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date: 14 December 2017

Where to from Here?

Abstract and Keywords

As noted in the preface, this second edition has undertaken to examine where applied linguistics came from, what it has achieved, and where it might be going. The entire field is, after all, only a bit more than a century old—a relatively inconsequential time span in the context of other disciplines that can legitimately claim millennial histories. Some of the new areas of inquiry promise to require rethinking not only the scope of applied linguistics but even the scope of linguistics itself as well as a number of other subsidiary disciplines. Corpus work although not a new departure—rather, a new way of looking at data augmented by new technological achievements—has demonstrated that the patterns hidden in the syntactic and rhetorical structure of language suggest that some of the widespread beliefs locked in both theory and pedagogy may need to be reexamined.

Keywords: applied linguistics, corpus, millennial histories, subsidiary disciplines, syntactic structure, language structure

Practically speaking, there is no “creation from nothing” (ex nihilo). There is always something “before the beginning,” just as there is always something “after the end.” Put another way, everything is “all middle.” … Beginning and ending “in the middle of things” (in medias res), [any work] moves in many directions and dimensions and constantly promises or threatens to turn into something else. Being one thing, it offers to become many others.

—Pope 2005

As noted in the preface, this second edition of the Oxford Handbook of Applied Linguistics has undertaken to examine where applied linguistics came from, what it has achieved, and where it might be going. The entire field is, after all, only a bit more than a century old—a relatively inconsequential time span in the context of other disciplines that can legitimately claim millennial histories. The activity of bringing this edition to fruition has proved to be a rather surprising undertaking; I had initially assumed that most of the chapters could easily be updated and a few new references provided. The amount of new work and the number of new areas of study that have emerged over the relatively short time since the completion of the first edition is substantial. Some of the new areas of inquiry promise to require rethinking not only the scope of applied linguistics but even the scope of linguistics itself as well as a number of other subsidiary disciplines. Corpus work, although not a new departure—rather, a new way of looking at data augmented by new technological achievements—has demonstrated that the patterns hidden in the syntactic and rhetorical structure of language suggest that some of the widespread beliefs locked in both theory and pedagogy may need to be reexamined. (See Biber et al., (p. 572) (chapter 41) in this volume.) At the same time, recent work in the analysis of the structure and function of the brain has the potential to overturn much of pedagogical practice and theory, including the understanding of language acquisition as well as such notions as Universal Grammar in language acquisition. (See Schumann chapter 20) in this volume.) Thus, the Universal Grammar (UG) model, which assumes an equation between linguistic theory and grammatical theory, does not recognize that language is only one “tool set” for construing experience; as Halliday writes, “Language is the essential condition of knowing, the process by which experience becomes knowledge” (1993: 94, italics in the original). Language is significantly complemented by the resources of other semiotic systems, all of which have been developed over cultural history, shaping, and being shaped by, the various activities in which they are used. Language is not—cannot be—an isolated system, and grammar cannot be equated with language. As Enkvist puts it,

The important point is to realize that the text is the father of the sentence, and that text strategies come before the syntactic formation of individual sentences. Giving a sentence its textual fit, its conformity with the text strategy, is not a cosmetic surface operation polishing the sentence after it is already there. Textual fit is a far more basic requirement, determining the choice of words as well as the syntactic structure of a sentence. To modern text and discourse linguists this is so obvious that it seems curious that grammarians and teachers of composition have, through the centuries, spent so much time and effort on syntactic phenomena within individual sentences, while overlooking the fundamental questions of text strategy and information flow. (1997: 199)

The radical changes emanating from these research areas are illustrated in the growth of such subdivisions of applied linguistics as translation and interpretation. (See part X elsewhere in this volume.)

