Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL) is a global field, one that many people spend years pursuing at university. Indeed, TESOL’s importance is ever-growing in our globalized world, and it is therefore vital to have quality instructional material available to train tomorrow’s TESOL practitioners. Unluckily for university students, many such titles are somewhat dryin their approach, which is what makes Language Lessons – Stories for Teaching and Learning English, edited by Ruth Spack and Vivian Zamel, a welcome entrant into the field. A collection of thought-provoking short stories that explore the learner’s language acquisition under various societal circumstances, Language Lessons takes the reader on a linguistic and cultural journey around the world – from rural Canada to urban Japan – and in so doing explores language learning from an internal, personal perspective.
Whether, how, and to what extent one acquires a foreign language is affected by a number of factors such as cultural heritage, linguistic background, age, sex, social and legal status, earning ability and intelligence. Taking these factors into account, the editors present stories that explore these inter-related issues, and for the most part, the protagonists’ lack of communicative abilities is problematic and leads to many challenging circumstances.
Which brings us to the reviewer’s only criticism of this anthology. As the editors state on page 2, “Virtually all of the main characters in Language Lessons have a dire need to learn English in order to escape oppression, succeed in school, find a job, advance a career, or gain entry into their new social world. As the stories reveal, their language learning processes are rarely smooth and often traumatic.”
Taken individually, each story is not overly negative, and many actually contain tragi-comic aspects. However, taken as a whole, the stories paint a dour picture of language acquisition where humor, positivity or fun are often absent. Which is a pity, for as a book that will presumably be used in the college classroom, one would expect that a balanced approach to the role of language learning would be presented. Instead, the authors – through their choice of stories – portray English language learning as “rarely smooth and often traumatic”, which is surely not representative of the process on the whole.
The authors point out that Language Lessons “… focuses on the role language plays in the lives of those who are negotiating new cultures or identities.” In this area, Language Lessons earns high marks. The book also earns high marks for the authors’ biographies at the beginning of each entry, as well as the thoughtful questions that appear at the end of every entry – questions that if approached seriously, will certainly stimulate both thought and conversation in the classroom.
An academic book by name and nature, Language Lessons will find a deserving home in many a TESOL curriculum. More than that, however, Language Lessons is a title that can be thoroughly enjoyed by the reader with a general interest in either foreign cultures or language acquisition. But if you are looking for an uplifting book about the joys of language learning, this might not be the title for you.
The above review was contributed by: Jim Curtiss: Jim is a cultural sojourner who makes his living as a freelance editor, writer, actor, and teacher. Much of his work deals with the challenges and glories of the expatriate lifestyle. Jim and his wife currently live in Seville, Spain. To read more of Jim's Reviews CLICK HERE
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