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What is Applied Linguistics ?

Applied Linguistics
By Kamil Wiśniewski Aug 29th, 2007


Applied linguistics is an umbrella term that covers a wide set of numerous areas of study connected
by the focus on the language that is actually used. The emphasis in applied linguistics is on language
users and the ways in which they use languages, contrary to theoretical linguistics which studies the
language in the abstract not referring it to any particular context, or language, like Chomskyan
generative grammar for example.

Interestingly even among applied linguists there is a difference of opinion as to the scope, the
domains and limits of applied linguistics. There are many issues investigated by applied linguists such
as discourse analysis, sign language, stylistics and rhetoric as well as language learning by children
and adults, both as mother tongue and second or foreign language. Correlation of language and
gender, as well as the transfer of information in media and interpersonal communication are analyzed
by applied linguists. Also forensic linguistics, interpretation and translation, together with foreign
language teaching methodology and language change are developed by applied linguistics.

Shortly after the introduction of the term applied linguistics it was associated mainly with first,
second and foreign language teaching, however nowadays it is seen as more interdisciplinary branch
of science. Although in certain parts of the world language teaching remains the major concern of
applied linguists, issues such as speech pathologies and determining the levels of literacy of societies,
or language processing along with differences in communication between various cultural groups - all
gain interest elsewhere.

In European union the focus of applies linguistics is put on the issues connected with the language
policy of this multilingual community. The primary aim is to keep the balance in fulfilling the need
for lingua franca and maintaining smaller languages in order for them not to get devalued. This is a
pressing matter as with the migration of people within the European union and from outside its
boarders the mixture of languages is getting more and more complex. Therefore, the focus is also put
on analyzing language attitudes, adopting common language policy, creating teaching textbooks and
other materials.

As it can be seen there are many trends in applied linguistics, some interconnected, others not having
too much in common. There are, however, some very general tendencies among applied linguists to
put more effort on certain investigations such as languages of wider communication, corpus analysis,
or critical applied linguistics. When it comes to languages of wider communication it is clear that
with the increasing numbers of international travels and technological advances the need for an
international language raises. As English is the contemporary lingua franca applied linguists attempt
to include language policy and planning in their interest, but is also concerned with analyzing
language and identity, and special educational needs. Corpus analysis takes both quantitative and
qualitative approach to the study of language and applied linguists focus of the identification of
patterns of language use depending on social context, audiences, genres and settings. Critical applied
linguistics is interested in the social problems connected with language such as unemployment,
illiteracy and pedagogy.

Brown K. (Editor) 2005. Encyclopedia of Language and Linguistics – 2nd Edition. Oxford:

© Cambridge University Press 2009 1 www.cambridge.org/elt

What is Applied Linguistics?

Applied linguistics is notoriously hard to define. What sets it apart from other
areas of linguistics? How has it evolved over the years? What do applied linguists
We asked ten leading and up-and-coming academics to give us their answer to
the question: ‘What is applied linguistics?’ Below are their responses. Take a look
at them and then add to the debate by sending us your definition.

Of course, several commentators have offered definitions of applied linguistics in

recent decades, including Crystal (1980: 20), Richards et al, (1985: 29), Brumfit
(1995: 27) and Rampton (1997: 11). For me, applied linguistics means taking
language and language theories as the basis from which to elucidate how
communication is actually carried out in real life, to identify problematic or
challenging issues involving language in many different contexts, and to analyse
them in order to draw out practical insights and implications that are useful for
the people in those contexts. As an applied linguist, I’m primarily interested in
offering people practical and illuminating insights into how language and
communication contribute fundamentally to interaction between people.

Anne Burns
Professor in the Faculty of Human Sciences, Macquarie University, Sydney
© Cambridge University Press 2009 2 www.cambridge.org/elt
A wit once described an applied linguist as someone with a degree in linguistics
who was unable to get a job in a linguistics department. More seriously, looking
back at the term ‘applied linguistics’, it first emerged as an attempt to provide a
theoretical basis for the activities of language teaching (witness Pit Corder’s
book on the subject from 1973). Later, it became an umbrella term for a variety
of disciplines which focus on language issues in such fields as law, speech
pathology, language planning, and forensic science. In the meantime, language
teaching has evolved its own theoretical foundations, and these include second
language acquisition, teacher cognition, pedagogical grammar, and so on, and
there is a declining interest in viewing ‘applied linguistics’ as having any
relevance to language teaching. Some years ago, many graduate programs in
language teaching were labelled as programs in applied linguistics. Today they
are generally called programs in TESOL. Many specialists in language teaching,
such as myself, don’t call themselves ‘applied linguists’. We are what we are –
specialists in language teaching, and we don’t see that adding the label ‘applied
linguistics’ to our field adds any further understanding to what we do. Where
those in other disciplines find the label ‘applied linguistics’ of use to them, is of
course, something they need to decide for themselves.

