This 55-minute video shows Henry Widdowson’s plenary address given at BAAL 2017 in Leeds this summer, on the 50th anniversary of the founding of the British Association for Applied Linguistics. You can watch the whole video from the above link (with automatic captions if you wish) and here is the abstract from the conference website.
The identification and institutional status of applied linguistics as a distinct academic activity has always rested on a claim to disciplinarity. Its engagement with issues of language use and learning is said to be informed by the theoretical insights and empirical research of one discipline or another: indeed it now seems to be taken as self evident that applied linguistics is of its very nature an interdisciplinary area of enquiry. So what does this disciplinarity involve? Whatever other informing disciplines might be invoked as relevant, linguistics must presumably figure as primary. How then has applied linguistics realized the relationship with the discipline of linguistics that is claimed to inform and lend authority to its practices? This discipline has itself been defined in two radically disparate ways: one focusing on the abstract properties of the linguistic code and the other on how language is realized in contexts of use, and applied linguistics, especially as related to language pedagogy, has tended to take its bearings from one or other of these. Both disciplinary variants have their validity as methodological constructs but as such both are necessarily partial and reductive representations of language as it is actually experienced by its users, which is what applied linguistics is essentially concerned with. The critical question then arises as to the relative relevance of these two disciplinary perspectives, how far they have been, and can be, drawn upon, and their disparity resolved, in dealing with problematic issues in the practical domains of language use and learning.
This post offers a summary of the main points with most of the references.
The goals of applied linguistics
- it engages with problems to do with language experienced in the real world
- it deploys means which are are essentially disciplinary, though not necessarily restricted to linguistics.
“It is perhaps uncontroversial to claim that applied linguistics, in becoming more interdisciplinary, is better prepared for the principled handling of a range of distinct types of real world issues, and more critically aware of its methodologies.”Bygate & Kramsch, 2000: 2
“the more disciplinary you are, the better prepared you are to handle real-world issues.”
In the early days of applied linguistics the disciplinary focus was on the teaching and learning of languages beyond first. Nowadays the field draws on a wider range of disciplines, and Lantolf (2013) seems to suggest that this wider focus is a sign of progress and increased “preparedness to handle a wider range of problems,” according to Widdowson.
In contrast, Widdowson espouses what he calls an “unfashionable view,” that is, preoccupation with
- how the discipline of linguistics has informed the applied linguistics of language teaching, and
- how far this substantiates the belief in a unilateral dependency relationship between interdisciplinarity and the handling of real world issues.
Milestones and landmarks
Some key publications in the area of applied linguistics with reference to language teaching.
|Chomsky||Syntactic structures||code linguistics: focus on formal features of code|
|Firth||Papers in linguistics||context linguistics: focus on how language is put to use|
The disparity of views in these two publications has affected subsequent developments in linguistics. Chomsky’s approach follows Saussure, and can be characterised as a kind of structural formalism, which reduces language to a system of signs placed in categories. Firth, in contrast, focuses on the study of linguistic events in terms of social processes. Palmer, a follower of Firth, said in 1968 that Firthian views “lost out” to Chomsky because they were not so clearly delineated.
|1964||INSTITUTIONAL EVENTS/PUBLICATIONS||LINGUISTIC ORIENTATION|
|Lyons||Chair in General Linguistics (Edinburgh University)||Chomskyan|
|Corder||Chair of Applied Linguistics (Edinburgh University)||Firthian|
|Halliday, McIntosh & Strevens||Linguistic science of language teaching||Firthian|
Halliday et al (1964) was an influential book, a manifesto for applied linguistics. The order of elements in the title gives priority to linguistics rather than teaching.
“He (the language teacher) is not teaching linguistics. But he is teaching something which is the object of study of linguistics, and is described by linguistic methods. It is obviously desirable that the underlying description should be as good as possible, and this means that it should be based upon sound linguistic principles”Halliday et al: 1964: 66
Interlanguage research and the Common European Framework
Widdowson argues that second language research and the Common European Framework of Reference for languages (CEFR) share an important feature, the construct of competence:
the two lines of development in applied linguistics seem to conceptually converge in that both are concerned with identifying stages of approximation to native-speaker competence. CEFR can be seen as the functional equivalent to the formalist concept of interlanguage.Widdowson, 2017: 32:57
He builds up to this conclusion as follows.
