The Maturity of Applied Linguistics

In the absence of an adequate foundational characterization of applied linguistics in any of the views discussed so far, one can nonetheless conclude that what stands out in the apparent intangibility of its definition is the complexity of the concepts in terms of which applied linguistic work is done.

We have a good example of this complexity when we consider how applied linguistic theory-formation takes the already complex linguistic idea of the acquisition of language several steps further. Where, in psycholinguistic enquiry, the problem is in the first instance the acquisition of the mother tongue by the infant, applied linguistics, and specifically second language learning research, introduces a further complication: the acquisition or learning of a language other than the first, in other words a second or foreign language. If the acquisition research stopped here, one may perhaps still have been able to classify it as purely linguistic work, i.e. if linguistics is defined broadly so as to include psycholinguistic investigation into the acquisition of a language. Those who favor the inclusive view of applied linguistics, wishing to conceive of it as an integral part of linguistics, will more likely than not find evidence here for such a stand, a position that we shall return to in Chap. 10 below.

However, while there is the possibility of considering second language learning as an analytical problem per se (cf. Selinker 1972), second language learning studies in applied linguistics introduce yet another complication by considering this also as a problem of mastery and control by a (disadvantaged) individual; a problem which must, moreover, be responded to by the applied linguist in a design or plan to overcome the disadvantage, in this case lack of control or mastery of another language, in a more effective way. Moreover, as has been noted before, the context in which such learning takes place, and for which applied linguistic designs must make provision, is specifically defined: the institutional setting of the classroom, where learning takes place under the guidance of a professional.

The complexity of applied linguistics is therefore clearly of another order than that of linguistic conceptualization.

Such complexity of applied linguistic concept formation came to be recognized increasingly as the discipline matured. In the 1970s, as Klosek (1985: 15) points out, “[l]inguistic theory ceased being applied directly and hypotheses based on other considerations were formulated and tested”, a point echoed by De Bot (2015: 134). Instead of looking directly to linguistics or any of the other ‘source’ disciplines for ‘applicable’ insight, questions relevant to the problems being addressed by applied linguistics were being formulated independently, from within the discipline itself, so that “[t]oday, the most interesting questions, hypotheses, and theories are from those that have sprung from the work already done within the discipline” (Klosek 1985: 15).

This development was a sign that applied linguistics had come of age as a distinguishable discipline, but it has its dangers, as Widdowson (1980b: 165) was quick to point out at the time; whereas in the definition of applied linguistics as the mere application of already existing and pre-established principles ( what Widdowson calls “linguistics applied”) the only problem is to find a technology of application, and the only danger that the essentially conformist stance may make the application a victim of linguistic fashion, the non-conformist conception of applied linguistics as an autonomous activity creates the difficulty of tending “to dance around in circles to no tune at all.”

But the level of development reached by applied linguistics at that time also has a positive side to it, if one again looks at the history of an area such as second language acquisition research, for example, and notices the level of sophistication that such studies have in the meantime achieved (Lightbown and Spada 2006; Ellis and Larsen-Freeman 2006). In this area, the initial interest in morphological and syntactic order of acquisition has gradually given way to an investigation of second language acquisition from the point of view of discourse (cf., e.g., Cook 1981; Hatch 1978 and, for first language acquisition, Gillis 1985). The same kind of development is evident in another, very specific area of second language acquisition research, viz. interlanguage studies.[1] Thus Selinker and Douglas (1985) could take a look at the influence of “discourse domains” (cf. Weideman 1981: 46ff, 219ff.; Weideman 2009) on interlanguage strategies, hypothesize that in the emergence of an interlanguage “a learner creates discourse domains and uses them to develop his/ her IL structures” (Selinker and Douglas 1985 : 199), and conclude that all the important second language acquisition processes that have been identified since the publication of the seminal work by Selinker (1972; for an update, see Skehan 2008) and others occur “differentially within discourse domains” (Selinker and Douglas 1985: 190).

What is significant in both these cases is the way that initially psychological or psycholinguistic research questions have been progressively informed by, first, constitutive linguistic concepts and, next, by regulative sociolinguistic ideas, for the notions of discourse, discourse domain, speech act, and so forth are units of linguistic analysis that are by nature regulative linguistic ideas. Thus at least part of the “going around” that Widdowson (1980b : 165) talks of is not in circles, but has a (transcendental) direction, since the articulation of regulative linguistic ideas in linguistic theory, such as communicative competence, the idea of a lingual economy present in the distribution mechanism of turns at talk, and notions such as lingual repair, integrity and mutuality (Weideman 2011: 131, 158) disclose the meaning of lingual phenomena. In being made into an applied linguistic problem in the interdisciplinary sense that has been surveyed in this chapter, the questions asked by second language acquisition studies are linked, furthermore, with questions from other disciplines, notably (psychological) learning, perception and production theory. Such a combination of fields, as Selinker and Douglas (1985: 198f.) point out, has a direct bearing on situations where a second language is studied for specific purposes, as in EAP (English for Academic Purposes) , from which their data are taken. We return in the next chapter (in the section on “The role of psychology in applied linguistics”) to the expectations that such inter-disciplinarity awakened in the emergent, maturing discipline of applied linguistics. It constitutes an important further phase in the development of the discipline.

  • [1] The history of second language acquisition research at that stage was usually characterized as aprogression of four or more stages: contrastive analysis, error analysis and interlanguage, performance analysis, discourse analysis (cf. Lightbown 1985: 173) and interaction analysis.Interlanguage studies (more recently surveyed by Skehan 2008) constitute only one dimension ofthe picture, and, of course, some of these stages are complementary.
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