Linguistics for L2 Teachers
Larry Andrews (2001)
Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates
Pp. xvii + 146
ISBN 0-8058-3818-X (paper)
Linguistics for L2 Teachers is especially addressed to teachers of English as a second/foreign language. As the author adequately remarks, in the U.S. (but not only there) many ESL teachers have little or no training in pedagogical subjects, cross-cultural pragmatics, or even in the systematic study of the English language. It is for this professional group--and for their students--that the book is designed, with the purpose of increasing awareness of how the language works and consequently expanding the set of linguistic tools available "to do things with words" (Austin, 1962). The text is not a thorough curriculum in English linguistics, but the author suggests that it may be used either as a textbook in teaching programs or as a self-study instrument.
Each chapter in the book follows the same format, consisting of a pre-reading activity meant to stimulate responses in the teacher and to elicit further reflections on a specific topic, and a closing, post-reading activity where topics are proposed to facilitate discussion among students. Some of the activities are reading guidelines which help the reader clarify certain topics and retain concepts more easily. Other tasks are more interactive and stimulate students to apply the theoretical knowledge they have acquired to practical situations.
The author himself explains that there is no glossary, but he has limited the use of technical jargon to a minimum--which is not always a happy choice--and has always provided a good definition and plenty of examples to illustrate a newly introduced concept.
The basic assumption that lies at the core of the whole work is that language is not a set of mechanical rules but a decision-making activity in which speakers have to tailor their utterances to meet their ultimate purpose. [-1-]
Chapter 1 is devoted to the basic features of communication. Before delving into the subject matter, Andrews briefly recalls how many disciplines act in an ancillary role to language teaching: on the one hand psycholinguistics opens up illuminating insights into the topics of language acquisition; the interface between language and the brain; and brain damage, aphasia in particular. On the other, language does not exist in a vacuum, but is concerned with action in a variety of different social contexts. This is in fact the object of sociolinguistics. Although both perspectives inevitably merge into one another, the predominant stance in this book is a sociolinguistic one, because this ties in with the main aim of the author, which is to enhance the expertise of English learners in a wide range of social situations. The rest of the chapter focuses on various theories on the origin of languages, here presented in a much-simplified version and referred to by way of nicknames. It may be perfectly acceptable to present a reduced version of some complex and still unresolved linguistic issues, but the choice to use nicknames is indeed objectionable. Students of English or linguistics will sooner or later come across the actual theories and will have to recognize them by their true technical names. The purpose of such a presentation is, however, to show how different approaches to language all agree on a definition of language as the principal instrument of communication among human beings. Various examples are then presented to illustrate how communication can be further analyzed into different modes, such as interactional vs. transactional, intentional vs. inferential. Displacement and arbitrariness are singled out as the most representative features of human communication in comparison with other systems of communication, such as, for example, animal codes (e.g., bees' waggle dance). Humans can in fact refer to events that are not necessarily included in the situation of utterance and do so because of the symbolic quality of their communicative medium. Furthermore, in contrast to animal communication, human language is not invariable but is subject to diachronic, diatopic, diastratic, and diamesic changes (changes across time, across place, across level, and across medium of communication).
In the second chapter the author scrutinizes the problem of the arbitrariness of language in more detail, combining interesting and disparate remarks on language, such as the ancient debate contained in Plato's Cratylus and Humpty Dumpty's credo on meaning. He then cursorily examines all the instruments men rely on to form new words (e.g., coinage, derivation, borrowing, compounding, blending, clipping, conversion, the use of acronyms) and shows some of the changes that words have undergone through time, with cases of specialization and generalization, drawing the conclusion that English is a very productive language. Yet words, similarly to culture, are not exempt from fashion and thereby flow from popularity into oblivion. Fortunately, dictionaries keep a record of how lexis changes through time, providing an etymological account, apart from giving instructions concerning usage.
The well-known difference between use and usage (first pointed out by Widdowson, 1978) is the object of chapter 3, where the author insists on the importance of teaching how to produce communicatively successful utterances and not only grammatically acceptable ones. The same criterion of communicative effectiveness is to be adopted in correcting mistakes; it is sensible to correct them whenever they seriously impair communication, especially when they occasion troublesome social awkwardness. Students of English should also be made aware that grammar is not to be envisaged as a set of rigid rules, such as in the tradition of pedagogical and prescriptive grammars, but as a strategic means to communicate coherently (Givón 1993). Variations in language usage do not boil down to grammatical correctness, but depend instead on situational variables such as the speaker/hearer relationship, the speaker's purpose, the appropriateness to the context of utterance, and so forth. Consequently there is no such thing as "good English," but many possible languages, each suitable to a specific communicative context. [-2-]
In chapter 4 social conventions are discussed at length through a series of examples taken from everyday life. Cross-cultural variations are pointed out in telephone conversations, where American and British rituals differ to a great extent both in familiar and formal contexts. The author also shows that social conventions are mirrored in the way conversational exchanges are articulated: adjacency pairs (greetings/greetings, question/answer, etc.) are in fact conventional linguistic patterns that reflect social routines. Despite their formulaic nature, adjacency pairs are the "paste" of social interaction and whenever they are not attended to, the implicit "covenant" which holds among individuals is broken. Likewise, a principle of cooperation is to be presupposed as the basis of conversation. Whenever the conversational maxims postulated by Grice (1975) are violated, the cooperative principle is still at work and meaning is communicated more covertly (cf. the notion of implicatures). Contextual or shared knowledge among co-speakers makes it possible to derive implicatures.
