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A Linguistic Explanation for the Foundations of Applied Linguistics

A Conception of Continuity: Some Linguistic Confessions

The historical origins of applied linguistics lie in the beguilingly simple assumption that applied linguistics is a mere extension of linguistics. The ways in which this assumption is formulated often imply that an uncomplicated continuity exists between a kind of ‘hard’, scientifically conceived linguistics at the one extreme to a ‘soft’, socially or educationally engaged disciplinary orientation that may be called applied linguistics at the other end of the spectrum. As we shall see below, the working out of this notion led to nothing less than a linguistic conception of applied linguistics. We return to that important historical issue in more detail subsequently. For now, however, let us consider a number of statements relating to the questions “What is linguistics?” and “What is applied linguistics?” that illustrate how the assumed continuity between them is often construed, and why the argument for an extension of linguistics, to embrace applied linguistics as well, is so tempting.

We will do well to remember that when linguists and applied linguists try to answer these kinds of questions, of how their disciplines should be defined, they are doing it not as linguists studying phenomena in one or perhaps more linguistic subdisciplines. Rather, they are taking a step backwards, as it were, into the realm of philosophical or foundational linguistics. At this level of linguistic conceptualization the role of linguistic confessions becomes important.

Whether they are made at the beginning or at the end of a stretch of learned theoretical discourse, linguistic confessions are always crucial, for they influence everything in between. Let us consider five linguistic confessions, and add those of a journalist for good measure. The first of these derives from an arch-structuralist, the Danish linguist Hjelmslev:

(1) In its point of departure linguistic theory was established as immanent, with constancy, system and internal function as its sole aims, to the apparent cost of fluctuation and nuance, life and concrete physical and phenomenological reality. A temporary restriction

© Springer International Publishing Switzerland 2017

A. Weideman, Responsible Design in Applied Linguistics: Theory and Practice, Educational Linguistics 28, DOI 10.1007/978-3-319-41731-8_2

of the field of vision was the price that had to be paid to elicit from language itself its secret. But (instead) ... of hindering transcendence, immanence has given it a new and better basis; immanence and transcendence are joined in a higher unity on the basis of immanence. Linguistic theory is led by inner necessity to recognize not merely the linguistic system, in its schema and in its usage . but also man and human society behind language ... (Hjelmslev 1963: 127).

For Hjelmslev, then, there is a movement in linguistics with an almost inevitable end (“inner necessity”): that destination is life and reality, indeed human society itself will come into its sights. Though not as strongly articulated, similar sentiments are echoed by Chomsky in his acknowledgment that the idealisation evident in his theoretical stance, generativism, is not the only kind of linguistics. There is another, integral part of linguistics that is meant to deal with a more complex reality:

(2) (Sociolinguistics has now become) part of linguistics. A linguistics that takes the idealization of ordinary linguistics one step closer to the complexity of reality (Chomsky 1979: 54).

Such a complexity calls up the idea of lingual subjects, the persons or agents who produce language events, and do so in particular contexts, as De Beaugrande (1984: 16, 18) points out:

(3) Somehow, we would have to get from phrase structures to the world-knowledge, personal roles and goals, gestures, facial expressions, and so on, that also define language events . Linguistics is a typical science to the degree that its theories must deal, however implicitly, with the question of context.

And it is indeed these typical lingual contexts that present the lure for some to go, apparently seamlessly, from linguistics to applied linguistics:

  • (4) ... we cannot study ‘language’, but only “language in specific settings”—an old observation, but one which places sociolinguistics (and psycholinguistics ) firmly within linguistics, as dimensions of knowing that subject. ... What is perhaps less obvious is that this conclusion applies even to those language areas which would seem to be clearly “applied linguistics” . (Crystal 1981: 4).
  • (5) I would posit that applied linguistics constitutes the point at which all study of language comes together and becomes actualized (Kaplan 1980a: 10).

In such a case, applied linguistics, in the common frame of mind, can simply become a kind of linguistics for the sake of practice, and for those whose language problems are in need of being addressed:

(6) Iedere tijd krijgt de taalwetenschap die hij verdient ... De anderstalige medemens staat nu in de belangstelling. Taalwetenschap is er voor de praktijk (Van Weerlee 1982).

These confessions, or - if one wishes to use a more conventional academic term - statements all seem to have at least one element in common: there is a dynamic tendency in linguistic conceptualization , an “inner necessity”, in Hjelmslev’s formulation, that allows it to encompass at every new juncture an ever-widening field. Whether one characterises this progression as taking linguistics a step closer to reality, as Chomsky does, or by referring like Kaplan (1980a) to applied linguistics as the point of ‘actualisation’ of linguistics, the notion is the same.

