Review of Davies, A. (1999), An Introduction to Applied Linguistics,
Edinburgh University Press, 178 pages

SLA Topics   

SLA Bibliography 

  Vivian Cook  

This book is the flagship for a series that aims to cover the area of applied linguistics at Master's level, according to the editor's introduction. It introduces the series 'by surveying the field of applied linguistics as practiced today'. It is indeed hard to find single-volume introductions to applied linguistics since the days of Corder (1973) or van Els, Bongaerts, Extra, van Os and Janssen-van Dieten (1984), though other books are in the pipe-line, for example Steven McDonough's Applied Linguistics Today, perhaps because few writers have the nerve to try and encompass such a wide-ranging and contentious discipline within a single book.

Chapter 1 discusses the thorny problem of the nature of applied linguistics, in particular its relationship to linguistics ending with a comparison of applied linguistics and linguistics applied, basically seeing applied linguistics in the Edinburgh tradition of solutions to practical problems. Chapter 2 describes some of the problems that applied linguists have tried to present solutions to, starting by arguing for the value of experience and listing the scientific commissions of AILA; it then gives five examples: language-programme evaluation in India, general views of literacy, pedagogical grammar by Keith Mitchell, work-place communication in England in the 1970s and critical pedagogy looking at education in a wider socio-cultural perspective. There are four examples of development and research in language assessment (Australian modern language teaching and the unitary competence hypothesis), language planning (national policy in Australia, the status of dialects), the language teaching curriculum (the Bangalore Project, communicative competence), and second language acquisition (lexical acquisition, the optimum age). Chapter 3 concentrates on the position of English in India, the issues of language and gender, and impairment within clinical linguistics. Chapter 4 is about the questions of language teaching/learning that applied linguistics can address. Starting by discussing whether language teaching is the main area of applied linguistics. It looks at the problem of the optimum age start in the context of French in a Melbourne Ladies' College, English in schools in Nepal, and immersion education in Canada, pointing out the multiple factors that need to be taken into account. It describes a project evaluating the many factors involved in the ELTS. It gives four examples where applied linguistics is directly relevant to language teaching /learning: second language acquisition (errors), language proficiency testing, language for specific purposes, curriculum design. Chapter 5 is about questions of language use. The discussion of language correctness looks at issues of grammar and of social appropriateness, concluding that applied linguists are a bridge between 'language expertise' and the skills of the specific area. Forensic linguistics shows how applied linguistics contributed to two Australian court cases. Artificial languages are reviewed with the conclusion they are 'both flawed and irrelevant to the solution of language problems'. Chapter 6 looks at applied linguistics as a profession through MA courses, lists of journals and the use of ethics. Chapter 7 connects applied linguistics with modern trends, particularly to critical discourse analysis, and sees diversification as the signs of a growing profession.

The first question is then the extent to which the book fits current MA level courses. Immediately one is up against the lack of uniformity in applied linguistics at MA level and the changes in MAs over the past few years. Due to pressures from research bodies many MA courses in the UK have had to become introductions to research rather than contributions to professional careers. The days are gone when most MA courses were conceived as a rung on the ladder for an EFL teacher, even though some non-British students still come to them for this reason. Courses have had to become more 'academic', to involve dissertations rather than examinations, and to include research design etc. The book here seems to have an insufficiently academic hard core for such MAs; issues are introduced and discussed briefly but without the research background, for example the question of optimum age. The book does not then introduce the subject as a strict academic discipline, compared say to an introduction in a similar cross-disciplinary subject such as Cross-cultural Psychology (Berry et al, 1992), nor does it cater for the language teacher student. It is valuable more as an account of the views and experiences of an expert on the types of issues he has been concerned with. As such, it may motivate the students, even if its lengthy discussion of the nature of applied linguistics may put them off.

The book brings coherence to applied linguistics by seeing it as a problem-solving activity. Society poses language-related problems; the applied linguist suggests possible solutions. The problems are mostly to do with language in the curriculum, whether language teaching, testing or the educational values of language. Applied linguistics equips applied linguists to go out in the world to solve these problems; it is training the Magnificent Seven to go out as hired guns to help the oppressed peasants. We can then ask how many of these roving experts there are and how successful they have been. I doubt there are a handful of applied linguists in the world of this type, the author being one of them, and virtually all have been concerned with EFL in one shape or form, hired by quasi-governmental agencies. How will the hundreds of MA students every year manage to enter the profession? One answer is that they carry out the problem-solving aspect as moonlighting to their normal career of training applied linguists. Another answer is that they go back to language teaching and occasionally try to bring introduce elements of applied linguistics into their work. A third solution is to shelve the problem by going on to Ph.D. level research. In other words, if the teaching of applied linguistics is vocational (p.14), there have to be sufficient job prospects. But, if this book gives a fair idea of the scope of applied linguistics in forty years, there are only a few proper applied linguists, plus some academics in teaching jobs who spend a proportion of their time on it as their research area.

The problems for applied linguists to tackle need to be sufficiently worthwhile to justify the training and salary for these professionals. Language is the central fact of human life, part of the genetic modification that allowed us to see the world from others' perspectives. Applied linguistics as described here is not concerned with the origin of language in the species, is uninterested in how children learn their first language apart from literacy, resolutely rejects discoveries about the nature and description of language itself, claiming that 'The linguistic view is the laboratory one, the applied view is the real world view'(p.96). It has no contact with the computer, does not care how people interact with each other apart from gender roles, has no interest in how people process or remember language, and is interested in politics only as Marxism and postmodernism. Is this indeed the real world? However well-researched these answers may be, they seem marginal to the position of language within a society or an individual.

