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Review of  Ecology of Language

Reviewer: Anna Gonerko-Frej
Book Title: Ecology of Language
Book Author: Angela Creese Peter W. Martin Nancy H. Hornberger
Publisher: Springer Nature
Linguistic Field(s): Applied Linguistics
Issue Number: 22.3774

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EDITORS: Creese, Angela; Martin, Peter W.; Hornberger, Nancy H.
TITLE: Ecology of Language
SERIES TITLE: Encyclopedia of Language and Education Vol. 9.
YEAR: 2010

Anna Gonerko-Frej, English Department, Szczecin University, Poland.


The ''Ecology of Language'' is a collection of twenty-four articles analyzing some
theoretical aspects of the ecological metaphor in language studies and
describing the complexity of language networks in selected areas.

All chapters are built around a common structure: after a short 'introduction',
the authors move from some historical background in the 'early developments'
section, through the overview of linguistic panorama ('major contributions'),
analysis of current activity ('work in progress'), summary of 'problems and
difficulties' involved, to the final prognosis in 'future directions'.

Section 1, on the historical and theoretical background to the ecological
perspective, opens with a chapter by the great campaigners for linguistic rights
and language equalities, Tove Skuttnabb-Kangas and Robert Phillipson. With a
number of references to historical and contemporary legislation on the issue,
the authors argue for more comprehensive legal protection of languages. The
dangers of subtractive language learning are presented as a threat to diversity
necessary for harmonious biological survival of our planet. Multidisciplinary
focus on LHR (linguistic human rights) is called for and the central role of
education is emphasized in the struggle for the preservation of local and
strategic knowledge encoded in local languages.

Once the reader is comfortably settled with the ecological metaphor, the second
chapter, by John Edwards, upsets the picture, criticizing the 'language ecology'
model as limiting instead of enhancing our understanding of the socio-linguistic
relations. ''The Ecology of language: insight and illusion'' argues against the
biological description of language; the author rejects the approach as of no
practical relevance and obscuring the problems of linguistic diversity. For
Edwards, the 'ecology of language' is simply another political ideological
instrument which does not advance the scientific study. The author criticizes
the 'ecological enterprise' in reference to language as biased and one-sided, in
contrast to the holistic implication of the term 'ecology'. In the chapter, the
language ecology model is presented as ''deeply flawed'' and the advocates of
linguistic rights are said to replace one demagogy with another. The campaign
for linguistic rights, according to Edwards, has to be relegated to an element
of the much more general problem of pluralistic societies, with the suggestions
of replacing 'rights' with 'claims', and placing them within the moral rather
than legal realm. Edwards discredits the lists of advantages of the
ecology-of-language model (Skuttnabb-Kangas 2000, Phillipson 1992, or
Mühlhäusler 1996) as largely ''naïve'', ''questionable'', ''unoriginal' or
''truistic''. Sceptical views on the problems of linguistic imperialism seem
typical for a representative of the 'inner circle'. In the same manner, Edwards
warns against making education and literacy responsible for cultural endangering
of minor languages (''villains''). Consequently, he also discards the romantic
views on minor languages and cultures, as ''harmful and unrealistic'', to
emphasise the benefits of standard international language.

In chapter 3, ''Language ecology and language ideology'', Adrian Blackledge gives
an overview of the major applications of the ecological paradigm by Haugen
(1972), Fill and Mühlhäusler (2001), Hornberger (2002), Ricento (2000, 2006),
and refers to the related linguistic rights issue (Skuttnabb-Kangas 2000 and
Phillipson 1992). Blackledge focuses on the interrelation of language ideology
and politics, problematising national identity issues, linked to previous
scholarly debates and discussions of speech communities. The role of educational
policies in supporting identity through language policies is discussed and
Bourdieu's (1990, 1998) analysis of symbolic value of language is presented.
Blackledge summarizes May's position on the interplay of language and identity
(2004, 2005) and refers to the Irvine and Gal studies of language practice
(1995). The chapter finishes with suggestions of future research directions; the
work of Gal (2006), May (2004), Creese and Martin (2003) or Stevenson and
Mar-Malinero (2006) point towards research on multilingual practices, linguistic
complementarity. On the whole, Blackledge's chapter is mostly an overview of
major research in the area of ecology and ideology of language, past and
present, and the presentation of key research ideas.