Jack C. Richards
Professor and part-time lecturer at the Regional Language Centre, Singapore
Applied linguistics is any attempt to work with language in a critical and
reflective way, with some ultimate practical goal in mind. This includes (amongst
other things): deliberately trying to learn (or teach) a foreign language or to
develop your ability in your native language; overcoming a language
impairment; translating from one language to another; editing a piece of writing
in a linguistically thoughtful way. It also includes doing any research or
developing any ideas or tools which aim to help people do these sorts of things.

Phil Durrant
Visiting Assistant Professor, Graduate School of Education, Bilkent University
© Cambridge University Press 2009 3 www.cambridge.org/elt
‘Applied linguistics’ (AL) is one of several academic disciplines focusing on how
language is acquired and used in the modern world. It is a somewhat eclectic
field that accommodates diverse theoretical approaches, and its interdisciplinary
scope includes linguistic, psych ological and educational topics. Although the
field’s original focus was the study of foreign/second languages, this has been
extended to cover first language issues, and nowadays many scholars would
consider sociolinguistics and pragmatics to be part of the AL rubric. Recently, AL
conferences and journals have reflected the growing influence of psychology-
based approaches, which in turn is a reflection of the increasing prevalence of
cognitive (neuro)science in the study of human mental functions.

Zoltán Dörnyei
Professor of Psycholinguistics, University of Nottingham
In my discipline (I am a Germanist), applied linguistics is perceived almost
exclusively as research into the teaching and learning of the foreign-language,
often resulting in the production of teaching materials. However, a broader
definition (e.g. Dick Hudson – see references and below) sees applied linguistics
as concerned with providing theoretical and empirical foundations for
investigating and solving language-related problems in the ‘real world’. This
definition would be relevant to some of my research interests; for example, the
problems facing speakers of non-standard dialects at schools in Germany.
Nevertheless, I tend to regard myself as a sociolinguist rather than an applied
linguist, because my main interests are in investigating the use of language as a
social practice in a more general way. As is the case for most sociolinguists, I
study language in use in a social context although I may not have specific real-
life problems in mind when embarking on research

Wini Davies
Reader in German, Aberystwyth University
© Cambridge University Press 2009 4 www.cambridge.org/elt
Applied linguistics (AL) provides the theoretical and descriptive foundations for
the investigation and solution of language-related problems, especially those of
language education (first-language, second-language and foreign-language
teaching and learning), but also problems of translation and interpretation,
lexicography, forensic linguistics and (perhaps) clinical linguistics…The main
distinguishing characteristic of AL is its concern with professional activities
whose aim is to solve ‘real-world’ language-based problems, which means that
research touches on a particularly wide range of issues - psychological,
pedagogical, social, political and economic as well as linguistic. As a
consequence, AL research tends to be interdisciplinary.
It is generally agreed that in spite of its name AL is not simply the ‘application’ of
research done in linguistics. On the one hand, AL has to look beyond linguistics
for relevant research and theory, so AL research often involves the synthesis of

research from a variety of disciplines, including linguistics. On the other hand, AL

has been responsible for the development of original research in a number of
areas of linguistics - e.g. bilingualism, literacy, genre.
Beyond this agreement, there is at least as much disagreement within AL as
within linguistics about fundamental issues of theory and method, which leads
(among other things) to differences of opinion about the relationships between
the two disciplines.

Richard Hudson
Emeritus Professor of Linguistics, University College London
One way I can answer this broad question is by considering the Applied
Linguistic issues that currently interest me, namely how languages interact and
what differences we might expect when the languages concerned are not related
to each other. For example, the Hong Kong language policy seeks to develop
people who are trilingual in Cantonese, Putonghua and English. What specific
linguistic difficulties will such learners face and how can we help them overcome
them? What does it mean to be multilingual? Can we describe a multilingual
model from which we could derive useful linguistic benchmarks for the language

Juliane House
Professor of Foreign Language Teaching, Universität Hamburg
One answer to this question is that it is the study of language in order to address
real-world concerns. Another is that it is the study of language, and language-
related topics, in specified situations. The real-world concerns include language
learning and teaching but also other issues such as professional communication,
literacies, translation practices, language and legal or health issues, and many
more. Applied linguistics is practically-oriented, but it is also theory-driven and
interdisciplinary. Models of how languages are learned and stored, for example,
are ‘applied linguistics’, as are descriptions of individual language varieties that
prioritise actual and contextualised language use.

Susan Hunston
Head of Department of English, University of Birmingham
© Cambridge University Press 2009 6 www.cambridge.org/elt
Applied linguistics is a discipline which explores the relations between theory
and practice in language with particular reference to issues of language use. It
embraces contexts in which people use and learn languages and is a platform for
systematically addressproblems involving the use of language and
communication in real-world situations. Applied linguistics draws on a range of
disciplines, including linguistics. In consequence, applied linguistics has
applications in several areas of language study, including language learning and
teaching, the psychology of language processing, discourse analysis, stylistics,
corpus analysis, literacy studies and language planning and policies.

Dawn Knight
Research Associate, University of Nottingham
How would you define applied linguistics?

Do you agree with the descriptions given in this article?

