Why Disciplinary Definitions Matter

If applied linguistics is definable by the technical dimension of experience, its main task is to design, devise and plan solutions to large-scale, or potentially large-scale, pervasive language problems. How to devise these solutions has depended, historically, on whether one stresses the technical means (as in designs inspired by modernism) or emphasizes the technical ends or purposes (as in plans that are mindful of postmodernist considerations). One’s proposed solution, the design, carries the baggage, as it were, of the sometimes difficult choices between these opposites. Whether one adopts a modernist or a postmodernist approach to the design of an applied linguistic solution to a language problem therefore directly affects the expectations one has for the grounding of this solution, or for its impact on society. Having a clearer idea of what you are about in designing a solution to a large-scale language problem of course makes the plan more deliberate and thoughtful. It also opens up the possibility of the language intervention being shaped according to the requirements or principles of such design, which are the topic of discussion in the next chapter.

But there is a further reason why disciplinary definitions matter. It should be clear by now that the modal delimitation of linguistics and applied linguistics, as a focus on, respectively, the lingual and technical modalities of experience, militates against a relatively simplistic (though apparently enduring) view that claims that there is some conceptual continuity between them, as is unfortunately evident even in the most recent discussions, including instances of that debate in one of the most influential journals in the field. Furthermore, such delimitation of the field of applied linguistics not only makes it possible to conceive of it as a separate discipline, distinct from linguistics, but also, if it is viewed as a multi- or inter-disciplinary undertaking, what its angle and purpose of engagement with other disciplines is likely to be: the design of a language intervention. That is a sufficiently practical and laudable purpose for applied linguistics to have, since that means that its concern is to alleviate, to engage with instances where there is disadvantage, and to attempt to assist in developing language where this is crucial for human existence. For applied linguistics not to be viewed as an extension of linguistics is therefore no risk at all, except for a loss of the modernist bias that has undermined its foundations from the beginning, and has resulted in a name that is itself contestable, if taken at face value and given a naive or intuitive interpretation.

There is no doubt that applied linguistics will continue to be faced with the impossible paradigmatic choice that Cook (2015) refers to. That it amounts to a choice between a technocratic and modernist, or a revolutionary and postmodernist direction for the field is something that applied linguists should accept. Paradigm contestation is not going to disappear, but an understanding of how the field can be defined can at least serve to alert us to its pitfalls. Whether we are seasoned professionals or new entrants into the field, we can then make informed choices, and ones that align with our own professional approach (Paltridge 2014). Debates such as the ones discussed here are ultimately only useful and relevant if they make us more aware professionally. What is more, paradigm choice and disciplinary awareness are central in avoiding becoming a victim of intellectual fashion.

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