LINGUIST List 28.3143

Wed Jul 19 2017

Review: Applied Linguistics: Ellis (2016)

Editor for this issue: Clare Harshey <>

Date: 28-Mar-2017
From: Sibo Chen <>
Subject: Becoming and Being an Applied Linguist
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Book announced at

EDITOR: Rod Ellis
TITLE: Becoming and Being an Applied Linguist
SUBTITLE: The life histories of some applied linguists
PUBLISHER: John Benjamins
YEAR: 2016

REVIEWER: Sibo Chen, Simon Fraser University



The study of life histories is quite limited in applied linguistics. While many of us are interested in how the field’s leading scholars established their careers and research trajectories, usually such anecdotes are only to be found during conference socials or intimate conversations. In response to such curiosity, the publication of “Becoming and being an applied linguist” edited by Rod Ellis brings us a fascinating read that summarizes the individual paths of 13 well-established applied linguists. Through these personal stories, the volume also sheds light upon several general trends in applied linguistics’ own development over the past five decades.

The volume’s introduction serves as an overview of its narrative approach to the history of applied linguistics and its selection of narrators. As the editor notes, the lack of narrative accounts in applied linguistics makes our discussions on crucial theoretical questions (e.g. what is applied linguistics and what are its theoretical boundaries) somewhat de-contextualized. For instance, what factors draw the boundary between an applied linguist and a TESOL professional? What factors make applied linguistics from “linguistics applied” to an independent research field? Personal narratives are extremely useful to answer such questions since their embedded subjective reality often indicates the economic, social, and cultural contexts that give rise to specific subfields of applied linguistics. Regarding the authors of the life histories, the introduction emphasizes that the included applied linguists are of the “old school”; their research tends to focus on language pedagogy, the original direction of applied linguistics. The editor admits that this decision makes the volume neglect the diversification in applied linguistics in recent years; yet, he sees “the narrow focus on language teaching (and testing) as a strength rather than a weakness” (p.9) since it accurately reflects the centrality of language teaching to applied linguistic research.

Following the introduction, the volume presents the life histories of 13 well-established applied linguists: Rod Ellis, Paul Nation, J. Charles Alderson, Peter Skehan, Zoltán Dörnyei, Dana Ferris, Ken Hyland, Patsy M. Lightbown, Simon Borg, Andy Kirkpatrick, Susan Gass, Carol A. Chapelle, and Anne Burns. Each chapter contains an autobiography reviewing its author’s career path and research expertise as well as a personal reflection on what “being an applied linguist” means. Given the enormous anecdotes included in these life histories, my summary below will focus on aspects that will most likely inspire readers.

Chapter 1, “A professional life: Teacher, teacher educator and researcher” by Ellis, introduces his life-long interest in grammar teaching and its role in second language acquisition (SLA). Ellis considers grammar as a central component to the “skill-getting” aspect of SLA and in this chapter, he details how his early teaching experience in Zambia and later working experiences across the world have affirmed his belief in the positive effects of grammar teaching. Ellis’ narrative also sheds light upon the relation between focus on form and communicative approach: the two do not necessarily conflict with each other if the teacher’s grammar syllabus aligns with the learner’s inner syllabus.

In Chapter 2, “A lexical journey”, Paul Nation reviews his career in the teaching and learning of vocabulary. In this life history, Nation describes how his early influencer, H. V. George, demonstrated the potential of corpus linguistics to him, which planted the seed of vocabulary teaching. Later, his overseas teaching experience further inspired him to search practical advices for teachers handling difficult circumstances, which eventually made vocabulary his primary research focus. In the chapter, Nation also discusses how his research and teaching are closely connected with each other; not only have his publications come out of real teaching challenges, they have also served primarily as guides for himself and fellow language teachers.

