Who Needs Applied Linguistics?

Not long after I graduated with my MA, I asked a head teacher if he would be interested in helping me set up an applied linguistics discussion group. The idea was to air theories about language acquisition and to see what methods could be integrated into our teaching activities. He gave me a haunted look and said “I don’t know why you would come to me with a suggestion like that.”


In the same institution another teacher voiced hostile views towards applied linguistics. I invited him to come and express his views at an informal meeting. He declined. At that moment, *another* teacher said he thought applied linguistics had actually done damage to English teaching. There was general agreement around the room. I was astounded.

These are extreme positions and, thankfully, one does not meet many teachers who hold such views where I now work in Thailand. Nevertheless, a perceivable gap exists between theory and practice in language teaching which is not so prominent in other professions. Teachers prefer to rely on ‘practical experience’ as the impetus behind pedagogic convictions. Applied linguists and their hypotheses are regarded as overtheoretical cat’s cradles. Do teachers need to study applied linguistics?

Before we try to answer this question, let us consider the social setting in which applied linguists find themselves and compare this with the classroom teacher’s situation.

The applied linguistics canon is still quite young: an offshoot of theoretical linguistics which has grown over the last two decades. Twenty years ago, linguistics was a very conservative, even pedestrian activity. Analysts rarely looked beyond the sentence as a unit of language. It was possible to gain a degree in linguistics [-1-] without ever considering the context in which sentences might be used (as utterances), or the relation a given sentence might have to others in a text.

At the same time, the increasing demand for language teaching required mentors who could provide an academic umbrella for second language pedagogy and supply teachers with subject-specific knowledge. If teachers were to teach languages, it was argued, then they should study how languages are learnt and taught. A reasonable enough assumption, one would think.

However, problems became apparent when linguists began pointing out the number of variables involved in human communication. Discourse analysis showed that ‘real time language’ varied considerably from the idealised language invented by textbook writers. Text linguistics showed an enormous variety of fields and registers that defied an easy classification system for the teaching of English for specific purposes. Psycholinguistics showed that the perception and articulation of speech was a very complex affair and could not be reduced to simply defined principles.

To make matters worse, applied linguistics became allied with a variety of subjects: psychology, sociology, education, and modern languages, to name a few. As the canon expanded the project of creating courses for teachers became increasingly swamped with information, none of which adequately answered the question: What is the best way to teach a language ?

First, there was the problem of syllabus design. What varieties of a language should learners be exposed to ? In what order (if any) should the elements of a language be presented ? What activities should the learner engage in as learning tasks ?

The increasing diversity within applied linguistics and the lack of a coherent system for implementing its results soon threatened to discredit it as an independent field of inquiry. Applied linguists, it seemed, did a bit of everything; but, where was it all taking us?

‘Communication’ became a buzzword, yet in some quarters had little effect apart from disturbing the reassuring orderliness of the old grammatical syllabus. Traditionalists tut-tutted the dethroning of grammar as the cardinal focus of language learning and stoked suspicions that the informality inherent in gamelike tasks was institutionally destabilising and pedagogically risky. Meanwhile, rank and file language teachers continued teaching much as they had done for decades and nobody noticed a lot of difference.

Language teaching, it would appear, was one of the few subjects where there was so much choice in theoretical stance and teaching [-2-] methodology that cardinal principles rarely emerged with any lasting prominence.

To an alarming degree, applied linguistics and prescribed methods were subject to the whims of fashion. One set of principles quickly succeeds another; grammar-translation, audio-lingual, the direct method, and the silent way have all had their day. To be sure, textbooks on language acquisition encourage such diversity by raising more questions than they answer. But the consequence is that what might otherwise be a healthy eclecticism becomes more an anarchy of method than an informed discrimination.

The gap between applied linguistics and its potential consumers widened as language acquisition came to be viewed by some observers as a kind of grammar jig-saw–one learns what all the pieces are and fits them together into discourse. It was not readily appreciated that the examination of natural languages consistently posed taxonomic problems which rendered the jig-saw analogy insufficient as a model for acquiring fluency. That the functions of many ‘jig- saw pieces’ are context bound, negotiable through interaction and regionally mutable is still not accepted by many.

These same observers could never imagine that Chomsky’s ideal perfect speaker might in fact be a theoretical fiction with no confirmation in empirical studies. “If language is so variable, then it jolly well should not be!” one almost hears them say.

Thus the popular mind imagines that ‘langue’ (the ideal form of a language) and ‘parole’ (the actual use of a language) are undifferentiated –and then insists that teachers should teach language as if this were the case. This, of course, is a misconception that fails to account for differences in code, register, pragmatic intention and social context. A simplified model of ‘langue’ cannot be applied as a ‘parole’. These popular views are perhaps what is meant by ‘traditional’ attitudes–that they go unpublished protects them from criticism in the TEFL community, and yet they abound.

