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Issues in Applied Linguistics

Michael McCarthy
Cambridge University Press
Cambridge, 2001
pp. 175

Reviewed by :

Robert J. Dickey
Kyongju University, Korea

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Michael McCarthy has become highly recognized in Asia, in part for his frequent conference appearances in recent years. His recent Issues in Applied Linguistics showcases his not inconsiderable knowledge in the diverse areas of applied linguistics, invites others to consider where they stand, and is a challenging read for those of us less familiar with the field.

After considering the book for several months, I'm still not quite sure who it aims at: graduate students in applied linguistics, teachers in the field, TESOL students, teacher trainers, or others. The answer, if there is one, is perhaps in the foreword, where McCarthy states,

"this book does not claim to be a definitive survey, or even an introduction. It is an expedition into various ways of looking at language and how they influence language teaching."

McCarthy goes so far as to say that it may be nearly impossible to cover the many branches of applied linguistics in a single book. Where does this leave the reader?

Those who have read several of these reviews are aware that I have a preference for materials that address the needs of the self-studying, practicing teacher (such as myself); those who read outside the environment of a formal study program (such as a master's program), but who may benefit from discussion groups with others who have read or are reading in the same field. Issues is attractive for such readers in several regards, but it also faces a few hurdles.

The first challenge for McCarthy, as for all of us, is deciding "who is an applied linguist"? McCarthy stretches the net a bit farther than most, he includes "non-pedagogical applied linguists" -- speech therapists, historians exploring place-names, and sociologists, among others. Importantly for language teachers, he stresses that the role of applied linguistics is to provide a connection between linguists and front-end practitioners, such as teachers. McCarthy sees the lack of a unitary definition of applied linguistics as strength of the field, and encourages practicing teachers to become applied linguists themselves.

The presentation is somewhat Socratic -- it seems there are more questions than answers. This could be an excellent book for a graduate school course where the teacher is available for guidance and to help "fill in the blanks." I think McCarthy would argue that questioning is the very nature of applied linguistics, and a book with "all the answers" is inconsistent with the field of study. Some readers may be uncomfortable with this. But at half the length of those 350 page "everything your teachers ever wanted you to know" textbooks, there isn't room for all the answers, even if they exist.

Most chapters in the book overview major areas of practice in applied linguistics -- discourse analysis, grammatical issues, and lexis, among others. The style is that of comparing extreme positions in the literature, to help understand why the science of applied linguistics is itself deeply divided in various focal areas. McCarthy also discusses the divide between theorists and practitioners, with his own experiences offered for illumination.

Unfortunately, it should be pointed out that his writing style is rather formidable. While there are lots of anecdotes and useful similes, there are also the occasional killer-sentences, rambling on for 60+ words or 4 or more clauses. While within McCarthy points towards his own aim of making theory more understandable.

It seems that McCarthy orients this work towards the theme he uses in the final chapter, applied linguistics as a type of professional discourse. Tracking all the changes in language learning theories and language itself over his own professional lifetime, it does seem reasonable to suggest that the discourse in investigation is more worthy than scientific findings, which may be rejected in the following generation of language teachers. In this regard, investigating the issues, and learning to ask the right questions, may be the critical preparation for "language teachers as applied linguists." While not as clearly written as one could hope, at 175 pages, with lots of clearly-titled and logically-sequenced sections, the book is well-designed for the busy teacher who can bite and digest one piece at a time.

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