The Foundations of a Discipline of Design

A Sense of Direction in Applied Linguistics

How many practising applied linguists set aside sufficient time to consider the foundations of their discipline? How do they deal with the difficult questions about it, like: What delimits the field of applied linguistics? How does conceptualisation become possible within it? How is one to judge the various competing and complementary approaches to it? These are not easy questions, nor are their answers always apparent. This book is about these questions. It deals with an underresearched but important component of the discipline, namely its foundations and its philosophical undertow, that are sometimes inappropriately peripheral to the interests of practising applied linguists. It is a small consolation, perhaps, that this is not the case only in the field of applied linguistics: while the need for the process is generally acknowledged, scientists’ reflecting upon their own thinking is not exactly a thriving academic enterprise in any discipline today.

Of course practising theorists and academics who pursue this apparently conventional line, to engage in the study of their particular discipline in an unreflective manner, place their work at risk, since reflection and deliberation are at the core of applied linguistic designs (and certainly of more than applied linguistic designs: cf. Schon 1983, 1987). We cannot as applied linguists propose responsibly designed solutions to language problems if we remain ignorant of our theoretical foundations. This is not the only risk. There is the further risk that the limits, the nature and sometimes even the very direction and purpose of a field of intellectual endeavor then appear not to be the scientist’s explicit concern. It seems in such cases that our own thinking and the plans we make are not considered important enough to constitute theoretical problems in their own right; that the critical examination of our own theoretical pursuits, our potentially hidden starting points, our own theoretical perspectives and the analytical and technical practices that follow from these perhaps need only be done occasionally, if at all. It is ironic that in a scholarly world where critical practice has become the order of the day, we embrace such a

© Springer International Publishing Switzerland 2017 1

A. Weideman, Responsible Design in Applied Linguistics: Theory and Practice,

Educational Linguistics 28, DOI 10.1007/978-3-319-41731-8_1

limited conception of what constitutes the practice of our design and theoretical skills, perhaps never in a lifetime of work realising that we may be the willing and uncritical servants of some ideology.

Though these observations refer to the practice of science in general, this may be true also, and perhaps especially, of those disciplines marked as ‘applied’ science, as we shall note again below, when the historical origins of the discipline are examined. When we consider how applied linguistics is practised, it is true that some excuses spring readily to mind for a lack of reflection on what its designs and developed solutions are based. Applied linguistics is in the first instance a design discipline that assists us in making plans in order to overcome language problems. It casts those plans into the form of designed interventions, usually in the shape of national or institutional language policies , curricula, course material or language assessments (Weideman 2011: 14; De Bot 2015: 138). In this definition, it is inevitably involved with problems that affect people, and also their livelihoods. The simple fact is that many language problems are so urgent, and call for such immediate remedy and intervention, that their solutions may be rushed or lack deliberation, not to mention the theoretical rationale that is so intimately part of the justification of any good design.

What applied linguists should be looking for in their designed solutions lo l anguage problems are responsible designs. But how those can be achieved, and what would, for example, constitute an adequate theoretical rationale for the designed intervention, are questions that can really only be answered with reference to the answers applied linguists give to the unavoidable foundational questions of their discipline. That is the theme of this book, and the discussion will steer towards how a sense of direction can be discovered for the discipline, and while working in it. Before continuing with the articulation of that, however, let us briefly examine one case of why we should not yield to the temptations of avoiding these questions and their answers.

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