Aggravating the situation, the study of language acquisition still offers no unique direction in which language pedagogy should go. This does not bode well for a defence against critics who prefer pat solutions. Despite decades of research and a galaxy of publications, we do not know with a confident degree of scientific precision, exactly how languages are learnt. We know there is an approximate order for acquisition, that some teaching methods work with some people better than others, but we do not have an all- encompassing solution that fits every kind of learner. As a consequence there is, to this day, no single best method of teaching a language. Again, this is very bad news for a profession which is subject to periodic attacks from an unfriendly press or disgruntled parents. How can the teacher defend his or her methodology? [-3-]

The fact that human languages are so amorphous in their ‘lebenswelt’ is not readily appreciated by critics of applied linguistics.

Joining the public, they would prefer language teaching (along with languages) to be a compact activity which can be studied and comprehended as a componential system, resembling say, an exploded diagram from a car maintenance manual. Such notions represent more suspect notions about what language teaching should be (which ought to be dispelled in the first year of any course in TEFL or applied linguistics). Nevertheless, such critics would prefer to envisage languages and learners as essentially machine-like with vocabulary and grammar rules which govern their expressive acts. It takes a long time to convince them that human communication does not work that way. It takes even longer to convince them they should read extensively about how it might. Thus the thoughtful language teacher confronts popular conceptions which seek to oversimplify a complex task. This situation is neither appreciated nor imagined by the inhabitants of the ivory tower of applied linguistics. I need a couple of paragraphs to explain why this is so.

Internationally, successful academics publish, travel widely, occupy honoured positions, and generally act as *diplomats* for applied linguistics and language study. Applied linguistics and TEFL has its own parlance, its own celebrities, its own society of who knows who. This one might refer to as ‘applied linguistics culture’.

Unfortunately, most members of applied linguistics culture occupy positions where there is little social congruence between their activities and the everyday experience of their counterparts (for whom they write) in the EFL classroom. They have long forgotten the institutional pressures of language teaching: the overcrowded classes, full timetables, autocratic administrations and modest salaries. It is an illusion to think that teachers have carte blanche about what they do in the classroom. There is a lot of pressure on teachers to deliver curriculums — not to invent them. Many centres of language teaching already have strong beliefs about what is good teaching and how it should be done. To teachers working in such institutions, the contrivances of applied linguistics must seem a very privileged, ethereal and (by consequence) superfluous activity.

Applied linguistics too often ignores the circumstantial peculiarities of classrooms, individual students and the uniqueness and complexity of their local situation. No two cultures are entirely alike; no two institutions have the same tacit expectations; no two students have the same cognitive style. Individual minds possess a special particularity with respect to the beliefs they have about learning as well as their own perspectives and inclinations (to which I as the teacher must adjust). This, [-4-] surely, is a situation which demands innocence and openness from the teacher, rather than a theory-laden expertise.

From the above we may infer an epistemic distance (a distance in knowledge) between practitioners and theorists more marked than in other occupational groups.

The epistemic distance is much in evidence at conferences when participants raise topics with no apparent connection with the lecture. To me, this suggests that floor participants have a more pressing agenda, often directly concerned with the local teaching situation, which fails to connect with the erudite topics offered by guest speakers. A thinly veiled hostility towards abstraction and booklearning points to a credibility gap between applied linguistics as a subject and the social reality of the EFL classroom. Some teachers quite rightly feel resentful at the idea that theoretically inclined colleagues can enjoy higher salaries, fewer contact hours and more prestige, while they themselves continue to plod on in less congenial conditions in bureaucracy-bound institutions indifferent to theory-driven insights or procedural innovation which may do little to improve on the high results demanded from Dickensian examination systems.

What is not readily appreciated by conference speakers is that the teacher’s livelihood depends on pleasing the lay administration in which she or he earns a living. Emphasis in the classroom will therefore be about fitting into an organisation with its norms and values–and tacit expectations about what a good teacher does. It is quite unrealistic to think that teachers can adopt novel creations or experiment willy-nilly on the basis of fashion or intellectual preferences–or to believe that we are all one happy applied linguistics family.

Applied linguists often do not realise that the TEFL teacher is the real pioneer for innovation. Unlike members of applied linguistics culture, the average classroom teacher is likely to have little institutional support for introducing the new procedures recommended by mentors; and may well risk reputation and career advancement when s/he does so. When I worked for Berlitz, I was required to use the direct method and follow a manual step by step. In Saudi Arabia materials extraneous to the coursebooks were not allowed and many discourse fields were forbidden.

