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LINGUIST List Applied Linguistics, Sociolinguistics: Ferguson ()

A good introduction should: Look at the issues raised by the question. Outline the main issues you intend presenting. Summarize the essay. Answer the question set. This advice is in line with what is found in all manuals of essay writing put out by American publishers. It is very different from the way in which students have traditionally been taught to write in Continental European countries, where the aim is to build up an argument piece by piece toward a nal conclusion.

To state the conclusion at the outset would make it appear as something the writer decided in. Readers are far less likely to be convinced indeed they have little motivation to read through the whole argument, devoid as it is of any suspense. I am not suggesting that we can explain the unwillingness of France or Germany to invade Iraq, and the eagerness of the USA to do so, based on different national protocols for reading texts such as the CIA Report. Among other things, it would fail to account for why Spain joined the coalition, or Italy, or Poland or indeed the UK, where the rhetorical tradition falls somewhere between the American and Continental extremes.

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Rather, I am proposing that the CIA Report was drafted following a particular protocol for writing and reading that would lead many Americans to assume automatically that whatever followed the opening paragraph was proof of what was so baldly stated there, licensing them to interpret all the later verbal qualiers not as challenges to the solidity of the thesis statement, but as indications that its veracity was so evident as to outweigh any apparent causes for doubt. If we look back to what the Reports second paragraph says Baghdad hides large portions of Iraqs WMD efforts it is clear from hindsight that it should have given rise to a serious question about how the CIA claimed to know what is in the rst paragraph.

But the force of that opening thesis statement that answers the question set suggests another interpretation: although large portions may be hidden, the bulk has been observed and veried by the CIA.

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Whether these were acts of propaganda deliberately intended to deceive remains a matter of interpretation. But three points need to be made: 1. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with the rhetorical structure long popular in American education, where conclusions are stated up front and justied later. But more effort is needed to make everyone aware of the fact that what is stated up front might not in fact accord with what follows, in which case the thesis statement is unjustied.

The leaders of the coalition countries and many of their key advisors are trained lawyers, hence experts in rhetoric. They know how to read ambiguous documents. For them to contend that they were simply acting in a straightforward way on the intelligence that was provided to them is disingenuous at best. Obviously, no intelligence agency should draw strong conclusions from shaky premises. But to issue a report structured in a way that ordinary readers, given how they have been trained to write, will be compelled to take the strong conclusion as fact, is dangerously irresponsible.

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I very much hope that in the longer term the well-being of the people of Iraq will end up having been improved by the invasion and occupation. Even that good outcome, however, will not eliminate severe disquiet about what, by even the most charitable interpretation, was a gross lack of forthrightness on the part of the democratic governments of the invading powers, and an insult to the intelligence of their electorates.

More to the point, I hope to have indicated how an analysis of language and discourse structure can help to inform interpretation, and how issues of language and politics can have a global resonance. Who has the ability to make choices where language is concerned?


Power and politics are fundamentally about whose will, whose choices, will prevail. Who has the power to determine what is good and bad English, or what is grammatically right or wrong in any language? Who should decide on the language or languages of education in a multilingual setting? Who determines what is acceptable or offensive in a given language at a given time, and how? When I believe I am making choices in language, are they actually being forced upon me by some kind of hegemonic social structure?

Or by the language itself? Are my interpretations of what I read and hear really mine, or are they too forced upon me by corporate and governmental interests seeking to control the way I perceive and think? These are not questions that can be answered in a straightforward way, for the simple reason that whatever answer we might give will itself be subject to these very same questions. If I believe that my linguistic choices are free choices, what if this belief has itself been imposed on me by some hegemonic force? To avoid circularity, as well as to avoid toeing any simplistic political line, we need to probe the questions, to look into what they take for granted, and to learn from what others before us have found in trying to grapple with them.

The chapters that follow will each do this, in relatively subtle ways, focusing more on actual cases than on the exposition of theoretical accounts. The nal chapter will assess where things stand on the question of language and choice, with the goal being less to convince readers of my own answer than to leave them well enough informed to choose their own.

The shopping list on the wall of your kitchen? The early utterances of an infant? Your computers instruction manual? Two people chatting in a pub?