American English is the topic of chapter 5, where Andrews starts by pointing out that all individuals speak or write in their own fashion; this type of variation falls within the scope of idiolectal varieties. The definition of what standard English is meant to be is somewhat problematic. Languages, the author emphasizes, are not static objects, but fluctuate according to several variables. Therefore standard English is often considered the set of correct pronunciation, grammatical, and lexical choices. In this case the attribute "standard" means that it encompasses the widest range of options because it has been forged to fit almost any communicative situation. Someone regards standard English as the most efficient and convenient variety for any occasion. This strange linguistic object corresponds more or less to the variety which is taught and learnt at school and used by intellectuals (e.g., writers and TV speakers). Some questions necessarily arise from these reflections: Are regional variations acceptable? Is there a variety which is "more standard" than the others? The criterion used to verify whether two varieties are the same language or not is the mutual intelligibility of their speakers. Hence phonological, grammatical, and lexical variations are of no consequence provided that people understand each other. This does not necessarily mean that each variety has the same social repute. Some sociolects are in fact viewed more favorably than others because of the cultural background they presuppose. It is here that Andrews comes back to some historical-linguistic considerations and explains the composite nature of American English vocabulary, noticing that changes are often driven by cultural attitudes and fashion more than by real needs. [-3-]
The last chapter in the book deals with the more general topic of semantics, more specifically how many types of meaning there are. Starting from the premise that meaning is not in words but in people, Andrews draws a distinction between intensional and extensional meaning, which he calls internal and external respectively. He goes further and establishes a third equation, matching intension with connotation and extension with denotation. This loose use of terminology risks creating confusion in a very difficult topic. Intension and extension are two categories which were employed by Carnap (1947) in logical semantics to reconsider a much disputed distinction among various aspects of meaning. Two utterances p and q have the same extension if and only if they are either both true or both false, or in Frege's terms they have the same Bedeutung (Frege, 1892). The notion of intention was instead meant to encompass the cognitive aspect of meaning that Frege called Sinn. The same two utterances p and q have the same intention if they are true in the same circumstances. The couplet connotation/denotation was first used in philosophy of language, but does not correspond tout court to Frege's Sinn/Bedeutung opposition. The result of having reduced such a complex subject to a few lines is therefore rather perplexing. Andrews closes off on some considerations on the level of semantic abstraction/precision in the language and the phenomenon of euphemism, which he considers one of the most difficult conventional techniques to learn in social etiquette.
While I fully endorse the conception of language which the author puts forward in the book, I have some reservations about its readership. The tone is definitely too off-hand for the volume to be addressed to professionals, but on the other hand it does not address students either. This is actually the source of all the drawbacks in the book. In fact, although the writing is sometimes engaging, especially thanks to the personal anecdotes the author reports about, this sometimes make him stray from the path so that issues are not fully dealt with and have to be taken up again in later chapters. Another defect crops up in the activities because they sometimes seem to presuppose knowledge or acquaintance with theoretical points that have not been previously introduced or explained in detail. The space devoted to certain pervasive phenomena in language is often extremely reduced. This is for instance the case of terms of address, which have been scantily treated, and most of all that of euphemism, which is extremely simplified and dismissed too abruptly. The latter topic is on the contrary very interesting, especially because euphemism and other similar rhetorical strategies such as understatement, irony, and mitigation are said to be typical features of the English language and culture (cf. the analysis of politeness requirements across different languages and cultures in Brown and Levinson, 1987).
On the whole the book is useful, but if its primary audience had been defined more clearly, perhaps the result would have been more fruitful. As I read it I asked myself many times whether it was really addressed to teachers. The activities are sometimes general and neither meant for classroom implementation nor for self-study.
Austin, J. L. (1962). How to do things with words. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
Brown, P. & Levinson, S. (1987). Politeness phenomena. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Carnap, R. (1947). Meaning and necessity. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press. [-4-]
Frege, G. (1892). Über Sinn und Bedeutung. Zeitschrift für Philosophie und philosophische Kritik, C, 25-50.
Givón, T. (1993). English grammar: A function-based introduction. Amsterdam & Philadelphia: John Benjamins.
Grice, H. P. (1975). Logic and conversation. In P. Cole & J. Morgan (Eds.). Syntax and semantics, Vol. 3: Speech acts. New York: Academic Press. Pp. 41-54.
Widdowson, H. (1978). Teaching language as communication. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
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