Some of the questions that seemed to demand attention in the first edition have faded away and have been replaced by new questions, even if the earlier questions have not been completely answered. More important, the incredible growth in, and the increased sophistication of, technology and its rapid assimilation into practice has increased the possibility of accessing much larger pieces of data at vastly greater speeds in analysis. That growth has substantially altered some approaches to language teaching, moving away from the traditional emphasis on grammatical structures and moving toward a much greater emphasis on communication. (See Wesche, chapter 22 in this volume.) The growth has resulted in the recognition that language is not an isolate based on absolute rules but is rather foremost a communication vehicle, varying over time as the communicative needs of communities of speakers demands. That growth has also demonstrated that the “one-nation/one-language myth” is indeed a myth; rather, languages are interrelated in complex ways; they are not entities metaphorically existing as isolates in a genealogical tree.

The characterization of languages as fixed grammatical codes is at best unnecessarily reductionist and at worst a contributing factor in the loss of linguistic diversity. Before the advent of European nation-states, there were a number of dialect continua such as the Germanic, stretching from the north of (p. 573) Scandinavia to the north of Italy and consisting of an indefinite number of varieties, of which the proximate ones were mutually intelligible and the more distant ones were not. At present, this continuum has been overlaid by a number of superimposed official (standard) languages such as Swedish, Norwegian, German, Dutch, and Letzebuergisch, each associated with a nation-state. Such national languages, as Haugen points out, are cultural artifacts. (Mühlhäusler, chapter 32 in this volume)

Recognition does not eliminate the need for learning grammar; rather, it pushes grammar back into earlier stages of language learning and revises language teaching/learning to focus on communication by showing that such practices as the pattern drills common in the time of the audiolingual instruction have little to recommend them as learning practices and much to support the belief that they are great soporifics.

This discussion suggests that there is in fact a beginning and an end and that what is contained in this volume is the middle between origins in the nineteenth century and a future in the twenty-first century. But nothing could be further from the truth. As Pope notes in the brief quotation at the start of this chapter, “there is always something ‘before the beginning,’ just as there is always something ‘after the end.’” Rather, “everything is ‘all middle,’” and any given body of ideas “moves in many directions and dimensions and constantly promises or threatens to turn into something else.” To a certain extent, that is demonstrated by applied linguistics growing out of a number of disparate ideas that co-occurred during the late nineteenth century, that emerged as a coherent set of ideas during the twentieth century, but that began to fragment into a range of new ideas at the end of the twentieth century. (See Hinkle, chapter 11 in this volume.) The impression of fragmentation is the result of the disparate emergence of ideas, reaching different audiences at different times with different outcomes.

Although I have spent a lifetime trying to understand applied linguistics and to disseminate it to a wide variety of audiences, and recognizing that I have not been enormously successful in my endeavors, I am still constantly amazed that in the face of all the evidence to the contrary, education administrators around the world are still happy to promulgate instructional programs in which the rate of forgetting is quite likely to exceed the rate of learning, in which time on task is so tentative as essentially to assure fractured learning, and in which teacher training, materials development, and the assessment of achievement continue to be conducted in blissful ignorance of the accumulated wealth of information about language learning, language teaching, and language testing. These problems arise in part because the key decision makers in charge of the educational process appear to remain essentially ignorant of the extant research, isolated from expert researchers in the field, and unlikely or unwilling to seek advice even from teachers at the chalk face—who presumably must know something about the matter even though they may lack the academic credentials allegedly to guarantee their wisdom—let alone from the ranks of scholars across the broad range represented by applied linguistics. One holds the probably vain hope that this volume will come to the attention of teachers, teacher (p. 574) trainers, educational supervisors and inspectors, and politicians charged with the management of educational systems and other politically based language activities at all the various levels at which they function, will penetrate their isolation, will assist in the understanding of the information contained in the volume, and will encourage all those disparate folk to apply its lessons to the segments of the system for which they are responsible. But the responsibility is much more broadly dispersed than the list of players just enumerated, because the parents of the students studying in the educational systems have a role to play, as do their offspring—the contemporary victims of the educational systems—and as do all the other members of the societies that support the various educational systems.

