The Philosophy of Applied Linguistics

By | Maret 16, 2017


The expression “philosophy of history,” for instance, may be understood to mean: (1) a philosophically informed account of actual events as they get played out along the path of history; (2) a philosophically illuminating overview of history insofar as it constitutes a distinctive and clearly demarcated field of inquiry, with special emphasis on its academic and scientific credentials; or (3) an examination of the philosophical underpinnings of a particular academic discipline, namely history, with a view to teasing out unresolved or poorly resolved issues of a philosophical nature and discussing possible ways of better addressing them.

As only to be expected, the term “philosophy of applied linguistics” is capable of being interpreted in any one of the three senses distinguished above as well. It may be understood to mean a philosophically informed account of the nature of applied linguistics (hereafter AL) as well as of the important landmarks in the history of its development over the years. For instance, an interesting topic in the philosophy of AL understood in this sense might be the philosophical import of the way the field evolved from an initial preoccupation to define itself as an appendix to linguistics proper – primarily concerned with applying insights from linguistic theory to a set of practices, notably language teaching – to an autonomous field of inquiry concerned with a broad range of questions involving language.

The term “philosophy of AL” may also be understood to mean philosophy of science with its attention riveted on AL as a scientific discipline in its own right. On this interpretation, the term refers to the investigation of all those questions that are relevant to an appraisal of the scientific status of AL as a field of inquiry. Among the questions raised in this regard will inevitably be the one that most researchers in the area have been concerned with ever since AL became an autonomous field of inquiry: What precisely is the nature of the relation between AL and its parent discipline, theoretical or general linguistics? Is AL destined to remain forever subaltern to its parent discipline, dependent upon the latter for its theoretical sustenance as well as claims of scientific credibility? Or could it be the case that exaggerated subservience to its parent discipline has only stifled the growth of AL and its potential for expansion into as yet uncharted territories? Alternatively, has the time come for scholars in AL to look for other sources for inspiration and, possibly, chalk out a brand new research program for it, based on a multitude of neighboring disciplines, but with goals, methods, and priorities fashioned in entirely independent terms?

Finally, the term “philosophy of AL” may also be understood to cover a broad range of philosophically important issues that have of late begun to capture the attention of scholars in AL in their efforts to, on the one hand, reflect upon how they have traditionally conducted themselves in their scientific practices and, on the other, redefine their research priorities in light of new challenges and rethink the very scope of their field. On this third interpretation, questions such as the underlying ethics of certain professional practices (methods used in collecting data, for instance), the desirability or otherwise of making sure that the researcher’s political commitments are kept at bay and not allowed to interfere with the work of analysis, the responsibility – including possible ties of moral indebtedness – of field workers vis-à-vis their informants, etc., begin to take center stage. Needless to say, discussion of these and other issues of cardinal importance is bound to affect future developments in AL and possibly result in major changes in the way researchers currently view their own work as well as research priorities.

Landmarks in the History of AL and Their Significance

Early beginnings

Teaching methods and techniques were developed by focusing on the similarities and dissimilarities between the learners’ native language (in general, English) and the language that was to be taught. This explains why so-called contrastive analysis became the mainstay of AL in its infancy. The underlying assumption was that the closer the two languages in terms of their structural similarities, the easier would be the learning process. Dissimilarities, on the other hand, would induce negative transfer or interference. This meant that language teachers would optimize their efforts by concentrating on those areas of the grammar of the language being learned (L2) which showed marked differences with the grammar of the learners’ native language (L1).

Teaching techniques such as pattern practice which were developed and perfected as part of so-called audiolingual method during those days also drew inspiration from behaviorist psychology which many prominent linguists like Leonard Bloomfield had come to embrace. Referring to the materials presented in their book English Pattern Practices, Lado and Fries (1943, p. xv) claimed: “We offer them with confidence in their extraordinary efficiency.” And two decades later, Lado (1964, p. 6) still spoke enthusiastically of “the powerful idea of pattern practice” which he went on to define as “practice that deliberately sets out to establish as habits the patterns rather than the individual sentences, particularly where transfer from the native language creates learning problems.” The contrastive approach also gave theoretical sustenance to the technique of error analysis – the analysis of the kind of errors made by language learners with a view to devising appropriate remedial measures – although, the technique itself, in its modified versions, long survived interest in the approach (Richards, 1974). Work done in subsequent years also uncovered the enormous potential of error analysis for providing insights into the processes involved in the learning of second and foreign languages (Selinker, 1992).

The Chomskyan revolution and its impact

However, Chomsky’s theoretical stance also presented some insuperable problems to AL. If, on the one hand, it helped dethrone an entire language teaching methodology based on insights from an earlier way of doing linguistics, on the other hand, it held little promise of anything like a new method based on it. In point of fact, some of the claims made by Chomsky and his followers seemed to indicate precisely the impossibility of ever coming up with one. Fo a central element of Chomsky’s conception of language was the claim that one does not learn a language (one’s first language) as such; instead languages manifest themselves as part of an individual’s natural growth from infancy to adulthood. To make matters worse, Chomsky himself contributed to the prevailing state of perplexity by confessing to being “rather skeptical about the significance, for the teaching of languages, of such insights and understanding as have been attained in linguistics and psychology” (Chomsky, 1966, p. 43).

