“Linguistics Or Literature: An Approach To Language” - Article Review

Topping, M. Donald. “Linguistics or Literature: An Approach to Language”. TESOL Quarterly. Vol. 2, No. 2 (Jun., 1968), pp. 95-100. Print.

Article reviewed by: M. Zerzour, M. A. in Comp. Literature.

In his article “Linguistics or Literature: An Approach to Language”, Donald M. Topping, a renowned scholar of linguistics, praises his own field for contributing significantly to the teaching of languages although he recognizes some of the discipline’s limitations in the domain of teaching. As regards literature, Topping argues that it should not be included in second-language programs because it has no significant value for students who want solely to learn the skills of speaking English. Thus, Topping examines the two arenas, linguistics and literature, emphasizing the strengths of linguistics and the weaknesses of literature in teaching a second language.

As a synthetical work, Topping’s essay is comprehensive and well informed. It offers a reading of several tenets adopted by linguists to approach the problem of language. Those tenets resulted in methodological guidelines brought about by linguists. Indeed, the guidelines that Topping singles out attest to the brilliant work of linguists in teaching languages. Nonetheless, the author acknowledges the fact that these methods do not suffice for the requisite level of proficiency for any significant communication. To surpass such a primary level, there emerges the need for some sort of solution that would enable the student to function efficiently in the second language.

Applied linguistics

“Literature has no legitimate place in a second-language program.”

– Topping M. Donald.

The rationale behind Topping’s article deserves much praise. In other words, his essay emanates from his deep concern with the student and what would be beneficial for him/her. His devotion thus seen is humanistic in the fullest sense; therefore, he is right “to think of linguistics as a humanistic science” (95). Topping goes on to list potential solutions as proffered by psychologists, educationists and literary scholars when the linguists engaged other works. Although, in Topping’s view, none of the suggestions met with much success, “[t]he avenue of literature is probably the most serious one” (97). That is, the argument that the student must be led through the richness of literature to master the language seems more logical. It is this “avenue” that Topping is concerned with and examines here.

Teacher in class

Topping’s foremost aim is to dismiss the use of literary texts from teaching language. He clearly states in the very beginning of his essay that “literature has no legitimate place in a second-language program” (95). For this purpose, Topping allows himself to use whatever means to prove his point. Although such a tendency is common for any contention, the author seems to combine both viable and unreliable evidences. What seems relevant, for instance, is his remark that the great authors of literature artfully break grammatical rules, which may be misleading to students. This is true, but the devoted linguist seems reluctant to the idea that literature may be included and edited, simply because editing might take much time and energy. Yet the student deserves our time and energy if the effect would be the mastery of more vocabulary and more complex structures, an outcome that Topping does not deny.

Moreover, if Topping assumes such editing of complex literary works to be highly demanding, there are relatively easy, enjoyable literary readings, Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina for example. Students may not only acquire new vocabulary through these texts, but that would also be another experience for the learner, though s/he might not be willing to specialize in literature. In fact, many of us were only trying to learn the language and were consequently lured into the magic of literature. That is to say, the goal of using literature in teaching is not only to acquaint the student with the country’s culture as Topping argues (98). 

Topping infers some precarious conclusions from unverified facts. It is true that literature is full of intricacies. However, it is dangerous to state that “there are more foreign students who need training in language than there are students of literature” (99) without providing any statistics. Apparently, Topping is less argumentative and hence less convincing when it comes to countering literature. This lack of objectivity in the advances of Topping culminates when he welcomes the materials produced by the psychologists, the anthropologists and the sociologists, but never literary texts. It is so absurd to imply that the texts in psychology or anthropology are easier for the foreign students to apprehend than literary texts. These alternative fields, whose material Topping favors, are obviously full of technical registers; therefore, they may be more perplexing for the student than literature. 

 There are more foreign students who need training in language than there are students of literature.

– Topping M. Donald.

For the student who lives in America, Topping suggests that s/he must be immersed in the society in order to assimilate the culture, not to rely on literature. This seems logical enough. But this immersion might result in some very embarrassing situations. In “the weighty atmosphere of a learned debate” (100) about literature, the student may feel alienated, if not ridiculed. Although American students themselves, according to Topping, do not bear literary courses, they indulge in conversations touching upon literary texts in the most unexpected situations. Therefore, knowing a bit about literature would enrich the learner’s knowledge, and it would in no case kill him or her. After all, how could one mention culture with no regard to literature! 

Regardless of the limitations of the article, it remains a good piece of reading. It is good in the sense that it presents the point of view of a scholar of linguistics. The article needs perhaps more objective argumentation, statistics if possible, and less unbalanced analysis. However, the essay enhances the debate about such thorny issue, and therefore it is to be read, at least to base one’s research on or to review.