Innovation and Technology

The combination of linguistic and psychological insight in the design of language teaching solutions in first generation applied linguistics, that resulted in the audiolingual method being devised, was to find another ally soon after its initial conception. That ally was the technological resources and advances available in the early 1950s, particularly the more sophisticated means of recording sound on magnetic tape. Audio-lingual courses could now be combined with the powerful control offered by the language laboratory. Through these, teachers could record, check and monitor their learners’ progress much more efficiently than before. Though nothing happened in these (for that time) technologically advanced instructional spaces that remotely resembled natural scientific experimentation , nobody seemed to have objections to the term ‘laboratory’: it appeared to fit seamlessly with the modernist and progressivist intentions that first generation applied linguistic designs suggested could be embedded in our plans for language teaching. What could beat a combination of linguistic science and psychology on the one hand, with technology, on the other? Surely innovation, efficiency and progress could be the only outcomes of this alliance.

How this expectation has endured is evident in the doubts that are still being expressed about the survival of language teaching as a profession. As before, there are again confident predictions that we will have no use for language teaching in the future, though that date has now been set for after 2050 (Greene 2012: 75; Franklin and Andrews 2012) . In this view, language teaching will become unnecessary because technological advances will ensure that we can have instant and unproblematic translation, and therefore no need to use the language of our interlocutors whose language we do not understand. The isolation that such a lack of understanding and mastery of another’s language will cause, will be efficiently eliminated by translation, mediated through sophisticated technology. Nor is (language) teaching the only profession under threat: the new technologies that put many travel agents out of work also impact negatively on routine tasks in legal work or journalism, we are informed (Economist 2013: 22). While the pronouncements about the impending fate of journalists and lawyers may be new, this is historically neither the first time that the demise of language teaching has been predicted, nor that the combination of technology and ‘science’ would give us the ultimate design to solve language learning problems. As we have noted above, applied linguistics was conceived, as it were, by those expectations.

Today we know that those initial expectations were never fulfilled. Together with a number of other factors, the postmodernist critique of our design choices merely being a reshuffling of existing options, as claimed by Pennycook (1989: 608), along with the current postmethod condition of the discipline (Kumaravadivelu 1994, 2003, 2006), has put paid to those high expectations. This does not mean that innovation is declared to be impossible by using technology, but that we have a different orientation as to its employment: we no longer think of the potential results of this combination of technology and theory as inevitable progress and improvement. That our less ambitious expectations are not universally shared is evident from the predictions referred to above, that predict the end of language teaching. These predictions are, as we have observed, not new; Frautschi’s (1984), Joseph (1984) speculations of more than 30 years ago, referred to in Chap. 4 above, illustrate the same opinion. More importantly, however, the humbler orientation has given rise to a broader interest within the discipline into the principles according to which applied linguistic interventions are designed .

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