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Book Review of 'Language Debates. Theory and Reality in Language Learning, Teaching and Research'


Yolanda Cerdá, Language Centre, School of Languages, Cultures and Societies, University of Leeds

Book Review of: de Medeiros, A. and Kelly, D. eds. 2021. Language Debates. Theory and Reality in Language Learning, Teaching and Research. London: John Murray Learning/Hodder & Stoughton.


I was interested to read this volume partly because I wanted to learn more about current debates in the field of language education but also because reviews are a new genre for me and one which is generally considered minor in academia and for which publishers often offer scant guidance. Nevertheless, as Ding (2022) and Hartley (2006) have noted, there are conventions to the book review genre though little attention has been paid to how academics read and write book reviews. This is potentially surprising given that as Hartley (2006) shows in his survey including 156 academics across arts and humanities, social sciences and the sciences ‘most respondents reported reading between one and five book reviews a month and writing between one and two a year’ (p.1194). As well as its relatively minor status, the book review genre is potentially fraught with ethical difficulties as Ding (2022) highlights. Such ethical and political concerns might play out in the form of the internal disciplinary power struggles of academia; book reviews can provide a platform for robust critique, which can verge on the scathing, or at the other end of the spectrum become little more than celebratory endorsements.

With these considerations in mind, as well as considering the virtues of this volume and some evaluative critique, I also seek to base the review on my own rationale for reading it, which was primarily to find nourishment for ideas with which I am currently engaged; namely gender in language education (a personal long-standing academic interest); the role of linguistics in modern language teaching, language activism and multilingualism. The four latter themes comprise the first four ‘Debates’ in the volume and they were one of the reasons I was keen to read the book. Admittedly, I was less enthused by the final theme of digital mediations, perhaps as a result of the enforced digital mediations of the Covid19 pandemic on professional, pedagogic and academic practices but, to my surprise, I also found some thought-provoking and inspiring work captured within the final debate. As well as my own current concerns, I have tried to consider what might be immediately relevant to language practitioners and educators and overall this volume lends itself well to those who want to dip into particular areas or debates and find out more about the projects connected to the main themes.

As indicated above, the volume is divided into five sections around the five debates and each section comprises between two and four short chapters including an initial theoretical consideration followed by related projects. All sections conclude with an interview based on the debate topic. The volume has the feel of capturing a live debate since it is not theoretically dense and many of the projects described are presented as summaries rather than full accounts or academic discussions. This is perhaps in keeping with the invitation to participate in the introduction, where the editors write: ‘the themes in this first volume of the Language Acts and Worldmaking book series were tested, in one way or another, in live audience debate and/or in participatory workshops within the wider research project… [and] These written texts are further conceived to allow the conversation to continue beyond the printed pages of this volume…’ (Kelly and de Medeiros, 2022, p.xxi-xxii). The implication, then, is that where chapters or particular projects are of interest, readers and practitioners might seek to investigate the particular project in more detail in order to engage with the related concepts or to test out and adapt approaches for their own classrooms and practice. Nevertheless, the introduction itself cites aims for the volume which are wide-ranging and ambitious but which also, in my view, intimate the crisis at the heart of language education and the field in that so much of its scholarship and research seems to entail a reassertion of its own value both intellectually and socially. This unease or insecurity is perhaps common to many other subject areas, particularly in the arts and humanities, and in some respects the volume appears to want to address some of the challenges and opportunities for language education by means of the five thematic areas presented. Rather than summarise in detail each debate or project presented, below I highlight what I learned from reading each section and what I might take forward into my own thinking about languages education.

In the first debate section on Gender, I was not at all surprised to see statistics, graphs and figures on how gendered different school subjects are. The unequal uptake of Languages and STEM subjects such as Physics amongst male and female students is well-established in the education literature, and one flaw in the section, from my perspective, is that the balance seems to be tipped towards explaining the choice of particular subjects and especially why girls might choose to study Physics (or not). However, the section, authored by Peter Main and Sandra Takei, also offers some pertinent insights including, importantly, the overall observation that school cultures, whilst taking a zero-tolerance approach to racist and homophobic language and behaviours, often overlook or disregard sexism and ‘casual remarks were often dismissed as banter’ (Main, p.21). It follows then that individual school cultures are found to reinforce gender stereotypes, even at primary level. This itself chimes with one of the other salient conclusions in the section which is that local school environments have a significant impact on the uptake of particular subjects. None of these points are perhaps especially revealing but some of the project findings are interesting and even counterintuitive in some cases. For example, I was surprised to learn that class or socioeconomic background did not have a significant effect on the choice of subjects and that outreach activities, while enjoyable for students, had a negligible impact on student choices. As well as this, the studies found that interventions aimed at ‘persuading’ girls to take up particular (STEM) subjects were largely ineffective. Conversely, what was also apparent from the studies conducted and described in this section was the positive effect of good teaching. This alongside the sense that the overall school environment and culture were key to subject uptake suggests that educators and institutions can claim more agency in affecting how cohorts choose and engage with different subjects. Ultimately more can be done locally from within school environments to support the dismantling of stereotypes and the related cultural, social and indeed economic capital associated with particular subject choices. The section appropriately ends with a Gender Action project and school accreditation with ‘champion focus areas’ which can be used in schools to raise awareness and embed more self-conscious approaches to addressing the barriers associated with particular gender stereotypes around subjects.

