April 23, 2006

Myopia in applied linguistics

This may sound like the grumblings of an old man, but sometimes when I look back over what I had a hand in creating, I'm led to tears about what has happened since. Over three decades ago, at a meeting of the International Association of Applied Linguistics (AILA) in Montreal, Bernard Spolsky, Dick Tucker and I spent a couple days creating the American Association of Applied Linguistics. Three problems stimulated our thinking. First, unlike most other developed nations, the US at that time didn't have such an organization, which was something of an embarrassment for our country. Second, we noticed the growing distance between applied and theoretical linguists that we thought needed repair. We hoped that by holding annual meetings of applied linguists in conjuction with the LSA, we could bring these two closer together. We believed that both could learn from and nurture each other rather than continuing to grow more and more apart. Third, we believed that applied linguistics involved considerably more than language learning, teaching, and testing. In any case, at that time the TESOL organization was handling those topics very well. We believed that the horizon of applied linguistics should include many other topics, involving such areas as medical communication, law, diplomacy, business, and advertising.

Within weeks of the AILA meeting Spolsky produced a constitution, I was strong-armed into being the second president, and the new AAAL was up and running. In our first year we had only about a hundred members but we grew rapidly over time. Then, as leadership changed, so did the original mission.

After only a few years, it was decided that AAAL would no longer meet with LSA. Too many members were not interested in linguistic theory and complained that theoretical linguists had little interest in applied concerns. They believed that the noble experiment of bringing theory and application together was simply not working. I lamented this publicly, arguing that it might take some time for this to happen, but to no avail. Since then, AAAL has met in conjunction with or parallel to other applied linguistics organizations, such as TESOL.

But even more disheartening to me is that AAAL is still relatively silent about the founders' third orginal goal -- that of expanding the scope of applied linguistics to areas other than language learning, teaching, and testing. Evidence of this silence can be seen in a recent publication called Directions in Applied Linguistics (Multilingual Matters 2005), which was reviewed on the Linguist List on April 21 (here). This book's stated aim is to give "insights into the nature and scope of applied linguistics presenting plurality of views, intersts and styles"(p. 4).

The first chapter, called "Perspectives in Applied Linguistics," contains a very general account of the need to work in an interdisciplinary context, but the author is not specific about any particular field of application. This is as close as the book gets to the founders' third goal. The other 16 chapters deal with such topics as language policy, language education, sharing community languages, elementary school language education, non-native teachers of English, foreign language education, English for academic purposes, second generation English speakers, teacher's perception of errors, the writing of ESL students, contrastive rhetoric research, style in non-native writing, examples of L1 and L2 prose, cross-cultural variation in turn-taking in the classroom, language planning, and discourse planning. These are all worthy and important topics for language learning, teaching, and testing but they are, unfortunately, the same old conventional topics of applied linguistics.

If this book claiming to present the directions of applied linguistics accurately represents what it says in its title, the field hasn't expanded its horizons and scope much in the past three decades. The third goal of the founders of AAAL (expanding the scope of applied linguistics) appears to be meeting the same fate as the second goal (reducing the distance between applied and theoretical linguistics). I no longer attend the annual meetings of AAAL, partly because the papers pretty much reflect the topics of this book and partly because I look back on what could have been and am discouraged at what seems to me to be the myopic vision of applied linguistics in the US.

Despite what one might think, based on the above-cited book and from the papers at AAAL meetings, it's not true that no progress is being made in applying linguistics to some other areas of life. Great strides are being made in language and law, medical communication and, to an extent, business communication. But somehow this doesn't seem to fall under the aegis of applied linguistics these days, at least as far as most applied linguists are concerned. A pity.

Posted by Roger Shuy at April 23, 2006 01:22 PM