For Robert B. Kaplan and Richard Baldauf (chapter 4), the ecology perspective
helps to present language policy in the context of mutual interaction of
languages, inside and across polities. Changes to language ecology, brought
about by missionary activities (language spread or translation necessary for
religious instruction), colonization or economic globalization (English) have
become a frequent problem of modern times. Kaplan and Baldauf use the language
context of Japan to illustrate the intricate mix of languages in one country.
Language planners are warned not to ignore the whole context of language
relations and influences; the biological metaphor proves useful in the analysis,
even if not totally appropriate.

Section 1 closes with Leo van Lier's ''The ecology of language learning and
sociocultural theory''. Drawing on the work of Vygotsky (1997) and J. Gibson
(1979), van Lier relates the theories of perception to language learning. He
tries to show 'identity' and 'self' as separate concepts, with sociocultural and
ecological argumentation. Neisser's (1988) typology of self-knowledge is used to
distinguish between 'the perceived self' and 'the reflected self', to draw
analogies to language development later, with central prominence given to
perception and action. For more comprehensive application in language learning,
Van Lier emphasizes the need to supplement Neisser's model with the emotional
sphere and orientation to the future. He views second language learning as the
perception and action in the new 'languaculture', accompanied by the development
of new 'voice'. Consequently, the active acquisition of a new language should be
supported by the appropriate 'pedagogical scaffolding', which van Lier
encourages on three levels: macro, meso and micro. Both the ecological and
sociocultural framework allow one to mark out the appropriate guidelines.

Having provided the historical and theoretical framework, the book moves on to
discuss particular language ecologies of selected areas (Section 2). Sandra Kipp
describes the situation of Australian community languages, placing emphasis on
changing governmental policies, inconsistent data, educational provisions,
language shifts and changing hierarchy of languages. Throughout the history of
the country, LOTEs (languages other than English) have been submitted to varied
treatment: from a laissez faire approach, through enforced monolingualism,
abuse, disregard, to partial recognition and state support of community
languages. The data on multilingualism is not consistent or comprehensive; the
language question appeared on the National Census in 1976, was excluded from the
1981 census and reformulated in 1986 to refer only to languages used ''in the
home''. Kipp includes 4 tables with statistics on top community languages between
1976-2001, use of languages by 0-14 year-olds, language shift in 2001 and 1996
and the languages in schools. Cultural distance, values, group cohesion and
geographical concentration are indicated as contributing to the multilingualism
of Australia. A number of case studies are quoted, building a clear picture of
LOTEs in the country. The author considers the providers of language programmes
(regular day schools, schools of languages and after-hours ethnic schools),
language examinations, language maintenance and the relative position of
languages conditioned by factors such as stringent assessment, language status
or economic significance. Still, with 43 languages examinable and more than 200
languages used, Australia is a useful model of rich and changing linguistic

Andy Chebanne traces the historical marginalization of the major languages of
Southern Africa’s original inhabitants: the Khoe and the San. A complex
situation of numerous other languages in the area is illustrated, with the
examples of languages disappearing, dying, threatened, surviving, rejected or
codified and standardized to assist in maintenance. The educational policy of
Singapore is shown to have shaped its current linguistic mix, with 4 official
languages, English as the teaching medium, and some moves towards changes of
school policies (Anthea Gupta). In Arturo Tosi's analysis, Italy emerges as a
battleground of local dialects with the instrumental imposition of a national
language. Yasir Suleiman focuses on phonological aspects of language change in
Jordan, with reference to the gender factor; a ''sex-based account'' of language
shift or switch. Luis Lopez emphasizes the need for curriculum diversification
in Latin America, repositioning of orality in education and the indigenous view
of a ''language in life''.

