LINGUIST List 21.4099

Sat Oct 16 2010

Review: Applied Ling; Discourse Analysis; Sociolinguistics: Young (2009)

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        1.     Anne Devlin , Discursive Practice in Language Learning and Teaching

Message 1: Discursive Practice in Language Learning and Teaching
Date: 16-Oct-2010
From: Anne Devlin <>
Subject: Discursive Practice in Language Learning and Teaching
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AUTHOR: Richard F. YoungTITLE: Discursive Practice in Language Learning and TeachingSERIES TITLE: The Language Learning Monograph SeriesPUBLISHER: Wiley-BlackwellYEAR: 2009

Anne Marie Devlin, PhD Candidate, Department of French, University College Cork


The purpose of this book is to introduce the concept of practice theory into thedomain of language learning and teaching. In order to achieve this, Young hasdrawn extensively from the areas of anthropology, ethnology, sociology, appliedand theoretical linguistics to provide a theory which synthesizes importantfindings from those domains. The fundamental starting point of the book is thatall talk is essentially practice (performance) in context. The author continuesby expanding the concept of context and moving it from the narrow focus of thetext to bringing in what he refers to as a 'network of physical, spatial,temporal, social, interactional, institutional, political and historicalcircumstances.' (p. 2). Considering the broad focus of context allows theauthor to place prominence on answering the key questions of 'where?, when?,who?, why? and how?' oral and written texts take place. This insightfulapproach not only gives equal status to language and context, but also takesinto consideration the often overlooked area of nonverbal resources, noting thatsemiotic resources such as gaze, gesture and body positioning are integralcomponents of constructing a participation framework. By doing so the authorhas laid down a challenge to others working in the field of second languageacquisition to expand their sights to include the broad focus of context and toaward a place to the study of non-verbal resources.

Chapter 1 deals with Young's explication of discursive practice. He deconstructsthe various meanings afforded to both 'discourse' and 'practice' by differenttheorists before laying down his interpretation of each word and then skillfullyreconstructing the phrase 'discursive practice' to embody the currentinterpretation. The chapter then proceeds to focus on the relationship betweenDiscursive Practice (DP) and the second half of the title 'Language Learning andTeaching'. With the purpose of exploring that connection, Young poses anothermore fundamental question, i.e. 'what is the relationship between DiscursivePractice and language?' He provides a brief overview of the history of modernlinguistic theory before looking at social and cultural context and concludingthat language learning and teaching are practices which also occur in a socialcontext and that these contexts must be addressed.

The historical roots of discourse practice are explored in greater depth inChapter 2. Young begins by describing the controversy of the 1997 Firth andWagner paper, 'On Discourse, Communication and (Some) Fundamental Concepts ofSLA Research', which highlighted the dichotomies within the field, mainly basedon cognitive vs. social models of Second Language Acquisition research. He thengoes back in time to explain how the controversy arose. By doing so, he showsthe changing nature of the study of language: from language as a separate entityto one where it is considered as occurring 'somewhere, somewhen [...] producedby somebody' (p. 46).

Chapter 3 is devoted to the investigation of context. It starts with thepremise that talk and context are inseparable. This premise is underpinned by astudy of the Bakhtinian insights into genre, chronotope and heteroglossia. Theconcept is further developed by detailed explorations of four differentapproaches to language in context: an applied linguistic perspective, anethnographic perspective, emotional perspectives, and political perspectives.Using research findings, he teases out the pros and cons of each approach withparticular attention paid to the amount of time spent analysing language andthat spent analysing context. Results show that the first approach spent littletime on context; whereas the remaining three threw only a cursory glance at theanalysis of language. He concludes that the aforementioned approaches areinadequate to fully explain the symbiotic relationship between talk/language andcontext.

Young sets out to remedy the inadequacy of the above approaches by providing a'Participation Framework' and an in-depth analysis of discourse resources inChapter 4. Goffman's 1974 framework is used as a basis for a ParticipationFramework. Here the positioning of the participants in relation to each otherand the built environment are taken into account. The positioning of theparticipants encompasses nonverbal semiotic systems such as gaze, gestures,facial expressions and clothing. It foregrounds a more holistic interpretationof communication. Of no less importance is the dynamic nature of theparticipant status. By that is meant that the participant can change rolesthroughout an interaction. Goffman identifies three main production roles:animator, author and principal; and three main reception roles: addressee,auditors and unofficial participants or eavesdropper. Young exemplifies thesepositions and their dynamic nature with reference to a number of texts. This isfollowed by a detailed study of discourse resources. He highlights three suchresources: verbal, interactional and nonverbal resources. The author thensubjects the 2002 Young and Nguyen 45 second transcript from a 12th gradephysics class to analyses using each one of the resources. Young considersHalliday's Systemic Functional Grammar (SFG) as the optimal framework foranalysing verbal resources. This is due to its positioning of context asintegral to a description of language. The interactional resource is analysedby means of Conversational Analysis (CA) with its emphasis on structuring talkand turn-taking, and the analysis of the text culminates with a DiscursivePractice (DP) interpretation. By doing so, Young subtly highlights theshortcomings of SFG and CA as complete tools for analysing talk-in-interactionand points to the superior nature of DP to successfully integrate all threeresources.

