Guy Cook's call for greater consideration of play in language and in language teaching is thoroughly researched and convincingly argued. As an applied linguistics text, this book is useful to language teachers while not being prescriptive about classroom practice. It doesn't guide teachers through the 'trees' of language teaching method and technique, but rather provides an overview of the 'forest' and so provides a new perspective from which language teachers can view their subject matter and their practice.
So why would a busy language teacher spend time and effort to read this book - because it isn't a light read, especially in its more theoretical parts? Isn't the idea of language play somewhat peripheral to language and language teaching? Well, it takes a bit of a leap of faith to get started with it. If you buy into Dr. Cook's argument (as I did), you will quickly realize that, far from being on the sidelines of linguistics, language play should be considered central. If you balk at this idea, it's probably because of the short shrift that language play is given in the field of linguistics in general.
Cook's first three chapters explore the nature of language play, and like a good language teacher, Cook analyses his subject through a focus on form, meaning, and use. Chapter 1, The Forms of Language Play, examines phenomena such as rhythm, rhyme, and repetition, and he attempts an evolutionary explanation as to why we enjoy these features of language. They are not merely the province of childhood: Cook draws attention to the fact that we can find them in adult discourses such as "prayers, liturgies, ceremonies, songs, advertisements, jokes, poems, films, and stories." Chapter 2, "The Meanings of Language Play" focuses in on the creation of imaginary worlds through language, and asks why we are so interested in fiction and fantasy. Wouldn't it be more useful for children, for example, to learn real facts about the world than about, say, "what happened on Grey Rabbit's birthday"? Why do adults spend so much of their time in fictional worlds (TV shows, movies, novels, etc.)? Cook draws on two types of explanation - language play as serving some other use, and language play as useful in itself - to attempt an explanation. The third chapter, "The Uses of Language Play: Competition and Collaboration" considers language play as an "instrument of competition and as a means of expressing shared beliefs and identities." Cook's description verbal duelling as a means of elucidating an evolutionary explanation ("skill with words is often worn and used like plumage in birds") is masterful - though as with many evolutionary explanations, it is necessarily speculative. Cook is not an evolutionary scientist of course, but looking at his bibliography, he seems to have read widely in the field (Dawkins, Pinker, Tooby and Cosmides, et al.), and I was impressed with his attempt to apply evolutionary thinking to a problem in his field. He unfortunately refers in his endnotes to counterarguments by Michael Behe, an "intelligent design" advocate now long discredited as far as any scientific contribution goes. This is a minor point, though.
The central section of the book contains two chapters on play itself, and attempts to steer a course between a constructivist explanation (in which language and culture largely determine our reality) and an evolutionary-psychological explanation which focuses on genetic inheritance interacting with the environment. Chapter 4, The Nature of Play, again attempts to answer the question why play is so prominent in the behavior of humans and other animals. What purpose could it serve? The endnotes to this chapter contain an absolutely fascinating distillation of universalist and relativist traditions in linguistics, which I would recommend to anyone interested in language. Chapter 5, The Play of Nature, delves even more deeply into genetics, finding a close analogy between the randomness produced by phonological play and that involved in the mutation of DNA. It is a challenging but fascinating argument.
In the final two chapters of the book, Cook turns to the role of play in language teaching. It is important to be clear that he is not in favor of language teaching becoming play (for example, through the introduction of games), especially if play is regarded as the opposite of work. Rather, he invites us to consider that in the classroom there is a triad of work, play, and learning, and that these have areas of overlap. The argument, then, is for play to infuse language teaching, but not for play to replace language teaching. For me, this was the best chapter: Cook challenges the current orthodoxy in language teaching, which regards needs, reality, and focus on meaning as primary. Cook proposes that we consider wants, unreality, and focus on form as ways to introduce a more play-oriented approach into language teaching. Cook provides a first-class history of modern language teaching in which he challenges the avoidance of taboo topics as subject matter, advocates for decontextualized example sentences, which he feels might just be exploited more imaginatively, and argues (though somewhat fleetingly) for the use of literature in language teaching. If you happen to find this book in your library and can only read one chapter of it, read this one.
I found the last chapter, "Future prospects for language teaching" to be something of a denouement. Cook tentatively suggests the advantages that might be gained from a language-play influenced teaching approach, and makes only mild proposals. Anyone looking for a radical new approach will be disappointed, but it is in keeping with Cook's role as an applied linguist to make suggestions to the language teaching field based on research and insight.
I studied with Dr. Cook briefly in the 1990s at the Institute of Education in London, and was impressed by his willingness to challenge orthodoxy and get his students to question their assumptions and those of textbook writers and teacher trainers. This book is perfectly consistent with his skeptical but constructive approach. It is a challenging read, but ultimately very rewarding. I recommend it.