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date: 19 April 2021

Applied Linguistics: A Twenty-First-Century Discipline

Abstract and Keywords

This article focuses on the field of applied linguistics as a twenty-first century discipline. A realistic history of the field of applied linguistics would place its origins at around the year 1948 with the publication of the first issue of the journal Language Learning: A Journal of Applied Linguistics. Although there are certainly other possible starting points, particularly from a British perspective, this dating still accords roughly with most discussions of the beginning of applied linguistics. Over the years, the term applied linguistics has been defined and interpreted in a number of different ways, and that exploration is continued in this overview. In the 1950s, the term was commonly meant to reflect the insights of structural and functional linguists that could be applied directly to second language teaching and also in some cases to first language literacy and language arts issues as well. Applied linguistics has many of the markings of an academic discipline.

Keywords: linguistics, realistic history, journal, structural linguists, functional linguists, academic discipline

A realistic history of the field of applied linguistics would place its origins at around the year 1948 with the publication of the first issue of the journal Language Learning: A Journal of Applied Linguistics (cf. Davies, 1999; Kaplan, elsewhere in this volume). Although there are certainly other possible starting points, particularly from a British perspective, this dating still accords roughly with most discussions of the beginning of applied linguistics.

Over the years, the term applied linguistics has been defined and interpreted in a number of different ways, and I continue that exploration in this overview. In the 1950s, the term was commonly meant to reflect the insights of structural and functional linguists that could be applied directly to second language teaching and also in some cases to first language (L1) literacy and language arts issues as well. In the 1960s, the term continued to be associated with the application of linguistics to language teaching and related practical language issues (Corder, 1973; Halliday, McIntosh, and Strevens, 1964; Rivers, 1968a; 1968b). At the same time, applied linguists became involved in matters of language assessment, language policies, and the new field of second language acquisition (SLA), focusing on learning, rather than on teaching (Ortega, 2009). So, by the late 1960s, one saw both a reinforcement of the centrality of second language teaching as applied linguistics, as well as an expansion into other realms of language use. In this respect, applied linguistics began to emerge as a genuine language-centered problem-solving enterprise (see Davies, 1999a).

In the 1970s, the broadening of the field of applied linguistics continued, accompanied by more overt specification of its role as a discipline that addresses real-world (p. 35) language-based problems. Although the focus on language teaching remained central to the discipline, it additionally took into its domain the growing subfields of language assessment, SLA, L2 literacy, multilingualism, language-minority rights, language policy and planning, and language teacher training (Kaplan, 1980; Widdowson, 1979/1984). The notion that applied linguistics is driven first by real-world language problems rather than by theoretical explorations of internalized language knowledge and (L1) language development is largely what set the field apart from both formal linguistics and later from sociolinguistics, with its own emphasis on language description of social variation in language use (typically minus the application to language problems). This separation has had four major consequences:

  • The recognition of social situated contexts for inquiry and exploration and thus an increase in the importance of needs analysis and variable solutions in differing local contexts

  • The need to see language as functional and discourse based, thus the reemergence of systemic and descriptive linguistics as resources for problem solving, particularly in North American contexts

  • The recognition that no single discipline can provide all the tools and resources to address language-based real-world problems

  • The need to recognize and apply a wide range of research tools and methodologies to address locally situated language problems

These trends took hold and evolved during the 1980s as major points of departure from an earlier, no longer appropriate, “linguistics applied” perspective (cf. Davies and Elder, 2004b). The central issue remained the need to address language issues and problems as they occur in the real world. Of course, because language is central to all communication, and because many language issues in the real world are particularly complex and long-standing, the emerging field has not simply been reactive, but rather, has been and still is, fluid and dynamic in its evolution (cf. Brumfit, 2004; Bygate, 2005; Grabe, 2004; Seidlhofer, 2003; Widdowson, 2005, 2006). Thus, definitions of applied linguistics in the 1980s emphasized both the range of issues addressed and the types of disciplinary resources used in order to work on language problems (Grabe and Kaplan, 1991; Kaplan, 1980). In the 1980s, applied linguistics truly extended in a systematic way beyond language teaching and language learning issues to encompass language assessment, language policy and planning, language use issues in professional settings, translation, lexicography, bilingualism and multilingualism, language and technology, and corpus linguistics (which continues to hold more interest for applied linguists than for formal linguists). These extensions are well documented in the first 10 years of the journals AILA Review, Annual Review of Applied Linguistics, Applied Linguistics, and International Journal of Applied Linguistics, among others. (See Kaplan, elsewhere in this volume, for a detailed discussion.)

