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Historical Sense and Professionally Matter

Apart from those already referred to above, there are at least three further specific reasons for taking a hard, critical look at the foundations of applied linguistics.

The first specific reason is that, when the label ‘applied’ is attached to a field of theoretical endeavor, it gives rise to a whole range of expectations, conditioned by centuries of Western scientific reflection. Stimulated for the greater part by an unfailing belief in progress and the achievements of humankind, Western scientific thought has throughout its history fostered the idea that the instrument of such progress and achievement is to be found in rational thought itself, i.e. in the human’s intellectual capacities. However much this belief has been undermined by postmodern relativism in the theory of science, it has persisted with an ideological tenacity where, in the name of science and technology, Western thinkers have proclaimed it:

... [T]he major motive in western culture today is man’s will to master and control, combined with the idea of technology as applied science. People ... find assurance and confidence in a tacit, religious devotion to the scientific method, used in gaining mastery of practical affairs . [S]cientific knowledge and its practical application have been accorded superior status (Schuurman 1977: 52, 55, 56).

Even among those who have most seriously questioned the bases of Western thought, in particular its proclaimed autonomy, the idolatrous belief in science as the soundest knowledge we have is flourishing.

The question that one must raise in this regard is whether this belief in scientific progress that was characteristic of applied linguistics at its inception, still is part of what we know as “applied linguistics” today, and, if that is the case, what the consequences are in terms of our expectations of the results of applied linguistic research. There is therefore a historical reason for potentially skewed expectations of what direction applied linguistics should take.

The second reason for a thorough reconsideration of the foundations of applied linguistics, that is closely tied up with the first, concerns the significance for applied linguistics of the near crisis proportions of the problems faced by those “applied sciences” - particularly technology - that appeared on the historical horizon at an earlier stage. The dilemma of being between technocracy and revolution (the title of an inaugural address at the University of Eindhoven in 1973; cf. Schuurman 1977: chapter 1), of having to choose between technocratic and revolutionary ideals, in fact the age-old question in Western history of freedom and determinism, liberty and bondage, is today no longer reserved for the application of the natural sciences. In technocratic thinking, for example, it has been argued that the technical-scientific method must be extended to “analyze man himself, to dissect society, and from there to reconstruct the future” (Schuurman 1977: 3; cf. too Schuurman 1972: 363). And indeed, in that part of applied linguistics that is concerned with language teaching, we notice such technocratic ideals at work in the audio-lingual method (cf. the section “The reflection of linguistic theory in language teaching” below, Chap. 2, and Chap. 4, “The expectations of the results of applied linguistics research”) and in some interpretations of communicative language teaching (cf. below, Chap. 6, “Communicative teaching: the mainstream” and Chap. 8, “The linguistic ‘extended paradigm’ model”), while in other approaches, particularly the so-called humanistic methods, the operation of a revolutionary ideology is evident (cf. below, Chap. 6, “Humanistic language teaching: a revolutionary option”). When we subsequently discuss the various generations or styles of doing applied linguistics, a number of further historical connections with technocratic and revolutionary ideals will become evident.

This divergence between technocratic and revolutionary directions for applied linguistics is dealt with in greater detail below (Chap. 6), but already at this stage I wish to point out that applied linguistics is not, and will not be, immune to the dilemmas of other ‘applied’ sciences. The dilemma of how these assign a privileged status to ‘scientific’ knowledge or what Schon (1987: xi) calls “[t]echnical rationality ... [that] treats professional competence as the application of privileged knowledge ... to problems of practice” is evident not only in applied linguistic designs. Though I have chosen in this book to retain the label “applied linguistics”, much of the current dissatisfaction with that now internationally conventional label for the discipline has its origin in this contested notion of ‘application’. Hence the call, for example, from Spolsky (2008) and others (Hult 2008, 2010) , for an alternative perspective, a point that I return to below in several discussions of “educational linguistics ”.

The need for some sense of direction in applied linguistics therefore becomes ever more crucial. It is essential for helping those working in the discipline to resolve these dilemmas, even while they are sometimes not obvious on the surface to those who are involved in the field every day. A sense of direction is required if applied linguistics is to avoid the pitfalls encountered in (and to some extent engendered by) the ‘applications’ of science in other areas.

The third reason for attending to the foundations of the discipline is a professional one. It concerns the professionality with which new applied linguists are inducted into the discipline, and the responsibilities of those training them (Weideman 2007a: 589) to create among the newly inducted a sense of both the history and the nature of the discipline. As McNamara (2008: 304) has observed: “It is important to keep alive an understanding of the theoretical perspectives that have been proposed in the past so that their enduring relevance is appreciated ...”

Traditionally, applied linguistics has for the greater part been synonymous with the scientific study of second and foreign language teaching and learning (Crystal 1981 : 1). Its initial reflective focus was almost exclusively adjusted to making theoretical connections between linguistics and language teaching, as well as subsequently - and perhaps to a lesser extent than was or is desirable - forging links between the latter and psychology and pedagogy.

Today, of course, the scope of applied linguistics has broadened to include not only these concerns, but also lexicography, translation science, the investigation of speech disorders and disabilities, and a host of other areas. Nevertheless, it is the former interpretation that, perhaps only for historical reasons, still describes its central area of involvement, and it is this interpretation of the field that will be used for the majority of the illustrations offered in this book. This does not mean, in my opinion, that the theoretical characterization of applied linguistics to be attempted here has no significance for areas other than language teaching. It would probably, with minor qualifications, turn out to be valid for most of these, if not in fact, then at least in principle. However, since my personal experience and expertise in areas outside of language teaching and testing are more limited, I would rather leave it to others to draw such conclusions. For the sake of both clarity and brevity, therefore, this investigation of the foundations of applied linguistics will be limited to its traditional concern with language teaching and learning, and the assessment of language ability.

After offering a provisional clarification of the foundations of applied linguistics below (Chap. 2), the problems inherent in some further earlier and contemporary definitions of applied linguistics are discussed in greater detail (Chap. 3), before the scientific status of applied linguistics is discussed (Chap. 4) and a redefinition of the field is attempted (Chap. 5). In the chapter following that, the significance of this characterization of applied linguistics is illustrated in one traditional and two later approaches to the teaching of second and foreign languages. The move to go “beyond method” and towards accountability is dealt with in Chap. 7, while a historical summary characterising the various styles and themes in applied linguistic designs is offered in Chap. 8. A central question of the history of the discipline is its development beyond its modernist beginnings. The remainder of the discussion therefore deals with some further burning issues of direction in applied linguistics: Given its history, will it be able to move also beyond postmodernism? Chap. 9 deals with the themes of innovation and continuity in applied linguistics, themes that have implications for the future of applied linguistics, a discussion of which concludes the final two chapters, that deal, respectively, with the ongoing quest to define the field, and with an emerging theoretical framework for the discipline.

The perspective from which this book will argue the case of what constitutes responsible design is an unashamedly philosophical one. Its thesis is simple: no theoretical consideration of the bases of the discipline of applied linguistics is possible without taking a critical look at its philosophical points of departure. What this also means, as may be apparent from the outline given above, and will become more apparent as the argument unfolds, is that such a consideration has both a historical and a systematic side .

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