This may under-estimate the impact of applied linguistics on the world. In the UK two major policy decisions in education have been the National Curriculum for modern languages which has laid down the pattern of language teaching for a decade and the CRE report on discrimination in education in Calderdale, which led to the mainstreaming of non-native children. In neither case can one discern input from applied linguists, even if they were indeed consulted; certainly their influence is not cited here. Applied linguistics seems to have had little impact on major decisions about language in any society in the world. Yet in its early days there were high hopes; the Halliday project on Scientific English Communication aimed to help scientists communicate better; the Halliday reading scheme Breakthrough to Literacy provided an important new way of teaching reading, unfortunately arriving a few years earlier than the computer that could handle it efficiently. Perhaps the only event that had world-wide repercussions for language teaching was the communicative syllabus, which is hardly mentioned in this book; this was successfully sold to the rest of the world for many years and represented a genuine applied linguistics innovation. Ideally applied linguists may want to help with human problems with language. But mostly people do not turn to them for help; they go to speech therapists, lawyers, Members of Parliament, psychologists, social workers etc.

It is also difficult to pin down what the expertise of this applied linguist consists of. Frequently we are told it is not linguistics; applied linguistics 'seems not to fit into the list of linguistic sub-disciplines' (p.5). Yet, if you're going to deal with language, you presumably need some descriptive tools to look at it and some overall way of handling its many different aspects - sounds, letters, structures, words, processes, etc. This book manages without any technical descriptive terms for language; how can an introduction to a serious discipline provide no tools for handling its subject matter? Applied linguistics stands on its own feet and draws on any necessary discipline. Yet many language-related disciplines are untapped; hardly any research or theories in psychology and cross-cultural psychology, sociology, language teaching methodology, bilingualism research, or computational analysis of corpora, etc. What is left seems to be a mixture of educational research, discourse analysis and academic politics.

In some ways then this book is an essay on the nature of applied linguistics. As such it is a good introduction to the soul-searching endemic in this field. Applied linguistics has defined itself as a discipline concerned with some areas of education and of power relationships. If you want to know more about, say, second language acquisition, you would not go to meetings of BAAL but to the biennial International Symposium on Bilingualism or the annual meetings of EUROSLA. In other words the non-specialist applied linguist has to have something really special in the way of a synthesizing view if their solutions are to be more relevant than those of the specialist in an area. If applied linguistics is to remain a discipline of its own, it has to show how its unique view-point tackles interesting and exciting problems. It has already gone the route of general semantics in cutting the link to one of its terms 'linguistics'. Let us hope it too does not end up a self-congratulatory clique insulated from the world at large. Why should students bother to become jack-of-all trade applied linguists when they could be speech therapists, language teachers, psychologists, and so on, in their own right? Other areas associated with language have made exciting and interesting developments in recent years, for example child language study in the work of Tomasello (1999). Steven Pinker (1994) has interested people in language across the globe. Cross-cultural psychology, the nearest parallel discipline that has tried to establish its independence while drawing on several other disciplines, has tested its theories of individualism /collectivism and acculturation against many countries and cultures and is actively applying them to the teaching of business. Applied linguistics will become a backwater if it does not tackle problems that affect everyone's daily lives in its own distinctive way.

The references seem slightly dated in a book published in 1999, for example Spolsky (1980) but not (1987), Chomsky (1957) but nothing later. They are also sometimes overly dependent on such secondary sources as Crystal's Encyclopedias; the reference for rising intonation in declaratives for instance is surely not Crystal but Britain and Newman (1992) - the source given in Crystal. The glossary seems designed for the needs of overseas students in Edinburgh with entries on British Council, personal chair and MSc, ECAL, IALS, SAL, DAL (Edinburgh acronyms), with biographical entries for Schutz, Durkheim and Popper, but not for, say, Labov, Corder, Widdowson; some definitions must be opaque to the non-native, mysterious out of context to the native, for example a priori 'an artificial language composed entirely of invented elements', not a meaning found in the OED, and experimentally 'by experience, by means of experiment', the former meaning given most recently in the OED for 1879. Indeed one suspects that most students would consult one of the glossaries available on the Web rather than looking at a book.

Reviewing a book like this is difficult in that inevitably one responds to the sub-text rather than the text. It is an interesting and provocative book that some students may benefit from. One doubts, however, that it can form the basis for an introductory MA course in applied linguistics except in the university from which it originates.


Berry, J.W., Poortinga, Y.H., Segall, M.H., & Dasen, P.R. (1992), Cross-cultural Psychology: Research and Applications, Cambridge: CUP

Britain, D. & Newman, J. (1992), 'High rising terminals in New-Zealand English', Journal of the International Phonetic Association, 22, 1-11

Corder, S.P. (1973), Introducing Applied Linguistics, Harmondsworth: Penguin

Pinker, S. (1994), The Language Instinct, New York: Morrow

Spolsky, B. 1989, Conditions for Second Language Learning, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Tomasello, M. (1999), The Cultural Origins of Human Cognition, Boston: Harvard University Press

van Els, Bongaerts, Extra, van Os and Janssen-van Dieten (1984), Applied Linguistics and the Teaching of Languages, London: Arnold