By the beginning of the 1990s, a common trend was emerging to view applied linguistics as incorporating many subfields and drawing on many supporting (p. 36) disciplines in addition to linguistics (e.g., anthropology; education; English studies—including composition, rhetoric, and literary studies; modern languages; policy studies; political sciences; psychology; public administration; and sociology). Combined with these two foundations (subfields and supporting disciplines) was the view of applied linguistics as problem driven and real-world based rather than theory driven and disconnected from real language use data (Davies, 1999; Kaplan and Widdowson, 1992; Strevens, 1992). Applied linguistics has evolved still further during the 1990s and 2000s, breaking away from the common framing mechanisms of the 1980s. A parallel coevolution of linguistics itself needs to be commented upon to understand how and why linguistics, broadly defined, remains a core resource for applied linguistics.

From the 1960s to the early 1990s, generative linguistics dominated the linguistics landscape. Although other competing formal theories (tagmemics, systemic-functional linguistics, descriptive grammar, and others) were always available, and sociolinguistics claimed language variation, spoken discourse analysis, and social uses of language as descriptive areas of inquiry, Chomskean linguistics, and its offshoots, almost defined linguistics, at least in North America. This situation was especially true for many practicing applied linguists during that time. However, the growing abstractness of generative linguistics, the assumption of a language acquisition device (LAD, an innate language learning mechanism), and the assumption that a theory should be universally applicable to all languages has, for the most part, taken generative linguistics out of the running as a foundation for language knowledge that is relevant and applicable to real-world language uses and real-world language problems. In its place, applied linguists have been turning back to more cognitive and descriptive approaches to language knowledge (K. de Bot, 2008; Huddleston and Pullum, 2002; Robinson and Ellis, 2008), language explanations that are explicitly driven by attested language uses rather than intuitions (corpus linguistics, descriptive grammars, sociolinguistics; Biber et al., 1999; Carter and McCarthy, 2006), and theories of language representation that have more realistic applicability to the sorts of language issues explored by applied linguists (Doughty and Long, 2003; Kroll and de Groot, 2005; Robinson and Ellis, 2008).

Linguistics, viewed from this larger perspective, is still central to the overwhelming majority of applied linguistic areas of inquiry that are generally recognized as falling under the umbrella discipline of applied linguistics. After all, applied linguists, and training programs for applied linguists, universally recognize that language knowledge of various types is crucial for careful description and analysis of language, language learning, language uses and abuses, language assessment, and so forth. Applied linguists must draw on knowledge bases of phonetics, phonology, morphology, syntax, semantics, pragmatics, and written discourse because they are relevant to an applied linguistics issue, even if a given area of applied linguistics may not draw specifically on this knowledge at all times (e.g., L2 teacher training, language policy and planning). What has changed is the recognition that linguistic foundations do not need to be narrowly prescribed by theoretical fashion; instead, they must be relevant to language description in specific contexts and provide (p. 37) resources that help address language-based problems and issues in real-world contexts.

For applied linguistics research, the shift to discourse analysis, descriptive data analysis, and interpretation of language data in their social/cultural settings all indicate a shift in valuing observable language data over theoretical assumptions about what should count as data (van Lier, 1997). One of the most useful perspectives that has arisen out of this evolution of a more relevant linguistics has been the development of register analysis, genre analysis, and the resource of corpus linguistics as they apply to a wide range of language learning and language use situations (A. M. Johns, 2002; McCarthy, 2008). All of these approaches to linguistic analysis, along with more refined techniques for discourse analysis, are now hallmarks of much applied linguistics research. In fact, many applied linguists have come to see the real-world, problem-based, socially responsive research carried out in applied linguistics as the genuine role for linguistics, with formal linguistics taking a supporting role. As van Lier 1997) notes,

I think that it is the applied linguist who works with language in the real world, who is most likely to have a realistic picture of what language is, and not the theoretical linguist who sifts through several layers of idealization. Furthermore, it may well be the applied linguist who will most advance humankind' understanding of language, provided that he or she is aware that no one has a monopoly on the definitions and conduct of science, theory, language research, and truth. (1997: 103)

Trends and Perspectives in the 1990s and the 2000s

In this section, I only note various developments that have emerged over the last 20 years and that will probably continue to define applied linguistics in the coming decade. The present volume provides the details to expand much of the brief sign posting that this section provides. For much the same reason, I refrain from a long catalog of appropriate references on the assumptions that these ideas will be well-referenced elsewhere (Davies and Elder, 2004b; Grabe, 2004; Hinkel, 2005).

