that this has implications for pedagogy: educators need to be aware of how the “student is visualizing the context of his/her discourse” (p.96). The final chapter in this section is a lengthy critical discussion by Hasan and Butt linking Bernstein’s work on discourse with Systemic Functional Linguistics. They conclude that Bernstein’s essay was a milestone that provided a springboard for further discussion about horizontal and vertical discourse, but that more analyses still need to be done.

Section 2: Language and Literacy

Literacy is the focus of Section 2. In Chapter 5, Hasan cites Bernstein (1990) and Bourdieu and Passeron’s (1977) work linking the relationship between a society’s pedagogic institutions and its social and political structure. She postulates that if this connection exists, the goals of literacy must be considered against social environments. The state of being literate is having the ability to make sense of signs, with those semiotic acts being socially grounded and individually held. Hasan then explores the idea of literacy therefore not being simply a language-based practice for reading and writing and asks whether it should be separated from any ‘specific sign system’ or from language itself (p. 172). Hasan criticises the traditional methods of literacy teaching in schools today, as she sees them as focusing on “recognition literacy” (p. 178), or on the written shape and spoken sound of a word, whilst ignoring the ‘mode of social action’. She goes further to say that only focusing on recognition literacy “creates an ideology of language as plastic and powerless” (p. 180). Language thus taught is accepted as correct and Hasan implies that this emits an insidious message that language is a mirror reflecting reality rather than being an active part of that reality. Recognition literacy therefore concerns itself with language as expression and Hasan argues that ‘action literacy’ (i.e. language as expression and content in relation to social processes) and ‘reflection literacy’ (i.e. language as meta-discourse) are equally important facets of literacy and logically interrelated. This chapter ends with a decisive concluding sentence referring to literacy as a “socially powerful process” (p. 204) that will have consequences for the society of which it is a part.

Chapter 6 reflects on the power of language in the global context, which, according to Hasan, is not an issue. Language, she argues, is “impartial to ethical matters” (p. 213). It is the speaker who has the power, which is generated by the manner of language use, and, in the case of global multinationals, ‘glib-speak’, as she refers to it, is loaded with the politics of capitalism and often poorly understood by disadvantaged host countries. She uses the words ‘equality’, ‘freedom’ and ‘non-discrimination’ as examples. She concludes that ignorance of intention is not enough: reflective literacy should enable us to better understand the society in which we live. Literacy should empower the literate person to both make sense of language through the interpretation of meaning and how it is used to shape the society in which he/she lives.

In the final chapter in this section, Chapter 7, Hasan explores the possibility of social change instigated by reflective literacy and refers back to Bernstein’s (1990) sociology. She reiterates her view that ‘glib-speak’ has caused words to be ‘resemanticized’ such that “accountability”, for example, is no longer meaningful to society, but rather to corporations and market forces. She argues that being a native speaker is not always enough to be able to interpret changing semantics, as big companies have their own agendas and use their 'spin doctors' to recreate meaning according to their terms. In terms of education, Hasan vehemently argues that “educational systems can never be divorced from society'' (p. 247) and must reflect the values of that society. It is important, she feels, that there be a balance in the classification (i.e. pedagogic, dialogic relationship) between education and production. This is in conflict with what is happening in many parts of the world today, she argues; education is bending to external economic pressures and the classification is quite weak. In contrast, if the classification is very strong, it can lead to academic elitism.

Section 3: Mother Tongue and Other Tongue

The final section of the book looks at how language relates to cross-cultural education, with particular reference to the Indo-Pakistani sub-continent, as well as England. The issues faced by students transferring from India to England relate back to what Hasan refers to in Chapter 2. Institutions in the Indian subcontinent have strong classifications or boundaries (e.g. caste, occupation, age) within content areas such that sciences are clearly distinct from humanities. The framing of knowledge in this way, argues Hasan, can reduce student autonomy of what education he/she has access to, thus allowing the teacher control of the learning process. This is clearly a limitation on the potential of the student to progress with a broad education. Hasan refers to this framework as having more to do with gathering knowledge than developing understanding, which causes problems for students, since they are coming from education systems that have defined their identity through a certain culture of education. This ‘identity’ is challenged in the English system. The context of learning is also identified as part of the learning process: “language is part of human life, not an autonomous structure” (p. 285). Hasan argues that teachers of second-language learners must be cognoscente of this and endeavor to create a community and appropriate context for learners to adapt to the target educational system.

In Chapter 10, Hasan returns to the idea that learning grammar in isolation is not learning a language at all. Language should be used in context to construct meaning and both teacher and student need to know the ‘how’ and ‘why’ that translates into meaning. To facilitate this, she explores the Systemic Functional approach to language teaching and presents a detailed clarification of the metafunctions of language. In the closing comments of this chapter, Hasan justifies the detailed treatment of the social bias of linguistic theory by arguing that “the choice of a pedagogic grammar has to engage with the issue of whether or not grammar is relevant to successful communication” (p. 334).

In the final chapter (11), Hasan looks at how understanding the nature of language is important to teaching it and uses examples from Urdu and English to clarify points made. She uses the idea of time (linear in English but circular in Urdu) to show how language patterns are not identical and explains how different perceptions of tenses in Urdu, compared with English, reflect the different mental processes taking place in each language. Her final comments restate her commitment to the teaching of grammar: “learning the so-called rules of grammar without relating them systematically to meaning is a waste of time…it is to deprive pupils of understanding; it is to deny them the power of reflection on how meanings are transacted in their community” (p. 375).