Chapter 3 “Looking back on a lifetime in language testing” continues with J. Charles Alderson’s discussion of being a language tester. Language testing is often viewed by linguistic novices as an essential, yet somewhat narrow field. To counter this misconception, Alderson uses his life history to show the breadth of language testing and the various research questions this research area deals with. For him, “language testing is central to applied linguistics, because one has to know so much more than mere language testing, and one has to operationalize concepts and theories and literally put them to the test” (p. 67). By discussing many central concepts in language testing (e.g. construct, washback, etc.), this chapter serves as a useful introduction to the field of language testing.

In Chapter 4, “Sidesteps towards applied linguistics: In search of a career”, Peter Skehan describes how a young man majoring in economics and psychology “accidentally” took the career of a TESOL teacher and researcher. The most interesting aspect of Skehan’s story, in my opinion, is his transdisciplinary research path. Skehan attributes many of his research achievements to his earlier training in statistics and psychological experimentation, which have eventually formed his interest in using tasks in language teaching. This story reminds us of the multidisciplinary nature of applied linguistics.

Chapter 5, “From English language teaching to psycholinguistics: A story of three decades” by Zoltán Dörnyei, turns to the early development of psycholinguistics. Known for his research on motivation in SLA, Dörnyei discusses his own motivations throughout his career as a psycholinguist. First, he mentions the frustration from his part-time EFL teaching experience that drove him to start his PHD studies, and then he explains his long-time engagement with psychological aspects of SLA, which ultimately led him to his current research interest on complex dynamic systems.

Chapter 6, “My story: It was always about writing” by Dana Ferris, introduces her experience of being a “blue collar” researcher. Before moving to UC Davis in 2008, Ferris spent most of her career at a teaching-oriented university. This experience has made her research focus lean toward addressing practical questions in classroom settings, which in turn developed her research expertise in feedback mechanisms. Interestingly, in her story, Ferris resists defining her disagreement with Truscott as a “debate”; for her, the discussion is more about “attempting to pursue the best possible answers for a persistently difficult pedagogical question” (p. 149). The most important lesson the reader can learn from Ferris’ story is the potential of everyday teaching practices for inspiring crucial and meaningful research outcomes.

In Chapter 7, “A very peculiar practice”, Ken Hyland focuses on his life-long journey of forming his own academic identity. One surprising finding from Hyland’s story is his early life as an ESL teacher travelling around the world. His engagement with ESL teaching started in Sudan, Saudi Arabia, and Malaysia between 1977 and 1983, was briefly interrupted by an intensive MA, referred to by Hyland as a “Jungle MA”, between 1983 and 1984, and then continued in Saudi Arabia and Papua New Guinea until 1990. It wasn’t until the late 1990s that Hyland began to fully devote himself to academia, gaining reputation in research areas such as hedging and genre studies.

Chapter 8, “From language learner to language learning researcher”, reviews the life history of Patsy M. Lightbown, who was inspired to research SLA by her experience of joining the United States Peace Corps. In the chapter, she provides an interesting account of how she learned Hausa due to her work travels to Nigeria, yet later lost the language due to the lack of context. This experience perhaps contributes to her research interest on language immersion and classroom activity. Lightbown stresses that one important lesson she has learnt from researching different language classrooms is that regardless of the context, the teacher plays a crucial role in getting students excited about learning and helping them to develop skills for learning outside classrooms.

In Chapter 9, “A career in language teacher cognition”, Simon Borg continues with the focus on language teacher with a retrospect of his career in researching teacher cognition. Borg’s story tells how someone living in Malta, a country beyond the scope of the initial boom of applied linguistics could still find a path to becoming an applied linguist. Borg’s story of doing his PhD at a distance is particularly inspiring. Borg also discusses his recent switch from a full professor to a freelance English language teaching consultant, which provides useful suggestions for anyone interested in taking a non-academic career.

