Applied Linguistics and Language Teaching: How are they different?

Some of you might know that I have been writing a book with Juup Stelma about what we call The Intentional Dynamics of TESOL. We recently received some feedback from the publishers’ reviewers, and the good news is that they seemed to have liked the manuscript, a lot. But this is not a post to brag about the book. Rather, it is more of a reflection, prompted by the comment one reviewer made, that our work was situated “within the field of language teaching methodology, curriculum and instruction, not within Applied Linguistics” (my emphasis. I’m quite happy with that, really, since this is exactly the book we were aiming to write. But the reviewer’s comment got me wondering, is (English) Language Teaching something entirely different from Applied Linguistics?

serious ethnic young woman using laptop at home
Before you read on, what do you think is the relation between (English) language teaching and Applied Linguistics?
(Photo by Andrea Piacquadio on Pexels.com)

Applied Linguistics is more than just Language Teaching

For a large part of its history, Applied Linguistics was more or less synonymous with language education [1], especially English Language Teaching. This is evident, for example, in the name of the journal that defined the field, Language Learning: A Quarterly Journal of Applied Linguistics, which was set up at the University of Michigan in 1948. Phillipson (1992) hints that the early Applied Linguistics university units, such as the School of Applied Linguistics in Edinburgh (established in 1957), chose this name as ‘scientific’ alternative to terms like Teaching English Overseas, which had undesirable imperialist connotations.

Applied linguistics is the theoretical and empirical investigation of real-world problems in which language is a central issue.

Chris Brumfit

But in the years since, Applied Linguistics has broadened in scope, and now includes many domains of inquiry other than language education. A couple of decades ago, Chris Brumfit defined Applied Linguistics as the investigation of any “real-world problem in which language is a central issue” (Brumfit, 1995, p. 27). This broad definition includes work in lexicography (i.e., dictionary writing), speech therapy, machine-human linguistic interaction, and much more.

Even more recently, Applied Linguistics has become increasingly concerned with political and ideological issues, such as the ways in which societal imbalances are encoded in language, and how language feeds back into unjust societal structures (Critical Applied Linguistics, or CALx). It has also included research that draws on a broad array of work such as cognitive semantics, translation and translanguaging theory, postmodern sociolinguistics, postcolonial theory, symbolic power theory, and more [2], and it has insightfully applied this knowledge to the understanding of human communication.

So, in short, Applied Linguistics is a wider field than language education. As it continues to expand, it will probably move further away from its original association with language teaching. However, I am not very convinced that this broadening scope will ever completely severe the links of the discipline from the realities of the language classroom.


Language Teaching is more than just Applied Linguistics

Much as Applied Linguistics is a broader discipline than language education, the reverse also holds true. Here, too, there is a long tradition of equating the two domains, and this seems to have its origin to the ‘applied science’ model of teacher education (Wallace, 1991). As universities became more active in teacher education from the 1960s onwards, the dominant view was that knowledge was produced by scientists, transmitted to teachers-in-training in the university, and then the latter were responsible for ‘applying’ it in their professional practice [3]. Within this frame, applied linguistics was developed as a ‘buffer’ facilitating the transmission of linguistic knowledge and the transition from the lecture hall to the language classroom.

There are several issues with the ‘applied science’ model, and this is not the space to list them. But, thinking specifically about language education, one problem seems to be that language teacher education has tended to overemphasise linguistics at the expense of other pedagogically relevant knowledge – or, to use Janez Skela’s (2019) evocative phrase, Applied Linguistics ‘hijacked’ language education. Some people have tried to address this problem by broadening the definition of applied linguistics, e.g., to include psychological phenomena, or the politics of education. Such work generates valuable insights, but I am not sure that continuing to use the ‘applied linguistics’ label is is the best way forward. My concern is that this leads to a ‘bloated’ definition of the discipline, and ‘rogue’ conceptualisations of Applied Linguistics, where the connection to language is not always easy to trace.

Components of Language Education Theory (from Kostoulas, 2019)

In Repositioning Language Education Theory, I argue for a different conceptualisation of language education. I define it as the point of overlap between applied linguistics, the psychology of language learning and teaching, and education theory. This conceptualisation, I think, helpfully preserves the ‘essence’ of applied linguistics, by keeping language at the core of what (applied) linguists do, and at the same time it highlights the interdisciplinary nature of language teaching. Others have suggested that this model might be expanded by adding literature (Bland, 2019) and other informing disciplines (various personal communications). While I remain partial to the parsimony of my own conceptualisation, I think that the main point of all these suggestions is that language education must draw on more than (applied) linguistics, and — as long as this is a principled synthesis — such an interdisciplinary outlook can only be a useful thing.

Language education, then, has a wider scope than Applied Linguistics (or at least the part of Applied Linguistics that concerns itself with teaching and learning). As our theoretical engagement with what happens in language classrooms deepens, it increasingly draws on insights from multiple disciplines. However, it can never dispense with Applied Linguistics without sacrificing its particularity as language education.


Connecting Language Education and Applied Linguistics

So far, we have estalished that Applied Linguistics is a broader area than language teaching, and language teaching is also broader than Applied Linguistics. The question that we are now facing is how the two connect.

The answer we give to this question depends a lot on how we conceptualise Applied Linguistics (language teaching is a less controversial term to define). In an older post, I drew on Brumfit’s (1995) definition to describe the discipline as the theoretical or empirical investigation of any issue [4] in which language is a central issue, and I also emphasised that applied linguistics work must fulfil four criteria: (a) the centrality of language; (b) real-world relevance; (c) an empirical focus; and (d) a theoretical grounding. This is a fairly conservative definition, but it serves to keep applied linguistics tethered to linguistics, while placing some of the more ‘autonomous’ applied linguistics scholarship under a less linguistics-driven conceptualisation of ‘language education’.

