An Inter-Disciplinary View of Applied Linguistics

The Arguments for Characterizing Applied Linguistics as an Inter-Disciplinary Field

Having reviewed the linguistic explanation for applied linguistics, and the way that applied linguistics is given intra-disciplinary recognition through this, we now proceed to consider another viewpoint on the nature of applied linguistic activity. As applied linguistic work gained in sophistication, and as its supposed intra-linguistic starting points became more contested and less credible, it was apparent to many working in the field that the complexities of applied linguistic work cannot be fully explained with reference only to its linguistic bases. The intra-disciplinary recognition of applied linguistics as part of the discipline of linguistics therefore was seen by many as presenting us with less than a complete picture. Thus, the ever more frequent - and persuasive - claim began to be heard that it is also an interdisciplinary and multi-disciplinary field (cf., e.g., Brown 1977: 5f.; Wardhaugh and Brown 1977; the input into what Spolsky 1978 calls “educational linguistics”; also Strevens 1980a: 18, 1980b: 34; Spolsky 2008; Hult 2008i Hornberger 2010; Hult 2010a, b). As Vorster (1980: 11), Fielding (1980) observed:

“Applied linguistics” is at best a term of convenience for any activity anywhere along a continuum between linguistics on the one hand and any related discipline or inter-discipline on the other.

Historically, one can therefore say that applied linguistics itself has gone through several stages of development: a linguistic-psychological phase, followed by a (socio) linguistic-psychological-pedagogical one, though the latter, in spite of increasing attention especially to pedagogical concerns (cf., e.g., the attention that Van Els et al. 1984, give to didactic matters), had by the mid-1980s not yet run its course. Looking back at the history of applied linguistics, Prator could declare in 1965 that, apart from relying heavily on linguistics, second language teachers of English must find it equally evident that “our discipline should rest on other foundations as well, particularly on that branch of psychology that deals with the nature of

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

Educational Linguistics 28, DOI 10.1007/978-3-319-41731-8_3

the learner and the language-learning process” (1965: 249), thus acknowledging the debt that the discipline has towards another ‘input’, besides linguistics, into the investigation of second language teaching and learning. This amounts to the same as the re-evaluation and reinterpretation of the contribution that linguistics can make to language teaching called for by Roulet (1975: Introduction), as well as the call by Johnson (1969: 236) to consider “the dangers of relying on the findings of linguistic research as an exclusive base”. By the late 1960s, the call was already out to relate to linguistics, rather than to identify with it (Johnson 1969: 243).

In the applied linguistic literature of the time that discusses these issues, the inter-disciplinary bases of the field were recognized both implicitly and explicitly.

This recognition is implicit, for example, in Carroll’s (1960) statements on what tasks are to be shared in finding reasonable solutions for the problems of foreign language teaching. Apart from theoretical research in linguistics and psychology and the ‘adaptation’ of linguistic analyses to produce materials, there are also tasks for applied psychologists: to determine (through foreign language aptitude tests) which students should be taught by what methods. It should be noted that the interdisciplinary work implied by Carroll’s statements in this regard points to a cooperative engagement of various disciplines to solve the common problem(s) of foreign language teaching. It is not, by implication, the task of applied linguistics to solve these; instead the collaborative effort of linguistics and applied linguistics on the one hand, and of psychology on the other will supply the sound “research basis” mentioned in the title of Carroll’s (1960) article. The point, thus, is that there is an identifiable problem or set of problems: foreign language teaching, and that this problem should be tackled from various disciplinary angles.

The argument for studying the problems of foreign language teaching from an inter-disciplinary base was also recognized, at least implicitly, in the attempted improvement of foreign language instruction during the post-war period. Thus Moulton (1962: 182), Smolinski (1985) could report, regarding the activities of the then newly established Center for Applied Linguistics, that it would provide a forum for “the improvement of co-operation and communication among linguists, psychologists, and language teachers”.