Chapter 5 represents a change in direction and the focus is transferred to thesecond part of the title -- language learning. Young posits the question 'Whatexactly is learning?' -- is it the acquisition or possession of knowledge orparticipating? He answers the question from a DP viewpoint by surmising that itis both -- that language learning is about changes in linguistic knowledge, butprimarily it is concerned with changes in participation. To illustrate hispoint, he reviews two theories -- Language Socialization and Situated Learning. Once again, through in-depth analysis of texts using CA and SFG, he is able toshow that by documenting a learner participating in practices we can see whatchanges occur. Doing so gives invaluable information not only regarding howparticipating leads to changes in language used, but also how the dynamic natureof participant status and the presence of other participants can help. Youngends the chapter with the statement: 'it is the participation framework of thepractice that affords the possibility for coadaptation and colearning by allparticipants because what is learned is not the language but participation inthe practice' (p. 179).

The natural progression from language learning is to language teaching andtesting. Both these issues are considered in Chapter 6. To begin with, Youngintroduces the concept of Practice Theory to language teaching. Practice Theoryfocuses on the where, when, who and why of talk. It aims to put languageteaching in context. It expands the concept of context from the confines of theclassroom and its participants to include 'the architecture of pedagogicalpractices' (p. 210). This refers back to the discursive resources discussed inchapter 4, i.e. verbal, interactional and nonverbal. Young highlights the verydifferent discursive practices that socialize students inside and outside theclassroom. The analysis of Hall's 2004 study into a 'Spanish as a ForeignLanguage' (SFL) classroom leads him to the conclusion that 'the differencesbetween pedagogical practice and a discursive practice outside the classroom areirreconcilable' (p. 192). The reason he gives for this is the historicalprivileges afforded to language over practice. However, an alternative approachis suggested and that is a 'systematic observation of the practice in situ' (pp.193-194). This should ideally take place in the target language country oralternatively through broadcast media. It is envisaged that an expert (teacher)would guide the learners through the discursive resources employed by theparticipants. However, Young is also concerned with the transferability orportability of such a procedure. What should be learnt is a schema for solvingfuture problems. For that to happen he, controversially, advocates a top-downapproach to language teaching -- that instead of having to work out rules andunderlying patterns, learners should be provided with them initially. In thisway, cross-cultural misunderstandings could be minimalised.

Current language testing contexts come in for considerable criticism. Youngquestions the portability of test results. How can the results of aknowledge-based test, for example, be transferred to a performance task? Helooks at the 'No Child Left Behind' policy, the 'Common European Framework' andthe IELTS and TOEFL exams as examples of undemocratic procedures and states thatmore work is needed to analyse language in test and non-test contexts.

The final chapter, 'Prospects for Practice', summarises the preceding chaptersand makes copious reference to the studies used which give practical examples ofthe theories. It clearly reinforces the nexus between language and context.Young admits that this is not the full picture, but remains strong in hisbeliefs that the only possible way to understand language and language learningis through a synthesis of dynamic verbal, interactional and nonverbal resources.


From a practical point of view, the book is laid out into clearly delineatedchapters and subsections. Each chapter ends with a summary and looks forward tothe next. Following chapters make constant reference to what preceded, thusproviding useful links. Young builds on what went before. This technique ofnuanced layering of information is effectively employed throughout the book.Each chapter describes the progress of language thought or theories, startingwith the simple or beginning and then layers on more information in digestibleamounts until reaching the main point. In this way, the reader is provided witha thorough understanding of the context and/or time/space relationship betweenthe theories. The book is clearly divided into 2 sections. The first, chapters1-4, deals with the theoretical and surprisingly, only chapters 5 and 6 dealwith the practical implications of DP in language learning and teaching and testing.