There is no longer any serious debate about the larger interdisciplinary scope of applied linguistics, in juxtaposition to the earlier and more limited interpretation of the field as being concerned exclusively with language teaching and learning, language-teacher trainers, and language testers—a conception more in tune with what Spolsky (1999, 2008) has termed educational linguistics. To be sure, these essentially educational matters are still major components of applied linguistics, but the disciplinary discussions of the 1980s and 1990s have established applied linguistics as an interdisciplinary field addressing real-world language problems of various types, or, as Brumfit (1997a: 93) puts it, “A working definition of applied linguistics will then be the theoretical and empirical investigation of real-world problems in which language is a central issue.” There seems to be general agreement that there is no overarching theory “in large part because of the complexity of the issues” (Ricento, 2006a: 10), and, as Hornberger asserts, “the field remains ‘poised perpetually between theory and practice’” (2008a: 35).

Over the past decade, there have been a number of publications that have explored the nature and status of applied linguistics, with both North American and European emphases. (See, e.g., “List of Publications Exploring the Nature and Status of Applied Linguistics” at the end of chapter 1.) There is no longer serious debate about the larger interdisciplinary scope of applied linguistics, as opposed to the earlier and more limited interpretation. To be sure, the fields of language learning, language teaching, and language testing are still central components in applied linguistics, but the disciplinary discussions of the 1980s and 1990s have established applied linguistics as an interdisciplinary field that addresses real-world language problems of various types. Applied linguistics is a field that centrally involves linguistic knowledge and training. That knowledge is combined with one or two other specialized concerns and is “applied” to problems that arise in the normal (and sometimes abnormal) course of daily life. These problems include, at least

  • Needing to learn and use a second or third language

  • Being taught effectively in an L2

  • Being assessed and evaluated in an L2

  • Negotiating services or health care in an L2

  • Being impacted by language policies (whether planned or unplanned) that apply in educational, institutional, civic, or employment settings

  • (p. 575) Needing skilled interpreter services for various reasons

  • Maintaining home languages in dominant L2 contexts

These problems, and others like them, are at the core of the field of applied linguistics. Seeing the field from the perspective of language problems makes clear the fact that no single academic discipline can be sufficient to meet the needs of people facing multilingual/multicultural settings, language contact and bi/multilingualism, and translation. Language learning in the conventional sense cannot be, in and of itself, sufficient because it is not merely a matter of learning phonology, lexicon, and grammar but rather implicates behavior in multicultural environments and all the communicative skills implicit in such activity. Applied linguistics is also a major contributor to research in literacy, corpus linguistics, lexicography, teacher training, and sociolinguistics. Somewhat more distantly, it has linkages to such allied disciplines as education, cognitive psychology, English studies (stylistics, rhetoric, discourse studies, and literary studies), foreign language studies (discourse, culture, and literary studies), dialectal studies (stylistics, rhetoric, etc.), speech pathology, and communication sciences. The goal of representing applied linguistics in these wider terms is to establish the taxonomy of applied linguistics research that has been reviewed in this volume. Taking a broad view not only reflects the current nature of applied linguistics, at least as understood in North America, but also ensures that the work of applied linguistics from various backgrounds is reasonably represented. In covering research over the past decade, the following taxonomy representing the core of applied linguistics has been invoked:

  1. 01. Corpus linguistics

  2. 02. Discourse analysis

  3. 03. Language assessment

  4. 04. Language learning and teaching

    1. a. Second language teaching

    2. b. Foreign language teaching

    3. c. Bilingual and language minority education

    4. d. Dialect variation

    5. e. Instructional approaches

    6. f. Uses of technology

  5. 05. Language policy and planning

  6. 06. Language use in professional contexts

  7. 07. Neurobiology of language

  8. 08. Second language acquisition

  9. 09. Second language reading and writing research

  10. 10. Second language speaking and listening

  11. 11. Societal bilingualism and language contact

  12. 12. Translation and interpretation

As suggested, this volume represents what is in the middle. The end is not in sight. In all probability there will be a need for a third edition, probably no later than a (p. 576) decade from now. It is unlikely that I will be able to undertake that third edition; although my present age makes my future ability questionable, it is altogether fitting and proper that a younger editor should be selected—one aware of what came before the beginning and what is part of a longer middle as well as the reality that there will not be an end.

Perhaps, by the time an extended middle becomes available, a larger potential audience may be eager to be made aware of the importance of language.