The various panoramas of the linguistic mosaic in different places in the world
demonstrate some similarities -- the role of language in creating national
bonds, promotion of lingua francas, ''stigmatization of local dialects, called
'weeds''' (Arturo Tosi), language evolution, shift or death.

The linguistic ecology of diasporas is dealt with in a separate section (3).
James Collins describes the situation in the Malay world. In his appeal for a
thorough study of endangered languages of the Malay, Collins emphasizes the
complexity of language choice in the area. Shuhan C. Wang, examining the
position of the Chinese language in the US, shows the American language policies
as mostly monolingual, prioritizing assimilation rather than pluralism, ignoring
real language needs. Peter G. Sercombe, in his study of the language problems of
the Penan in Borneo, exposes the mechanisms of stigmatizing the local language.
Jacomine Nortier focuses on the Moroccan minority in the Netherlands to question
acculturation into Dutch as a way of managing identity problems.

The different pedagogical ways of addressing local language ecologies are
presented in Section 4. Margie Probyn writes about the choice of school language
in South Africa and its social reasons and consequences. Alexandra Jaffe reports
on her fieldwork in a bilingual school in Corsica, considering the role of a
polynomic practice in legitimating linguistic variety. Yasoko Kanno studies the
relatively recent issue of foreign nationals in Japan requiring Japanese
instruction. The code-switching practices and battles of ideologies in bilingual
classrooms in Brunei are described by Mukul Saxena. Angela Creese and Peter
Martin choose a case study of a Gujarati complementary school in England, to
look at ''bilingual and bicultural spaces in an institutional context''.

The final section (5) groups articles on the ecology of literacies. Nancy
Hornberger refers to her model of 'continua of biliteracy' to demonstrate its
practicality and usefulness in the ecological framework of study. The literacy
practices of the inhabitants of Hong Kong are the subject of Angel M.Y. Lin's
work. Kat Pahl gives an overview of research (past and present) on the ecologies
of language and literacies in homes, schools and communities, emphasising the
importance of theoretical frameworks of Bourdieu and Foucault.

The book closes with a chapter on digital literacies (by Karin Tusting). The
major contributors to the ecological perspective on the multimodal, interactive,
new literacies are presented; the summary of their work illustrates the changing
nature of learning and knowledge construction.


It is interesting that in a book devoted to the ecological paradigm there is a
place for critical and sceptical evaluation of the usefulness or validity of the
approach. Contrasting the strong views of campaigners for the maintenance of
linguistic biodiversity (Skuttnab-Kangas, Phillipson) with sceptical comments on
the illusory and misleading value of organic description of languages (John
Edwards) in the first chapters forces the reader to re-think the ideology and be
cautious in drawing further analogies. Alternating enthusiastic and critical
stances from the very beginning encourages much more involved reading. Hence,
the subsequent analysis of various linguascapes inspires different comments and
future prognosis.

The variety of problems linked to language ecology help to expose the
multiplicity of possible approaches. At the same time, however, the breadth of
the multidisciplinary view can be quite inhibiting. In just the five
introductory chapters the reader has to reflect on topics such as: nationalism,
social symbolism, sociocultural theory, psychological ideas, modes of seeing and
perception typology of self-knowledge, identity problems, pedagogical
scaffolding, legal formulations, political ideology biodiversity, educational
politics, economic conditioning, discourse analysis, and language planning.

The danger of the spread of English is clearly demonstrated throughout, although
significantly downplayed by the British contributor to the volume.

Newcomers to the field can find a good summary of relevant research, as all the
chapters are rich in references to previous studies of the problem. On the other
hand, the long sequences of names and dates at times make it difficult to grasp
the ideas of the author. To give due credit to the research done, the scholars
break the sentences so often that the reader is lost trying to grasp the
message. However, some chapters, especially in the section devoted to particular
case studies, offer a welcome respite from the abundance of scholarly references
by providing an interesting and clear comment and prognosis, easy to follow also
to those without the necessary academic slant.