The full impact on AL of the growing suspicion that Chomskyan linguistic theory, concerned primarily with native speakers and how they acquired their first language, may have precious little to contribute to how adults learn a second language (let alone problems of language teaching, be it the first or a second language) can only be gauged by taking into account the fact that many scholars concerned with second language teaching and learning had by then come to take it for granted that, despite obvious differences, the two processes followed identical paths. In fact, in spite of Chomsky’s own reservations on the matter, many Chomskyans persisted on sticking to that line of inquiry. As Schachter (1988, p. 219) points out, the idea had been entertained by Corder (1967) as a working hypothesis, subsequently transformed into a claim by Dulay and Burt (1974) and Krashen (1981), and finally elevated to the status of an “article of faith” by Krashen (1985) and Cook (1985). The following remark by Cook (1994, p. 45) shows just how noble the research goals had been all along, yet how paltry turned out to be the actual results: “Universal Grammar is concerned with the core area of language acquisition; its very centrality means that it can be taken for granted and much of it does not need to be taken into account in language teaching, which has other more pressing concerns” (emphasis added).

Post-Chomskyan developments

In the late 1960s, the American anthropologist-cum-linguist Dell Hymes advanced the notion of “communicative competence” in opposition to Chomsky’s “linguistic competence.” Roughly around the same time, in Britain, Michael Halliday was engaged in elaborating what was later to become known throughout the world as the “systemic-functional linguistic theory.”

The so-called communicative approach to language teaching was in large measure a response to these developments in linguistics. More and more scholars were being won over to the position that language teaching cannot be reduced to the teaching of grammatical structures. To learn a (second) language successfully is to be able to perform real-life activities with and through it and not simply to internalize a set of grammatical rules. Thus Widdowson (1972, p. 16) proposed a distinction between signification and value, the former referring to the meaning “which language items have as elements of the language system” and the latter to “that which they have when they are actually put to use in acts of communication.” Widdowson went on to argue that, instead of expending their energies on exploring the signification of language items, language teachers should focus on the communicative value of those items, making the students familiar with the specific communicative functions those items have in given situations of actual use.

But the apologists of the theory-first approach to AL – the approach centered on the key belief that applied fields such as AL depended on the prior availability of ready-made theories that were themselves formulated with no concern for their possible application – still managed to hold on to their ground by strategically conceding that such practical matters as language teaching were in general far too complex and multifaceted to be handled by any one theory or, for that matter, any one field of inquiry. Once admitted, such a claim would allow for the possibility that a theory of SLA could still be claimedto be valid and perfectly in order as it is only useful for purposes of language teaching and other practical matters to the extent its lessons are used in conjunction with results from other fields of inquiry (to wit, cognitive science, social psychology, pedagogy, and so forth). Thus it was that, from the 1980s on, more and more researchers in AL were being won over to the idea that theirs was a cross-/multi-/interdisciplinary field.

Coming of age in AL

Initially at least what the claim of interdisciplinarity effectively meant was that AL was from now on to be viewed as a discipline at the meeting point of several other, independently constituted disciplines that did not otherwise communicate to one another. No doubt, the move from a bridge discipline to what now came to be regarded as a crossroads discipline was salutary, inasmuch as it gave expression to a growing perception among AL practitioners that they needed to look to a wider range of disciplines instead of hoping to derive all the theoretical sustenance from theoretical linguistics alone.

The Status of AL as a Science

The road to autonomy

What these and several other remarks by the leading applied linguists of that period reveal is that a certain consensus was beginning to emerge among scholars with regard to the importance and relevance of theoretical linguistics to those who work in AL. In the words of Brumfit (1980, p. 161): “if AL were to be considered merely the application of linguistics to anything to which it could be applied, then it would be no more than a mirror for linguists to peer into – for the only issues which linguists can confront are linguistic issues, not applied ones.” There was a general perception that insights borrowed from the parent discipline did not on their own guarantee success in the SL classroom. Some empirical studies such as an ambitious survey referred to in the literature as the “Pennsylvania Project,” designed to test the efficacy of teaching methods inspired by work in theoretical linguistics, turned out exactly the opposite results, to the utter dismay and disappointment of the researchers involved (Diller, 1971). While, no doubt, scholars were cautious enough not to jump to precipitate conclusions, these studies did help fuel the already growing suspicion that uncritical transfer of insights from theoretical linguistics to applied domains such as language teaching could no longer be justified.