Continuing with the distinction made between the contributions of code and context linguistics to language teaching research, he cites key publications from both strands which appeared in 1972.
- On the code linguistics side, Selinker’s interlanguage opened the way towards second language (L2) acquisition research, taking a formalist perspective. Once research had revealed the processes involved, this would allow the definition of criteria for the design of L2 teaching.
- On the context side, however, Wilkins focused not on acquisition but on language learning objectives and how syllabus content might be developed to meet them.
- At the same time, other linguists began the shift from linguistic form to communicative content:
|Selinker||Interlanguage||construct for the study of process of second language acquisition|
|Wilkins||Linguistic and situational content of the common core in a unit/credit system||development of syllabus content to meet language learning objectives|
|Labov||Sociolinguistic patterns||instrument of communication used by the speech community|
|Hymes||Toward ethnographies of communication||communicative competence|
This brought context linguists to the conclusion that what learners need to learn is what native speakers do, or linguistic events in social process, in Firthian terms. For Labov,
“It is difficult to avoid the common-sense conclusion that the object of linguistics must ultimately be the instrument of communication used by the speech community. If we are not talking about that language there is something trivial in our proceeding.”Labov, 1972
With Hymes’ work on communicative competence, context linguistics became established as an alternative orthodoxy, offering a more coherent and systematic formulation of Firth’s principles.
|1972||Hymes||whether an act is
· formally possible
· attested (actually occurring)
|1969||Searle||felicity conditions for speech acts|
|1974||Hymes||restoration of contextual definition of linguistics (Austin, 1965)|
|1979||Brumfit & Johnson||Communicative Language Teaching (drawing on Halliday and Hymes)|
“So which approach should language teachers follow? How can applied linguistics reconcile this disparity?”
Disciplines deal in abstractions and works by categorisation. Disciplines reveal commonalities by ignoring differences and take a necessarily restrictive view of the world.
Both linguistic views described so far offer abstractions, they describe general dimensions of behaviour by disregarding variables of experience. The more a discipline seeks to account for difference, the less explanatory it becomes.
Code linguistics is often criticised as remote from actual experience, based on the fictional existence of an “ideal speaker-hearer in a homogeneous speech community” (Chomsky, 1965). But context linguistics is also remote from user experience and discusses idealised language varieties; speech act conditions are also abstractions. No linguistics can account for what actual people do, since variability is a natural consequence of actual language use (Trudgill refers to the “convenient fiction” of abstract categories).
The purpose of linguistics is as a discipline which devises conceptual constructs to explain collective, communal knowledge and behaviours; individuals only exist as members of categories (e.g., learners, native speakers, participants in studies). Individuals are selectively sampled as examples used to illustrate categories, but remain approximations. Users are typified, abstracted as members of groups or communities, and this is necessary for theories to be significant.
Applied linguistics is concerned not with what is valid but what is useful. Validity is not relevant to utility and vice versa: valid ideas may not be useful, but useful ideas may not be valid. If disciplinarity is to be useful, does it follow that more disciplinarity is better?
The answer can be found by examining one central disciplinary concept, the concept of competence.
Competence can be taken to mean what native speakers know of their language. In code linguistics, simplifying assumptions are made about the existence of communities, but the basis of SLA research is the investigation of learners’ success in approximating this competence along the interlanguage scale.
From the perspective of context linguistics, even if communicative competence and not linguistic competence is now in focus, a level of abstraction is still maintained. For Hymes, the extent to which one is communicatively competent is judged in terms of how far what one produces is
- attested (“done”)
This can be measured only in reference to established norms, hence by abstraction.
“There is an important sense in which a normal member of a community has knowledge with respect to all these aspects of the communicative systems available to him. He will interpret or assess the conduct of others and himself in ways that reflect a knowledge of each.”Hymes, 1972: 282
L2 teaching thus mean “getting learners to replicate the communicative competence of native-speaking communities,” that is, using language that is
- possible – correct or accurate by reference to the ideal encodings of the standard language,
- contextually appropriate, and
- attested in native speaker usage.
In TBLT parlance, Widdowson suggests,
“if you want to be fluent you have to be accurate”
CLT is not concerned with how language actually functions in communication, but only with the normative, stereotypical form that communication would take in an idealised NS community.