Chapter 10, “Happenchance and circumstance”, offers a glimpse into the life history of Andy Kirkpatrick, whose childhood experience of living in Malaya’s multilingual environment shaped his lifelong interest on contrastive rhetoric in profound ways. Unlike other applied linguists featured in the volume, Kirkpatrick focused on Chinese during his undergraduate and graduate studies. This unique perspective later led to his later research on World Englishes and his belief in the benefits of multilingualism.

The influence of encountering a foreign language as a child can be also found in Chapter 11, “The road travelled”, by Susan Gass. Gass’ curiosity in language originated from her first trip to Italy at 17. Her research journey took several detours, and it was not until her move to Milwaukee in 1978 and her subsequent teaching of ESL courses was her research trajectory in SLA established. Gass retells her efforts to make SLA an independent academic field, establish the highly successful SLA PhD program at Michigan State University, and take on an advocacy role by serving as President of the International Association of Applied Linguistics.

Chapter 12, “My two problems in applied linguistics” by Carol A. Chapelle, provides a personal narrative on the development of computer-assisted language learning (CALL). Chapelle overviews how technology in language learning developed from a novel field to a full-fledged one over just three decades. For her, technology provides crucial implications for two aspects of applied linguistics: language learning and language testing.

Finally, in Chapter 13, “Becoming an applied linguist and teacher educator: A ‘brilliant’ career”, Anne Burns shows her journey through the teacher educator-applied linguist nexus. Like many applied linguists in the volume, Burns started as an English teacher, and then turned to postgraduate studies in TESOL when she immigrated to Australia. The postgraduate experience inspired her academic interests and eventually made her into an applied linguist working on teacher training. Burns considers community as crucial for her academic journey, from her early years at the New South Wales Adult Migrant Education Service Community Program to her established career at Macquarie University.

Following Burns’ chapter, the volume ends with a conclusion in which the editor discusses the commonalities shared by these life histories and how these stories indicate the birth of applied linguistics after World War II.


Undoubtedly, this volume presents an extremely helpful and unique addition to existing literature. To my knowledge, the only comparable volume on the market is Belcher and Connor’s (2001) “Reflections on multiliterate lives”. While both volumes feature leading scholars’ summaries of their own careers, those interested in language pedagogy would particularly enjoy the current volume. Given the enormous details included in the volume, my overview above only covers the tip of the iceberg. I would encourage prospective readers to explore the entire volume since each would probably resonate with different aspects of these fascinating stories. As such, the volume would well serve a wide range of audiences, from junior academic researchers to graduate students.

While the editor makes it clear that the volume is only meant to deal with language learning and teaching, I still feel that a broader focus would have further strengthened it. Given its title “Becoming and being an applied linguist”, the volume could have featured additional scholars working on other aspects of applied linguistics, such as critical discourse analysis, applied corpus linguistics, language policy, and professional communication. Indeed, although language pedagogy is still the primary area of inquiry in applied linguistics, it is equally impressive to witness the field’s diversification over the past three decades.

Meanwhile, the volume’s selection of contributors may also raise contention among readers. All the featured linguists are Western scholars working in English-speaking countries. Except for Zoltán Dörnyei, they are also native speakers of English who occupy the “commanding height” of TESOL. After all, to what extent does such a demographic reflect today’s world, in which standard English is continuously challenged by world Englishes? Each reader will have his/her own opinion to question. Interestingly, I find the current volume presents a sharp contrast to Belcher and Connor (2001); the latter intentionally focuses on non-native English speakers who have found their career paths in applied linguistics. For interested readers, the two books will complement each other.

All in all, the volume presents an impressive attempt to uncover the hidden life histories within applied linguistics, and it will inspire future generations of applied linguistics.


Belcher, D. D., & Connor, U. (2001). Reflections on multiliterate lives. Clevedon, ENG; Buffalo, NY: Multilingual Matters.


Sibo Chen is SSHRC Vanier Doctoral Fellow in the School of Communication, Simon Fraser University. His major research interests are language and communication, critical discourse analysis, and genre theories.

Page Updated: 19-Jul-2017