Critical Perspectives on Language Education

I am happy to say that the Linguist List has just published a book review by yours truly, for an edited volume titled Critical Perspectives on Language Education: Australia and Asia Pacific (Dunworth & Zhang 2014).

The book comprises an introduction and 10 chapters on English Language Teaching and the teaching of Languages Other Than English in the educational context of Western Australia, Singapore and Hong Kong. These are:

  1. Occupying the ‘Third Space’: Perspectives and Experiences of Asian English Language Teachers (by Toni Dobinson)
  2. Changing Perspectives of Literacy, Identity and Motivation: Implications for Language Education (by Paul Mercieca)
  3. Constructing Meaning from the Unfamiliar: Implications for Critical Intercultural Education (by Ilan Zagoria)
  4. Can Teachers Know Learners’ Minds? Teacher Empathy and Learner Body Language in English Language Teaching (by Maggie McAlinden)
  5. Code-Switching and Indigenous Workplace Learning: Cross-Cultural Competence Training or Cultural Assimilation? (by Ellen Grote, Rhonda Oliver and Judith Rochecouste)
  6. The Retention of Year 11/12 Chinese in Australian Schools: A Relevance Theory Perspective” (by Grace Zhang and Qian Gong).
  7. Towards the Establishment of a WACE [Western Australian Certificate of Education] Examination in Japanese as a Heritage Language: Critical Perspectives (by Hiroshi Hasegawa)
  8. A Place for Second Generation Japanese Speaking Children in Perth: Can they Maintain Japanese as a Community Language? (by Kyoko Kawasaki)
  9. Tamil Language in Multilingual Singapore: Key Issues in Teaching and Maintaining a Minority Language” (by Rajeni Rajan)
  10. “Functional English and Chinese as Mediums of Instruction in a Higher Institution in Hong Kong” (by Zhichang Xu)

In my review, I comment on each of these chapters, and also make the following comments about the book as a whole:

This volume makes two important contributions to the scholarship about language education. Firstly, it provides a fascinating snapshot of the linguistic ecology of Western Australia. In this regard, it is useful to read about multicultural and multilingual communities, the role(s) of English within such spaces, and the challenges faced in the maintenance of minority and heritage languages. There are interesting historical and demographic data in some of the contributions, which may be valuable to readers with an interest in the languages of Western Australia, Singapore or Hong Kong. The second contribution that the book seeks to make is to provide a critical perspective of language education. The book raises important issues about language contact, hybrid identities, and the role of education in the maintenance of non-dominant languages, mostly in the context of Western Australia. Many of the chapters that make up the collection are successful in raising awareness of such themes and problematising dominant discourses. The contributions by Xu and Grote, Oliver and Rochecouste stand out in this regard, and the points they raise resonate quite broadly.

Yet, despite the merits of individual chapters, the collection as a whole is only partly successful in delivering what it promises. As most of the chapters have been contributed by scholars working at Curtin University in Perth, Australia, issues that are of mainly local significance are over-represented, at the expense of broader themes of the linguistic ecology in the Asia-Pacific region. Moreover, there is some tension between claims like “chapters (have) been written from a position that endorses a critical approach to language and intercultural education” (p. 2) and the inclusion, in the collection, of chapters that fail to connect with the literature on critical education or critical applied linguistics, and even chapters that are only tangentially related to education. In making this observation I am not passing comment on the quality of these contributions, which is usually hard to fault; rather, it is their inclusion in a volume titled “Critical Perspectives on Language Education” that I find problematic. This problem is compounded by the lack of a strong editorial voice that could have highlighted salient unifying themes. There is sporadic reference to similarities across chapters in the introduction (pp. 1, 7) and cross-referencing in the text, but these fail to add up to an explicitly articulated argument.

In addition to the above, there are a number of minor issues with the book, which detract from its value. One is occasional carelessness in the arguments put forward by some authors. Although I do not have expertise in the Western Australian context, and cannot provide detailed commentary on the validity of individual claims, I was frustrated to find several inaccuracies in the text. For instance, there is reference to the “official language” of the USA (English is the dominant language of the country, but does not have legal status), and just a few lines after that, linguistic enclaves are referred to with the singular form ‘Sprachinsel’, rather than the plural ‘Sprachinseln’ (p. 167). Elsewhere, sources are cited which are not listed in the bibliographical sections (e.g., pp. 120, 197), and key information seems to be missing from some chapters, leading to occasional methodological opacity. Individually, these are very inconsequential infelicities, but taken together they have a cumulative effect of undermining the credibility of the book. In the same vein, it seems that the authors have been let down by Springer’s copy editors. Starting from p. xi, titled “About the Author” (sic), I found a number of punctuation, capitalisation and typesetting issues, which do little justice to the content of the book. More disconcertingly, the hierarchy of headings appears to have been flattened in many chapters. The fourth chapter, for instance, has been segmented into 26 sections, some spanning a single paragraph, and each starting with a Level 1 heading. This structure makes it unnecessarily difficult to follow the author’s argument. One hopes that such issues might be corrected in subsequent editions.

On the whole, this volume makes a useful addition to the scholarship about language education. Some of the chapters will be of particular interest to scholars interested in critical education, language contact and language maintenance. The book contains a good range of interesting examples of how concepts such as the ‘third space’ have been applied in the setting of Western Australia, and multiple thought-provoking insights into the linguistic ecologies of large, multicultural cities. I believe that the book would be especially suitable as a work of reference for teacher education programmes in these settings, as it could be used to build awareness of linguistic and cultural diversity, and it might help to counter the sometimes insular orientation of specialist teacher training. Furthermore, many of the contributions could be used to inform debates about language policy in Western Australia, and I expect that teaching practitioners and policymakers in these settings might benefit from consulting it those chapters that are relevant to their needs.

The full reference of the book is: Dunworth, K. and Zhang, G. (eds) (2014). Critical Perspectives on Language Education: Australia and Asia Pacific. Cham: Springer.

Featured image: Stockholm Public Library, Image Credit: Wikipedia

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