Review: Alive to Language – Arndt, Harvey and Nuttall

In preparation for the NILE / Chichester university MAPDLE, I have been working my way through the reading list. It’s been great as it has pushed me to look at areas that I haven’t touch for some time, such as discourse. Alive to Language looks specially at this and it was a great read/course that I feel should accompany other ‘blue’ books on teachers’ shelves. I’ll aim to share with you all my thoughts, insights, etc. here.

Three-sentence summary

Arndt, Harvey and Nuttall’s Alive to Language takes the reader through the many aspects of language that fall under the category of discourse. The writers demonstrate very clearly and effectively how language is shaped by historical, social and cultural factors, and how these factors are interpreted while in use or how they affect how we use them. Be prepared to undertake a plethora of tasks that aim to take you much deeper than the surface-level of language – you will be looking at context, structure, shared knowledge, gender, English as a Lingua Franca, and so much more!

Three takeaways

  • Language-in-use is so much more than grammar, lexis and phonology: The writers use the term language-in-use to describe just that, how language is actually used in context. They make it very, very clear that language is made up of more than just a set of discrete systems that people use to convey messages. Many of the features of language-in-use we will probably all be very familiar with, but it was interesting to look at them all in much more detail and see the effects these have on not only the way language is used, but how it is interpreted. The features the writers present are:
    • Knowledge of the world: This basically means that all of us have our own understanding of the world and this is shaped by cultural backgrounds, learning experiences, etc. We can even think of this as how macro- (social, historical, cultural, etc.) and micro-(individual) ideologies influence how we use language.
    • Context: Probably the most ‘familiar’ for most of us, although perhaps the one that is thrown around the most with little thought to what it actually means. This is the situation in which communication takes place, yes, but is also involves the environment AND the relationships between the communicators AND the language they use AND the purpose for using language.
    • Variety: This is the different forms that language can take on: spoken and written. These in turn are affected by other factors such as style, sources, situation, dialect, etc.
    • Medium: The modes through which language is use. Emails, letters, speeches, messages, etc.
    • Attitude: A very difficult concept to pin down, and the book goes into more detail about this. However, for now we can think of attitude as the way people convey their messages (e.g. happily), the attitudes they have towards how they convey messages (e.g. I shan’t use the devilish telephone to call Marta – no, I shall write her a message like a true gentleman!), and attitudes to the language they are using (e.g. diglossia).
    • Structure: So this looks at how language is organised, and I’ll give you a tip – it’s much more than your ‘linkers’ we often get our learners to focus on in exam writings. This can involve grammar, certainly, vocabulary, pronunciation and even the type of discourse itself.
    • Flexibility: This refers to how language can change depending on the context, times, etc. For instance, language in itself is always changing, with neologisms being brought into the language all the time (e.g. to google something). We can also think about how social attitudes affect language use (e.g. the inclusion of Ms. in the Mr. and Mrs. group of titles).
    • Effectiveness: This is “the degree to which users of a language successfully achieve their purpose” (Arndt, Harvey & Nuttall, 2000, p.20). Think of a warning sign that sign that tells people not to climb a fence. Now, compare it to the sign below. Which would be the most effective? Of course this is a matter of opinion and it is very much open to debate, but one could argue that the sign below is much more effective in that it engages readers, rather than simply presenting them with the standard DON’T CLIMB THE FENCE.
Taken from Escape (nd)
  • We can/should re-think the traditional view of grammar and ways in which we teach it: Ok, so if you have read my blog before, you know I am very much TBLT-focused, and with that I prefer a Focus-on-Form (FonF) approach to a Focus-on-FormS (FonFS) approach (i.e. providing reactive corrective feedback instruction as opposed to providing predetermined grammatical elements to learners for them practice). That is not to say that I don’t think a FonFS approach does not have a place in the classroom – I think it does when done judiciously and with thought. However, the writers in this book ask the reader to rethink this even further, by challenging (to a degree) the standard prescriptive, bite-sized, compartmentalised, structural view that most teachers (and learners) have of grammar. Instead, they encourage readers to think of grammar in terms of four areas, in the hope that both teachers and learners can have a much clearer understating of how certain pieces of language might actually be used and why:
    • Relevance: It is hard to determine what actually is relevant to learners; however, we do know that there are certain structural elements that are ‘high-frequency’ and will benefit learners no matter the context in which they use language. For example, Deixis is a concept that includes demonstratives, pronouns, etc. and is highly necessary for language users to be able to communicate meaning. The implication here, from this perspective, is that learners should be at a minimum guided to focus on higher-frequency grammatical structures as opposed to less frequent.
    • Flexibility: A notion that learners should be aware of is how flexible grammar and language actually is. We often present the present continuous as ‘something occurring at the time of speaking’, but is it only that? Of course, from a pedagogic standpoint, it would be very difficult to present all of the uses of the present continuous to learners in one lesson, but we need to make learners aware that not all pieces of grammar “fit nicely into one category” (p.127). My takeaway from this is that learners should be encouraged to constantly ask: what else this feature of language could represent?
    • Volume: One of the main reasons learners struggle to acquire certain grammatical features is due to exposure and time spent ‘working’ with the feature (I use the term working lightly as I don’t think that a lot of time spent doing discrete-point questions, etc. is really spending time with the language). With this in mind, learners should be given plenty of opportunities to interact with the features of the language we would like them to acquire. The writers use the example of articles, although it could be said for almost any grammatical feature, e.g. relative clauses, use of pronouns, etc.
    • Range: Range relates to the way in which language can be used in certain circumstances. We as teachers often have this habit of presenting language as if it fulfils only one purpose, and generally the structural one. However, there are other uses for the grammatical features depending on the context. For example, we might think of the pragmatic uses of adverbs. Let’s take a look at the following exchange. Response 1 is the standard response many of us teach in class, whereas Response 2 is a less standard one that you might hear outside the classroom. But why are they different, and what message does Response 2 actually convey? Is it simply ‘yes’ – clearly not, it is much more than just a ‘yes’. So, with this in mind, we can help learners become more competent communicators by making them aware of the different shades of meaning language can take on and how these meanings can be conveyed.
      • Question: Do you want a beer?
      • Response 1: Yes, I do thanks.
      • Response 2: Most certainly!
  • Language is a powerful tool: There is a whole chapter devoted to Power, and I found it riveting. In the chapter, the writers take the reader through how language can be used to convey power (e.g. through standard varieties – the Queen’s English is a good example of this), how we are often positioned in asymmetrical discourses (e.g. a doctor and patient – it is clear that that doctor has much more established power in the situation and is almost expected to lead the conversation), or how there is evidence that English may be gender-biased but may also not be gender-biased (e.g. try to change the binomials around: men and women, boy and girl, etc. These are fixed and give prime ‘position’ to the male figure. But then try to change these around: aunt and uncle or mothers and fathers. It is a difficult one, no?). The writers also speak about the implications of this for the classroom, and they mention that while we don’t want to make our learners enemies of the system, so to speak, we need to empower learners with the skills to engage in Critical Language Awareness, i.e. being able to analyse language and identify authorities, orthodoxies, ideologies, etc. and be able to act with the knowledge that these exist within language- rather than being a passive interactant.