What makes the progression evident in definitions (1) to (6) so beguiling, in addition, is that it echoes an apparently historical development. It is indeed so that modern linguistics has since the days of De Saussure progressed from a consideration of restricted, highly abstract phenomena, to include the study of increasingly complex and specific linguistic phenomena. Where formerly the apparent diversity of lingual processes and events was theoretically held in check by emphasizing the well-structuredness thought to exist at each hypothesized ‘level’ of language (De Beaugrande 1984: 17), linguistics has, in De Beaugrande’s definition (3 above), over the years become more of a typical (as opposed to general) science. This transition has been signalled in various ways by different scholars: we might call it a shift from modular to interactional views of language, following De Beaugrande and Dressler (1981: 32); or speak of a transition from monological to intersubjective, if we wish to adopt Habermas’s terms (1970: cf. esp. 132, 137f.). Or we may consider capturing this movement in terms of Rawls’s differentiation between constitutive and regulative rules (Searle 1969: 33f.; cf. too Coulthard 1977: 22ff.; Levinson 1983 : 238), Halliday’s distinction between intra-organism and inter-organism perspectives (Halliday 1978: 10ff.) or simply speak of analytic and user views of language (Widdowson 1980).

It is important to note, once again, that all these foundational distinctions are neither typically linguistic nor even applied linguistic ones. At no single point in one’s attempts to determine the nature of linguistic conceptualization, or in describing what shifts might have occurred in such conceptualization, is one making truly linguistic distinctions. The fact that it may be linguists or applied linguists who are attempting to define their field of study, whether it is ‘theoretical’ (formal) linguistics, sociolinguistics, psycholinguistics, or applied linguistics (or perhaps all of these) often obscures that point. It should be obvious enough, however, that there is no argumentation along typically linguistic lines, as can be found in conventionally conceived linguistic sub-disciplines, that in the first instance tend to begin with a definition of the lingual objects they typically examine, be these phonemes (meaningful sound units) in phonology, morphemes in morphology, lexemes in lexicography and semantics, or words and word classes, phrases and clauses in syntax. In the latter formal linguistic sub-discipline, for example, one is likely to find reference to the properties of distribution, recurrence, co-ordination, boundaries, and omissions of linguistic constituents (cf. Radford 1981: chapter 2). All of those help in identifying a lingual unit at the level of syntactic analysis. This kind of typically linguistic concept-formation sometimes extends, too, beyond formal linguistics, into the subdisciplines of pragmatics, discourse and conversation analysis, in the way that linguistic objects operating in them, such as speech acts, turns, moves, exchanges, transactions, discourses, and so forth, are defined or identified. But another kind of concept-formation is required when linguists attempt to say what linguistics itself is, and what the relations are between various linguistic sub-disciplines, or between linguistics and other disciplines. Moreover, in order to make explicit Hjelmslev’s statements about the “inner necessity” of linguistic theory, its movement from ‘immanent’ to ‘transcendent’ points of view, we need a notion of explicitness that goes beyond the conditions for linguistic explicitness in the Chomskyan sense. This level is that of philosophical or foundational conceptualization; it is akin to the kind of theoretical clarification that is foundational in the sense intended by Van Lier (2008: 598) when he observes that we need a “clear vision ... and a coherent set of working metaphors ...” rather than “rigid, abstract theory that is full of tightly argued empirical facts and irrefutable logic”.

It is at the foundational level, therefore, that questions concerning the field of linguistic and applied linguistic study are posed. It is here that methodological interpretation or re-interpretation is given to linguistic data (cf. Hjelmslev 1963: 7; Chomsky 1979: 114f., 177; Weideman 1981,2009a). The topicality of foundational or philosophical linguistic study is evident not only in linguistics. It is echoed, too, in calls within applied linguistics to put this up for discussion, and regardless of whether one regards it as part of linguistics or as a separate discipline:

It seems essential, if a theoretical conception of applied linguistics is to emerge, for linguists to step back from their concerns with individual subject-areas within the field, and to attempt to construct an inclusive model ... (Crystal 1981: 22).

Applied linguistics is, in other words, as much in need of a principled, systematic clarification of its foundations as linguistics is (Weideman 2009a), if only for the sake of discovering the excitement of participating in the present-day purpose of linguistic studies expressed in definition (6), that has in a sense been present all along, by virtue of the systematic progression that is evident in the convictions expressed in the statements (1) to (5) above.

In what way then, one may ask, are these and similar theoretical convictions helpful to delimit the scope of applied linguistics in particular? Is applied linguistics part of linguistics, or is it not? If not, how can its scope be defined in such a way that it has a focus independent of that of linguistics? I wish to argue that the explicit adoption of a specific philosophical stance will provide us with a strong, reasoned basis for such a definition or definitions of scope: I am referring, particularly, to the Amsterdam school of philosophy founded by Herman Dooyeweerd (cf. Dooyeweerd 1955). It presents us with a philosophical methodology that is explicitly designed to be useful in solving problems related to the delimitation of the fields of investigation of the various ‘vakwetenschappen’ - scientific disciplines. The work done in this regard ranges over a wide area and many and diverse fields: mathematics, physics (cf. Stafleu 1980), chemistry, biology (cf. Diemer 1963 ; Duyvenne de Wit 1962; Strauss 2004), psychology (De Graaff 1967), logic, history; pedagogy (De Graaff 1968; De Graaff and Olthuis 1973) , linguistics (Verburg 1951; Zuidema 1951; Bakker 1984; Weideman 1983) , sociology (cf. Dengerink 1948; Van Dijk s.d.; Strauss 2005), economics, aesthetics (Seerveld 1968, 1974, 1980; Van den Berg 1984), jurisprudence (Van Eikema Hommes 1972) and ethics.

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