The common scaffolding of all chapters organizes the content of the chapters
along the same lines; the reader knows what to expect, can compare particular
sections (though there are occasional diversions). This predictable routine can
be both useful and tiring, sometimes leaving the impression that the authors,
forced into identical structure, were limited in their creative approaches.
Still, they manage to attract the readers' attention with their topic and style;
e.g. Arturo Tosi's chapter on Italy is full of inspiring and poetical ideas,
expressed in thought-provoking phrases.

For readers eager to see the practical implications of scholarly debates, the
great value of the book lies in the references to education policies and
planning. Most chapters refer to language curriculum or the impact of compulsory
education and the school system.

Whether the ecological metaphor seems more or less adequate or appealing, the
book provides enough interesting material to problematise linguistic diversity
in a context conducive to the awareness of the linguistic richness of our globe
and the importance of the survival of the fittest and the weakest for
preservation of the planet which needs to speak with a variety of voices. The
educational sector needs to respond appropriately.


Bourdieu, Pierre. 1990. The Logic of Practice. Polity Press, Cambridge.

Bourdieu, Pierre. 1998. Practical Reason. Polity Press, London.

Creese, Angela and Peter Martin (eds.). 2003. Multilingual Classroom Ecologies.
Multilingual Matters, Clevendon.

Fill, Alwin and Peter Mühlhäusler. 2001. The Ecolinguistics Reader: Language,
Ecology, and Environment. Continuum, London.

Foucault, Michel. 2002. Archaeology of Knowledge. Trans. A.M. Sheridan Smith.
Routledge, London.

Gal, Susan And Irvine, Judith. 1995. The boundaries of language and disciplines:
How ideologies construct difference. Social Research 62(4), 967-1001.

Gal, S. 2006. Migration, minorities and multilingualism: Language ideologies in
Europe. In C. Mar-Malinero and P. Stevens (eds.), Language Ideologies, Policies
and Practices. Language and the Future of Europe. Palgrave Macmillan,
Basingstoke, 13-27.

Gibson, J.J. 1979. The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception. Erlbaum,
Hillsdale, NJ.

Haugen, Einar. 1972. The Ecology of Language. Stanford University Press,
Stanford, CA.

Hornberger, Nancy. 2002. Multilingual language policies and the continua of
biliteracy. Language Policy 1, 27-51.

May, Stephen. 2004. Rethinking linguistic human rights. Answering questions of
identity, essentialism and mobility. In J. Freel and D. Patrick (eds.) Language
Rights and Language Survival. St. Jerome, Manchester, 35-54.

May, Stephen. 2005. Language Rights; Moving the debate forward. Journal of
Sociolinguistics 9(3), 319-347.

Mühlhäusler, Peter. 1996. Linguistic Ecology. Language Change and Linguistic
Imperialism in the Pacific Region. Routledge. London.

Neisser, U. 1988. Five kinds of self-knowledge. Philosophical Psychology 1, 35-39.

Phillipson, Robert. 1992. Linguistic Imperialism. Oxford University Press, Oxford.

Ricento, Thomas. 2000. Historical and theoretical perspectives in language
policy and planning. Journal of Sociolinguistics 4(2), 196-213.

Ricento, Thomas. 2006. Americanization, language ideologies and the construction
of European identities. In C. Mar-Moilnero and P. Stevens (eds.) Language
Ideologies, Policies and Practices. Language and the Future of Europe. Palgrave
Macmillan, Basingstoke, 44-57.

Skuttnabb-Kangas, Tove. 2000. Linguistic Genocide in Education -- Or Worldwide
Diversity and Human Rights? Lawrence Erlbaum, Mahwah, NJ.

Stevenson, Patrick and Mar-Molinero, Clare (eds.). 2006. Language Ideologies,
Policies and Practices. Language and the Future of Europe. Palgrave Macmillan,

Vygotsky, Lev S. 1997. Collected Works. Volume 4, Plenum Press, New York.

Dr. Anna Gonerko-Frej is the Head of the English Department at Szczecin University, Poland. She is a teacher trainer, language teacher, textbook consultant and a researcher. Her main areas of interest are linguistic imperialism, culture in language teaching, intercultural learning, language policy and identity issues in language.