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Review of  Controversies in Applied Linguistics

Reviewer: David Deterding
Book Title: Controversies in Applied Linguistics
Book Author: Barbara Seidlhofer
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Linguistic Field(s): Applied Linguistics
Issue Number: 16.623

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Date: Wed, 2 Mar 2005 22:04:25 +0800
From: David Deterding
Subject: Controversies in Applied Linguistics

EDITOR: Seidlhofer, Barbara
TITLE: Controversies in Applied Linguistics
PUBLISHER: Oxford University Press
YEAR: 2003

David Deterding, NIE/NTU, SingaporeOVERVIEW

This book collects together a range of articles that engage in lively
debate over various issues connected with applied linguistics. In each of
the five sections, there is first an overview by the editor, Barbara
Seidlhofer, to provide some background for the controversy that is dealt
with in that section, then the full texts of the articles which
contributed to the debate are reprinted from the journals they originally
appeared in, and finally there are substantial suggestions for further
reading for those who want to pursue the issue in more detail.

The five controversies covered are:

the status of English as a global language;
the use of corpora in language teaching;
the nature of critical discourse analysis;
second language acquisition; and
the scope and nature of applied linguistics itself.

In a sense, most of these different strands touch on one central issue:
the increasingly dominant role of English throughout the world, as an
overriding concern is that the status of English brings with it a heavy
dose of cultural imperialism. Some of the questions that arise as a result
are: Is this imperialism exacerbated by the use of genuine corpus-based
materials? What can language teachers do to teach English successfully
without imposing a British or American ideology on the rest of the world?
And do applied linguists have a duty always to address their subject
within a social context and thereby promote a radical agenda that seeks to
eliminate the evils of imperialism and racism, or can research on the
subject be pursued independently from its social context?

The first controversy, addressing the status of English in the world,
starts with a debate between Randolph Quirk and Braj Kachru about whether
there is a single English standard or we should tolerate and even promote
multiple standards. It then progresses to two sub-strands connected with
the perceived imperialism of English. In the first one, there is a
spirited debate between Robert Phillipson and a group of international
students who had negative reactions after reading his book on linguistic
imperialism as part of their graduate seminar at Purdue University. And
finally there is a heated exchange when Phillipson berates David Crystal
for evading his duty to give greater consideration to the social and
political consequences of the worldwide spread of English in his book on
English as a global language.

The second controversy discusses the use of corpus-based materials in
language teaching. Ronald Carter advocates focusing on genuine data,
arguing that it is condescending to suggest that foreign learners cannot
handle such materials, and furthermore that avoidance of real language
data condemns learners to achieving only a mediocre level of proficiency,
forever preventing them from gaining access to the inner circle of native
speakers. But others, including Luke Prodromou and Guy Cook, stress that
real, corpus-based materials with all their pauses, mis-starts, and
overlapping speech, are not always the most appropriate materials for
teaching, and furthermore that corpus data are generally completely
embedded in the cultural context they occurred in, so if we really want to
promote English as a world language divorced from its historical ties with
Britain and America, we should be adopting locally appropriate materials
in each part of the world.

The third controversy considers the nature of discourse analysis, with
Henry Widdowson suggesting that the subject is inevitably so tightly
linked with a political standpoint and so committed to changing the world
that it is difficult to maintain any of the objectivity that is essential
for an academic discipline. But Henry Fairclough defends the field,
emphasising that commitment to a social or political standpoint can often
enhance the value of the insights into the biases that exist in texts.

In the fourth controversy, Alan Firth and Johannes Wagner argue that too
much of the focus of research into second language acquisition has been
based in psycholinguistics, investigating the cognitive development of the
individual, and too little has taken a holistic, sociological perspective,
considering the environment for learning. Furthermore, they contend that
too much research has used experimental settings, to the detriment of
naturalistic investigations, and that too little consideration has been
given to studying strategies which achieve successful communication that
sometimes proceeds quite adequately even when it contains what some people
might regard as 'errors'. In response, a number of scholars, including
Michael Long and Nanda Poulisse, argue that research methods with
controlled variables are essential for rigorous research that produces
replicable results, and furthermore that many of the interactions
investigated in experimental settings can be generalised to real-life

Finally, the fifth controversy considers the nature of applied linguistics
itself, a field that sometimes seems exceptionally broad and rather
amorphous. Should it represent a meeting place for scholars from all
disciplines concerned with practical aspects of language? Or should it
have its own specialist research agenda? Ben Rampton argues for the
interdisciplinary approach, that applied linguistics should be "socially
constituted" and thus belong to all the different fields that have an
interest in language, while Henry Widdowson argues that this approach
would merely generate chaotic confusion, a free-for-all cacophony of
unfocused ideas, and instead he insists that in order to achieve academic
rigour, applied linguistics must have its own dedicated theoretical
methodology, and furthermore it must abide by the guidance of
authoritative experts.


This book provides an extraordinarily well-crafted resource for students
and scholars who want convenient access to key materials that have
contributed to some of the important debates in applied linguistics over
the past fifteen years. The structure of the book, with its collation of
the full texts of the articles preceded in each section by a carefully
written introduction that provides a helpful context for the controversy
and then followed by extensive suggestions for further reading, will
certainly prove exceptionally valuable to many, many readers.

Of course, there is quite a range in the style of the articles. Some of
them, particularly involving Phillipson's contributions regarding
linguistic imperialism, get quite antagonistic, so that occasionally more
heat than light is generated, while at the opposite extreme some of the
other debates, such as that between Carter and Cook on the use of corpora
in language teaching, maintain a rather more measured tone, with the
participants taking great pains to show respect to each other and stress
that there is much that they agree about. While many readers will remain
sceptical about Carter's assertion that learners of English "are generally
fascinated by the culturally-embedded use of language of native speakers"
(p. 97) (do other people really care very much about how the English order
their fish and chips?), it is heartening to note that some of the clearest
insights from the topics covered in this book emerge from the discussion
on the use of corpora, which confirms that it is not necessary to engage
in rather unpleasant personal attacks for valuable progress to be achieved
in a debate. No doubt Phillipson would argue that the dominant threat of
linguistic imperialism is such a vital issue in the world today that
adopting a measured, respectful approach is not appropriate and that it is
only by aggressively attacking those who are perceived to be defending
this hegemony of English that one can hope to achieve anything in the
struggle against the new imperialism. I remain unconvinced.

Inevitably, the clarity of the articles also varies quite considerably.
Rampton presents his arguments in what is undoubtedly an erudite and
highly sophisticated style, but there is much in his contributions that
even Widdowson admits he cannot understand. However, the message of most
of the materials does emerge clearly, in general providing us with
exceptionally valuable insights into some of the important issues that
have concerned the field of applied linguistics in recent years. My one
rather minor criticism of this book is that the date of publication of
each article is not shown with the text itself but only at the front of
the volume, which is a pity as this information is really quite important
in evaluating the role of each contribution. But this is rather a minor
gripe and it does not seriously detract from the excellence of this fine


David Deterding is an Associate Professor at NIE/NTU, Singapore, where he
teaches phonetics, phonology, syntax, and Chinese-English translation.

Format: Paperback
ISBN: 0194374440
ISBN-13: N/A
Pages: 346
Prices: U.K. £ 22.05