Innovation and Imagination in Design

If audio-lingualism had undesirable effects regarding the creativity of the teacher, it must be remembered that these effects also went in the opposite direction, by stifling innovations in the design of teaching that went against the theoretical starting points of audio-lingualism. The pre-determined process of production of language materials and the rigorously prescriptive methods also run counter to any imaginative innovation in the design process that is the hallmark of applied linguistic work. It is ironic that the expectation of this ‘scientific’ method is that its combination of theoretical insight and technological means for delivering it (the language laboratory; cf. the section on “The audio-lingual method” in Chap. 6) would yield innovation (Weideman 2013b). As Schuurman (1972: 379) correctly observes, any pre-determined technical process prevents that process from possessing the necessary flexibility to adapt to unexpected states of affairs, or to new developments. In this way audio-lingualism checked developments and the disclosure of competencies both in applied linguistics and in the actual pedagogy that resulted from the applied linguistic designs that relied on it.

Schuurman (1972: 378) points out that such conceptions of applying science restrict human creativity, and work against the disclosure of the true meaning of technology by prescribing strict, ‘scientifically’ sanctioned solutions. The postmodern critique of this kind of applied linguistics (e.g. in Pennycook 1999,2000,2004; Hall and Eggington 2000; but also Allwright 2006) is therefore certainly not unreasonable. Allwright (2006: 11) speaks of a movement in applied linguistics from ‘prescription’ to ‘understanding’ as one of the six promising directions that the field is taking. The content and effects of this movement will become clearer in the discussions that follow. As one of Schuurman’s own mentors, Van Riessen (1949: 625) pointed out more than 50 years ago, the design process needs to happen in a space where the technical fantasy and imagination of the designer are not restricted, but enhanced by theoretical analysis: each provides a spark, as it were, for the design process to play itself out contrapuntally (“Het ontwerpen voltrek zicht zodoende in een wisselspel van theo- retische bewerking en techniese fantasie”). Corder (1972: 5) is also quite emphatic on this point: to be a good applied linguist one must, in addition to theoretical knowledge, possess “both imagination and a sharp critical faculty”.

In systematic terms, modernist and technicist conceptions of applied linguistics confuse two irreducible dimensions of our experience: they conflate the theoretical mode, which is concerned with analysis and rationality, and the technical side of reality, which is characterised by a freedom to give an imaginative form to human action according to an intentional design. The effect of this conflation is that the technical is downplayed, and the theoretical absolutised. The irony is that “applied science” in reality is often nothing more than the post hoc justification of a technical design, as in audio-lingualism. If this is the case, then one may of course seriously question whether applied linguistics is, or has ever been, the application of linguistics.

There is some consolation to be had, of course, in the fact that the normative strength of the bounds and limitations of language teaching is such that it cannot be ignored with impunity by applied linguists. As a result of the pedagogical competence and imagination of the teacher,

t he actual effects in classroom practice have never been as strong as the theorists have wanted ... methods, however detailed, must be interpreted and implemented by teachers, and as long as we have human teachers, each sets up [their] own criteria of what [they] will accept and what [they] will modify ... (Spolsky 1970: 144).

If the history of applied linguistics has any lesson for its present practitioners, however, it will be to find comfort not only in whatever humans may (rationally or irrationally) decide to do or to leave, but also in a renewed assertion of the unique and now differentiated competencies of the teacher and applied linguist.

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