Applied Linguistics as Pedagogical Engineering

The early arguments for doing applied linguistics on an inter-disciplinary basis eventually made it obvious that it cannot be defined only with reference to the field of study of linguistics. The asymmetry of the study of the lingual mode of experience, or even the study of a (multi-faceted) language problem, both of which must be theoretically consistent, and a ‘practical’, educational activity, such as language teaching, which must be practically effective, simply does not allow an equation, for example, of descriptive, theoretical sequence and pedagogic sequence (Wilkins 1975: 222, 226f.; cf. too Krashen 1980: 13).

In order to define the scope of our discipline from this angle, it was realized that a new set of foundational arguments therefore had be developed. In the discussions of these, such arguments usually refer to the mediating function that applied linguistics performs between theory and practice (cf., e.g., Buckingham and Eskey 1980: 2; Campbell 1980: 7; Kaplan 1980; Corder 1975: 4f.), and they explicitly or implicitly draw an analogy between applied linguistics and the science of engineering (Strevens 1980b: 33f.; Kaplan 1980: 60; McDonough 1977: 68). Even though such arguments are perhaps vague and seem to be begging the question in yet another way, it can be argued that they can be given a more precise and systematic foundational interpretation more readily than somewhat unhelpful statements such as “...

applied linguistics ... is an activity... not a theoretical study” (Corder 1973: 10) or definitions that state that applied linguistics is a pedagogical problem-solving habit (e.g. Politzer 1972: 5).

The view of applied linguistics as pedagogical engineering is discussed here along with the inter-disciplinary conceptions of the field, because this view is evidence of the addition of a once neglected source discipline of applied linguistic work, namely pedagogy. In some, mainly Anglophone environments, the discipline is sometimes called merely ‘education’. I prefer the continental term because it reflects the analytical stamp of such studies better than the term ‘education’ - which perhaps might have been better rendered in “education studies”. Apart from ‘inputs’ from linguistics and psychology, most applied linguists today would recognize the necessity of including pedagogical insights in their work.

At this point in the history of the discipline, the idea of applied linguistics as pedagogical engineering found a specific interpretation in the work of Spolsky (cf. Spolsky 1970), where “language pedagogy” receives inputs from psychology (in terms of a “theory of learning”) and from linguistics (a “theory of language”). At this stage, thus, there appears for Spolsky to be no need for a separate discipline of applied linguistics (but for a contrary view, see Hult 2008: 15), a discipline that will have inputs from linguistics, psychology and pedagogy. Linguistics ‘applied’ to language teaching is simply one of the “forms of human engineering” or pedagogy.

Spolsky is also aware of the intermediary processes that filter ‘useful’ linguistic information to language pedagogy, yet somewhat contradictorily demands that linguistic theory make its implications for language teaching quite clear (1970: 148). Another contradiction in the argument is that, though “language pedagogy” is presented as a distinct discipline, Spolsky (1970: 149) nonetheless speaks of a ‘control’ that linguistics can exercise as a source discipline for the former, in that one of its “direct applications” is a description of the language, which yields a “satisfactory sequencing” of teaching materials. This notion of ‘control’ mars what otherwise, in Spolsky’s thinking at that time, would have been a useful conception, especially if he had more fully developed the aspect of ‘engineering’ that characterizes application.

Spolsky’s discomfort with the label “applied linguistics” is motivated, nonetheless, by a legitimate concern for avoiding imperialistic conceptions of the field on the part of linguists. Hence his gravitation to the term “educational linguistics”, defined at that point as the study of the interaction between language and formal education (Spolsky 1978 : vii) - a view that clearly places an inter-disciplinary stamp on the contents of the field. Since these initial distinctions were made several decades ago, educational linguistics has burgeoned, viewed as either a part of the field (Hult 2008: 15), or a possible alternative - and potentially productive - conceptualization to that conventionally provided by viewing the field as applied linguistics (Spolsky and Hult 2008). In the subsequent conceptualization, the idea of multi-disciplinarity (and later, iransdisciplinarity - see Hult 2010 : Hult and King 2011: xviii) is still relevant; Spolsky (2008: 5) points out that “linguistics is not the sole core area, but draws equally on such other relevant fields as anthropology, sociology, politics, psychology, and education itself.” I shall return below, in Chaps. 7,

8 and 11, toa discussion of how this perspective has contributed, and might continue to contribute, to our insight into the design of how solutions to large scale language problems can be approached.

Despite some of the contradictions or oversights in Spolsky’s argument at that time, his views are of interest because they emphasize the crucial importance of pedagogy in language teaching design and analysis. The pedagogical aspect of applied linguistics is emphasized by those applied linguists who believe that, since classroom problems do not have purely linguistic solutions, such “problems find their solution in ... general pedagogical theory” (Corder 1972: 12), Qvistgaard et al. (1972). In a similar vein Richards (1975: 14), after reviewing several developments at that time in formal linguistics, sociolinguistics and psycholinguistics with a view to establishing an integrative, ‘macrolinguistic’ perspective, remarks: “Just how these theoretical assumptions would be realized in the teaching operation may be more a question for pedagogues than for applied linguists.”

What all such pedagogically inclined interpretations have in common is that the problem they identify is not so much language - however important it may be - but the learning of language in a pedagogical, didactic situation, i.e. in the classroom. As Van Els et al. (1984: 127) point out, however useful the information is that may be derived from psycholinguistic, sociolinguistic and formal linguistic theory, the picture is altered when we consider not only language learning, language use and the structure of lingual objects per se, but also how language is learned in a guided, institutional situation, as at school. It is the educational context in which the language problem occurs that becomes crucially important in applied linguistics.

Where applied linguistics is thought of as pedagogical engineering, the aspect of design, in this case the design of foreign language teaching, is immediately recognized as important for the form in which (applied linguistic) solutions are presented. From a systematic, foundational point of view this is to be interpreted as a shift of focus that in applied linguistic endeavor makes the technical or formative mode of our experience the leading modality. This view will be more fully developed in Chap. 5, as well as in subsequent analyses.

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