First, under the umbrella of applied linguistics, research in language teaching, language learning, and teacher education is now placing considerable emphasis on notions of language awareness, attention and learning, “focus on forms” for language learning, learning from dialogic interactions, patterns of teacher-student interaction, task-based learning, content-based learning, and teacher as researcher through action research. Research in language learning has shifted in recent years toward a focus on information processing, the importance of more general cognitive learning principles, the emergence of language ability from extended meaningful exposures and relevant practice, and the awareness of how language is used and the (p. 38) functions that it serves (Doughty and Long, 2003; N. Ellis, 2007; Robinson and Ellis, 2008; Tomasello, 2003; VanPatten and Williams, 2007). Instructional research and curricular issues have centered on task-based learning, content-based learning, strategies-based instruction, and a return to learning centered on specific language skills (Cohen and Macaro, 2007; elsewhere in this volume; Long and Doughty, 2009; McGroarty et al., 2004; Samuda and Bygate, 2008).

Language teacher development has also moved in new directions. Widdowson 1998) has argued forcefully that certain communicative orientations, with a pervasive emphasis on natural language input and authenticity, may be misinterpreting the real purpose of the language classroom context and ignoring effective frameworks for language teaching. He has also persuasively argued that applied linguists must support teachers throughout their mediation with all aspects of Hymes's notion of communicative competence, balancing language understanding so that it combines grammaticality, appropriateness, feasibility, and examples from the attested (Widdowson, 2000). A further emphasis for language teacher education has been the move to engaging teachers in the practice of action research. The trend to train teachers as reflective practitioners inquiring into the effectiveness of teaching and learning in local classroom settings will increase in the coming decade.

A second emphasis that has taken hold in discussions among applied linguists themselves is the role for critical studies; this term covers critical awareness, critical discourse analysis, critical pedagogy, student rights, critical assessment practices, and ethics in language assessment (and language teaching; Davies, 1999; Fairclough, 1995a; McNamara, 1998; McNamara and Roever, 2006; Pennycook, 2001; van Lier, 1997). At the same time, there are a number of criticisms of this general approach and its impact on more mainstream applied linguistics that highlights weaknesses in much of the critical studies theorizing (Seidlhofer, 2003; Widdowson, 2004). At present, the notion of critical studies also constitutes an emphasis that has not demonstrated strong applications in support of those who are experiencing “language problems” of various types. The coming decade will undoubtedly continue this debate.

A third emphasis is on language uses in academic, disciplinary, and professional settings (Biber, 2006b; elsewhere in this volume; Connor and Upton, 2004a; Swales, 2004). This research examines ways in which language is used by participants and in texts in various academic, professional, and occupational settings. It also emphasizes how language can act as a gatekeeping mechanism or can create unfair obstacles for those who are not aware of appropriate discourse rules and expectations. In academic settings, the key issue lies in understanding how genre and register expectations form the basis for successfully negotiating academic work (Hyland, 2004a, 2008; A. M. Johns, 2002; Swales, 2004). Analyses of language use in various professional settings are described in Gibbons 2004), Grabe 2004), Master (2005), and McGroarty et al. 2003). More specific to English for specific purposes (ESP), Swales 2000) and Widdowson (2004) provide relevant overviews.

A fourth emphasis centers on descriptive (usually discourse) analyses of language in real settings and the possible application of analyses in corpus linguistics, (p. 39) register variation, and genre variation. A breakthrough application of corpus linguistics remains the Longman Grammar of Spoken and Written English (Biber et al., 1999). It is based entirely on attested occurrences of language use in a very large corpus of English. The key, though, lies not in the corpus data themselves but in the innovative analyses and displays that define the uniqueness of the grammar (see also Carter and McCarthy, 2006). Other important applications of corpus linguistics include more teacher- and learner-directed resources (see McCarthy, 2008).