And yet this definition persists in the CEFR, which like Threshold level, is based on the same concept of competence. It also provides specifications for measuring how far learners have got in acquiring it.
And it is here that the two lines of development (code linguistics and context linguistics) converge conceptually.
- both are concerned with identifying stages of approximation of native-speaker competence, and
- the CEFR can be seen as the functional equivalent to the formalist concept of interlanguage
“What informs both is the assumption you can’t really be competent unless you conform to norms of how native speakers use the language; the closer you approximate to these norms the more competent you will be.
And if there is no such conformity then your linguistic conduct will be interpreted and assessed as inaccurate, inappropriate and evidence that you are an incompetent user of the language.”
So competence, whether linguistic or communicative, is an abstract construct defined in reference to the similar abstract representations of languages and communities as distinct entities. Such abstractions have their validity in the discipline of linguistics
For applied linguistics, however, abstract constructs also need to be useful.
The usefulness of “competence” in applied linguistics
To this extent, the notion of competence does bears out the claim that applied linguistics provides a disciplinary solution to real world problems. It solves the problem of what should be taught.
From teaching to learning
As things stand at present, what is learnt is given credit only to the extent that it corresponds to what has been taught. Assessment is based on teaching, not learning.
But we need to ask rather: why, in spite of teachers’ best efforts, do learners fail to conform? What’s their problem?
This problem has not been addressed by applied linguistics. For Widdowson, there is a pedagogical problem in applied linguistics. Language learning is impeded by teaching. Monolingual teaching makes a foreign language even more foreign. In teaching, any relation to the first language (L1) is deemed non-conforming.
However, it is actually normal to link the foreign language to the first language by appropriating it as an additional resource in a multilingual process of communication.
The teacher strives to replicate NS usage and denies natural processes, making learners acquire a separate competence. The teacher in effect inhibits learners from learning how to use language as a communicative resource and develop general lingual capability.
What we get is I think a glaring disparity between natural multilingual learning and the enforced imposition of monolingual teaching, making learners into teachees. No wonder they have a problem.Widdowson, 2017: 40:04
What and how learners process another language thus depends on their conception of its foreignness, and the process will be locally variable and content-dependent.
“This is counter to a teaching-imposed, competence-based concept of language learning derived from the discipline. But it is this concept that currently predominates and is given an authoritative endorsement in the CEFR.
Dual monolingualism and a categorical conception of competence
The change in terminology from native speaker to the more politically correct term expert user does not alter the objective, which remains the acquisition of an ideal, monolingually defined competence.
There is no recognition that expertise is not an absolute but a relative quality, not a matter of how closely a learner might approximate the competence along an assessment scale, but how far they can use the resources of the language effectively in relation to communicative purposes. In this sense, learners could be expert users even if they don’t meet CEFR assessment criteria.
Language learning as a starting point
At present, language teaching informs learning. But learning should influence teaching, rather than vice versa. To determine what kind of disciplinarity, what types of abstraction are appropriate we shouldn’t assume disciplinarity as defining features of AL. The unilateral application of disciplinarity impedes progress. This is linguistics applied (Widdowson, 1980, 2000). Applied linguistics should reverse this dependency: instead of disciplinarity being applied to real world issues, real world issues should determine what type of disciplinarity is of use.
Disciplinarity needs to be regulated by practical value and usefulness. It is ancillary to problem-solving. Otherwise it becomes a self-justifying academic exercise. Since AL is an institutionally established academic field of academic inquiry, with university departments, associations, and its own peer-reviewed journals, this academic orientation is inevitable. Peer reviewers are academics and disposed to evaluate papers by university criteria (impact factors).
But we need to ask what impact do our contributions have on the outside world? At present, the diversity of AL depends on range of fields rather than range of problems that can be addressed. There is a disparity between what is promised in principle and what is delivered in practice.
Widdowson notes in conclusion that he has not argued against disciplinarity, but claimed instead that disciplinarity is only useful if the nature of problem to be handled is analysed first. He brings us back to Firth’s context of situation:
A context of situation for linguistic work brings into relation the following categories:
- the relevant features of participants: persons, personalities
- the verbal action of the participants
- the non-verbal action of the participants
- the relevant objects
- the effect of the verbal action
Widdowson offers context of situation as an analytic framework for handling real-world issues. Second language pedagogy should consider what type of communication is relevant for given learners; we cannot presuppose disciplinarity.