The inter-disciplinary character of applied linguistics is explicitly recognized in some other statements made at the time, such as that of Corder (1972: 9), Qvistgaard et al. (1972): “Practical tasks present mixed problems. Their design is interdisciplinary.” Malmberg (1981 : 14) echoes the same sentiments: “It is in the intersection between one, or several, of the theoretical fields and practical and extra-linguistic activity that applied linguistics becomes a reality ...”

The most definitive articulation of inter-disciplinarity at that time, however, is that of Van Els et al. (1984: 2, 8f., 127f.). They emphasize that research interest in applied linguistics that used to be focused entirely on language has now begun to consider also the educational and psychological dimensions of foreign language teaching. Moreover, they are the first to reject explicitly the notion, inherent in some of the views discussed above (see Chap. 2), that applied linguistics is concerned only with the linguistic content of language courses (1984: l0), as some (e.g. Wilkins 1975: 215f.) would have it. They correctly perceive that, if there are educational and didactic principles that influence teaching, these will have to be integrated into the process of applied linguistic theory-formation and action.

One suspects, moreover, that in this inter-disciplinary definition of applied linguistics there is yet a further complication, for behind the term ‘inter-disciplinary’ there often lurks the meaning of ‘inter-professional’ co-operation between academic and non-academic professionals alike. These discussions provide convincing arguments, for example, that there must first be a recognition by the professional language specialist or practitioner (i.e. the teacher, speech therapist, translator, lexicographer, etc.) that there is an identifiable problem to be solved before applied linguistic concept-formation can begin (Crystal 1981: 5-7). And the kind of solution that is offered to such problems is, in effect, conceived of as one of method- development (Ingram 1980: 39, 45, 47) or at least the provision of a clarification or rational justification for the techniques devised by the practitioner to overcome practical problems with language (Crystal 1981: 16, 18, 20; Ingram 1980: 45, 48; cf. too Widdowson 1980a: 74, 86).

The notion that applied linguistics may best be thought of as a problem-solving enterprise in this sense is widespread (cf. Corder 1978: 78, but also the definitions given on the website of the international scholarly organization: AILA 2012). Corder (1978: 79f.) in fact distinguishes two directions that applied linguistics can take: the first casts the applied linguist in the role of problem solver, the second in the role of innovator (i.e. as one who has solutions in hand, and is looking for problems to solve). I would rather agree with the view that there must be an identifiable problem for the non-academic specialist before applied linguistic work can begin, but will return to a discussion of Corder’s distinction below (Chaps. 5 and 11).

The most frequent justification for perceiving applied linguistics as an interdisciplinary problem-solving activity is of course the multiplicity of facets that any concrete problem displays. Since the modal diversity of our experience also guarantees the uniqueness of each of the scientific disciplines whose fields of theoretical enquiry are delimited by these aspects, it follows that concrete problems, in displaying a multiplicity of facets like all other things in reality, should be approachable in terms of a variety of disciplines. This holds true even though the problem may identifiably be a ‘language’ problem, because language itself is a concrete phenomenon which cannot be exhaustively explained by linguistic analysis that isolates and abstracts for theoretical scrutiny and analysis only its lingual aspect, and not therefore the objective fact of language itself (Weideman 2013). The problem is compounded when the ‘language’ problem is one in which a second or foreign language learner is involved, with all the concomitant factors that enter into the picture such as age, attitude, motivation, cognitive capacity, cultural background, education system, instructional offering and capacity, and so forth. The complicated nature of the problem further exposes the inadequacy of trying to come up with the solution from the vantage point of a single discipline.

The issues that applied linguistics must therefore address can never be purely linguistic ones, for the latter are analytical, theoretical issues dealing with the investigation of one abstracted aspect of experience. As Brumfit (1980: 161) observes: “If real problems are to be confronted... the issues will not be solely linguistic.”

Because it is a ‘problem-oriented’ (as distinct from a theory-based) discipline, and because the problems are ‘messy’, i.e. display a multiplicity of crucial factors, applied linguistics is justifiably an inter-disciplinary field (Ingram 1978: 37).

