What Is Applied Linguistics

Applied linguistics can be described as a broad interdisciplinary field of study concerned with solutions to problems or the improvement of situations involving language and its users and uses. The emphasis on application distinguishes it from the study of language in the abstract – that is, general or theoretical linguistics. However straightforward this characterization of applied linguistics may be, it is not universally embraced. In fact, ever since the term ‘applied’ was attached to linguistics, language specialists identifying with this field of inquiry and activity have offered and continue to offer competing, sometimes contradictory definitions and descriptions of its scope, status, and significance. Lack of consensus on an issue as basic as the domains and limits of applied linguistics poses a particular challenge to an encyclopedia compiler: how to capture the nature of a complex, dynamic field without slighting a particular point of view, a pet project, or an entire area of study? This situation is comparable to that of many other intellectual formations that arose in the mid–20th century – such as composition studies, cultural studies, environmental studies, and women’s studies – in that applied linguistics defies the traditional, taxonomic view of disciplinarity that seeks to draw clear and unambiguous boundaries. This state of affairs is addressed in the following account of how applied linguistics came about and developed as an area of study and in a survey of some issues and areas of focus that occupy those who engage in the study of language problems that affect the lives of individuals, groups of individuals, or entire societies and cultures.

Linguistics and Applied Linguistics The role and relationship of the field of linguistics within applied linguistics has been variously interpreted in large part due to the ambiguity of the term applied linguistics. What is applied? Is it only linguistics? What is it applied to? Who is (not) an applied linguist? Is a degree in linguistics assumed? Or is it enough to be working with language-related issues? Three positions present answers to these questions. Applied linguistics, because linguistics is part of its name, is linked to linguistics, which is sometimes referred to as the ‘parent’ discipline.

The literal interpretation of applied linguistics as ‘linguistics applied’ reinforces this view. From this perspective, linguistics is the authoritative source for all that is needed to meet the aims of applied linguistics. The description of language and the concepts and terms offered by linguistic inquiry apply directly and unilaterally. The process or activity of applied linguistics is carried out by taking the known research and theory of linguistics and applying a linguistic analysis to specific contexts outside linguistics proper (e.g., language teaching, interpreting and translating, or lexicography). This position is taken by those whose work is influenced by a functional view of language in the tradition of Roman Jakobson, Michael Halliday, and Dell Hymes. This view assumes that only linguists can participate in applied linguistic work, that practitioners need credentials as linguists before they can apply known research and theory.

Another view, ‘autonomous applied linguistics,’ sees applied linguistics as at least semiautonomous, if not completely autonomous, from linguistics or any source discipline and allows that anyone can be an applied linguist. While acknowledging that linguistics may be part of applied linguistics, practitioners do not rely exclusively on linguistics. A third view is known as the ‘applied linguistics’ position, so called because applied linguists are linguists engaged in application. It is distinguished from other views in its recognition that the knowledge and skills of a linguist are inadequate to the task of solving problems related to the uses and users of language. To address this inadequacy, the applied linguist calls upon the skills and knowledge of other professionals both inside and outside the academic world.

Each view, regardless of the role linguistics has within it, excludes much of modern linguistics, particularly that associated with the Chomskyan approach, which deals with language at an abstract, idealized level and largely ignores language as interaction, as performance. In fact, Chomsky does not argue for the relevance of his branch of linguistics to concerns identified with applied linguistics. The linguistics that does have relevance and is of utility for applied linguists needs to be broader in aim than a search for universal grammar, and it need not be associated with any canonical school or branch of linguistics. Rather, all understanding and knowledge of language as a means of human communication is relevant and useful in solving language issues of all kinds. Whether adopting the linguistics applied or applied linguistics view, researchers in a number of areas draw upon the theoretical and methodological approaches of sociolinguist Michael Halliday and anthropological linguist Dell Hymes.

Neither sees a strict boundary between linguistics and applied linguistics, perhaps because of their distinctive approach to language studies. Halliday, first in the United Kingdom and then in Australia, developed systemic-functional linguists, whereas in the United States Hymes was key in the establishment of sociolinguistics as a legitimate discipline and in the adaptation of research techniques from anthropology into language study, namely, the ethnography of communication. Significant about both Halliday and Hymes is that neither explicitly accepted a binary distinction between general linguistics and applied linguistics. In fact, Halliday holds the view that all linguistics is sociolinguistics; that is, the study of language is the study of language in use.

Interdisciplinarity and Applied Linguistics For some time, language teaching – first, second, and foreign – has been synonymous with applied linguistics. Since the development and improvement of classroom acquisition and competence in languages is a central educational concern for society, it is not surprising that this is one area that has long had the attention of applied linguists. This, however, was not the intention of the founders of contemporary applied linguistics, whose public and published statements on the scope of the field insisted that language teaching was but one example of the areas in which theories and methods of linguistics (in its broadest sense as the study of language) have relevance.

This broader and more flexible interpretation of applied linguistics not only recognizes the limitations of relying solely on linguistics as a source field; it also recognizes that the language problems that applied linguists address are found in many areas of human life. Although language teaching and learning remain primary concerns in many non-Western settings, elsewhere applied linguistic activity focuses on a range of language-related issues and often draws upon other disciplines in studying language problems. Engaging expertise from other professions (e.g., medicine and law) or fields of study (e.g., psychology, communication studies, or sociology) presupposes precise identification of the problem to determine its scope. Related disciplines are tapped for available facts, techniques, and theories that can aid in addressing the problem. In some cases, there may be close collaboration with practitioners from these disciplines.

A sampling of applied linguistic studies that involve other areas of specialization includes better diagnosis of speech pathologies, design of a new orthography, natural language processing, improvements in the training of translators and interpreters, development of valid language examinations, determination of literacy levels in a population, development of tools for text analysis, comparison of the acquisition of languages from two language families or age groups, consultation to a ministry of education on introducing a new medium of instruction, developing language teaching materials, providing workplace language training, or resolving communication differences between cultural groups. Applied linguists not only seek out the expertise of others but also can be called upon as consultants. Consulting tasks can range from advising a defense lawyer on the authenticity of the transcript of a suspect’s confession to evaluating a school language program

. In this, they play an indirect role in any subsequent change, improvement, or amelioration of the problem. Rather than offer any definitive solution, they provide information to help those involved in the problem solving better understand the issues, provide an explanation of what is involved, set out options for resolution, and suggest implications. The applied linguist engaged in such situations has been described as a mediator between theory and practice who enables the contribution of one to the other

by Abdullah Sam
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