In terms of his opening questions, we might interpret his argument thus:
- the discipline of linguistics has informed the applied linguistics of language teaching via both
- code linguistics: interlanguage and SLA
- context linguistics: communicative competence and the CEFR
- this has been a unilateral dependency relationship which has favoured established institutional power relations and failed to serve learner needs
- applied linguistics should develop concepts and constructs to serve language learning, rather than being with disciplinary abstractions and seek to apply those.
His talk concludes with remarks on how far AL has come, on his aim to raise critical awareness of questions, challenges, and opportunities, and this quote from TS Eliot.
Chomsky, N. (1957). Syntactic structures. Oxford: Mouton.
Council of Europe (2017). Common European Framework of Reference for Languages: Learning teaching, assessment. Companion volume with new descriptors. Council of Europe: Strasbourg. PDF
Firth, J. R. (1957). Papers in Linguistics, 0xford: Oxford University Press.
Halliday, M., McIntosh and P, Strevens. (1964). The linguistic sciences and language teaching. London: Longman.
Hymes, D. (1972). Toward ethnographies of communication: The analysis of communicative events. Language and social context, 21-44. PDF
Labov, W. (1972). Sociolinguistic patterns. Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press.
Lantolf, J. (2013). Endorsement of Simpson, J. (Ed). (2011). Routledge handbook of applied linguistics. Taylor & Francis.
Lightbown, P. M., & Spada, N. (2006). How languages are learned. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Searle, J. R. (1969). Speech acts: An essay in the philosophy of language. Cambridge: Cambridge university press. PDF
Selinker, L. (1972). Interlanguage. IRAL-International Review of Applied Linguistics in Language Teaching, 10(1-4), 209-232.
Van Ek, J. A., & Alexander, L. G. (1975). The Threshold Level in a European Unit: Credit System for Modern Language Learning by Adults: System Development in Adult Language Learning. Strasbourg: Council of Europe.
Widdowson, H. G. (2013). On the applicability of empirical findings. European Journal of Applied Linguistics, 1(1), 4-21.
Widdowson, Henry G. (2012). ELF and the inconvenience of established concepts. Journal of English as a Lingua Franca, 1(1), 5–26.
Widdowson, H. G. (2009). The linguistic perspective. Knapp, A., & Seidelhofer, B. (Eds.) Handbook of foreign language communication and learning, 6, 193.
Widdowson, H. (2007). JR Firth, 1957, Papers in Linguistics 1934–51. International Journal of Applied Linguistics, 17(3), 402-413.
Widdowson, H. (2007). Un‐applied linguistics and communicative language teaching. International Journal of Applied Linguistics, 17(2), 214-220.
Widdowson, H. G. (2000). On the limitations of linguistics applied. Applied linguistics, 21(1), 3-25. PDF
Widdowson, H. G. (1980). Models and fictions. Applied Linguistics, 1(2), 165-170.
Wilkins, D. A. (1973). The Linguistic and Situational Content of the Common Core in a Unit/Credit System. Systems development in adult language learning. Strasbourg: Council of Europe. PDF
I am an applied linguist in an English department in France and I work in French and English on instructed second language acquisition, classroom interaction, and teacher integration of learning technologies. A native-speaker of English with a PhD from Indiana University Bloomington, my baseline references are generally from the literature in English, and for some twenty-five years in the field, I have tended to subscribe to a view expressed by Widdowson (2000: 4):
people who call themselves applied linguists should stop agonizing about the nature of their enquiry, and just get on with it.
However, two decades in French academia have given me a fair perspective on relevant research in France, and have taught me caution when discussing my field. Many key terms show at best limited overlap in meaning in the two languages, and often have very different connotations. Applied linguistics and linguistique appliquée are one such pair. I thought I’d take a moment to tease the two terms apart, but as often happens once you start unpicking you can end up with quite a long thread. And it turns out, I am not alone in finding this a ticklish issue, even if we restrict our purview to a single language:
from time to time the underlying uncertainty about the scope and status of applied linguistics breaks surface […] the issue is a highly contentious one that raises quite fundamental questions about academic identity.Widdowson, 2000: 4
A number of researchers have looked at the term applied linguistics (and its French counterpart linguistique appliquée) from a historical viewpoint (Linn, 2008, 2011; Smith, 2015), from a contrastive perspective (Berthet, 2009; Liddicoat, 2009; Véronique, 2009), and from an epistemological standpoint (Carter & McCarthy, 2015; Véronique, 2009, 2010; Widdowson, 2000). What follows is the skeleton and links for a paper you can read on ResearchGate; comments welcome.
