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Applied Linguistics

  At present, the term ‘applied linguistics’ enjoys great currency, yet it is clear that any comprehensive description of the field might render the term vacuous, so disparate are the separate strands contributing to the whole. Speech therapy, for example, sits awkwardly alongside genre analysis, which must make room for research on language planning, computer-assisted language learning, language in education and so on, in a seemingly haphazard compilation of themes. Arguably, it has become all but impossible to recognize applied linguistics as a unified academic discipline. To add to the confusion, the term has become closely associated with the specific concerns of second and foreign language learning.

Nonetheless, a general attitude or approach to language can be discerned in applied linguistics. In particular, there is an overriding commitment to explore the manifestation of language as it actually functions in people\'s lives.

A key concept pervading many applied linguistic concerns is the notion of communicative competence, which augments our (intuitive) knowledge of grammatical rules with the idea that we also possess systematic knowledge about how language is deployed in order to fulfil its communicative potential. In this respect, therefore, knowledge of language use is regarded as an integral part of the language system. It is not separable from, nor in any way inferior to, our knowledge of phonology, semantics, syntax and so on. In many ways, therefore, we can discern a conscious reaction against the approach of linguistics proper, in which language is regarded as an abstract object, studied in isolation from the way it functions as a social phenomenon.

The concept of communicative competence is immediately applicable to applied linguistic studies of language learning and language teaching. A substantial body of research in recent years has been founded on the assumption that success in the acquisition of a second or foreign language is crucially dependent on the quality of communicative interaction experienced by learners. Hence the way communication is structured can affect the learner\'s ability, not only to convey and understand messages, but also to increase proficiency in the foreign language. There are obvious repercussions for pedagogy here, and they have determined that questions of how language is taught rank alongside questions concerning what is taught.

The concern with foreign language learning has also prompted interesting comparisons with the way a child acquires his or her mother tongue (see psycholinguistics). For an adult beginner in a foreign language, the concept of being taught the language in a classroom, according to the precepts of a consciously crafted syllabus, is not at all unusual. Infants, though, are never provided with explicit language lessons by their parents, yet arguably, they achieve a degree of linguistic mastery which adults can never hope to match. On the other hand, there are undoubted affinities between the processes of first and second language acquisition. In consequence, evidence from applied linguistic research has recently been marshalled in support of the concept of universal grammar, the genetic programme which dictates what both the adult and the infant know (and can possibly know) about language. Encouragingly, then, it is clear that research in applied linguistics can be relevant to abstract theoretical issues, in addition to its abiding concern with more tangible language-related issues. MS

Further reading D. Crystal, Directions in Applied Linguistics; , R. Ellis, Understanding Second Language Acquisition.



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