This volume is an essential addition to any library collection focusing on the field of linguistics and education. It ties together key topic areas concerning semantic theory and issues related to sociolinguistics within the parameters of education and its influence on society at large. By publishing a collection of related conference papers, Hasan presents the major concerns facing educators by looking closely at the processes of education and how language plays a key role in connecting those processes with the culture of a society. In doing so, she builds on established linguistic theories, revisiting the works of influential theorists such as Saussure, Vygotsky, Halliday, Chomsky, and others, in the context of more recent research, to present a new perspective on the aforementioned issues. Bernstein is a prominent and recurring theorist to whom she returns regularly throughout the book in relation to the role of family, society and education and their roles in the evolution of human consciousness. Bernstein’s theories are the pivot upon which much of Hasan’s own theories take shape.

Hasan’s idiosyncratic style is not to lay down what she feels to be irrefutable evidence to support her claims, but to pose rhetorical questions to the reader in order to invoke thought and reaction. The volume is less of a practical guide to teaching language, although several chapters do contain some quite detailed linguistic analysis of teacher-learner interaction and pertinent linguistic items, and more of a presentation of theoretical considerations concerning language, culture and society. This is a deliberate ploy by Hasan who, in her preface, states that there are already ample resources available dedicated to the actual practice of language teaching. As an important backdrop to theoretical issues, however, the author articulately maps out her views on the relationship between institutions and society and uses sociolinguistic theory and observations of current trends and targets in education to bemoan the commercialisation of education: “while efficient and economic management of any institution is highly desirable, social institutions typically survive if they fulfill some social function” (p. xvi). This is a recurring, prominent argument throughout the volume: education is about reasoning, thinking and producing knowledge in the interests of the society it serves, both present and future.

In terms of layout and structure, the book does not follow a chronological order of papers presented, so there is danger of confusion if the book is read conventionally and not as a dip-in- and-out-of resource. However, the constant recycling and development of ideas adds to the richness and texture of the volume. As for the organisation of the chapters, the three sections could possibly have fit more comfortably into two sections, with Chapter 6 falling in Section 2, and Chapters 5 and 7 in Section 1. The endnotes closing each chapter offer useful insight and commentary on the chapter’s content. Overall, the delivery of the material is thought-provoking and the style is accessible for both academics and general readers.

Of particular note is Hasan's persuasive style: she herself has a firm understanding of the power of language and uses it effectively, through clear and appropriate examples, to deliver her message. This is clearly evident in Chapter 4, a particularly engaging chapter in which both Hasan and Butt apply a philosophical critique to Bernstein's (1999) paper. Hasan's great strength is that she is able to skillfully and thoroughly discuss key concepts that may be quite abstract and apply those to concrete situations to give them meaning and shape for the reader.

In summary, this volume elevates and highlights current debates central to education and its role in society by grounding arguments presented in established sociolinguistic theory and adding in-depth reflections to further illuminate issues. It is a very important and valuable book that applies Systemic Functional Theory reflectively to facilitate our understanding of the role of language in pedagogy and its effect on society.


Bernstein, B. (1990) The Structuring of Pedagogic Discourse (Vol. IV: Class, codes and control). London & New York: Routledge.

Bourdieu, P. (1992) Language and Symbolic Power. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Bourdieu, P and Passeron J.C. (1977) Reproduction in Education, Society and Culture (2nd edn). London: Sage

Chomsky, N. (1957) Syntactic Structures. The Hague: Mouton & Co

Chomsky, N. (1965) Aspects of the Theory of Syntax. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press

Chomsky, N. (1986) Knowledge of language: Its nature, origin and use. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.

De Saussure, F. de (1966) Course in General Linguistics, translated and edited by Wade Baskin. New York: McGraw-Hill Publishers.

Eggins, S. (2005) An Introduction to Systemic Functional Linguistics. New York: Continuum International Publishing Group.

Halliday, M.A.K. (1991) The notion of context in language education.. In T. Le and M. McCausland (eds) Language Education: Interaction and Development. Proceedings of International Conference, Vietnam 1991.

Hasan, R. (2009a). The Place of Context in a Systemic Functional Model. In M.A.K Halliday & J. Webster (Eds), Continuum Companion to Systemic Functional Linguistics (pp. 166-189). London: Continuum.

Hasan, R. (2009b). Wanted: a theory for integrated sociolinguistics. In J.J Webster (Ed), Semantic Variation: Meaning in Society and in Sociolinguistics (Vol. 2 of The Collected Works of Ruqaiya Hasan, pp.5-40). London & Oakville: Equinox.

Labov, W. (1970) The study of language in its social context. Studium Generale 23:30-87. Reprinted in Labov 1972.

Vygotsky, L.S (1962) Thought and Language, edited and translated by E. Hanffman and G Vakar. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Vygotsky, L.S (1978) Mind in Society: The development of Higher Psychological Processes, edited by M. Cole, V. John-Steiner, S.Scribner and E.Souberman. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Whorf, B.L (1956) Language Thought and Reality, edited by J.B Carroll. Cambridge: MIT Press
Gail Al Hafidh received her doctoral degree (EdD) from the U.K's Open University and is currently working as English faculty in the Liberal Studies program at the Higher Colleges of Technology in Sharjah, United Arab Emirates. She holds a Masters in TEFL and Applied Linguistics and has previously worked in the British state school system (secondary level) as a modern languages teacher, in the business world as a management trainer, and in further education. Her interests include intercultural communication, assessment of speaking skills, CALL and ESL/EFL Teacher Training.

Format: Hardback
ISBN-13: 9781904768371
Pages: 426
Prices: U.K. £ 60

Format: Paperback
ISBN-13: 9781904768388
Pages: 426
Prices: U.K. £ 25