Separate…?

This conceptualisation poses a problem when thinking about how the two fields relate. One might choose to view them as somewhat similar but distinct domains of inquiry. This seems to be the perspective taken by the reviewer I mentioned at the beginning of the post, who argued that our book “is about TESOL […] but it is NOT a book about Applied Linguistics” (original emphasis). Another trace of this perspective can be found in the organisational structure of some universities. For example, at the University of Graz, where I once taught, a rigid distinction was made between Applied Linguistics and what they called Fachdidaktik, or ELT, which were served by different organisational entities within the Department of English Studies.

Sometimes the distinction between Applied Linguistics and language teaching is framed as a theory-practice divide. In this perspective, Applied Linguistics provides the theoretical backdrop for the more practical activity that takes place in the language classroom. This is a somewhat problematic perspective for two reasons: Firstly, as I argued above, the knowledge base of language education only partially overlaps with that of Applied Linguistics. Moreover, such a perspective seems to blur the distinction between Theoretical and Applied Linguistics, because what distinguishes the latter must be its real-world, practical relevance.

Yet another way to view the relationship between language education and Applied Linguistics is to frame it as a science-art distinction. Such a view emphasises the systematic nature of one discipline (Applied Linguistics) as opposed to the ad hoc, situationally-defined nature of the other (language teaching). It also makes much of the role of the individual-who-teaches, as opposed to the impersonal nature of scientific inquiry. Lastly, it draws attention to the differences between the goal- and resource-driven teaching culture and the question-driven culture of science. Most of these binary distinctions are quite artificial, and they distort the work carried out in both areas. But more importantly, just like the theory-practice divide, the sharpened divide between Applied Linguistics and language teaching comes at the expense of the distinction between Theoretical and Applied Linguistics.

It almost seems as if many of the ‘strong’ perspectives arguing for a clear distinction between Applied Linguistics and language teaching stem from a perceived status difference between the work carried out at the cutting-edge of the Applied Linguistics, and the rather more mundane realities of the language classroom. The role of discourses and policies that have reduced teaching to the delivery of a predefined syllabus is probably an important consideration here, but that seems like the topic for a future post.

…or hybrid?

In my view, the most serious problem with such ‘strong’ demarcations is that they are grounded on the rigid disciplinary compartmentalisation that goes against the grain of recent trends in linguistics, language teaching and higher education. Recent work in linguistics alerts us to the possibility that language communities are porous, that linguistic repertoires fuse multiple languages, and that social identities can be hybrid. In language education, we are moving away from conceptualisations of language learning as a monolingual psycholinguistic phenomenon and towards more complex perspectives on plurilingual competences and multilingual globalization. And in higher education we are increasingly capitalising on inter- and transdisciplinary perspectives in order to develop nuanced understandings of a post-certain world.

There are advantages in thinking of language education as a hybrid entity, residing both inside and outside the borders of applied linguistics.

Against this backdrop of porous borders between knowledge, languages, and cultures, positioning language education as firmly outside applied linguistics seems just as unhelpful as thinking of language teaching as a branch of applied linguistics. There may be advantages in thinking of language education as a hybrid entity, residing both inside and outside the borders of applied linguistics.

From this ‘border’ position, language education can helpfully draw on the insights of linguistics scholarship: ongoing work on topics such multilingualism and discourse ideologies can only invigorate language teaching, and help to challenge the social and ideological structures in which it is embedded. At the same time, the language classroom is a meeting space of cultures, languages, and geopolitical forces, all of which provide applied linguistics with valuable avenues of investigation.


white book in white table near yellow wall
Applied linguistics and language education are linked, separate, and the border between them is fuzzy. Understanind of one helps us better appreciate the other.
(Photo by Stas Knop on Pexels.com)

Some closing remarks

As I mentioned in the opening paragraph, my thinking on the relationship between Applied Linguistics and language education is still quite rough. The key ideas, to which I am fairly committed to, are (a) that Language Education is a domain of activity on its own right, not just an applied form of linguistics, applied or otherwise; (b) there is an interface between Language Education and Applied Linguistics; and (c) it is equally unhelpful to view the two as entirely independent and as hyponymous.

What I am still struggling with is understanding the nature of the connection(s), although I think that the idea of hybridity is a helpful way forward. I am happy to leave this question open-ended for readers to reach their own answers, but I also I very much appreciate input and feedback. So, if you’d like to join in, do feel free to join in the comments or send me a message. In many ways, such dialogue is much preferable to a finished theory.


Notes

  1. ^ When thinking of an area of activity that encompasses language teaching and learning, language teacher education and research in all these fields, my preferred term is Language Education. However, in this post, I also loosely use the terms “language teaching”, “language learning”, “English Language Teaching (ELT)” and “Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL)” as near-exact synonyms, and interchange between them freely for stylistic variation.
  2. ^ I have taken this list from the reviewer’s report, and I am in full agreement with her that these represent important theoretical developments in Applied Linguistics. I am less sure, though, that all of these have ‘trickled down’ to language teacher education and teaching practice, and this is why I am rather sceptical about the somewhat aspirational claim that they “have enriched our conceptualizations of language teaching, and the teaching of English in particular”.
  3. ^ There’s a useful graphic depicting the model here, but I am not sure I can legally copy it in this blog.
  4. ^ Brumfit used the word ‘problem’, which was — in my view — unnecessarily negative.

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