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Thomas Scovel
Oxford University Press (1998)
Pp. xiii + 135

Reviewed by :

Robert J. Dickey
Kyongju University, Korea

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All too often, when trying to enter technical specializations within ELT we find ourselves faced against the ivy-covered walls of academia. Make no mistake, behind the attractive ivy is a brick and stone fortress, and often only those who enter through the gates of graduate school admission find themselves making progress. Scovel's Psycholinguistics provides handy scaffolds to aspirants seeking to acquire knowledge without submitting to the "official" entrance process.

The Oxford Introductions to Language Study series is invaluable in this way – each book in the series follows the same unconventional, yet straightforward format. This system, which moves "Readings" (200-300 word clippings from scholarly literature) into a separate section from the "Surveys" (overviews) and offers a useful Glossary, seems to match my own learning style of overviewing a section before digging into some studies. Plus, the References are graded according to complexity: introductory, advanced/technical, and specialized/very demanding. Oxford Introductions are my favorite way to enter a new subject area!

I wondered why I should worry about this field. Half of it seems obvious, the other irrelevant, I thought. And so much of it is tied in with other areas, I've read this before! Ultimately I realized, however, that Scovel has effectively tied all these issues of acquisition, phonetics, production, memory, and comprehension into one tidy little book. And as a psycholinguist would remind us, organization is half the battle.

Scovel's writing is a breath of fresh air into what is often the stuffy language of linguistics. Simplified writing can sometimes be just that, simplified, yet Scovel offers wit, poetry, and a bit of tongue in cheek while delivering information without a sense of condescension. Try this:

"Over the past 40 years there has been an increasing amount of research into the linguistic capacity of infants, and it seems the more we study them the smarter they become." (page 8).

He points out that the challenges of language production as comparable to walking, with the true essence of the act only realized when trying to walk down stairs after spraining an ankle.

It would be easy to quickly dismiss Oxford Introductions as some sort of "idiot's guide", easy, but wrong. Though Psycholinguistics doesn't attempt to cover every nook and cranny of the broad field, and simplifies explanations, it is not simplified scholarship. The content is admittedly less detailed than would be found in a 400 page textbook, yet the series editor points out that it is not the intent of this 135 page handsized paperback to replace a coursebook, but to introduce it. This marvel doesn't belong in the grad school classroom, but in the backpacks and on the worktables of busy ELT practicioners. Particularly those who are considering the possibility of graduate studies but aren't yet ready, don't have a "senior teacher" or mentor to consult, and are trying to understand students and that last conference presentation they've attended.

It seems this is a field of study that has been somewhat ignored in the ELT field during the past decade. While linguistics-based treatises have continued to expound upon the minutae and various disciplines of thought within the field, language teachers have been left with all-encompassing academic textbooks that require navigational assistance from a tutor or scholar.

Perhaps the "pop-Psychology" of the 1980s and prompt infusion of many psychology-rooted concepts into mainstream ELT literature undermined the efforts to retain Psycholinguistics as a marketable segment of the commercial ELT literature? Scovel's 1998 effort appears to be a re-entry into the field by ELT publishers. Even as this column is written new ELT reference books are entering the market, such as Steinberg's An Introduction to Psycholinguistics (Longman, 2000).

A quick glimpse of some of those heavy books on psycholinguistics could leave the typical teacher wondering what psycholinguistics has to do with the functioning classroom. Is "Biological Foundations of Language" or "Aphasia" (brain injury induced language loss) really pertinent to ELT? Perhaps they are, but as one example, Scovel boils the issues of language loss down to 10 pages under the title "Dissolution", which includes a brief introduction to Neurolinguistics.

Most of the textbooks on the market discuss more general areas of linguistics, psychology, and biology far more extensively than Scovel, who keeps a tight reign on the directions of the discussion. Psycholinguistics is an introductory book that will be welcomed by newcomers to the field, yet the References and Readings will prove a useful quick reference to those who have studied the field intensively in the past.

The WHOLE Oxford Introductions to Language Study series

  • Phonetics - Peter Roach
  • Historical Studies - Herbert Schendl
  • Second Language Acquisition - Rod Ellis
  • Language and Culture - Claire Kramsch
  • Language Testing - Tim McNamara
  • Sociolinguistics - Bernard Spolsky
  • Pragmatics - George Yule
  • Linguistics - H.G. Widdowson
  • Psycholinguistics - Thomas Scovel

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