A fifth emphasis in applied linguistics research addresses multilingualism and bilingual interaction in school, community, and work and in professional settings or policy issues at regional and national levels. Because the majority of people in the world are to some extent bilingual, and because this bilingualism is associated with the need to negotiate life situations with other cultural and language groups, this area of research is fundamental to applied linguistics concerns. Multilingualism covers issues in bilingual education, migrations of groups of people to new language settings, equity and fairness in social services, and language policies related to multiple language use (or the restriction thereof). Key issues are addressed in Baker 2006), Brisk (2005), McGroarty et al. (2003, 2006), and van Els 2005).

A sixth emphasis focuses on the changing discussion in language testing and assessment. During the past decade, the field of language assessment has taken on a number of important issues and topics that have ramifications for applied linguists more generally. Validity remains a major theme for language testers, and it has been powerfully reinterpreted over the last 10 years (Chapelle, Enright, and Jamieson, 2008; Kane, 2006). In its newer interpretation, validity has strong implications for all areas of applied linguistic research and data collection and is not merely an issue for assessment practices (Chapelle, 1999). An additional major shift in language assessment with significant implications for applied linguistics more generally is the greater emphasis being given to assessment for learning (sometimes discussed as formative assessment).

The goals for assessment have shifted from assessing what students can do at a given moment to using assessment as a way to improve learning effectiveness on an ongoing basis. The goal is to see continuous learner assessment for learning purposes. This trend is likely to grow considerably in the coming decade (Black et al., 2004; Davison, 2007; Grabe, 2009; Rea-Dickins, 2006; Wiliam and Thompson, 2007). More generally, emphases on technology applications, ethics in assessment, innovative research methodologies, the roles of standardized assessment, standards for professionalism, and critical language testing are all reshaping language assessment and, by extension, applied linguistics.

A seventh emphasis focuses on the resources and perspectives provided by neurolinguistics and brain studies associated with language learning and language use (Schumann et al., 2004; see also Schumann elsewhere in this volume). The potential and the benefits of research in neurolinguistics and the impact of language learning on brain processing is perhaps not an immediate concern of applied linguistics. However, significant advances in the relations between brain functioning (p. 40) and language learning (including literacy development) suggest that research insights from neurolinguistics may soon become too important to ignore. The impact of literacy training, literacy learning in different languages, and training with language disability learners on brain processing has accelerated in recent years (J. R. Anderson, 2007; Berninger and Richards, 2002; Schumann et al., 2004; elsewhere in this volume; Ward, 2006; Wolf, 2007). A sure sign of this change is the extraordinarily accessible explanations relating neuroscience to reading ability in Wolf 2007) and the recent inclusion of four chapters on neuroscience and reading comprehension in a recent volume on comprehension instruction (Block and Parris, 2008). This emphasis will probably become an important sub-area of applied linguistics within the decade.

The Problem-Based Nature of Applied Linguistics: It's the Problems, Not the Disciplines

In the many discussions of trends and disciplines, and subfields, and theorizing, the idea is sometimes lost that the focus of applied linguistics is on trying to resolve language-based problems that people encounter in the real world, whether they be academics, dictionary makers, employers, lawyers, learners, policy developers, service providers, supervisors, teachers, test takers, those who need social services, translators, or a whole range of business clients. A list of major language-based problems that applied linguists typically address (across a wide range of settings) follow. The list is necessarily partial, but it should indicate what it is that applied linguists try to do, if not how they go about their work.

