Applied Linguistics as Bridging Discipline

While most applied linguists would therefore now agree that applied linguistics does not entail the straightforward ‘application’ of linguistic theory to a particular field, and that the term “applied linguistics” itself is thus somewhat misleading, we should not forget that in the history of the development of the discipline there has nonetheless been a persuasive set of arguments that sees linguistics and applied linguistics as a continuum of activity, the one ‘theoretical’ in orientation, the other more practically inclined. The way that that has endured is discussed and argued in more detail in my analysis of positivist and postpositivist tendencies in applied linguistics (Weideman 2013a) and in a review of complex or dynamic systems theory in the field Weideman (2009b). In that view it is the directionality of one’s engagement with “language studies” in general that defines the former as ‘theoretical’ and establishes the scope of the latter as ‘applied’. As an early comment phrased it:

It would ... make ... sense to regard applied linguistics as just that part of linguistics which, in given situations, turns out to have applications in some other field. (Buckingham and Eskey 1980: 3; Kaplan 1980c)

It should be noted, moreover, that the idea of ‘theory’ and ‘practice’ being two parts of the same continuum was not a new one, but was voiced already in 1964 by

Carroll (1965 : 206). It is a view of the scope of applied linguistics in which the continuity postulate of modernist thinking is very much in evidence.

There are two initial observations to be made in this regard. The first has already been dealt with in the first section of this chapter, in the arguments that were proposed for defining linguistics in the first instance not as the study of language, but as the theoretical analysis of the lingual mode of our experience. This modal aspect, and not ‘language’, delimits the field of theoretical abstraction in which linguistic investigation operates. It is this experiential aspect, also, that qualifies, structures and characterizes language processes, objects and events, such as the “sign-making and sign-using processes and practices” that Van Lier (2008: 599) identifies. If there is no recognition in linguistics, however, that what the linguist picks out and abstracts in all of these concrete, factual lingual objects is not the object or objects themselves, but the lingual aspect that qualifies and therefore makes them relevant for linguistic analysis in the first place, then it is an easy step toward the definition of ‘theoretical’ and ‘applied’ foci as two directions within a continuous spectrum of studies concerned with language. It is a conception, however, that it modernist to the core, and where it endures in work done from a postmodernist perspective, it is a philosophical inconsistency.

The second observation concerns the possible problems that arise from such a definition of applied linguistics specifically when, in a contradictory way, the discontinuities between linguistics and applied linguistic endeavor are acknowledged, as frequently happens. Even in those views surveyed in the previous section, which today would be considered as naive, there is an acknowledgement that applied linguistics in some way mediates (sometimes even in several steps) between linguistics and language teaching problems. But if both theoretical and applied linguistics are truly linguistic in nature, i.e. merely two ends of the same continuum, why is it necessary to speak in the same breath of the latter as a ‘bridge’? That mediating task of applied linguistics therefore suggests a principled rather than a gradual difference between the two, or at least between doing linguistics and being engaged in some other activity, such as language teaching, or its design.

Both of these observations are relevant to the returning question of how applied linguistics should be defined, a more recent discussion of which I return to in Chap. 10.

It is interesting to observe that even in the early days when applied linguistics was identified with language teaching, the typical differences between scientific linguistic analysis and other activities were nonetheless honoured. So Bloomfield (1914) contrasts the different skills and competencies of university lecturers and the professional teachers who sometimes have to teach languages in the universities. The former group he encourages to “stick to their last, for they are no more capable of this work than are ... high-school teachers of conducting graduate seminars”, while the latter should, in his opinion, be given employment and promotion as “long as this work is inappropriately left to colleges”. In an equally interesting historical statement that rejects the view that linguistic insight can be directly applied, and that implicitly calls for a mediating process, Bloomfield (1933) categorically states:

“Grammatical doctrine should be accepted only where it passes a test of usefulness, and even there it should be re-shaped to suit the actual need.”

The point therefore is that in defining applied linguistics as a bridging discipline or mediator, one has to recognize that a mediator, in order to be one, has to be markedly different in orientation from the two sides that are being mediated, otherwise mediation would either be impossible or unnecessary.

To be sure, the idea of applied linguistics as a bridging discipline, assuming a mediating position between linguistics and second or foreign language instruction, has not always gone unchallenged. Thus Ritchie (1985 : 10ff.) has argued, using examples from the history of science, that there is a unity between theory and practice such that, at best, we may speak of a theoretical understanding or a practical understanding of language processes and language teaching. He sets out to illustrate that the idea of applied linguistics as mediating discipline is not only vacuous, but has detrimental effects on the relationship of theory to practice, and concludes that the lack of feedback from ‘practice’ to ‘theory’ - the “consumer view” of the task of the applied linguist - should make it clear that one is either a “dedicated practitioner” or a developer of theories, but never something in between, i.e. a mediator between the two.

However persuasive Ritchie’s arguments may be on this point - and to many applied linguists they will certainly not be - he does (1985: 12) identify the crucial difference between the task of the researcher and that of the teacher: the former’s task is marked by a “narrowing of focus” (the process of theoretical abstraction) which excludes factors that the teachers inevitably have to deal with in the everyday, tangled complexity of their professional task.

I shall be returning below (in the section on “The ambiguity of applied linguistics as mediator” in Chap. 3) to the problem of conceiving of applied linguistics as a bridging discipline, after setting out in the last two sections of this chapter the other, more sophisticated arguments for including applied linguistics as part of linguistics.

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