Linguistics applied and applied linguistics
Widdowson (1980) drew a distinction between applied linguistics and what he termed linguistics applied.
The difference between these modes of intervention is that in the case of linguistics applied the assumption is that the problem can be reformulated by the direct and unilateral application of concepts and terms deriving from linguistic enquiry itself.
In the case of applied linguistics, intervention is crucially a matter of mediation. Here there is the recognition that linguistic insights are not self-evident but a matter of interpretation; that ideas and findings from linguistics can only be made relevant in reference to other perceptions and perspectives that define the context of the problem.
Applied linguistics and linguistique appliquée in Britain, the US, and France
Berthet’s chronology of the field in the three geographical spheres is the subject of broad agreement (Léon, 2015; Linn, 2011; Linn et al., 2011; Véronique, 2009) and includes the following institutional and academic milestones:
- 1948 Language Learning: A quarterly journal of applied linguistics, Michigan (Fries)
- 1957 School of Applied Linguistics, Edinburgh (Catford)
- 1958 Centre de linguistique appliquée, Besançon (Quemada)
- 1961 Etudes de linguistique appliquée, Besançon (Quemada)
- 1964 Association internationale de linguistique appliquée [à l’enseignement des langues vivantes] (AILA), Nancy
- 1965 Chair of Applied Linguistics, Essex (Strevens)
- 1965 Association française de linguistique appliquée (AFLA)
- 1967 British Association of Applied Linguistics (BAAL)
- 1977 American Association for Applied Linguistics (AAAL)
- 1980 Applied Linguistics journal (Canada/UK/US)
(And for a Canadian perspective, see Cobb, 2009, in French and English).
The French alternatives: DDL/DLC and RAL
In France, the disciplines of didactique des langues étrangères (DDL or DLE), sometimes also didactique des langues-cultures (DLC), and (recherche en) acquisition des langues étrangères (RAL, ALS) cover the second/foreign language learning and teaching aspects of what elsewhere is termed applied linguistics.
Didactique des langues – language didactics
Berthet’s motivation for his 2011 paper seems to be to explore why he himself, a “didactician,” that is, a researcher whose object of study is the teaching/learning of second languages, should not call himself an applied linguist, as is the case elsewhere and was in France in the past. He is a didactician, he adds, who wonders whether the time is ripe to reflect on the redefinition of his discipline.
Recherches en acquisition des langues – second language research
Véronique, an acquisitionist, identifies “a difference in objectives between second language research, a branch of linguistics, and foreign language didactics, a praxeological discipline” (Véronique, 2010: 82).
Overlapping terminology, intersecting interests
On this reading of some of the literature on second/foreign language learning and teaching in different research traditions in English-speaking countries and in France, I offer the following, somewhat tentative conclusions regarding the translation and interpretation of word pairs in the two languages.
- applied linguistics/linguistique appliquée
Applied linguistics is generally interpreted in broader terms than la linguistique appliquée, and generally accords more importance to research in second language teaching and learning. More recent French definitions acknowledge a broader interpretation and the place of second/foreign language research within la linguistique appliquée (CRELA, 2013).
- linguistics versus linguistique / sciences du langage
General linguistics is broadly synonymous with language sciences, if a somewhat narrower discpline; sciences du langage is no doubt an appropriate translation for many purposes. La linguistique in French academia tends to refer to stylistics and textual function, and viewed as a branch of the humanities.
- second language acquisition (SLA)/acquisition des langues secondes (ALS)
These terms are more or less synonymous, though SLA is viewed as part of applied linguistics, unlike ALS.
- second language research/recherche en acquisition des langues secondes (RAL)
- language teaching and learning/enseignement-apprentissage des langues
These terms are synonymous; the field is concerned with language pedagogy, including methods, materials development, classroom practice, and assessment.
These topics are covered in TEFL/TESOL publications and textbooks on l’enseignement du FLE/FLES.
