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Pennycook, A. (2018) Posthumanist Applied Linguistics

Reviewed by Christina Healey

20 June 2019

Posthumanist Applied Linguistics Pennycook, A.(2018) London, Routledge. or languaging in the late Anthropocene (subtitle added by this reviewer)

Acknowledgements to the British Association for Applied linguistics (BAA)L for providing valuable information on the BAAL Annual Book Award.

This book was named BAAL Book of the year in 2018.

Publishers are asked to nominate books for the BAAL Book Prize with a deadline of early to mid-December each year. From this original list of nominations (usually ranging from 20 to 25 books), the four highest scoring books make up the shortlist. These shortlisted books are sent to two internationally renowned scholars in the field of applied linguistics who review each book independently based on certain criteria. Here were just some of the key points which the reviewers made about Pennycook’s book, a selection of which were read out at the BAAL book prize event last year.

  • “With this book, Pennycook offers a compelling case for the study of language and humanity from a critical applied linguistic perspective”
  • “The book consists of eight lucid, intellectually rich and highly sophisticated chapters”
  • “Pennycook mobilises a diversity of contexts, examples and data sources, from multisensory aspects of social life, to animals, objects and ordinary things as they relate to language and communicative practices”.
  • “This book makes an innovative and important contribution to currently ongoing work in applied linguistics that focuses on aspects of space, place, flows, landscapes, and materiality, in all their interwovenness”.
  • “Without doubt, a thought-provoking and challenging book that will appeal to a wide spectrum of applied linguists interested in the intricacies of language in society for many years to come”.

In addition to the comments above it must be said that the book is very up to date. Pennycook acknowledges that ‘we are arguably living at a point of major historical disjuncture” (p.1)

The book is a position statement and certainly Pennycook has a position to state: Distinguised Professor of Language, Society and Education at the University of Technology, Sydney. Readers who already know his work and gain from it will not need this review.

In addition the writer appears a very likeable person. He is anti-neoliberal. He comes over very much as a person engaged in all these new interrelationships he writes about. He speaks up for immigrants and refugees in Australia’s current hostile environment. He participates in a demonstration .to defend ancient fig trees, clearly engages in the issues for indigenous Australians and is an active scuba diver. The cover page is a high quality photo of a giant clam as taken by the author.

The structure of this review

This review is not a eulogy. .It simply aims to be of use to BALEAP members by summarising enough of the contents of this book for members to decide for themselves whether or not they wish to read it and, in addition,  asks what new would a potential reader learn about:

  • language and the discipline of linguistics
  • how this learning might be applied (mainly although not exclusively) to the practices of teaching, learning and assessing languages

I have listed all the sub-headings under each of the eight Chapter headings so that readers can get some idea of the scope of his ideas on “space, place, flows, landscapes, and materiality”. (BAAL Book Prize supporting remark) although one has to admit that there is a certain amount of re-cycling from chapter to chapter.

Chapter 1 Introducing post-humanist applied linguistics (pp1-19) The planet, the people, animals and objects / Posthumanist applied linguistics / Posthumanist challenges

Having described posthumanism as ‘the planet, the people, animals and objects” the question he then asks (p. 6) is “What has any of this got to do with applied linguistics?” In response he first discusses what ‘humanist’ applied linguistics looks like. He answers that language pedagogy (student –centred etc etc) has often been linked to the humanist psychology of the 1970s and 80s which Pennycook terms ‘warm and fuzzy’(p.7). It is implied without any clear argument to support it that the ‘caring, sharing ‘ classroom is only a shallow, passing phase.

He then argues that other academic disciplines in the humanities and social sciences have been exploring posthumanist concepts for a long time so Applied Linguistics should do the same. He also argues that posthumanism helps us deal better with ‘reality’. Pennycook poses a challenge to his readers.

“ do we draw a deep divide between humans and non-humans (language is what defines us as humans) or do we open the door to consider that the relations between human and non-human communication need to be carefully considered?”(p.12).

He locates both the ’whole person’ reaction to the behaviourism associated with Skinner and the ’cognitivist‘ reaction to this in different strands of humanist thought (p.8) and doesn’t appear particularly sympathetic to either of them. His thesis is that posthumanism questions assumptions which “sit at the heart of applied linguistics, when we talk of linguistic or communicative competence, when we suggest that people choose what items to use from a pre-given linguistic system and when we assert that humans use language in particular contexts rather than seeing them as profoundly integrated.” (p.13).

Chapter 2 Posthumanism and the strange humanist subject  (pp19-40) The peculiar human subject / Religion, science, immanence / Human rights and situated ethics  / New materialisms / Post humanism and post structuralism / Beyond human exceptionalism

One of Pennycook’s definitions of humanism is ’a philosophical movement that placed humans at its centre’ (p.19), a positioning that he thinks is inappropriate. One of Pennycook’s principal objections to humanism and one of the reasons he argues to transcend it is that: ”humanism was never really founded on the principle of a shared humanity (p23) The humanist insistence on an autonomous , wilful human subject capable of acting independently in the world has been forged in the image of male white well-off educated human” (Bourke 2011 p 30). As the sub-headings above indicate this Chapter explores many aspects of posthumanism but readers are left to make any explicit links to applied linguistics for themselves.

Chapter 3 Distributed language, spatial repertoires and semiotic assemblages (pp 40-56) Finding your way under water / Extended and distributed cognition /From individual trajectories to spatial repertoires /Distributed language /Conclusion: towards vibrant assemblages. Given that language is expected to mean readers may be interested in the first part of this Chapter which uses ‘finding your way under water’ (pp 40-44) as an extended metaphor to represent ‘a complex act of re-semiotization’ (p 40). This leads the reader into the experience of ‘cognition and language as re-distributed’ (p.43). The relevance of a ’cognition in the wild’ approach (p.45) to second-language acquisition (SLA) studies is stated but not explored in detail.

