Vol. 6. No. 3 R-3 December 2002
Return to Table of Contents Return to Main Page

The Oxford Handbook of Applied Linguistics

Robert B. Kaplan, (Ed.) (2002)
New York: Oxford University Press
Pp. xxvii+641
ISBN 0-19-513267-X (hardback)
$74 / £55

A handbook, according to the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1993), is "A book containing concise information on a particular subject; a guidebook." Webster's Dictionary (Revised Unabridged edition,1913; electronic edition accessed at www.dictionary.com) has "A book of reference, to be carried in the hand; a manual; a guidebook." In practice, books which publishers term handbooks seem to fall into a whole range of hard-to-categorise offerings, and it may be difficult to work out exactly what one is buying. This might be the case with this volume, at least if one were to judge purely by its title. It is certainly not a manual, a "how to do applied linguistics" book; and perhaps one would shudder at the thought of a handbook for the discipline in that sense of the word. Nor is it exactly a typical reference book; the chapters are short, but many of them would not quite fit the description of "containing concise information." In terms of the dictionary definitions of the word handbook, the book perhaps comes closest to the guidebook sense of the definitions above. It is an attempt to examine what applied linguistics is, and where it is going; it does this by presenting a mosaic of 39 fairly short articles by 40 different contributors on a wide range sub-disciplines that would be fairly generally accepted as falling within the field. In the words of the editor, Robert Kaplan,

Applied linguistics is a difficult notion to define; indeed, it should not be assumed that this volume will provide a definitive definition of the field. Rather, this volume offers a snapshot of some of the subfields of applied linguistics at the beginning of the third millennium--and, thus, a kind of overview of the field. (vii)

Kaplan argues that "early applied linguistics was dominantly associated with language teaching" but that "while the relationship continues in the present . . . , the field has diversified." (vii) In his carefully structured introductory account of the field, "Applied linguistics: An emerging discipline for the twenty-first century," (pp. 3-12) William Grabe examines the growing diversity of the field, and the relationship of applied linguistics to linguistics, in some detail. He notes the importance of the concept that "applied linguistics is driven first by real-world problems rather than theoretical explorations," (p. 4) and lists the following areas of problems that applied linguists address, among others: [-1-]

The list gives a reasonable indication of the breadth of the areas addressed in this volume, though some receive fuller treatment than others.

The question of "where applied linguistics goes from here" is also one of the main areas addressed by the book. Each contributor has been asked to indulge in some crystal-ball gazing in their articles, and the issue receives comment in both introduction and conclusion to the book. Kaplan suggests that in the future "[a]pplied linguistics is likely to be marked by a more powerful version of descriptive linguistics as the central linguistic resource for research," and he refers particularly to the development of corpus linguistics in this respect. He mentions, too, the increasing importance of technology in many branches of the field. Applied linguists will increasingly need to participate in interdisciplinary research projects, he believes. (pp. 514-515)

The discussion of the nature of applied linguistics and its relationship to and inclusion of other disciplines is interesting. There are academic areas which have at one period or another fallen into the trap of too much navel-gazing, of expending considerable amounts of effort in trying to define themselves and their legitimate areas of study (I would claim that examples of this include postcolonial studies and anthropology, though I'm aware that some would disagree!). Kaplan does not seem to be taking us too far down that dangerous road; the book is fuelled more by the excitement of being in a fast-developing field than by anguished contemplation of what constitutes, or ought to constitute, that field. One hint of this type of problem does come in the preface, however, where we learn that "[t]he editorial group spent quite a bit of time debating whether critical (applied) linguistics/critical pedagogy/critical discourse analysis should be included"; these disciplines got the thumbs-down (vi). It is to be hoped that applied linguists will not devote too much time to debating what may or may not legitimately be included in the field; that way madness lies. [-2-]