Debate 2 in the volume deals with the incorporation of Linguistics into approaches to Modern Language teaching with linguistics referring in particular (though not limited) to metalinguistic awareness and knowledge as well as grammar instruction. This was a strong and convincing debate section in the volume, particularly in terms of making the case for the intellectual robustness and value in language education as a field. I found myself concurring with most of the points put across by Pountain and Wenham, with Pountain using some good examples from French and Spanish on how nuanced linguistic analyses and discussions around them play an important role in highlighting features of linguistic diversity including ‘diatopic, diastratic and diaphasic varieties’ (Pountain, p.65) as well as pointing to aspects of language study which are both intrinsically fascinating and challenging but also have wider applicability. The authors explain that the loss of some elements of linguistics or metalinguistic knowledge in the languages curriculum has been the result, at least in the UK, of communicative approaches to language teaching and learning and the focus on authentic texts. Pountain (p.63) suggests that the Communicative Approach is most commonly used in UK schools today, and while communicative approaches do focus on grammatical form, he argues that the centrality of communication and fluency have resulted in a downgrading of ‘grammatical accuracy […] as an assessment objective’. These tendencies have meant that students are encouraged to learn stock responses and arguably have compounded instrumental views of language learning. Wenham (p.85) elaborates on this and highlights how a short introduction based on a four-week course on linguistics has been added to other language courses in attempt to bridge the gap between the L1 (and heritage languages) and L2s by focusing on broad questions such as 1) What is language? 2) How do languages relate to one another? 3) How do we write language down? And 4) How is learning a language like cracking a code? Overall the chapter and the projects described in this section show how a linguistic focus in language education can serve to articulate comparisons between languages and their varieties, problematise monolithic language ideologies often rooted in linguistic imperialism, and develop cross-curricular threads (eg looking at politeness in French and English or language change). Significantly, the inclusion of linguistics or linguistic approaches in language curricula and pedagogies have the potential for developing cognitive and critical skills by means of understanding and solving particular linguistic conundrums or conceptual problems which will be of value for any form of learning and problem-solving.

The third debate in the volume is on Activism and in general I found this section less easy to absorb in some senses than the others, notwithstanding my broad agreement with the principles underpinning notions of language activism and indeed familiarity and alignment with the work of some of the contributors in the section such as Claire Gorrara and Alison Phipps, both of whom have spent so much of their professional lives advocating for languages in different ways. Much of the ‘debate’ centres around defining, situating and analysing activist practices inductively. Gorrara (p.133) suggests that the meaning of activism depends ‘on context and perspective’ but definitions of language activism highlight its relationship to language policies and ‘opposition or resistance to power’. The section includes some valuable examples of work which might easily be taken up in any context and classroom, including language biographies (Gorrara includes her own ‘language life’ p.135-136) as well as philosophical disruptions to the epistemologies of the north (Phipps, p.162-165). Phipps’ decolonising perspective is elaborated in a subsequent chapter by Anderson and Macleroy who argue that teachers and policy makers need a change of mindset which should involve the ‘cognitive, affective, multisensory and aesthetic’ in ways of learning. In the broadest sense the section sees activism as underpinned by current understandings of the affordances and value of multilingualism and translanguaging approaches as new ways of understanding language practices and learning. In terms of educational practices the case is made for a move away from the functional nature of communicative approaches to language education towards learner-centred approaches which include story-telling, project-based learning and transformative pedagogies that emphasise learner agency and disrupt the power dynamics between students and teachers.

