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Applied Linguistics as a Discipline of Design

The Limits of Applied Linguistics

This chapter takes the discussion of the implications of the early historical developments of applied linguistics that were surveyed in the previous chapters further, by asking a number of foundational questions about the limits of applied linguistics as a discipline. The discussion of the limits of the application of scientific insight will be dealt with here in two ways. First, and positively, the question will be addressed: what kind of research is applied linguistic research? Second, we shall consider some areas of neglect within applied linguistics, so that these limits will, from a perception of what it can do but has failed to do, become clearer.

In the preceding discussion, it was noted that, whatever categorization is given to different modes and forms of applied (psychological) research, the characterizing features of theoretical, scientific activity on the one hand, and of pedagogical activity on the other, remain fundamentally different, each with a unique focus and defined competence, in this case, respectively: analytical and formative competence. It was also noted that much of the research that would indeed be feasible if one proceeded from a practical problem, would not necessarily be theoretically relevant or interesting. Similarly, much of what might appear to be ‘applicable’ from a theoretical point of view, might not be appropriate for the challenges that real language problems present.

In the historical unfolding of our understanding of what applied linguistics might be able to do, this realization has always been an important one. It is specifically important in determining the limits of applied linguistics. For example, in addressing this issue in an earlier comment, Lightbown (1985: 183) reminded researchers in second language acquisition research that the questions posed by such investigation might not be appropriate because they are not pedagogical; only research which has a pedagogical orientation and which asks pedagogical questions, she warned, can be expected to answer pedagogical questions directly. Similarly, Ingram (1978) distinguished two crucial criteria for applied linguistic research, viz. that it © 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_5

should be relevant and acceptable (especially to those whose problems are being investigated), as well as competent. Such competence is, in the systematic perspective adopted here, one that is modally circumscribed: analytical work and pedagogical activity are uniquely different because they are characterized and guided by two unique modes of experience, the logical and the formative. These early comments note, in other words, that there is something uniquely pedagogical to the application of any linguistic research to language teaching, and the pedagogical nature of the latter activity is such that it imposes limits upon the (analytically founded) research that seeks to probe it. In this way ‘applied’ research becomes typically different from ‘basic’ research.

When one considers subsequent developments in applied linguistic work, one observes more and more attempts to bring theoretically conceived experimentation and investigation closer to the realities of the classroom (Foster 1998). These are attempts to remedy the situation of having inappropriate and pedagogically irrelevant investigation in applied studies. A good early example is the institution of a form of action research that has an orientation to the classroom (cf. Seliger and Long 1983). As a research procedure, action research takes seriously the notion that applied science must start with a given a-theoretical problem, and that what has been called the “detour of science” may subsequently be used to shed light on the problem in a manner that is in accord with, or as closely as possible related to the problem itself. Even this kind of research, though, whatever its good intentions, can come to be tainted with the excessive expectations of the science ideal, which is clear from the distinctions that can be made between different kinds of action research, at least one variant of which can indeed be technocratic and modernist (Habte 2001: 43f.). It is important to bear in mind that research is by its very nature always limited, and unable to handle all the complexities of concrete situations. Applied linguists, including course designers and coursewriters, will, after the detour has been undertaken, always have to flesh out, in a way that requires imagination and pedagogical skill, the theoretically limited picture that emerges. Their plans may be influenced, but not prescribed by theory.

One of the major differences between applied linguistics and its ‘source’ disciplines is that the former focuses on concrete, individual (and perhaps unique) problems, whereas the latter set out to analyze the lingual, psychic (emotional or affective, cf. De Graaff 1967: 17) or formative mode of experience in the widest and most general sense. ‘Applied’ activity, as Brumfit (1980 : 158) has pointed out, relates “insights drawn from a variety of different disciplines to the solution of specific practical difficulties”.

Applied science directs its attention in the first instance to the application of theoretical analysis to the understanding of individual, concrete problems (Schuurman 1972: 362). When this is done, however, the “individualized knowledge” or unique scientific information it brings with it finds its limits in the nature of the concrete problem that is being addressed. On the other hand, the universal character of theoretically qualified analysis, when applied to a specific problem, may retain its general and encompassing character, and in the kinds of technical solutions that are in such a case informed by it, it has the effect of proposing broad, general solutions. A case in point is the design of standardized general language proficiency tests (cf. Weideman et al. 1988). Even though such tests of general language ability are intended to be broadly applicable to a wide range of learners (or at least to the usually vast population of learners they are designed to test), they nonetheless might well remain mere general indications of a candidate’s competence in the language. Moreover, they can never, despite the scientific exactness with which they are constructed, guarantee an utterly reliable score for every candidate, in every case. No matter how carefully one designs and constructs such a test or even a battery of tests, the net that they cast still allows some fish to go through, so that some of the not-so-proficient may pass while a proficient user of the language may fail.

In this case, as in any other technical solution to language problems that is informed in some way by scientific understanding or empirical and statistical analysis, further specification of the proposed solution quite often remains, for its concrete execution and sometimes for its interpretation, in the hands of a competent person other than the applied linguist. That is why, if one is to construct tests of language ability in and for a specific domain, such as, for example, tests of academic literacy that measure a candidate’s competence to handle academic discourse, the best further assistance that the applied linguist can render is to conceptualize, with the help of competent academics, what that specific ability comprises, before redesigning a test that would be contextually more appropriate (cf. Van Dyk and Weideman 2004a, b ; Van der Slik and Weideman 2005, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010; Weideman 2003b, 2006b, 2009b; Weideman and Van der Slik 2008; Butler 2009; Le 2011). This is so because the language ability the test measures is likely to possess greater domain-specificity (Patterson and Weideman 2013a, b) than would be expectable in a test of general language ability.

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