Chapter 23 - Language awareness  pp. 160-165

Language awareness

By Leo van Lier

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Language awareness has been conceptualised in several different ways. In a round-table discussion in the UK in 1982 it was defined as ‘a person's sensitivity to and conscious awareness of the nature of language and its role in human life’ (Donmall 1985: 7). Van Lier (1995: xi) defines it similarly as ‘an understanding of the human faculty of language and its role in thinking, learning and social life’. These definitions are quite broad and accommodate various interpretations and practices. In this review I look at the most common ways in which language awareness has been understood in the past, and the ways in which it is currently being interpreted, practised, and promoted.


The concept of language awareness is not new. Van Essen (1997) points to a long tradition in several European countries; see Language Awareness, 1990, 1(1). In van Lier (1996), I refer to the 1930s in the Netherlands, noting distinctions made at the time between ‘language understanding’ (taalbegrip), ‘language feeling’ (taalgevoel) and ‘language insight’ (taalinzicht). Even though grammar translation was dominant in teaching and learning languages up to the 1960s, there have long been strong critiques against prescriptive approaches from applied linguists, including Otto Jespersen, Harold Palmer and Charles Fries (see Howatt 1984). Language awareness proponents have always firmly opposed a view of language learning (both first and second) that focuses on prescriptive instruction and is concerned primarily with correctness, and only secondarily with understanding, appreciation and creative expression.