However the implication of adding a ’spatial’ dimension to the existing linguistic concept of ‘language repertoires’ is explored in more depth in a section (pp. 47-51) which, to readers of this review, is recognisably about language. Pennycook quotes Gumperz (1964) as defining repertoire as “the totality of linguistic forms regularly employed during the course of socially significant interaction”, an idea underpinning much curriculum development in English for Specific Purposes (ESP). Pennycook, however, claims that a posthumanist perspective would see language “embedded, embodied, extended and enacted.”(p.48). He supports this with studies of online and offline communication by young adults in Mongolia and Bangladesh, data that makes our familiar academic speech community seem very dull.

In the last few pages of this Chapter Pennycook explores what he claims is the posthumanist concept of ‘distributed language’ which puts communication rather than languages as such at the centre. Pennycook claims that:

“ looking at language use in relation to distributed language and semiotic assemblages gives us a way to think in much more inclusive terms than individualistic accounts of linguistic or communicative competence or notions of language in context.” (pp 54-5)

Chapter 4 The human hierarchy of senses (pp 56 – 72) There’s nothing there / Locating smell /Cities, smells and the Other /Semiotic, linguistic and sensory landscapes/ Language in the absence of sound / Multisensory assemblages. As the Chapter Headings suggest Pennycook thinks that one of the consequences of a posthumanist vision is to re-emphasise the role of the senses in determining what counts as knowledge. Continuing his argument from Chapter 3 Pennycook quotes Steffensen and Fill (2014 p.7) to contend that the concept of language as a system “threw linguistics into a largescale sensory deprivation experiment”. Pennycook then goes on to discuss, among other things, the status of sign language and the role of synaesthesia –the conjoining of senses.

Chapter 5 Animals and language (pp72-89) The killer whales of Eden / Animal smarts / Language and animals /Missing the point/ An expanded account of language. Pennycook’s contention is that human beings and the ways they live cannot be understood except in relation to all other animals. Language, among other things, is not exclusively human. In other words a very different approach from Chomsky. The other point which links to the approach to language as centrally about communication is that language doesn’t necessarily have to be oral.

Chapter 6 Mutual misunderstanding (pp.90-103) Mutual intelligibility / Dogmas of intersubjective conformity / Rhubarb, rhubarb, rhubarb / Thinking otherwise /Alignment, assemblages and attunement. In this Chapter Pennycook looks at English as a lingua franca and vehicle of (mis) communication. He explores the ‘messiness of mutual misunderstanding’ (p. 95) supported by real language data. He then moves on to intercultural communication which is likely to be a concern for many readers.

Chapter 7 Re-engaging with reality (pp110 – 122) On mugs, rocks and tables / The cat at the bottom of the garden /Speculative and other realisms / Back on the table /Conclusion: critical posthumanist realism. Hopefully the sub-headings here will give the reader an idea of what it covers. The links with applied linguistics are implied but not made explicit.

Chapter 8 Towards a posthumanist applied linguistic commons (pp. 126- 144) Entangled humans / Post humanist trends in applied linguistics / Reclaiming the commons / Conclusions: towards a critical applied linguistic commons  In this final Chapter Pennycook offers what he calls ‘some tentative directions for a critical posthumanist applied linguistics.’ and between pages 130-36 this is what he tries to do. However, taking a personal perspective for a moment, the trouble with Pennycook is that he seems allergic to any kind of ‘applications’ of his own philosophy.

“The social and material implications of Vygotskyan ideas . . . have been diluted to become little more than a focus on cooperative learning. . . .  Translanguaging is reduced to bilingualism and distributed cognition is reduced to pair work (my emboldenings).

As he says “we need a much broader semiotics than the language –plus- image or language –plus –gesture common in multi-media studies”  (p. 136). Which may be true but how can this insight be converted into a credible set of seminars on an MA course in Applied Linguistics?

He relates his ideas to” recent applied and sociolinguistic research . . . nexus analysis,linguistic landscapes, ecolinguistics, sociomaterial and sensory literacies”(p131) without, however, explaining any of these ideas to his readers. On page 132, he commends the works of David Barton, Mary Hamilton, Brian Street and Lesley Gourlay –all part of the so-called academic literacies movement. One of Pennycook’s conclusions is:

“Despite a considerable body of thought arguing for the inseparability of feminist, anti-capitalist, anti-racist politics and a focus on animals and the environment  . . . . the significance and implications  for critical applied linguistics have not received much attention”(p.140)


I hope this review will at least have given BALEAP members some idea of whether they want to take Pennycook further. He is undoubtedly ‘erudite’ as the BAAL Book Prize claims and his range of sources goes far beyond conventional academic texts to poetry, science fiction and newspaper cuttings. He is a philosopher, a scholar, an enthusiast and a learner. But perhaps not a teacher. Many readers will need a glossary to follow his Chapters and this reader for one is still not sure exactly what ‘critical posthumanist applied linguistics’ (p.140) is except that it is, of course, a good thing! It is interesting that none of his acknowledgements include students even though who else do applied linguists learn most from?

The review started by asking some Questions. It finishes by declining to answer them and leaving it for readers to decide. Pennycook has laid out some ways in which a posthumanist approach might be relevant to the understanding of language. Now perhaps we need another writer who is more of a practitioner to apply these insights critically and constructively to the practices of teaching, learning and assessing.


Gumperz, J.(1964) Linguistics and social interaction in two communities. In J.Gumperz and D.Hymes (eds) The ethnography of communication. Special issue of American Anthropologist  66 (2),137-53

Steffensen, S.V. and Fill, A.(2014) Ecolinguistics: The state of the art and future horizons. Language sciences 41(A), 6-25

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