Applied linguists address subsets of the following problems:

  • Language assessment problems (validity, reliability, usability, responsibility, fairness)

  • Language contact problems (bilingualism, shift, spread, loss, maintenance, social and cultural interactions)

  • Language inequality problems (ethnicity, class, region, gender, and age)

  • Language learning problems (emergence of skills, awareness, rules, use, context, automaticity, attitudes, expertise)

  • Language pathology problems (aphasias, dyslexias, physical disabilities)

  • Language policy and planning problems (status planning, corpus planning, acquisition planning, ecology of language, multilingualism, political factors)

  • Language teaching problems (resources, training, practice, interaction, understanding, use, contexts, inequalities, motivations, outcomes)

  • Language and technology problems (learning, assessment, access, use)

  • Language translation problems (access, effectiveness, technologies)

  • (p. 41) Language use problems (dialects, registers, discourse communities, gatekeeping situations, limited access to services and resources)

  • Literacy problems (orthography development, new scripts, resource development, learning issues)

These categories could be expanded further, and themes in each category could be elaborated into full articles and books in and of themselves. The key point, however, is to recognize that it is the language-based problems in the world that drive applied linguistics. These problems also lead applied linguists to use knowledge from other fields apart from linguistics, and thereby impose the interdisciplinarity that is a defining aspect of the discipline.

Defining Applied Linguistics

Over the past decade, Widdowson (1998, 2000, 2004, 2005) has argued consistently that applied linguistics is not an interdisciplinary discipline as much as a mediating field or domain between the theoretical plane of linguistics and language knowledge on the one hand and its applications to problems that arise in a number of real-world settings. As such, applied linguistics is problematic as a discipline or as an interdisciplinary field. Rather than create unique knowledge or work within unique disciplinary principles and resources, it is identified by its role mediating between theoretical knowledge from disciplines and practitioners who encounter real-world language problems. However, other applied linguists do not see applied linguistics through such a problematized lens. Brumfit 2004, Bygate 2005, Davies (1999a), and Kaplan (2002a) all see the complexity, fuzziness, and dynamism of applied linguistics as not so distinct from other disciplines. This debate on the definition of applied linguistics will surely continue for at least another decade.

A further debate has centered around the connection between applied linguistics as an academic discipline and the domain of real-world language problems (e.g., Widdowson, 2005). It is certainly true that much research under the umbrella of applied linguistics retains a somewhat detached, descriptive quality to it, contributing to knowledge about a language problem in a real-world context, but not suggesting ways to ameliorate that problem or demonstrating success in addressing the problem. This criticism is a legitimate one, but not one that undermines the definition of applied linguistics itself. There are certainly cases in which applied linguists have drawn on combined disciplinary resources, including language and language learning knowledge, and taken the key steps from basic resource knowledge, to specific research applications, to learning outcome comparisons, to curriculum development, and to instructional use and evaluation of outcomes (and then leading to a new cycle in this problem-solving process). Consequently, it remains reasonable to see applied linguistics as a discipline that engages interdisciplinary resources (including linguistic resources) to address real-world language problems.

(p. 42) As a result (and much like Brumfit, Bygate, Davies, and Kaplan), I have defined applied linguistics as a practice-driven discipline that addresses language-based problems in real-world contexts. This general definition certainly does not come to terms with all of the claims that applied linguistics is not a discipline. Aside from the major issues noted above, critics have also noted that applied linguistics is too broad and too fragmented, that it demands expert knowledge in too many fields, that it does not have a set of unifying research paradigms. However, it is possible to interpret applied linguistic as a discipline much in the way that many other disciplines are defined. Applied linguistics, like many disciplines, has a core and a periphery, and the periphery blurs into other disciplines that may—or may not—want to be allied. This picture may not be very different from that of several other disciplines, particularly those that are relatively new, give or take a hundred years.

A quick look at a number of well-recognized disciplines will reveal that they too are open to charges that their fields are too fragmented and too broad, that they demand expertise in too many related subfields, and that they do not have a set of unifying research paradigms. Obvious, recognizable disciplines that can be included under these criticisms include chemistry, biology, education, English, history, and psychology, just to note some of the larger fields. We tend to note the messiness that is close at hand and see distant disciplines as tidier and better-defined entities. Disciplinary histories, current controversies, blurred borders, and new technologies and taxonomies of subfields within each discipline would suggest some of the same issues that confront applied linguists as they seek to describe disciplinary status. In the case of other disciplines, time and recognition have provided a much greater sense of inevitability, a sense that is likely to accrue to applied linguistics over the next 50 years.

Accepting the messiness of a newer discipline and the controversies that are inevitable in describing an intellectual territory, applied linguistics, nonetheless, exhibits many defining disciplinary characteristics. These points reflect commonalities that most applied linguists would agree on:

  1. 1. Applied linguistics has many of the markings of an academic discipline: many professional journals, many professional associations, international recognition for the field, funding resources for research projects. The field contains a large number of individuals who see themselves as applied linguists, as trained professionals who are hired in academic institutions as applied linguists, as students who want to become applied linguists, there is a need for a recognized means for training these students to become applied linguists.

