The Historical and the Systematic

If, in general, applied linguists do not agree with the simplistic equation of their discipline either with language teaching or with linguistics, how then do some still succeed in emphasizing the linguistic nature of their field? The argument is sophisticated, and turns on the dynamic redefinition of linguistic inquiry referred to in the first section of this chapter. Like other developments in linguistics, notably sociolinguistic investigation - or even more broadly, the sociology of language - applied linguistics signals a movement in the direction of contextualization and specification, of a concentration that is evidence of a field that, in this view, seeks to respond with linguistic insight to the everyday concerns with language in a very specifically defined area, in this case, second and foreign language instruction.

It is this latter development that, from a linguistic point of view, captures the concerns of applied linguistics, and that allows definitions of the field such as (8) and (9). Whereas theoretical generalization isolates and simplifies, and is therefore of necessity partial and incomplete (Ingram 1980 : 40, 46), there is a tendency towards specification, concentration and contextualization at what is considered to be the other end of linguistic conceptualization : viz. applied linguistics. Applied linguists are therefore claimed to be the “most humanistic of the breed of linguists”, because they have to face specific language problems as human problems and not as static, isolated problems internal to generalized concepts of linguistic subsystems (Kaplan 1980b: 63f, 1980c).

To the proponents of this view, this dynamic is an internal development in linguistics. Hymes (1985: 11) formulates it as follows from a historical angle:

... the sequence of development within linguistics was from phonology and morphology to syntax and more recently semantics and pragmatics. The sequence can best be described as an arc in which linguistics first separated itself out from other disciplines, around the theme of the study of ‘language’ in and of itself, and now finds itself rejoining other disciplines on an enlarged terrain.

There are several observations to make in connection with such a historical explanation for the dynamic progression of linguistic theory.

First, it ties in with the idea of linguistics as a continuum (‘arc’), which is just one small step removed from saying that applied linguistics is part of linguistics, specifically that part that lies closest on the continuum of linguistic studies to other disciplines. Indeed this appears to be the implication to which Hymes subscribes, for he remarks (1985: 10), in a comment on the difficulty of finding an integrative perspective on language, its analysis, its use and relation to social life:

We are still far from having the kind of linguistics that is necessary to the tasks of language teaching, and for the analysis of the contexts within which language teaching occurs.

Surely, however, such a historical explanation needs to be grounded in some systematic clarification of why the history of linguistic theory moved from the investigation of phonological, morphological and syntactic concepts in the direction of enquiring into semantic, pragmatic and other sociolinguistic ideas.

Thus, second, there is a need for a more than merely historical perspective on this sequence of development. Hymes (1985: 11) indeed mentions what such a systematic explanation must be able to offer, by pointing out that we should not think of such progression merely as the expansion of the scope of linguistic enquiry. We have to be able to see, he says, that what we think of as ‘expansion’ is a reaching ‘down’ into the social dimensions of language use, for what “one reaches is not a periphery ... but a deeper grounding.”

This is simply another way of phrasing the progression of linguistic theory to sociolinguistic concerns in systematic terms, i.e. of an unfolding or opening up of constitutive, restrictive linguistic concepts (such as those used in phonological, morphological and syntactic analyses) into regulative, sociolinguistic ideas (Weideman 2009a). In such a dynamic progression, the lingual aspect of our experience that forms the field of enquiry of linguistics anticipates (“reaches down” to), and by anticipating analogically reflects, the link between itself and the s ocial dimension of life. The anticipation is that expressing oneself, making meaning through signs, will be deepened in the process of expression to “sharing and exchanging meanings across speakers” (Van Lier 2008: 599); in short: to communicate.

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