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The Routledge Handbook of Applied Linguistics


Edited by James Simpson


Abingdon: Routledge, 2013

Paperback reissue*. xix+728 p. ISBN 978-0415658157. £35.00


Reviewed by Wilfrid Rotgé

Université Paris-Sorbonne


The Routledge Handbook of Applied Linguistics is an indispensable reference for anyone interested in applied linguistics, appropriate for both students and professionals in the field. It is structured around a new definition of applied linguistics, which has come a long way since its early focus on linguistics, more specifically on the findings of generative grammar. Among other topics, the book traces the history of applied linguistics from the early “linguistics-applied” approach to interest in the teaching and learning of languages and finally to new areas that go beyond language teaching and learning. It is a field of study that has expanded greatly since the 1960s to include language policy, second language acquisition, critical studies, multilingualism and any language-related problems in the world.

Christopher Brumfit’s definition of applied linguistics is the most widely quoted: “The theoretical and empirical investigation of real world problems in which language is a central issue”. The book draws on this definition, which some linguists might find somewhat too broad, but whose merit is to make the field “problem-oriented”, with a special emphasis on data that is typically collected in contexts in use.

One goal of the Handbook is to redefine applied linguistics for a 21st-century audience and this is achieved by including all areas of language study that connect knowledge about language to decision-making in the real world. Its aim is also to highlight the role of applied linguistics in today’s world: decision-making often relies on insights drawn from language study, and ultimately from linguistics.

The 728-page-long book is intended for a diverse audience. It claims to be oriented towards newcomers, provided they are already familiar with linguistics or at least have a strong interest in the theoretical issues concerning language.

It is divided into five parts, which in turn are divided into nine or ten chapters, thus providing a very neat structure. Each chapter is on average fifteen pages long. There are 47 chapters in total, which are written by sixty-four undisputed specialists from around the world, some chapters being written by two or three contributors.

The five parts are:

1. Applied linguistics in action;

2. Language learning, language education;

3. Language, culture and identity;

4. Perspectives on language in use;

5. Descriptions of language for applied linguistics.

Each chapter starts with a short introduction, followed by a state-of-the-art presentation of the theory, which always includes an overview of the history of the topic. It then shows how theory is connected with practice, that is, how theoretical linguistics can help us deal with “real world problems in which language is a central issue”. Each chapter ends with a conclusion or summary and two short entries devoted to “Related topics” and “Further reading”. This construction provides valuable help to the reader. The book must be praised for achieving its clear pedagogical purpose.

Topic areas are diverse, including business communication, lexicography, the media, second language acquisition, English for academic purposes, language and culture, identity, gender, multilingualism, discourse analysis, sociolinguistics, grammar and theoretical linguistics. As expected, the three major theoretical frameworks of linguistics currently used worldwide come under scrutiny, namely, cognitive linguistics, systemic functional linguistics and generative grammar. Although the three approaches mentioned are mainly concerned with theory, “long on theory and short on practical recommendations” to quote Langacker 2008, the chapters devoted to them try to connect them to practice, thus justifying their inclusion in a book on applied linguistics. The applied area that cognitive linguistics can relate to is language teaching, and more specifically second-language acquisition. For instance, the key concept of “grounding” can be made use of when teaching deictics, articles and tense. In the field of root modality, the concept of “force” can prove useful and can even be represented visually, through notions like “external authority-based force” or “internal will-powered force”. Even clause patterns can benefit from a “cognitive explanation”: they can be seen as event frames, rather than strictly formal configurations. Cognitive grammar seems to provide concrete notions that can be used to explain abstract grammatical tools.

Within the same book—and this is a major difficulty that The Routledge Handbook of Applied Linguistics cannot be expected to solve—, we find an approach to second-language learning advocated by a completely different theoretical framework, namely generative grammar, which seems poles apart from cognitive grammar. Generativists are primarily concerned with what is going on in learners’ minds and with learners’ knowledge. The chapter on generative grammar provides an example of recent research on second-language learning with the study of why intermediate Japanese learners of English are sensitive to the ungrammaticality of sentences like You speaks English but not necessarily to The students speaks English. The reader is left to reconcile—or not—the two approaches.

All the chapters make an interesting read. The authors always combine language studies with an area that we cannot all be familiar with. In other words, there is much to be learnt from this book. Many of the chapters are fascinating, like the one on language and ageing, which starts with an overview of the work on language and ageing, whose study began as an offshoot of research on language and dementia. It then presents the cognitive advantages of bilingualism in ageing, continues with how language, ageing and identity interact, to finish with new debates on the topic, like the concept of “lifelong learning”, which has replaced more traditional views on education. The current debate focuses on the idea that language development continues over the course of life. A lot of research is currently going on using neuroimaging techniques. Given the cost of dementia, the socio-economic impact of such research is not to be neglected.

It is of course impossible to summarise every topic broached in the 47 very diverse chapters, but the few presented briefly here provide glimpses of the richness of the Handbook. It could be argued that each chapter is relatively short. Phoneticians may consider that more than thirteen pages could have been devoted to phonetics and phonology, but the idea is of course to provide an overview of 47 areas that language studies can shed light on. Another challenge is that the Handbook might lack a sense of unity: the link between medical communication and multimodality for instance is far from obvious. This apparent challenge is resolved by the fact that each topic raises “real world problems”, at the heart of which lie language and language studies.

The Routledge Handbook of Applied Linguistics successfully provides the interested reader with a structured exposition of the major theoretical approaches and diverse lines of inquiry that currently engage practitioners.  Especially welcome is the focus on “real life” applications, and the ways in which applied linguistics can provide concrete insights—and solutions—and not simply theories.


*First Hardcover edition : 2011.


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