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Principles of Language Learning and Teaching

H. Douglas Brown
Longman, 2000
pp. xii + 352

Reviewed by :

Robert J. Dickey
Kyongju University, Korea

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The Classic
Few items can genuinely be termed "a classic". '57 Chevys and 65 Mustangs, Melville's Moby Dick - and a language teaching textbook? Brown's Principles of Language Learning and Teaching is the classic primer on second language learning -- so much so that it continues to feature in many of the North American MATESL programs. Now in a fourth edition (the first edition was published in 1980), the book has grown with the advancement of studies in Second Language Acquisition. It has undergone significant reorganization and updating in this new edition.

Student Focussed
Though it would be hard to claim any textbook is "reader-friendly," this one comes close. Brown notes that the book grew out of graduate courses taught in second language acquisition, and one might consider that San Francisco State University (Brown's home school) has been one of the leading institutes of linguistic studies for many years; those students proved a fertile field for text development. In any case, the book is written in the active explanations common to the classroom teacher rather than the dry pedantics of the scholar's tome. Vignettes at the end of each chapter offer a quick view into various ELT classroom considerations: the grammar translation model, the audiolingual method, and principled eclecticism, among others.

As with any textbook, there are suggested readings at the end of each chapter, but this text has an exceptionally comprehensive bibliography, something over 850 entries! The questions for study ending each chapter are divided into whole class discussions, group/pair work, and individual work, and to help internalize the chapters, there are journal assignments that help the reader to reflect upon a current or previous foreign language learning experience.

As with each of the resources reviewed in this column, a principle concern is the ability for a self-studying teacher to make use of the materials. Brown points out that his book is intended to give a

"comprehensive picture of the theoretical foundations of language learning and teaching. But that theory remains abstract and relatively powerless without its application to the practical concerns of pedagogy in the classroom."

Many of the English language teachers practicing in Asia have little or no theoretical background in language learning theory: Brown's Principles helps tie together those various conference presentations we may have heard, and journal articles, read, and helps fill in the gaps. Brown's straightforward approach obviates any need for a tutor, though discussion of these materials with others would undoubtedly be fruitful for most readers.

The discussion of the issues and problems in the Critical Period Hypothesis is of particular interest. This reader left Chapter 3 wondering if it shouldn't be required reading for officials in the various Ministries of Education around Asia, at least for those who apparently haven't fully considered the "younger is better" myth.

More Than Words
For those who favor more visual learning styles, this book has particularly clear and insightful tables and figures. Too often overlooked, or overcluttered in other textbooks, these are one of the principle assets of this volume -- though we could wish for still more!

Broad Coverage
A few chapter titles may help define the breadth of the text: First Language Acquisition, Age and Acquisition, Human Learning, Styles and Strategies, Personality Factors, Sociocultural Factors, Cross-Linguistic Influence, Communicative Competence, and Theories of Second Language Acquisition. While this volume may focus more (or less) on any particular topic area than other texts, it covers most areas, with the exception of language testing, which was dropped from this 4th edition. (The 3rd edition is still available in many bookstores.) The suggestions for further reading have eliminated most of the highly technical publications listed in previous editions, instead pointing towards materials appropriate for students just beginning their studies in second language acquisition.

So, can a textbook be a classic? Well, Brown's Principles of Language Learning and Teaching remains the standard after 20 years. For those teachers who haven't taken a course in language learning theory, the readability of this book, along with its stature within the profession, makes it a "first choice" in your next bookshop visit, along with current best sellers and, of course, "literary classics".

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