  2. 2. Applied linguistics has conferences with well-articulated subareas for conference-abstract submissions. These subareas generally define applied linguistics in ways quite similar to the problem-based list previously provided; categories for submission for the American Association for Applied Linguistics (AAAL) have, for example, remained remarkably stable over the past 10 years.

  3. (p. 43) 3. Applied linguistics recognizes that linguistics must be included as a core knowledge base in the training and work of applied linguistics, although the purpose of most applied linguists' work is not simply to apply linguistics to achieve a solution. Moreover, direct applications of language knowledge is not necessarily a criterion that defines applied linguistics work. How one trains effective language teachers may involve research that does not refer directly to aspects of language knowledge, but rather to aspects of learning psychology (cognitive processes), educational practice (task development and sequencing), and social interactions (autonomy, status, turn taking).

  4. 4. Applied linguistics is grounded in real-world language-driven problems and issues (primarily linked by practical matters involving language use, language evaluation, language contact and multilingualism, language policies, and language learning and teaching). There is also, however, the recognition that these practically driven problems have extraordinary range, and this range tends to dilute any sense of common purpose or common professional identification among practitioners.

  5. 5. Applied linguistics typically incorporates other disciplinary knowledge beyond linguistics in its efforts to address language-based problems. Applied linguists commonly draw upon and are often well trained in areas of anthropology, computer programming, education, economics, English, literature, measurement, political science, psychology, sociology, or rhetoric.

  6. 6. Applied linguistics is, of necessity, an interdisciplinary field, because few practical language issues can be addressed through the knowledge resources of any single discipline, including linguistics. For example, genuinely to influence language learning, one must be able to call upon, at the very least, resources from educational theory, ethnomethodology (sociology), and learning theory as well as linguistics.

  7. 7. Applied linguistics commonly includes a core set of issues and practices that are readily identifiable as work carried out by many applied linguists (e.g., second language assessment, second language curriculum development, second language learning, second language teaching, and second language teacher preparation).

  8. 8. Applied linguistics generally incorporates or includes several identifiable subfields: for example, corpus linguistics, forensic linguistics, language testing, language policy and planning, lexicography, second language acquisition, second language writing, and translation and interpretation.

  9. 9. Applied linguistics often defines itself broadly in order to include issues in other language-related fields (e.g., first language composition studies, first language literacy research, language pathology, and natural language processing). The great majority of members in these other fields do not see themselves as applied linguists; however, the broad definition for applied (p. 44) linguistics licenses applied linguists to draw upon and borrow from these disciplines to meet their own objectives.

These nine points indicate the developing disciplinary nature of applied linguistics. There are certainly difficulties for the field, and there are problems in attempting to define and differentiate the core versus the periphery. There are also problems in deciding how one becomes an applied linguist and what training (and what duration of training) might be most appropriate. But these problems are no more intractable than those faced by many disciplines, even relatively established ones.


The coming decade of research and inquiry in applied linguistics will continue the lines of investigation noted in the second and third sections of this chapter. Applied linguists will need to know more about computer technologies, statistical applications, sociocultural influences on research, and new ways to analyze language data. Testing and assessment issues will not be limited to testing applications but will also have a much greater influence on other areas of applied linguistics research. Issues such as validity, fairness, and ethics will extend into other area of applied linguistics. These issues will also lead to continued discussions on the most appropriate research methods in different settings. Additionally, applied linguistics will direct more attention to issues of motivation, attitudes, and affect because those factors potentially influence many language-based problems. Similarly, learning theories (as discussed and debated in educational and cognitive psychology) will become a more central concern in language learning and teaching. Finally, neurolinguistic research will undoubtedly open up new ways to think about language learning, language teaching, and the ways in which language is used.

All of these issues also ensure that applied linguistics will remain essentially interdisciplinary. The resolution of language-based problems in the real world is complex, dynamic, and difficult. It seems only appropriate that applied linguists seek partnerships and collaborative research if these problems are to be addressed in effective ways.