Seven Successive Traditions of Applied Linguistics

This chapter has set out seven successive styles or traditions of applied linguistics since its inception. In addition, the main characteristics of each of the traditions in the Table 8.3 have been discussed here, in order to show not only how they are all to a certain extent unique, but also how they cohere and relate to one another not only historically, but conceptually. We may summarize their unique features and succession as follows (adapted from Weideman 2013a; cf. also Weideman 1999), while simultaneously observing the obvious congruence these traditions show with the overviews of the history of the design of writing interventions in Tables 8.1 and 8.2.

Table 8.3 Seven successive traditions within applied linguistics


Characterized by


‘Scientific’ approach

Linguistic “extended paradigm” model

Language is a social phenomenon

Multi-disciplinary model

Attention not only to language, but also to learning theory and pedagogy

Second language acquisition research

Experimental research into how languages are learned


Knowledge of a new language is interactively constructed


Political relations in teaching; multiplicity of perspectives

Dynamic/Complex systems theory

Language emergence organic and non-linear, through dynamic adaptation

On their own terms, each of the traditions is not only unique but consistent: each in its own way makes perfect sense to its loyal adherents, offering applied linguists the theoretical means “to become clear about what we do; to affirm, inform or challenge what we do; ... to make sense of our experience” (Larsen-Freeman 2008: 293). That intelligibility breaks down, however, when we ask whether the way that they are understood by their adherents will ensure that, from each different philosophical and theoretical starting point, these traditions also offer a responsible way of understanding the other styles of applied linguistic work. What is more, as sometimes contradictory and opposing styles of work, their disciplinary power derives from their being institutionalized options, among which new entrants to the discipline do not have much choice: newcomers remain at the mercy of whatever is the current orthodoxy at the higher education institution where they enrol in (mostly postgraduate) work in applied linguistics. In fact, given their institutional power, each different style of doing applied linguistics is likely to constrain, compete with and suppress others, even while co-existing with them (McNamara 2008: 304). Clearly one needs a more than chronological or historical vantage point to open the discipline to new perspectives, making room for alternative theories and paradigms to be given consideration, and ensuring that training in applied linguistics is less resistant to change. Such a vantage point will have to derive from a philosophical position that gives not only historical information, but will allow making conceptual and systematic distinctions between these traditions. Whether applied linguistics, given its short history (De Bot 2015: 1, 139), has sufficient maturity to assess a new or an older paradigm not on the basis of whether it has become fashionable, but in terms of the foundational choices it presents to the designer, will be at the center of the problems to be discussed subsequently. By presenting us with a series of possible paradigms, such a foundational analysis will have value if it can systematically indicate what contribution each new or earlier tradition can make to identify valid design principles for the discipline. Each paradigm potentially offers a unique set of principles according to which applied linguists may design solutions to tanguage problems. The relevance of applied linguistic design principles is that, being the conditions and requirements for the design, they are realized and given shape in the development of the artefacts, the designed products of the discipline, such as language courses, language tests, and language management plans or policies. We shall return to a consideration of this in the subsequent discussion.

Despite their uniqueness, the discussion in this chapter has indicated that there are more links than meet the eye among the various traditions and styles of applied linguistics. The relation between the first and second generations is obvious, as are the links of both of those with third generation work. Similarly, sixth generation postmodernism harks back to pioneering insights of third generation work, and the radicalism of sixth generation work itself needs the modernist opposition to define itself. The seventh style, DST, happily revives earlier methodologies, as we have noted. Insights into these continuities are important not only for the further sophistication of training offered to aspiring applied linguists, but also to assess whether and how innovation is possible in the discipline, another topic that needs to be addressed in the subsequent discussion. If there are so many linkages among different styles of doing applied linguistics, do these continuities not perhaps restrain innovation?

There are, of course, other ways of looking at the history of applied linguistics as articulated here. De Bot (2015), for example, takes a more or less empirical and descriptive view of three important decades (1980-2010) in the history of the discipline. The perspective attempted here and outlined above is potentially deficient, first, by virtue of looking at various styles of work as discontinuities more than as continuities. Admittedly, this may distort the actual historical given. As we have concluded, the uniquely different traditions of doing applied linguistics successively entering upon the historical stage of the discipline also undeniably exhibit historical continuities (Weideman 2013a, c). Second, in the actual work of designing applied linguistic artefacts, those working on those designs may well continue to adhere to the ways in which they were trained. They may even knowingly or unknowingly mix different traditions and the methodologies associated with them. The simultaneous existence of a plurality of approaches to and methodologies in applied linguistics (Ellis et al. 2011: 8) means that ideological purity for the tradition that one prefers cannot be achieved; we cannot strictly separate even positivist and postpositivist traditions in applied linguistics (Weideman 2013a; McNamara 2012). In reality, different styles of applied linguistics exist simultaneously and side by side. Some older traditions of doing applied linguistics endure, as we have seen, because they are entrenched within institutions or even in influential publishing interests. The plurality should inspire not only critique of entrenched interests, but also humility among loyal adherents of a particular style. Third, there are alternative ways of conceptualizing the disciplinary history: one may see the various styles as instances of modernism and postmodernism (Weideman 2013a), or as positivist and postpositivist orientations (Weideman 2013b), or even as variations of structuralist and poststructuralist nature (McNamara 2012). In that respect these dichotomies echo a more wide-ranging characterization of all disciplines in the humanities: the divide between quantitative and qualitative approaches (cf. Richards 2009). The first emphasizes empirical facts, particularly as these are expressed in numbers. The second promotes the idea that our empirical observations need not only interpretation, but that the contexts they describe also need transformation, achievable through

Various categorizations of approaches to applied linguistics

Fig. 8.1 Various categorizations of approaches to applied linguistics

political analysis and action. What is more, one may divide them also into those deriving from a linguistic basis (which is an enduring interpretation), and those that favor a multi-disciplinary approach. Chapter 10 below will in fact deal, amongst others, with some largely contradictory attempts to accommodate both the enduring view of linguistics as source discipline of applied linguistics and its definition as a multi-disciplinary undertaking.

In Fig. 8.1 I have attempted to summarize and present these opposites as conti- nua, so as to accommodate the potential that each has for variation between extremes (Weideman 2013b).

The more enduring, and more fitting characterization, however, appears to be the modernism/postmodernism cline. The main point is that the more realistic our grasp is of what the historical emphases have been in applied linguistics, the messier it will appear than the picture that was presented above. But different paradigms will be dominant in different times, and the recent arrival of a seventh style of applied linguistic work is a reminder that domination of a single paradigm in our field remains unlikely.

In the following discussion, this historical perspective will be augmented with a set of systematic considerations. We should therefore not stop at asking questions about how our discipline has developed historically, but also consider how we might seek to explain, in terms of a systematic framework provided by a theory of applied linguistics, the various conceptual emphases embodied by different styles of disciplinary work. For that, a foundational understanding, a framework for applied linguistics that is philosophically consistent and robust, is needed.

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