The Critical in Applied Linguistics

By | Februari 21, 2017

The emergence of these various critical projects has been met with mixed responses. For some, critical applied linguistics is little more than a critique of other orientations to applied linguistics; thus, Davies provides the following definition: ‘‘a judgmental approach by some applied linguists to ‘normal’ applied linguistics on the grounds that it is not concerned with the transformation of society’’ (Davies, 1999: 145). Yet it is clear from the previous section that critical applied linguistics is not so much a critique of ‘normal’ applied linguistics (though it certainly may engage in such critiques) but is rather a different, alternative, or even transgressive way of doing applied linguistics. A central concern in discussing critical applied linguistics, then, is what is actually meant by the term ‘critical.’ One position would argue that all good academic work is by nature critical, entailing an open mind, a degree of skepticism, and an ability to keep a form of academic distance from the objects of inquiry. From this point of view, it is crucial to avoid bringing one’s own judgments into any form of academic inquiry. Thus, Widdowson, for example, in arguing for a ‘‘critical, not a hypocritical, applied linguistics to take us into the future’’ (Widdowson, 2001: 16), is concerned that by taking an a priori critical stance, critical applied linguistics may impose its own views on the objects of inquiry, taking inappropriate stances on the social world rather than maintaining a critical distance. For Widdowson, it is impossible as an applied linguist (though not necessarily as an individual) to choose between different ethical and political concerns, and thus critical applied linguistics hypocritically fails to maintain a critical distance.

An alternative position, however, turns the tables on Widdowson’s dichotomy, suggesting that it is mainstream applied linguistics that is hypocritical by dint of its inability or unwillingness to grapple adequately with the social, political, and ethical concerns that inevitably come to bear on any applied linguistic context. By making claims to deal with real world issues to do with language, but by failing to engage with questions of power, inequality, racism, sexism, or homophobia in relation to discourse analysis, translation, language learning, literacy, or language in the workplace, mainstream applied linguistics might therefore be described as espousing a form of liberal ostrichism (Pennycook, 2001) in its relativistic refusal to engage with the social, political, ethical, and epistemological concerns of an inequitable world, and the tendency for applied linguists to bury their heads deep in the sand and eschew engagement with the broader context of applied linguistic work. This second sense of the critical, to which Widdowson objects, is one which draws on a long history of critical theory, and takes as its starting point the analysis of power and inequality in the social world. From this point of view, academic responsibility requires more than critical distance; rather, it demands that we attempt to address social, cultural, and political concerns head on, with an explicit political agenda.

If a strong case can thus be made for the unavoidability of political engagement, the concern nevertheless remains that critical applied linguistic research may be blinkered by its political normativity. Indeed, it may be argued that much of critical applied linguistics operates with a normative, leftist political agenda and a conservative applied linguistic epistemology. That is to say, it follows a modernist emancipator framework (Pennycook, 2001), bringing together a static politics based on various forms of neo-Marxian analyses of inequality and emancipation, with an equally static applied linguistic epistemology. In addition to a political focus on inequality, then, critical applied linguistics also needs a form of problematizing practice. From this point of view, critical applied linguistics is not only about relating micro-relations of applied linguistics to macro-relations of social and political power; nor is it only concerned with relating such questions to a prior critical analysis of inequality. A problematizing practice, by contrast, suggests a need to develop both a critical political stance and a critical epistemological stance, so that both inform each other, leaving neither the political nor the applied linguistic as static. From this point of view, then, critical applied linguistics maintains both a consistent focus on issues of dominion, disparity, difference, and desire while at the same time maintaining a constant skepticism toward cherished concepts such as language, grammar, power, man, woman, class, race, ethnicity, nation, identity, awareness, and emancipation. Remaining aware of the diverse contexts in which it may hope to be applicable, this transgressive applied linguistics remains wary lest the very terms and concepts of any critical project at the same time inflict damage on the communities it is aiming to assist. This form of critical applied linguistics is far more than the addition of a critical/political dimension to applied linguistics; rather it opens up a whole new array of questions and concerns about language, identity, sexuality, ethics, and difference.


Berns, Margie. (2010). Concise Encyclopedia of Applied Linguistics. Amsterdam: Elsevier.


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