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Shakespeares sonnets? Verb conjugations? I sense that you are disagreeing with me, reader, and as I said at the outset, disagreement is the mother of politics, so, rst of all, thank you for substantiating my point by using language politically yourself. Now then, am I indeed maintaining that all language is political, including the examples you have cited, where a political interpretation would seem manifestly absurd?

Reader, I am, with just this proviso: that every act of language is potentially political, in that, even if I do not have conscious political motivations in making a given utterance, it is still capable of positioning me in a particular way vis--vis my hearer or reader, who may infer that.

I had motivations I didnt know I had. They may even be right. The point, though, is that I cannot control the way other people react to me, infer my motivations or construct an identity for me in relation to their own. The shopping list. Very political in my house. Its my wifes list. If I add something to it, she is liable to perceive it as a criticism of her for letting us run out of something, or to resent it if its an item I myself might easily have replaced.

The precise language I use in writing any notes on the list Were out of X versus Would it be any trouble for you to pick up X, darling? The early utterances of an infant well, we interpret them as commands, mainly, that is, as a verbal means of getting someone else to do ones bidding.

It doesnt get more political than that.

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The computer instruction manual. This seems like the hardest case for a political interpretation until I open it, when the rst thing I see is: , followed further on by No part of this document may be photocopied, reproduced, or translated to another language without prior written consent. This is to establish legal ownership of the text of the manual, and to make clear to me that I do not have the right to do anything with it but read it and comment on it.

The information contained herein is subject to change without notice perhaps this ought to be stated on the copyright page of every book, starting with this one. The intent is to protect the manufacturer from lawsuits arising from any error or ambiguity in the instructions, but it gives so much latitude that in fact it would absolve the manufacturer of any responsibility whatever not that this would necessarily hold up in court.

Finally, just to be safe: The only warranties for products and services are set forth in the express warranty statements accompanying such products and services.

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Nothing herein should be construed as constituting an additional warranty. Drafted by the manufacturers lawyers, these statements spell out exactly what their and my rights and responsibilities are in our implicit contractual relationship. The language is strikingly different from that of the rest of the manual, which uses the fewest words possible to tell how to plug in the monitor, relying instead on a hardto-interpret graphic. In the legal part, everything is fully spelled out, and constructed so as to reserve the maximum leeway for the manufacturer while constricting my rights so that I dont try to get them to repair the thing if I break it, or give me a refund after Ive had it for a few months and am ready for a newer model.

Two people chatting in a pub. Why do we like chatting in pubs at all? Its about bonding the linguistic performance of a relationship. See p. Shakespeares sonnets. Give me a break. We are incapable of reading them without discovering subtexts that are political either on the grand scale the politics of recusant Roman Catholicism in Elizabethan England or the intimate one the poets relationships with his noble benefactor, with the young man and the dark lady.

All this is entirely constructed out of language, squiggles on a page, words and how they are put together. Verb conjugations. As a generally sympathetic reader henceforth GSR put it to me by way of objecting to the title of this section, Does this mean that, for example, verb conjugations are political? If so, this pushes the bounds of political so far that it ceases to mean anything. If everything is political, then somehow nothing is. GSR was prepared to accept that all language in use is potentially political, but not language structure, the forms that constitute a speakers linguistic competence and are the objects of what GSR calls abstract analysis.

Yet as someone who grew up in a community where almost everyone says it dont despite having been taught that it doesnt is correct, and where access to higher education and white-collar employment demands the use of it doesnt, I cannot conceive of verb conjugations as anything other than very highly politicised indeed.

My disagreement with GSR closely recapitulates Voloshinovs critique of Saussure, to be discussed in 4. Without wishing to anticipate all the points that will be made there, I should state clearly that nothing prevents anyone from setting out to make an abstract, apolitical analysis of anything linguistic, whether it pertains to structure or use. Nothing forces anyone to interpret a form or an utterance politically, yet neither does anything prevent anyone from doing so, unless it occurs in solitude or inner speech. Language always does many things at once, and I do not claim that the political somehow outweighs its other functions something we have no way of measuring , nor would I deny that, every day, countless acts of language occur without any political consequences ensuing.