Debate 4 relates to Multilingualism and starts with an explanation by Jean-Marc Dewaele (p.197) of why multilingualism matters. The topic has in fact been threaded through many of the other debates and perspectives in the volume, with a clear ideological position articulated in the preceding section through the subheading citing Roberts et al., 2018 ‘Monolingualism is the illiteracy of the 21st century’. Dewaele takes a less political position in his chapter, focusing instead on the relationship between multilingualism and emotions and in particular of enjoyment, rather than just anxiety, as important affective considerations in second language acquisition. As in Debate 1, the role of teachers and the learning environment as critical features of enjoyment are again highlighted. One of the chapters in the section by Beverly Costa also reflects on how an awareness of both the affordances and potential challenges of multilingual identities can play out in psychotherapy and her research leads to some valuable advice on how multilingualism might be considered in therapeutic environments. I found myself thinking that while not directly relevant to language classrooms much of the insight she gained through her research might fruitfully be applied in language classrooms and even research environments (amongst teams or with participants) where interpersonal relationships and even individual psychological, cognitive and political sensitivities might benefit from multilingual approaches and sensibilities. For example, Costa (p.215) suggests that training for therapeutic practitioners might include ‘incorporating a linguistic history into the assessment process; discussing linguistic privilege and power with regard to the concept of “native speakers” and foreign accents; initiating a conversation about identity and language; evaluating when, how and if to invite a client to use their different languages… and the therapeutic value of speaking in one language over another’, all questions and issues perfectly suited to language learning environments.

Finally, the fifth debate focuses on Digital mediationsand Claire Taylor opens with an insightful chapter outlining the current tendency towards metacriticism in Modern Languages as it undergoes ‘a process of reflection and attempts to re-define its boundaries and practices’. This understanding in some ways addresses the concern I raised above about the volume seeming to be symptomatic of a profound and persistent unease within the field. Interestingly, Taylor links modern languages and digital humanities in novel ways, focusing on how digital humanities might be critiqued (for example for an apparent and misleading ideological neutrality and its reliance on ‘extractive capitalism’) and considering ways in which digital humanities might be transformed by languages rather than always the other way round. The second and third chapters in the section give excellent examples of how the digital, linguistic and cultural approaches have been blended and applied in specific classroom settings in ways which are cognitively challenging and engaged with the latest disciplinary thinking. Both chapters present motivating syllabus and pedagogic interventions which might well be worth emulating in other contexts. The chapter ends with an interview with Joe Dale who has been involved in technology-enhanced language learning activities and support for the practitioner community for many years and how his engagement in this area has shifted and developed since the effects on digital language learning accelerated in some ways by the covid19 pandemic.

This volume is worth reading if you are involved in language scholarship, research or pedagogies which might be informed or enriched by the five debates outlined, all of which are broad and current enough to be of relevance to most language educators in some form. The chapters are accessible and particular projects or ideas can be followed up through the references where fuller details can be obtained on particular projects or interventions. Similarly, the reference lists at the end of each chapter provide succinct and useful guidance for further reading. The volume captures a good range of collaborations between different sectors (including for example between secondary language teaching and higher education contexts) and these are primarily practitioner-focused and often include future steps and avenues for exploration. A significant critique of the volume overall might be that it is UK-centric and many, if not most, of the contributions have come from Universities and Schools based in London or the South East. Similarly, although practically-oriented, language educators and researchers might also appreciate deeper theoretical dispositions particularly around finer points such as the differentiating between translanguaging and multilingualism, how assessment and syllabus design might be transformed and so on, though this may emerge in subsequent volumes and related publications. A few years ago, I read another volume from a Debates in Subject Teaching series produced by Routledge called Debates in Modern Languages Education (2014) (Eds Driscoll, Macaro and Swarbrick) and in less than ten years it is perhaps both heartening and unsettling to see how conversations around language education has evolved. The main difference appears to be a concern with the social and educational value of language teaching rather than the more inward focus on language acquisition and classroom practices which have typically informed the field in many contexts. One cannot help but conclude that this ideological positioning of languages is a response to wider political and ideological crises around the world which have manifested in different ways in different contexts but which might include Brexit, activist movements such as Black Lives Matter and MeToo, and the ongoing displacement of large groups of people across the world as a result of conflict and ongoing inequalities, suggesting that the focus of Language Debates is apt and fitting for our times.

Address for correspondence:


Ding, A. 2022. Scholarship, Ethics and Book Reviews: Some Preliminary and Provisional Thoughts. 11 July. Teaching EAP; Polemical. Questioning, debating and exploring issues in EAP. [Online].Available from:

Driscoll, P., Macaro, E. and Swarbrick, A. eds. 2013. Debates in Modern Languages Education. London: Routledge.

Hartley, J. 2006. Reading and writing book reviews across the disciplines. Journal of the American Society for Information Science and Technology57(9), pp.1194-1207.