Chapters 1-4 work on two levels; the first as an exposition of the theory ofDiscursive Practice. Young skillfully brings together the work of languagetheories and shows how each contributed to DP in a progressive manner. Eachtheory or approach is exemplified by lively examples as diverse as catechismclasses to Lemony Snicket's 'A Series of Unfortunate Events' novels. However,context is never far from the foreground. Throughout these chapters theexpansive nature of context is referenced and leaves the reader in no doubt asto the central message, i.e. that context in its broadest form is integral tothe study of language. Each chapter represents a gradual build-up to showcasethe wealth of information, which may go unseen, provided by the DP approach.

The second level on which it works is maybe incidental. Possibly withoutintending to, Young has provided the reader with a historical account oflanguage thought and theory. Instead of focusing on the seeminglyirreconcilable dichotomies, he has managed to synthesize fields such asanthropology, sociology, ethnography, philosophy and linguistics showing howeach one can positively influence another.

It is in the latter half of the book, however, where the arguments and examplesbecome less convincing. While Young constantly stresses the symbiotic nature oflanguage and context, the learning/development/acquisition aspect tends to beoverlooked. His examples may be criticized as showing language in use insteadof concentrating on how it is acquired, i.e. how a learner moves from point a topoint b. This is exemplified by the engagement between Japanese and Americanco-workers at a car plant. The extract sheds light on the importance ofinteractional and non-verbal resources in cross-cultural communication, but doesnot address language learning or development. It is a clear example of languagein use. Two examples were given which are directly concerned with languageacquisition -- Young and Miller's 2004 longitudinal study of a writingconference between an ESL student and a teacher, and Nguyen's 2006 study ofnative speaker trainee pharmacists. And while these examples illuminate theextreme importance of 'practice' and 'participation' in developing languagestrategies, their focus is on interactional and nonverbal resources. Verbalresources seem to have been neglected.

The argument put forth in chapter 5 is even weaker. The fact that there arewide chasms between what goes on in the classroom and what is needed fordiscursive practice in the community is well known. However, Young's statementthat they are irreconcilable and his advocacy of a top-down approach to teachingwill certainly prove controversial. His argument would have benefited from abetter example. He uses Kinginger's 2008 study of American students spending asemester in Paris. We discover an unexpected reaction by a French lecturer to astudent's request, but are given no indication of the discursive resources --i.e. verbal, interactional or nonverbal -- used by either participant, and thusguesses are made concerning the exchange based on very limited contextualinformation. Testing is also dealt with unsatisfactorily. While establishedtests and frameworks are, maybe correctly, criticized, Young fails to explainthe problem and offers no practical solution.

On the whole, the book works extremely well as an introduction to discoursepractice. It provides compelling arguments for its use as a tool for analysinglanguage in use, but fails to convince as a means for measuring languagedevelopment or acquisition. This deficit may be due to the examples chosen byYoung, many of which do not take into account all three discursive resources.The questions of 'who', 'where', 'when', 'why' and 'how' are extensivelyexplored, but the reader is left wondering about the role of the 'what', i.e.the language.


Firth, A. & Wagner, J. (1997) On Discourse, Communication and (Some) FundamentalConcepts of SLA Research. Modern Language Journal, 81(3), 285-300.

Goffman, E. (1974). Frame Analysis. New York: Harper and Row.

Hall, J.K. (2004). ''Practicing speaking'' in Spanish: Lessons from a highschool foreign language classroom. In D. Boxer & A.D. Cohen (Eds.), Studyingspeaking to inform second language learning (pp. 68-87). Cleveden, UK:Multilingual Matters.

Kinginger, C. (2008). Language learning in study abroad: Case studies ofAmericans in France. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell.

Nguyen H.T. (2006). Constructing ''expertness'': A novice pharmacist'sdevelopment of interactional competence in patient consultations. Communicationand Medication, 3 (2), 147-160.

Young, R.F., & Miller, E.R. (2004). Learning as changing participation:Negotiating discourse roles in the ESL writing conference. Modern LanguageJournal, 88 (4), 519-535.

Young, R.F., & Nguyen, H.T. (2002). Modes of meaning in high school science.Applied Linguistics, 23 (3), 348-372.


Anne Marie Devlin is a PhD student at the University of Cork, Ireland. Her project is concerned with the acquisition of sociopragmatic variation in highly advanced non-native speaker teachers of English. She is particularly interested in the role of time spent in the target language country and the role of identity in the acquisition or non-acquisition of the above. Other interests include sociolinguistics, second language acquisition theories, language teaching -- she has been involved in ESL for the past 16 years -- and teacher training. In addition to this, she is passionate about the Russian language and literature.

Page Updated: 16-Oct-2010