A Returning Question: Defining the Field of Applied Linguistics

A Returning Question

Does the recurrent question of how applied linguistics must be defined, and the answers it elicits, take us any further as regards our understanding of the discipline? And will there ever be anything close to a consensus answer about the nature of the field? What effect does an attempted redefinition have on the unity of the discipline? How may a possible redefinition of applied linguistics either benefit from, or contribute to the ongoing contestation of modernist and postmodernist paradigms in the field (Cook 2015)? This chapter will survey some renewed (if recurring) discussion among applied linguists in order to examine this question, and see whether these discussions have brought us any further than some of the earlier attempts we have considered in the preceding analysis.

Some attribute the continuing divergence of definitions for applied linguistics to the recentness of its emergence as a discipline (Hellermann 2015: 419; Cook 2015: 426); others will ascribe the ongoing differences to paradigmatically opposing perspectives of its work. I shall refer in this chapter particularly to the definitions proposed in a special edition of a centrally important journal in the field, Applied linguistics (Hellermann 2015). In this special issue, seven specialists and their editor bring together a number of conceptualizations of the field under the theme of “Definitions for applied linguistics”. Apart from these recent attempts at defining applied linguistics, there are also others who address similar issues (e.g. Paltridge 2014; De Bot 2015:4).

The relatively short history of applied linguistics indeed provides some explanation for the multiplicity of ways in which the field has been conceptualized and defined. The argument appears to be that one might expect a younger discipline not yet to have a settled or generally accepted definition. Still, right from the outset, the divergence that one notes in definitions of the field is clearly related to the paradigm differences we have noted and discussed so far. The initial, founding ideas, that date back at least to 1925, consider it to be firmly located in linguistics. When applied

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Educational Linguistics 28, DOI 10.1007/978-3-319-41731-8_10

linguistics is viewed as part of linguistics, that places upon linguistics the responsibility of providing a scientific basis for work done in the public interest in order to address societal issues and problems (Tarone 2015 : 445). As we have seen in Chap. 8, the definition of linguistics itself was subsequently broadened to include sociolinguistic perspectives, giving the social emphasis of applied work further validation. The emphasis in second generation applied linguistics was on language being used for interactional purposes. Its purpose, as a different perspective, was to give us an extended and disclosed view of how we make meaning through language, embracing a view of language that went beyond conceiving of it as having only grammar, form and sound as its building blocks. The more relevant components in this case were larger, socially meaningful linguistic units, such as texts and discourses (Weideman 2009a, 2013b). There is no doubt that in many definitions of applied linguistics this social emphasis is invoked as a defining feature.

As we know, however, the perspective on the disciplinary location of applied linguistics within linguistics, and even in a linguistics that accepted the social and interactional dimensions of language (Shuy 2015: 435), did not endure. Soon, as we have seen in the analysis so far, there was a recognition of multi-disciplinarity, with the publication of the book by Van Els et al. (1984) being the culmination of that recognition. The historical significance of this development is that, more than anything else, it served to gradually loosen the exclusive hold of linguistics upon the fledgling discipline. With one or two notable exceptions, in subsequent styles of doing applied linguistics this shift away from linguistics was confirmed.

It is noteworthy that the definitions of applied linguistics presented or implied by each of the seven traditions discussed previously differed, broadly, in that they either made applied linguistics dependent on linguistics, or circumscribed its tasks with reference to a multiplicity of disciplines, including linguistics. As has also been noted above, at the same time as the third generation of applied linguistic work being referred to here, its multi-disciplinary manifestation in the mid-1980s, was being developed, an even earlier concern, that of applied linguistics ‘mediating’ between theory and practice, also again gained prominence. Just what the nature of the mediation was, however, was never quite clear. In what way did applied linguistics mediate? And what was the focus and the purpose of its ‘mediation’? It was by then generally accepted that applied linguistics was no longer, and certainly not merely, the unadulterated application of linguistic theory to the solution of language problems, as had purportedly been the case in the heyday of audiolingualism. In that kind of first generation work in applied linguistics, principles from structuralist linguistics combined with insights derived from behaviorist psychology were thought to be able to deliver ‘scientific’ designs for the solution of language teaching problems (but cf. De Beaugrande 1997: 286). While second language acquisition research and constructivist perspectives on how languages are learned might in subsequent styles of doing applied linguistics in the late 1980s still have served to justify language teaching designs, for example designs like the information gap tasks in communicative language teaching activities, that justification came after the fact, following rather than prescribing design (Weideman 2013c). But the nature and the kind of mediation, the angle of approach taken by applied linguistics in language teaching as well as in language assessment, was never clearly articulated.

So in the history of the field we clearly observe variations of approach here: from a linguistic to an extended linguistic paradigm, from an emphasis on multi- disciplinarity to constructivist and other perspectives. This short history of applied linguistics may well provide a first explanation of why a settled definition of the field did not emerge. But in the historical developments we have noted thus far, it is also clear that there was a shift, already evident by the mid-1990s, away from a modernist towards a postmodernist paradigm (Weideman 2003, 2007a, b, 2013b). So, while the first (and mainly historical) explanation begins to explain how the hold of linguistics upon applied linguistics began to fade over time, there is an even more important reason than a move towards multi-disciplinarity for this emancipation from linguistics. That systematic reason for the disciplinary grip of linguistics on applied linguistics loosening is to be found in the relativism and critical perspectives introduced by postmodernist views of applied linguistics. In the postmodernist perspective the very notion of applying scientific theory to the solution of problems smacks not only of an insufferable modernist hubris, but also of a progressivism that it is committed to contest. The attempted transition in applied linguistics from modernist to postmodernist paradigms i s therefore a second, and equally important source of contestation for the definition of applied linguistics. As Cook (2015: 429) has succinctly noted:

Across the supposedly unified field of applied linguistics, there is... an unbridgeable divide... between those who maintain a broadly rationalist, modernist, structuralist enlightenment approach to knowledge, and those who have rejected such a stance in favour of a post-modernist post-structuralist approach. These two directions are logically incompatible.

The emphasis in current definitions of applied linguistics on multi- and interdisciplinary (Mauranen 2015 : 488; Cook 2015 : 430, and Tarone 2015) is again particularly evident in these recent views collected the special edition of Applied linguistics edited by Hellermann (2015). The consideration and analysis of these and related perspectives (Paltridge 2014; De Bot 2015) will prepare the ground for a new and systematic view that will be further articulated in the next chapter. That view elaborates on the systematic argument that has already been presented for the disciplinary distinctions between linguistics and applied linguistics. The current chapter has one further aim: to assess, and attempt to understand another reason for the degree of contestation in defining applied linguistics. It will look at what has happened in linguistics - to some still the parent discipline for applied linguistic work (cf. McNamara 2015: 475) - over the last number of decades. In that history one may be able to find a further reason for the lack of clarity that surrounds the definition of applied linguistics.

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