But what of the meat of the book, the articles discussing the current state of play in various applied linguistics disciplines? It was here that I expected to find the "concise information" of a handbook, the systematic descriptions of the state of the art. In fact, the articles are very varied in character. Some do indeed provide clear short introductions to particular areas, such as Peter Mühlhäusler's "Ecology of languages" (pp. 374-387) or Susan Gass's "An interactionist perspective on second language acquisition" (pp. 170-181). Articles where the writers have been given--or have taken--more space often seem to me the most successful in introducing a particular field; an extreme example is Marjorie Bingham-Wesche and Peter Skehan's "Communicative, task-based, and content-based language instruction" (pp. 207-228), which is twice the "standard" article length of the book and which is much more thorough in consequence (though of course, if all the articles had been twenty pages in length the book would have filled two volumes). On the other hand, some contributions are disappointingly brief, for example Carol Chapelle's "Computer-assisted language learning," (pp. 498-505) where a much fuller survey of the field would surely have been appropriate. Some chapters seem to be aimed mainly at those familiar with the particular discipline in question, or at least are most easily comprehensible to those who know the field, while others appear to be more suited to seekers after new knowledge. Some focus more on the past, some on the present, a few on the future. Some aim to pack in information, others are more discursive. Some examine large fields of study; some, such as Jill Burstein and Martin Chodorow's chapter on "Directions in automated essay analysis" treat very narrowly-focussed areas. Dennis Preston's contribution on "A variationist perspective on second language acquisition: Psycholinguistic concerns" is an example of an article that concentrates primarily on arguing for a particular theoretical perspective. Perhaps any future editions of the book (which Kaplan says he would like to see published sooner rather than later, given the rapidity of developments in the field) should aim at greater consistency in the contributions.

There are definite gaps in the book, as Kaplan disarmingly admits in the preface. Three such gaps arose as the result of non-appearance of commissioned manuscripts--on work with the deaf, on teacher education, and (perhaps most disappointingly, given the importance attributed to the area by Kaplan in his conclusion) on corpus linguistics. In the still-central area of second language teaching and learning, it is disappointing to me as a language teacher to find that certain areas receive relatively little emphasis. There are separate articles on the teaching and learning of the traditional "four skills"--speaking, listening, reading and writing--but "Semantics and the lexicon" is just a short subsection (1½ pages) of Alan Juff's chapter on "Formal linguistic perspectives on second language acquisition." (pp. 87-103)

Kaplan concludes by saying that "[n]o handbook like this has appeared before," (p. 515) and he is probably right--though there are certain resemblances to the admirable Annual Review of Applied Linguistics, which of course is technically a journal, but with one book-length issue per year. The Annual Review, however, never covers such a large number of topics in a single issue. It is a little hard to pinpoint the place of such a handbook, and the uses to which it will be put. Undoubtedly it will be purchased by libraries as a work of reference (its title guarantees that), but it does not quite have the feel of weighty, incontestable authority of some encyclopedia-like tome, despite its size. It is much more of-the-moment in character, the "snapshot" that Kaplan refers to; even the speculations on the future will, if correct, soon become part of the present, and then the past. It is also much more discursive in nature--at least in places--than its handbook label might suggest. Nevertheless, it could obviously be used as a work of reference to obtain brief introductions to specific areas of applied linguistics as and when needed. It could also be used to get an overview of the field, which could be of value to anyone considering embarking on a higher degree course in applied linguistics. That of course would entail reading through much of the book, rather than simply looking up single sections of interest. The speculations on the future directions for the various fields might provide food for thought for would-be researchers looking for research projects. Finally, the discussion of the nature of applied linguistics as a discipline is likely to be of some interest to all who would label themselves as practitioners in the field, and here the introductory and concluding chapters are the most relevant. [-3-]

Despite the existence of some unevenness and imperfections in the book, it must be said that it is an impressive publishing achievement. The task of analysing the field, deciding on disciplines to be covered, finding willing contributors of sufficient status from all over the world and then combining the articles from these contributors into an edited whole must have been a massive one, and it has been largely successful. Oxford University Press, Robert Kaplan and the editorial board are to be congratulated on their initiative and the result it has produced.

Tim Caudery
University of Aarhus, Denmark
<engtc@hum.au.dk >

© Copyright rests with authors. Please cite TESL-EJ appropriately.

Editor's Note: Dashed numbers in square brackets indicate the end of each page for purposes of citation..

Return to Table of Contents Return to Top Return to Main Page