Another good example of the explicit recognition of the multi-disciplinarity of applied linguistics can be found in Strevens’s (1977: 38) statements in this regard. He proposes that applied linguistics will, depending on the nature of the task at hand, use multiple bases (in theory and in practice) of various “interlocking disciplines” to respond to an identifiable language problem : “Consequently no single discipline monopolizes the theory and methodology of applied linguistics, not even theoretical linguistics ...”

The inter-disciplinary character of applied linguistics, as well as the idea that it is based on a variety of disciplines is well illustrated by work in the mid-1980s and onwards. In a paper by Chick and Seneque (1986), for example, the authors argue persuasively that the l anguage planning issue they are addressing, viz. choice of medium of instruction in Kwazulu-Natal schools, can be probed efficiently only if one takes into account a variety of variables (such as perceptions of the mother tongue and parent language, social class background of learners, attitudes of significant adults and peers, teachers’ competence, quality of teacher training, as well as exposure to and need for the second language). Such a multiplicity of variables, they argue, cannot be studied from one specific, theoretically delimited disciplinary angle - in fact, the research question itself, as it was presented to them by educational authorities, assumed that age of the learner is the crucial (and perhaps the only significant) variable, thus suggesting a purely psycholinguistic investigation. Instead, Chick and Seneque (1986: 13) hypothesize, one must take an applied linguistic perspective (that by their definition allows a flexible approach which can be adapted to take a variety of variables into account) in order to make informed decisions possible.

It must be noted, though, that the variables listed by Chick and Seneque (1986) are simply hypothetically crucial factors; in principle, such crucial factors can potentially indeed all belong to the investigation of a single, defined aspect of experience, and thus to the field of a single discipline. The persuasive argument here is simply that the factors they have identified cannot conceivably belong to a single scientific discipline, since they are too divergent. Moreover, the investigation of how variables act upon or interact with one another clearly calls for a multi-disciplinary approach. Such an approach the authors call “an applied linguistic perspective” to echo the flexible, open-ended and multiply-based task they foresee. It is clear that this appeal for multi-disciplinary work cleared the way, much later on in the history of the field, for dynamic or complex systems perspectives to elucidate such multifaceted problems, as will be discussed in some detail in Chaps 8 and 9, below. Behind the much later call for transdisciplinarity (Hult 2010) lies the same kind of motivation.

So flexible and dynamic is applied linguistics, however, according to some that hold to the emergent inter-disciplinary view of this earlier time, that it has to “redefine itself afresh for each task” (Strevens 1977: 39), since, because it is a multi- and inter-disciplinary endeavor addressing language-related problems, the relation between these various theoretical and technical or professional bases will shift, depending on what perspective is needed to solve the problem. This flux in the possible disciplinary combinations of applied linguistic work of course makes applied linguistics much harder to define, and certainly the exasperation evident in so many of the attempts at characterizing it is due to that intangibility.

Moreover, the dynamic conception of applied linguistic endeavor, apparent in most of the inter-disciplinary views of the field being reviewed here and especially in those that seek to characterize it as a problem-oriented discipline, has consequences for the distinction between the work done in the “source disciplines” and in foreign language teaching study itself. As Van Els et al. (1984: 129) point out, the contribution that any source discipline can make to applied linguistics is limited by the fact that the problems dealt with by these are not identical to the problems addressed in applied linguistics. Since one cannot expect an answer to one problem from the investigation of another, it becomes obvious that inter-disciplinary work in applied linguistics cannot expect answers merely because it is inter-disciplinary. What is crucial is the way that insights from the source disciplines are related, modified, interpreted and re-interpreted in applied linguistics. Simply recognizing such multi-disciplinary contributions without clarifying the nature of this re-interpretation or modification gives no clear, systematic and principled answer to the question “what is applied linguistics?” We return below, in Chap. 10, to how this debate has endured, and how it has continued to influence attempts to define applied linguistics as a discipline.

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