The Scientific Status of Applied Linguistics

The Scientific Status of Applied Linguistics

If applied linguistics is regarded as being involved not only in some of the most complex linguistic conceptualization, as I have attempted to argue with reference to developments in the discipline in the 1970s and 1980s, but also becomes an increasingly more complex field through its concern with language problems in technically definable institutional domains, the hesitation on the part of applied linguists to claim ‘scientific’ status for their field may come as a surprise to some. The cautious phrase “in as scientific a manner as possible” (Wilkins 1975: 208) crops up too often for comfort in comments on the early stages in the development of the discipline discussed so far. An investigation of the systematic theoretical bases of applied linguistics will reveal, however, that far from being a simple activity, of somewhat lesser scientific status than ‘pure’ theory, applied linguistics inevitably involves a complex of knowledge, skill and experience, and operates in a field that is potentially far more involved than general theorizing, which purposely abstracts away from the very concrete intricacies of technical and pedagogical activity.

Part of the reluctance that one notes early on in the development of the discipline to claim that applied linguistics is a science may stem from the embarrassment, noted above, of not being able to define the field clearly and precisely. The ‘continuity’ argument for explaining the character of applied linguistics is a case in point. It is adopted as an argument in both the intra-disciplinary explanation (applied linguistics is part of a continuum of linguistic studies) and in the inter-disciplinary explanation (applied linguistics lies on a continuum of studies between linguistics and any related discipline or activity). Even though these definitions are made in all seriousness and in good faith, they beg the question. A less generous reading may in fact be that when all else fails, a continuity argument is introduced to define the discipline.

There is a second, and perhaps more obvious reason why the scientific status of the field has from the inception of the discipline always been a source of concern to © Springer International Publishing Switzerland 2017

A. Weideman, Responsible Design in Applied Linguistics: Theory and Practice, Educational Linguistics 28, DOI 10.1007/978-3-319-41731-8_4

applied linguists. Corder (1972), Qvistgaard et al. (1972) explains this as a heritage from the sharp distinction in Western thought between ‘pure’ and ‘applied’ sciences. While the distinction may refer to a describable difference, Corder nevertheless laments the fact that the difference has led to the perception of the applied linguist “as mere rude mechanic” (1972: 4). On the other hand, there have always been hopes in the field that “the scientific status of the natural sciences, which had brought such great technological progress, would be conferred upon linguistics as well” (Van Els et al. 1984: 11). A discussion of this theme in the literature almost inevitably signals the operation of the progressivist ideal of science that is associated with modernism.

That the view of the applied linguist as mere “rude mechanic” may not be quite unfounded, was evident at that early time, for example, in Ingram’s plea (1978: 46 ff.) for an understanding within applied linguistics of the requirements for empirical research. Specifically, her warning was against speculative (instead of statistical) interpretations of applied linguistic investigations. In the same vein, Wilkins (1975: 208) pleaded for a ‘scientific’ manner of investigation in order to avoid ‘subjective’ judgments, based only on the experience of teachers. He nonetheless continues by noting the grave difficulties posed by the process of empirical research. In spite of the expectations that co-ordinated research into the problem of inter-group communication can produce results as substantial as the Manhattan Project and the Space Program, McQuown (1982: 22) notes the same problem when he remarks: “The resistance of inanimate substance to investigation falls far short of that of animate human intelligent matter.”

The pursuit of the so-called scientific method, so evident in these earlier pronouncements, is a legitimate undertaking as long as it honors the limits and limitations of scientific endeavor. Knowledge and insight gained through logically qualified, scientific investigation should serve to assist free and competent professionals in carrying out their tasks responsibly (Schuurman 1972: 361), not to take away such freedom or question professional competence. When scientific knowledge is purposely used to change or modify a practical, non-theoretical state of affairs, such as language teaching, a separate stage in which the eventual execution of the plans for change are prepared, is introduced (Schuurman 1972: 363), and it is during this preparatory stage that the problem is subjected to scientific analysis . What Schuurman calls preparation (the casting of the plan for language teaching or assessment into a design) is what others describe as mediation.

In the case of applied linguistics, it is especially important to distinguish between insights gained as a result of logical-analytical, theoretical linguistic analysis (which may or may not have implications for language teaching) and technical-analytical analysis that is specifically geared to analyze a given, concrete language problem. The latter, the technical-analytical analysis, is undertaken with a view to gaining understanding of the language problem and, ultimately, to propose and prepare mastery and control of it in a technically designed solution to the problem. The former task remains an analytically qualified one, i.e. a task uniquely and typically stamped by the logical or analytical aspect of experience. The latter pursues what has been called a detour into logical analysis with a view to gaining technical (formative) insight, and the technical design that it anticipates permeates and influences, right from the start, the way that the analysis will be conducted. This is the case even where there may be half-finished analytical results in terms of the anticipated end product - the eventual plan - since, due to the creative nature of the design process, such half-finished results can be used in different ways and for various plans . In fact, early conceptions of the field are correct in pointing out that applied linguistic procedures make use of linguistic, psychological and pedagogical knowledge, amongst other things, in the first instance to articulate the problem that must be solved (Corder 1972. 15), Qvistgaard et al. (1972). After such identification and articulation the analysis can proceed. This kind of analytical pursuit is encapsulated, as it were, in the unique formative, designing and planning objective of the practitioner, and is irrevocably characterized by the technical-formative mode of our experience. The encapsulation of any theoretical analysis within the technical design means that it is of service to the guiding or characterizing function of the latter. What is of service (the logically stamped analysis) is taken up in a technical design to serve a more than, and other than theoretical purpose.

This difference is not always properly understood when comparisons are made between applications of the natural sciences and applied linguistics. Ritchie’s (1985) argument at that time, for example, that there was no need for a separate discipline of applied linguistics, since in the case of the natural sciences the applications are often so ‘direct’ or at least immediately relevant, proceeds from the premise that applied linguistics is to be defined wholly as the application of (already available) theoretical linguistic knowledge. This is a one-sided view, if one bears the above distinctions in mind.

Though I am in agreement with his position on the relativity of linguistic insight in applied linguistic work, the same notion as Ritchie’s is behind Chomsky’s avowed skepticism regarding the significance of linguistic and psychological knowledge for language teaching, for he declares (1966: 262):

... it is difficult to believe that either linguistics or psychology has established a level of theoretical understanding that might enable it to support a ‘technology’ of language teaching.

The point, therefore, is that applied linguistics can be more than and different from the pure, undiluted ‘application’ of linguistic analyses. This is so since, while making use of essentially the same logically stamped, theoretical methodology as linguistics or any other discipline, it addresses individual, concrete problems with language in a way that is new and typically different from theoretical linguistic work because it anticipates the technical design that will embody the proposed solution to the problem. It was in this sense that claims could be made regarding the difference between linguistics and applied linguistics; the objectives of the latter, according to Corder (1978: 78), “are not the discovery of ‘truth’ about, or explanations of, some aspects of the world ...” as would obtain, in his view, for linguistics. However, such claims remain obscure if they are not fitted into a complete systematic account of the nature of each of the two disciplines in question.

The legitimate detour of analyzing a given language problem, i.e. of subjecting it to the so-called scientific method, can nevertheless be perverted if the logically qualified theoretical analysis that must support the process of educational design instead comes to be absolutized. Schuurman (1972: 378) calls this a theoretization of the design process that, in its efforts to create a continuity between science and the projected plan, stultifies rather than develops and discloses the typical character and meaning of design:

Although designing has a scientific basis and is characterized by a scientific method, it is necessary to keep in mind that designing itself is not of a scientific but rather of a technological nature (Schuurman 1972: 404).

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