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The Future of Applied Linguistics

Though the above are only a first, preliminary formulation of a framework of principles for responsible design, such formulations have the further purpose of allowing us to assess the relative merits of new developments in design, by providing the broad conceptual outlines ( systematicity, reliability, effectiveness , differentiation , accessibility, utility, accountability, reputability, and so forth) of the principles that affect responsible design, in terms of which future designs might potentially be judged. It may be that new developments in applied linguistic design overemphasize some principles at the expense of others: in a dynamic systems approach (DST), that is one of the contenders in the ring when we ask which paradigm will replace postmodernism, for example, there is so strong an emphasis on differentiation and change that it may again steer our designs into excesses. Applied linguistic designs are almost all compromises, not least of which is the kind of compromise that becomes necessary in the face of resource constraints. The degree of differentiation required by DST analyses in the design, say, of language instruction and learning, may simply find its limit in there not being sufficient resources to make that good in the implementation of the design envisaged. The main point is that an overemphasis on a single principle or set of principles does not support the goal of responsible design.

The framework outlined above is intended as a prompt to a debate about the future of applied linguistics. It is perhaps not yet substantial enough to be more than that, and probably we would need to carry out still further, and more detailed analyses, to see the full richness of the constitutive technical concepts (as Van Dyk 2010, has attempted) and the regulative technical ideas that have been subjected to analysis by Rambiritch (2012). Its concepts and ideas are intended to lay the basis for a much needed, though seldom acknowledged, theory of applied linguistics.

As Davies and Elder (2004: 5) declare, with reference to the debate on whether applied linguistics should be looked at as subject or as discipline, linguistics “cannot ... sensibly be the umbrella” for the kind of solutions devised by applied linguists. The British tradition therefore, in their opinion, “represented a deliberate attempt to establish a distinctive applied linguistics that was not linguistics” (Davies and Elder 2004: 7; but cf. too Davies 2007). The analysis above, together with the evidence brought together in this book about the historical evolution of applied linguistics, presents an argument that it is indeed not part of linguistics, but a separate discipline defined in its scope by the technical modality of experience, that finds its nuclear meaning in designing, shaping, planning or forming.

How we should see the future of the discipline depends very much on how we respond to that argument. There are promising insights into the actual work being done in the discipline in the empirical mapping of applied linguistic work by Paul Meara (2014). However fascinating such empirical analyses might be, they cannot capture the conceptual and systematic perspectives as would a foundational perspective such as the one being proposed here. In fact, one would only be able to interpret such factual analyses from a deliberately chosen framework. To make sense of history, we need a philosophical perspective.

A further challenge to our discipline lies in its being what Davies and Elder (2004) call a ‘weak’ profession, in that it lacks sanctions for the development and proposal of irresponsible designs, of which there are plenty examples in applied linguistics. Language program evaluation . begun in the 1990s, and referred to above, has shown how bad designs may be identified. Some national associations (BAAL, in particular) have attempted to adopt codes of conduct. In language testing, assessment experts often refer to standards and norms for testing in general, and sometimes to their own criteria for the development of specific assessments. Yet all of these remain intentions rather than enforceable professional criteria. It remains a challenge to the discipline to debate and adopt such a range of widely accepted standards. Again, the framework proposed above may provide a starting point.

Colleagues have encouraged me, in light of the multi-disciplinarity that according to one fairly conventional view is characteristic of the field, to articulate a further challenge for it. That is to state how the language test or course developer might bring together insights at least from second language acquisition research, pedagogy and linguistics in order to improve their intervention designs. My hesitation to do so stems from several sources. The first is the implied progressivist intentions behind such a challenge, as if the ‘best’ from all three fields might yield the ultimate designs. But there is such a plurality of paradigms at work in all of these fields that to promote one to the top in each may not recognize that, given paradigm shift and succession, such a rating must always be momentary. The second source of hesitation lies in the feasibility of combining such ‘best’ choices in all three fields in order to arrive at a language intervention design. Eclecticism, as I have attempted to show above, can amount to a brew of contradictory approaches. The third implication that causes me to hesitate is that it is assumed that our theory and research will lead the way to a desired future state. But surely that is a modernist assumption that, for me at least, will be difficult to subscribe to with any semblance of integrity and even credibility. If the contention is correct that imaginative design leads the technically stamped enterprise that is language intervention design, then it is in the first instance more imagination that we need in this design, not more or ‘better’ theory. This ties in with a final challenge that I now turn to.

The final consideration as regards the future of our discipline concerns an issue that has been present in the field since its beginning. This is the question of what degree of innovation it may be reasonable to expect in the solutions we devise for large-scale language problems. As the analysis has indicated, there is room for innovation both when the imagination of the designer of an applied linguistic artefact takes its legitimate leading role in such design, and when that design can be further informed and modified by bringing scientific insight to bear on it. The expectation that all innovation would depend on advances in scientific analysis is, in this analysis, misguided. It might even lead to an overemphasis on the role of science in such design that is irresponsible, in light of what we know about language, its use and its potential development. At the same time, incremental improvements in design are possible; they signal a continuity rather than a disruption in design. But such advances are deriving, at present, not so much from theoretical and empirical analysis as from the disclosure of the meaning of our designs. That disclosure is achieved in the anticipation, by the qualifying technical function, of ideas of justice, ethical- ity and integrity. In that sense, when designs strive to be accountable, fair, and trustworthy, the technical imagination of the designer of a language assessment, course or policy is focused on devising new ways of ensuring that. In that sense, too, we are at a point that has been present in applied linguistics since its inception. As Davies and Elder (2004: 1) correctly observe, the discipline “has always maintained a socially accountable role”. Applied linguistic designs find a disclosure of their meaning in their service to others, in the way that they are instruments that express care and concern for the well-being of those affected by them. This is the ethical disclosure of the technical meaning of applied linguistic designs referred to above in Table 11.2. If applied linguistic designs are done responsibly, they will not hurt, but will benefit their recipients. Designing with care, compassion and l ove gives meaning to applied linguistic work, disclosing and opening it up to the productive service of others.

The purpose of this book has been to provide a foundational understanding of what constitutes a responsible design framework for applied linguistics. It is my hope that such understanding might provide us with a basis from which we may evaluate both the fleeting and the enduring in the freshly designed solutions to large- scale language problems that our discipline has as its core task.

 
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