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Book review
Alive to Language cover
Alive To Language -
Perspectives on language awareness for English language teachers
by V.Arndt, P.Harvey & J.Nuttall

(CUP, 2000)

Review written by Jane Birdsall

The study of how we really use the English language - in all its changing, quirky messiness - is the subject of this book. The publishers say the aim is to move "beyond basic levels of grammar awareness" (dealt with by Scott Thornbury in About Language, a companion in the same CUP series) to look at language as a "dynamic and powerful communication tool".

Alive to Language is targeted at teachers-in-training, and their trainers, of various kinds. It could also be used for self-study. The units are broken down into manageable chunks of explanation, followed by activities, with about 50 pages of very useful commentary at the back of the book. The writing is admirably clear and all terminology is explained. Throughout the book explanations are illustrated by a very wide range of spoken and written language samples including a conversation in a kitchen about chops and sweetcorn (authors' own data), a legal text, e-mails, extracts from Dickens and Iain Banks, sections from ELT texts of different kinds. These are illuminating and, in many cases, also interesting. Each unit has a handy "Key references" section at the end with ideas for further reading.

The term "language awareness" is used by the authors to tie together a variety disciplines: language teaching, applied linguistics, psycholinguistics, sociolinguistics and anthropological linguistics. The beginning of the book looks at the main features of language-in-use, such as knowledge of the world, context, variety, medium, attitude, etc. This is followed by a concise but very thorough look at discourse and its relevance to ELT. The unit on grammar includes possible definitions, children's problems with language, variations in the way adult L1 speakers use English and problems that L2 learners have. The section in this unit on pedagogical implications is very interesting and makes use of research based on corpora, such as the COBUILD and CANCODE projects. These are beginning to influence course books and teachers but there is still a long way to go. Why, for example, ask the authors, do delexical verbs rarely appear in teaching materials (e.g. made a signal as compared with signalled) when they are frequent, relatively simple to teach and very generative?

Probably the most innovative parts of the book for EL teachers are the latter units on Variety, Change and Power. In Variety, Standard English is compared with other kinds, such as regional usage and "new" Englishes (mainly of former British colonies). As in the other units in the book, the section on what this means in terms of appropriacy in the classroom is strong and ends by posing the awkward question of when does teaching appropriacy imply "cultural imperialism". The unit on change begins with an overview of the historical development of English and goes on to look at the influences on current change and how the language systems are affected. Some fascinating examples of recent introductions are given. (Did you know that McJob was originally coined by McDonald's itself as part of an affirmative-action programme?) Gender, taboo language and PC language are also considered in this section. Parts of the final section on power are perhaps as useful to L1 speakers as language learners or teachers. The manipulation of language by the media, the Inland Revenue, advertisers and others are all looked at, besides gender bias in the use of language and discourse analysis of the ways in which men and women speak. The unit, and the book, ends with suggestions as to how teachers can help empower their students or "share" the power they have: knowledge about language.

This is an excellent addition to the Cambridge Teacher Training and Development series which would be as useful for in-service training as for more formal courses. I would expect it to become a favourite on (or as preparation for) the Cambridge DELTA course.

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