One question that often came up in the early lectures of my Applied Linguistics course was “What is applied linguistics?”, often followed by “Why should we study it?”. Full disclaimer: it was usually me who asked both questions, but that doesn’t make them any less important. There are a few good answers in the literature, and I also trust that the participants of the course also developed answers of their own during the course, or maybe later in their careers . For all it’s worth, this post is my attempt to answer both questions.
What is applied linguistics?
In a book written quite some time ago, Chris Brumfit provides a good starting point for defining the field. He defines applied linguistics as “the theoretical and empirical investigation of real-world problems in which language is a central issue” (Brumfit, 1995, p. 27 ).
With respect to Brumfit, I am not so keen on the use of the word ‘problem’ in his definition. In my view, linguistics can be applied to a lot of situations in the real world, not all of which are really problematic. On the other hand, this definition does give us four very useful elements that are core to understanding what applied linguistics is.
The centrality of language
As a branch of linguistics, applied linguistics retains a primary focus on language. This may seem like an obvious point, but as our research agenda in language teaching and learning broadens, it is a point that is sometimes easy to forget. The search for more effective classroom management techniques, and ongoing debates about education policy, for instance, are some of the things that might sometimes overlap with the remit of applied linguistics. The same applies to emerging problematisation of inequalities inside the classroom and beyond it, and investigations into the psychology of language teachers and learners. In such cases, the crossover can enrich both applied linguistics and the adjoining disciplines. That said, work carried out under the banner of applied linguistics must explicitly connect to language, and it must show how its findings and impact are particular to language teaching and learning, as opposed to teaching and learning in general.
The relevance to the real world
This is what distinguishes ‘applied’ from ‘theoretical’ linguistics. Theoretical linguistics concerns itself with an abstract understanding of how language functions; applied linguistics is about taking those insights and finding answers to the ‘so what?’ and ‘now what?’ questions. In recent years, the number of ‘real-world problems’ (or situations) to which linguistics is being applied has definitely proliferated. It now includes topics such as lexicography (the production of dictionaries), automated translation, human-machine interaction, and speech therapy, among others. All these endeavours certainly fall under the applied linguistics remit, but for my purposes as a language educator, I use a more restricted definition: in the context of this course, applied linguistics is the branch of linguistics that seeks to find implications of linguistics theory for language teaching and learning.
The use of empirical methods
In the broadest sense, the word empirical means ‘connected to our senses’, or ‘deriving from our real-world experience’. If we want to raise the bar somewhat, it could also index a rigorous and systematic way of collecting data and thinking about them. Given enough resources, like time, funding and expertise, applied linguistics might involve carefully conducted experiments using sophisticated machinery that records the properties of sound or the workings of the brain. However, this definition need not preclude less ambitious work. Such empirical investigations might be motivated by a teacher’s wish to better understand their learners’ needs; they might be driven by said teacher’s inquisitive mind; and they might be conducted with the resources at the teachers’ disposal. What is key is not the scope of the study, but rather the commitment to using facts and the determination to challenge ‘givens’.
The role of theory
I saved this aspect for the end, because there’s always something intimidating about the word theory. This is especially the case when theory is understood as a corpus of knowledge that must be known in its entirety before it can be useful. It is also a problematic term, because it tends to be used in juxtaposition to practice (“it’s all good in theory, but…”). But this is not the sense in which I am using the term here.
In saying that applied linguistics has a theoretical dimension, I mean that it involves an explicit attempt to accomplish two things: (a) to derive, from our personal values and our empirical observations, a coherent explanation of what language is and how it can be learnt most efficiently; and (b) to connect this explanation to our language teaching practice. Theory, in this sense, is not the counterpoint of practice; rather, practice provides applied linguistics theory with both the point of departure and its end destination.
Why does it matter?
One might argue that it is possible to be a very good language teacher without knowing much about research, theory or applied linguistics (as was most recently proclaimed by Péter Medgyes). This is not a point without any merit, but in my view, there are two problems with it.