For the teacher to introduce innovation into certain schools poses a personal risk which theoreticians do not share. If a theoretical position is unworkable it is the classroom teacher who bears the brunt of criticism–not the applied linguist. If an innovation is a success it is because the classroom teacher has the courage to innovate and integrate– not because an imaginative trainer invented it. [-5-]

Here the epistemic distance narrows, but courage and initiative go separate ways. Accountability is not a problem that applied linguistics culture has had to worry about much.

From the foregoing, I hope it is now clear that applied linguists and language teachers belong to rather separate social domains. The contrasting power relations and institutional obligations in the respective professions show us that what counts as useful knowledge and what counts as appropriate behaviour may be relative to a job’s incumbencies. It is not surprising that applied linguistics as a subject draws a lot of flack.

Having said all this, let us now return to the question of the utility of applied linguistics.

Could we dispense with applied linguistics as a field of inquiry? Are its critics justified? What does it offer that is truly useful?

Despite the multiplicity of topics generated by language study, teachers still need to have reasons (however varied) for what they do in the classroom. Although theories multiply, and sometimes contradict one another, a qualified teacher should nevertheless be able to discourse on learner behaviour and to relate classroom outcomes to models of L2 acquisition. When questioned about the value or purpose of a particular activity, the teacher needs to have intellectual armor at his or her disposal. It is less intellectual liberalism than the diversity of language use itself that requires teachers to be familiar with the range of possibilities in both theory and practice.

If a teacher believes that language use and teaching methods are finite and governable within an intuitive ‘common sense’ continuum, then the learners will be confined to activities bound by the limitations of that teacher’s imagination. If classroom activities reflect oversimplified views of ‘real time’ interaction, then learner repertoire will become stunted accordingly. It is in avoiding such limitations that applied linguistics has its greatest validity; it serves to awaken the teacher to the enormous variety of language use and the wide range of alternatives for classroom activities. Here, eclecticism is not so much a willy-nilly attitude as an enabling disposition that allows the teacher to diversify creatively in a subject that defies rigid boundaries.

Where no coherent theories come to mind, teachers may have difficulty amplifying a position or clarifying a point in language teaching. Applied linguistics gives teachers a useful strategic advantage when challenged as well as increased confidence in one’s pedagogical choices. [-6-]

Teacher participation in conferences and training activities should be accompanied by a judicious sprinkling of humility from applied linguists themselves. Regarding acquisition, there has been no Crick and Watson in the search for the secret of successful language learning. We should acknowledge this fact and emphasise the hypothetical quality of many arguments. We should point out that applied linguistics is not so much a corpus of eternal verities as a series of directions in which intelligent enquiry is running. Ultimately, it should be up to the teachers to decide which directions suit their learners best.

But this is not going to happen until the boundaries between practitioner and theorist have been eradicated. The present distribution of power inside schools and universities makes it possible for theoreticians to ‘retire’ from the classroom, from the hubbub and chaos of the grass-roots situation, while at the same time careerists with more political acumen than personal commitment to research and innovation, occupy high administrative positions and remain thus ‘immune to prosecution.’

The current concern for learner-centredness (provoking much tartuffery and posturing from within high-context cultures), with its concern for the development of learners as autonomous, self- directed agents in a dialectical process — inherently democratic and critical of any *argumentum ad hominen* — performs something of a sleight of hand in the matter of teacher training. ‘Scientific’ research, expertism and bureaucracy still abound without regard for the broader societal and political realities of the schooling process. Around the world, many language teachers are working in almost intolerable conditions of underfunding, overcrowding and social decay. Were theoreticians more concerned with the *social* dimension of education it might become clearer how acquisition can succeed or fail. But this would be to *recognise* teachers and learners as ‘whole persons’ living and developing in a ‘whole situation’, rather than as isolated players in an idealised tableau of perfect conditions; to *challenge* depersonalisation and manipulation in institutions where scholarship and equity are emarginated for careerism; to *appreciate* the caring, conscientious instructor who remains for whatever reason a classroom teacher and gets lumbered with the remedial classes.

Sociological analyses of relations between occupational groups inside language education have neither been publicised nor requested. There is still much that remains unacknowledged about the societal aspects of applied linguistics and language learning. My contention is that in many locations there is a widespread epistemic distancing which generates obscurity, mystification, and resentment. To remedy this, theories about text and acquisition would need to be presented in accordance with the situational provenance of language teachers and the *de facto* power relations abounding in teaching institutions. Action research has appreciated this and its [-7-] proponents are challenging traditional standpoints of theory and practice by emphasising the local situation. It is time for academics to come down from the ivory tower and get acquainted with the social reality of being a language teacher.


John Wilson