What I liked

  • The book took me back to my ‘Delta’ days and asked me to think about language in ways that I haven’t done for a while. To be honest, much of it was revision, but there was still a good deal that I learnt (e.g. looking at power structures).
  • There were plenty of tasks! And I mean plenty – 91 in total! For those that have read my reviews before, you know that I like books that have tasks integrated. This book almost has too many tasks. I didn’t do them all, if I am honest, but the choice was there. Some of them really helped me to understand the points the writers were conveying while others helped me to understand my thoughts on certain areas (e.g. I had to write an essay on Pronunciation and intelligibility).
  • This book goes nicely with other ‘blue books’. I am going over a number of tasks from About Language again and I found that this book complements the About Language quite nicely. Whereas About Language is focused on ‘structure’, Alive to Language is focused on discourse and meaning behind structure.
  • The book starts off fairly entry-level, but then as it defines terms and gets more advanced. For those reading it without having a Delta or some other jazzy qualification, you are going to be fine.
  • The way the writers challenge the status quo regarding the traditional model for teaching grammar is quite interesting. I like how they have done it, although I would agree that they could have pushed it more.

What I didn’t like

To be honest there wasn’t much I didn’t like. I think the book hit its mark regarding its aims. At times I wanted to go deeper into certain areas, especially regarding power or certain genre structures, but that wasn’t the purpose of the book, so I can’t really ‘complain’.

Who should read this book?

  • Teachers: This is the obvious choice; however, I would say that teachers should read this after having a grasp of other areas of language, i.e. grammar, lexis and phonology. With this in mind, taking on About Language first would be a good step.
  • Delta/DipTESOL candidates: Ok, so this is a must for those on diploma-level courses. It really does take you into more than surface-level detail, and helps you understand different ways to approach a text, both spoken and written, and analyse it for all its features. This would be invaluable for Module 1, but also for Module 2 for Delta. For the DiPTESOL, I imagine it would be useful for Units 1, 2 and 4 (although, just a guess).
  • Master’s students: I am preparing to take on the MADPLE from NILE, and I read this to ‘review’ what I wanted and learn more if I could. I imagine, although I can’t say for sure, that this will benefit me on the course. It is on the reading list, after all.
  • Trainers: There is plenty of material in here to get you thinking about training sessions. Already I’ve thought of a number of language awareness sessions that would be great to run through with teachers, especially those teachers that are focused pretty much solely on ‘grammar’, like if they moved away from a structural approach the world would end.

Final notes

For those of you looking to really get a handle on the bigger and more ‘nuanced’ parts of language (all aspects of discourse) this is a great intro. You will find that it will make you want to go and read other articles, books, etc. to get an even deeper understanding of the concepts; however, for what it sets out to do, it does quite well. Highly recommended.

Book details

Title: Alive to Language

Authors: Valerie Arndt, Paul Harvey and John Nuttall

ISBN: 052156882X

Pages: 297 link


Arndt, V., Harvey, P. & Nuttall, J. (2000). Alive to Language. Cambridge University Press.

Mitchell, S. (2020, August 20). Funniest signs spotted while travelling. Escape.Com.Au.

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