Teaching in a theoretically informed way
Firstly, this attitude locks teachers in a position where their understanding of their teaching context is limited, and this in turn limits their scope of intentional action. In a seminal publication , Henry Widdowson emphatically states “language teaching is a theoretical as well as a practical activity” (1978, p. 75), and this must be as true now as it was then. He goes on to point out that:
effective teaching materials and classroom procedures depend on principles deriving from an understanding of what language is and how it is used.Widdowson, 1978, p. 75
We can find some examples of these connections in the historical evolution of language teaching. For example, it is easy to see how the Audiolingual Method built on structural linguistics, which was prevalent at the time . It is similarly easy to see how the paradigm shift from structural to notional/functional descriptions of language in the late 1970s brought about by a similar shift from audiolingualism to communicative language teaching. In addition to these large-scale transformations of the profession, there has been a rapid turnover of recommendations, whether these were ‘designer methods’ (Suggestopedia, anyone?), or learning apps. Rather than revolutionise learning, these recommendations more commonly result in confusion, uncritical enthusiasm and paralysing disillusionment. What applied linguistics offers teachers is a way of thinking and an explicitly articulated set of principles for appraising these recommendations in principled, sensible ways.
Resisting lay theories
Another important reason why a robust knowledge of applied linguistics can help language teachers is because of the disappointing prevalence of lay theories about language and learning. For better or for worse, language teaching deals with an aspect of human behaviour that is entirely familiar. Everybody has intuitions about language and language learning, because everybody uses language. And while this engagement and sharing of knowledge is sometimes salutary, it is often associated with the prevalence of misguided opinions, like the following:
- Learning a second language too early will result in confusion.
- Talking to each other in class and playing games is just a cop out; a real teacher should teach and test grammar regularly.
- Some children are just not clever enough to learn languages.
- Language standards have been declining ever since the introduction of emoji / SMS / … 
Sometimes, these pre-scientific views also make their way into language policy. For example, well-meaning but scientifically naive policy-makers often push for introducing formal English lessons in the early primary curriculum, because they think that ‘the earlier the better’ ; teacher assessment frameworks also sometimes incorporate discredited folk psychology constructs like learning styles. Sometimes pre-scientific views also make their way into public discourse in very forceful ways, as happened when the far right in Greece declared war (!) on a grammar book. In such instances, knowledge of applied linguistics can provide language teachers with a framework on which a credible counter-discourse can build.
Returning to my original point, it is certainly possible to teach a language well without any explicitly articulated theoretical knowledge, and if this is all one wishes to do, that is fine. But I think that as language educators, we can aspire to more than just teaching people how to read and write and speak and understand another language. My own goal, when teaching applied linguistics, is to prepare teachers who will be in charge of their classrooms, even if this means taking back control from coursebook writers, examination providers, researchers and policy makers. But one can only change what one understands well. For language teachers, understanding applied linguistics is not about learning theory; it is about developing the confidence and authority that will empower them to make positive change happen.
This brings to mind an exam, in which a student requested a clarification about this very question: she confidently claimed that she could provide her own opinion and mine, but would like to know which one I expected. Annoyed that I had to explain the obvious, I pointed out to the whole lecture theatre that the question started with the phrase “in your opinion”. The students responded with snorts of laughter and muffled chuckles, and I thought they were laughing at the student, which annoyed me even more. I later confronted some of the students about it, and realised that they were actually laughing at me, for being unfamiliar with the ethos of the university (“Professors may have opinions. Maybe so can you, Herr Doktor. We may not”).
Brumfit, C. J. (1995). Teacher professionalism and research. In G. Cook & B. Seidlhofer (eds.), Principle and Practice in Applied Linguistics. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Widdowson, H. G. (1978). Teaching Language as Communication. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Along with behaviourist psychology, and an ideology of control that was as prevalent in education as it was outside schools. Language education practices are shaped by more than just linguistics.
An elderly relative of mine is adamant that the decline in language standards actually started with the spread of telephones, as casual speaking replaced written correspondence.
I have written extensively on this blog about Teaching English to Young Learners (TEYL). You can read some TEYL posts by following the links below:
About this post: This post is based on notes I used in the introductory lecture to the course Applied Linguistics for Language Teachers, which I taught at the University of Graz. It originally written in May 2018, and periodically revised. The post was last updated in June 2020 (updated formatting).