Signs of maturity

Rampton (1995, p. 233) has observed that there is a clearly discernible tendency in AL, especially in Great Britain, to move away from the influence of linguistics, pedagogy, and psychology to areas such as sociology, anthropology, media studies, and so forth as the source of inspiration and fresh ideas. Writing specifically about the teaching of English as an international language, McKay (2002, p. 128) emphasizes the need for being “culturally sensitive to the diversity of contexts in which English is taught and used.” Rampton’s sharp criticism of the notion of native speakerhood and its implications for teaching English as a foreign language (Rampton, 1990) and Cook’s idea of “multi-competent language users” (Cook, 1999) give us a clue as to how far scholars are willing to go after relinquishing wisdom inherited from mainstream theoretical linguistics in order to attend to the new realities that have come into existence as a result of large-scale migratory movements across the globe and the resultant cultural intermixing currently taking place at an unprecedented level. If these developments are any clear indication, one could hazard the guess that AL is on the verge of a major paradigm shift in the sense of Kuhn (1962).

Neo-empiricist turn

The neo-empiricist swing in AL today is an unmistakable and, from the looks of it, irreversible trend – at least as far the foreseeable future is concerned. As more and more AL scholars are becoming convinced that the theory-first approach has only stood in the way of real progress in the field, there has been an increasing concern with thinking of new ways to bring theory and practice closer together. As we have already seen, perhaps nowhere else is the interest in practice as a pretext for doing theory more evident than in SLA. This has prompted many applied linguists to demand a thorough rethinking of past attempts to make theory and practice mesh with each other. Thus, in response to the claim made by Gregg (1989, p. 15) that “[t]he ultimate goal of SLA is the development of a theory of SLA” (emphasis added), van Lier (1991, p. 78) contends that such a position in medicine would lead to “statements such as ‘The ultimate goal of AIDS research is the development of a theory of AIDS’ rather than the understanding of the disease and its prevention.” On his part, Gregg (1993) remains unrepentant and continues to insist that without a proper theory of the disease no cure would be forthcoming. On the strength of his conviction that “theoretical linguistics is currently in a stagnation of crisis proportions,” de Beaugrande (1997, p. 279) has argued that the applicability of a theory to actual practice should be one of the criteria to be used for judging the very validity of that theory. Evensen (1997, p. 39) points to “a fundamental dialectic between applied and basic research which still remains to be properly understood.” Among recent attempts to address the issue is that of Davies (1989) who makes a convincing case for foregrounding reflective personal experience while “doing being applied linguists.”

Some Philosophical Issues Arising from AL

The ethical question

Of particular significance in the recent history of AL is the growing interest among scholars in the ethical implications of work done in the field. Now, there is a long and respectable tradition in western thought according to which ethical considerations are to be made at the level of practical reasoning, leaving pure theory entirely free from them. It is grounded on the assumption that pure knowledge knows no ethics, which only makes its presence felt when one is dealing with human action and agency. In philosophy, this tradition often asserts itself in the form of an injunction, discussed at some length by David Hume, against attempting to derive moral conclusions (such-and-such ought to be the case) from factual premises (such-and-such is the case) or vice versa. In his Principia Ethica, Moore was to condemn the nonobservance of the distinction between “facts” and “values” as the naturalistic fallacy. It is hardly surprising therefore that theoretically oriented linguists have typically tended to shy away from the ethical considerations arising out of their work. When asked if there were any possible links between his scientific writings and his political activities, Chomsky (1977, p. 3) categorically denied that there was any “direct connection” between the two.

The philosophical significance of the critical turn in AL can hardly be overestimated. Following a tradition going back to Kant, Hegel, and Marx, among others, critical theorists are intent on bridging the proverbial gap between theory and practice. Instead of treating the latter as a mere handmaiden to the former, they endeavor to bring the weight of dialectical thinking to bear on the task of coordinating theory and practice. In the context of AL, this has meant rethinking the very relation between linguistic theory and the various practices involving language. There is an emerging consensus that theory with no practical goal is just as worthless as practice devoid of solid theoretical foundation.

The road ahead

There is still a long way to go and many stubborn resistances (cf. Widdowson, 2000) to be overcome. As Corson (1997, p. 167) puts it:

“AL began to flourish well before any hermeneutic, critical, or postmodern epistemology had become influential in setting the course for inquiry in the human sciences . . . Although many applied linguists are deeply involved with issues of human emancipation, these interests have been rather muted and have had little abiding impact on AL generally. This is especially true of its central language teaching functions . . . Indeed, just this perception that “language teaching” is its central function, may have distorted the epistemological foundations of AL in general”.

Still, if one may hazard a guess, the critical orientation of AL is here to stay. And, from the looks of it, it is now the turn of theoretical linguistics to be influenced by these exciting new developments in the applied domain – thus fulfilling, who knows, what was always already its destiny (Rajagopalan, 1999). No doubt, there are immense challenges ahead, not the least urgent of which is the threat posed by globalization to local cultures and regional and minority languages (Celani, 2000).


Davies, Alan & Catherine Elder (2004). The Handbook of Applied Linguistics. USA: Blackwell Publishing Ltd


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