- foreign/second language teaching research/didactique des langues (DDL)
These terms cover language teaching research. The English expression includes language learning and comes under both SLA and applied linguistics in the English-speaking world. The term instructed SLA is also used, though a poor translation for DDL which generally excludes acquisition research. La didactique des langues focuses on theoretical models for language teaching and recognises neither applied linguistics nor SLA as parent disciplines.
- foreign versus second language/langues étrangères ou secondes
This paper has not discussed these terms, but they are also a source of disagreement and confusion. Second language may be used in English a) as an umbrella term for any language learned after the first, or b) restricted to contexts where the target language is the ambient language (e.g., French in Paris). In this second case, a foreign language is one learned in the absence of contact with the native-speaking community (e.g., English in a French high school). Thus researchers often refer to second language acquisition while practitioners talk of foreign language teaching. Since SLA is excluded from DDL, which takes the practitioner perspective, the term langue étrangère is more commonly used in French, particularly outside FLE/FLES circles.
And beyond these terminological notes, what answers can we offer to the question posed at the CRELA conference in 2013:
“What, then, is the situation in France today concerning applied linguistics? Can applied linguistics provide common ground and reduce fragmentation in the field?”
First, it seems clear that this is an important question about academic identity, and that applied linguistics should not be limited to “applicationism” or “linguistics applied.”
Second, we have seen that for historical reasons second/foreign language teaching research in France has for the most part been conducted in isolation from work in second language research and without reference to the broader field of applied linguistics.
Third, it seems that connections between French DDL research on one hand, and both applied linguistics and SLA on the other, are possible and no doubt desirable (Berthet, 2009; Véronique, 2009, 2010). All three have roots in traditions of research and practice in language teaching and learning that reach back further than we may realise:
The lesson from the history of applied linguistics is that research makes a difference when the desire to make a difference is built into the research from the outset and where the boundary between university research and the world where language is actually used and experienced is a thin and porous one.
Linn, 2011: 25
Berthet, M. (2011). La linguistique appliquée a l’enseignement des langues secondes aux Etats-unis, en France et en Grande-Bretagne. Histoire Épistémologie Langage, 33(1), 83-97. [open access]
Carter, R., & McCarthy, M. (2015). Spoken grammar: Where are we and where are we going?. Applied Linguistics, 1-21.
Cobb, T. (2009). An applied linguist’s response to the linguists’ Projet de reconfiguration. [open access]
Cultures de recherche en linguistique appliquée. (2013). Colloque CRELA, Nancy, France. Appel à communication. PDF
Fries, C. C. (1955). American Linguistics and the teaching of English, Language Learning 6 (1), 1-22.
Histoire Épistémologie Langage, 33(1) 2011. Linguistique appliquée et disciplinarisation. [open access]
Léon, J. (2015). Linguistique appliquée et traitement automatique des langues. Etude historique et comparative. Recherches en Didactique des Langues et Cultures: les Cahiers de l’Acedle, 12(3), 9-32. [open access]
Liddicoat, A. J. (2009). La didactique et ses equivalents en anglais: terminologies et cadres theoriques dans la circulation des idees, Francais dans le monde: Recherches et applications, 46: 33-41. PDF
Linn, A. (2011). Impact: Linguistics in the real world. Histoire Épistémologie Langage, 33(1), 15-27. [open access]
Research cultures in applied linguistics. (2013). Colloque CRELA, Nancy, France. Call for papers. PDF
Smith, R. (2015). Building ‘Applied Linguistic Historiography’: Rationale, Scope, and Methods. Applied Linguistics.
Véronique, G. (2009). La linguistique appliquée et la didactique des langues et des cultures: une polémique française au cœur d’un débat international. La circulation internationale des idées en DDL, Recherches et applications–Le français dans le monde, (46), 42-52. PDF
Véronique, D. (2010). La recherche sur l’acquisition des langues étrangères: entre le nomologique et l’actionnel. Le français dans le monde-Recherches et applications, (48), 76-85. [open access]
Widdowson, H. G. (2000). On the limitations of linguistics applied. Applied linguistics, 21(1), 3-25. [open access]
Zarate, G., & Liddicoat, A. (2009). La circulation internationale des idées en didactique des langues. Recherches et Applications / Le Français dans le Monde PDF