Corder, P. (1973) Introducing Applied Linguistics, Harmondsworth: Penguin.
Crystal, D. (1980) A First Dictionary of Linguistics and Phonetics, London: André
Brumfit, C. (1995) ‘Teacher professionalism and research’, in: Cook, G. & Seidlhofer,
B. (eds.) (1995) Principles and Practice in Applied Linguistics, Oxford: Oxford
University Press, pp27-42.
Hudson, R. Applied Linguistics, available online at:
Rampton, B. (1997) ‘Retuning in applied linguistics?’, International Journal of Applied
Linguistics, 7(1): 3-25.
Richards, J.C., Platt, J. & Weber, H. (1985) Longman Dictionary of Applied Linguistics, London:

What is applied linguistics?

Vivian Cook, Newcastle University


If you tell someone you’re an applied linguist, they look at you with bafflement. If you amplify –
it’s to do with linguistics – they still look baffled. You know, linguistics the science of language?
Ah so you speak lots of languages? Well no, just English. So what do you actually do? Well I look
at how people acquire languages and how we can teach them better. At last light begins to dawn
and they tell you a story about how badly they were taught French at school.

The problem is that the applied linguists themselves don’t have much clearer ideas about what the
subject consists of. They argue over whether it necessarily has anything to do with language
teaching or with linguistics and whether it includes the actual description of language. All of these
views exist among applied linguists and are reflected in the MA courses available at British
universities under the label of applied linguistics.

The language teaching view of applied linguistics parallels TESOL or TEFL, by looking at
ways of improving language teaching, backed by a more rigorous study of language. The
motivation is that better teaching will be based on a better understanding of language. However in
British universities language teaching itself is not highly valued, often carried out by ancillary staff,
because it does not lend itself easily to the kind of research publications that university careers now
depend upon.

The closeness of the link to linguistics is also crucial. At one extreme you need the latest
ideas hot from MIT on the principle that information about linguistics must be up-to-date – and
linguistic theories change so fast that undergraduates discover their first year courses are out of date
by their final year. It’s up to the end users how they make practical use of the ideas, not the applied

This raises the issue whether other disciplines are as important as linguistics for applied
linguistics. Psychology enters into many courses, as does education, particularly ideas about testing
and about language learning. To some applied linguists the discipline draws on any subject with
anything to say about language teaching or language learning. To others linguistics is the sole
source of ideas. Sometime this is referred to as the issue of ‘autonomous applied linguistics’; is it a
separate discipline or a poor relative of linguistics?

To some, applied linguistics is applying theoretical linguistics to actual data. Hence the
construction of dictionaries or the collection of ‘corpora’ of millions of words of English are
applied linguistics, as are the descriptions of social networks or of gender differences (but not
usually descriptions of grammar). Once applied linguistics seemed boundless, including the study
of first language acquisition and computational linguistics. Now many who call themselves applied
linguists seldom attend general organisations such as BAAL (British Association of Applied
Linguistics) but go to more specialist conferences such as EUROSLA (European Second Language
Association) for second language acquisition (SLA) or MATSDA (Materials Development
Association) for materials construction.

To many, however, applied linguistics has become synonymous with SLA (though never
linked to first language acquisition). SLA research has had an enormous growth over the past
decades. It enters into all of the above debates. Some people are concerned with classroom
language acquisition because of its teaching implications, ; drawing mostly on psychological
models of language and language processing and on social models of interaction and identity;
others are concerned with SLA in natural settings. On another dimension, SLA can be seen as
providing data to test out linguistic theories rather than to increase our knowledge of SLA itself;
they are then more like linguists who happen to use SLA data than investigators of SLA in its own
right. On a third dimension the linguistic world is more or less divided between those who see
language as masses of things people have said and those who see it as knowledge in people’s
minds. Some SLA researchers analyse large corpora of learner’s utterances or essays; others test
their ideas against the barest minimum of data; neither side really accept that the other has a valid
point of view.

Applied linguistics then means many things to many people. Discovering what a
book or a course in applied linguistics is about involves reading the small print to discover
its orientation. Those with an interest in linguistic theory are going to feel frustrated when
bombarded with classroom teaching techniques; those who want to handle large amounts of
spoken or written data will be disappointed by single example sentences or experiments. Of
course many people discover unexpected delights. One of my students who came to an MA
course as an EFL course-writer ended up doing a Ph.D. thesis and book on learnability
theory. This does not mean that most prospective MA students should not look very
carefully, say checking the titles of the modules that actually make up the degree scheme,
before they back a particular horse.

Applied Linguistics
G. Richard Tucker


History of Applied Linguistics

The term 'applied linguistics' refers to a broad range of activities which involve solving some
language-related problem or addressing some language-related concern. It appears as
though applied linguistics, at least in North America, was first officially recognized as an
independent course at the University of Michigan in 1946. In those early days, the term was
used both in the United States and in Great Britain to refer to applying a so-called 'scientific
approach' to teaching foreign languages, including English for nonnative speakers. Early work
to improve the quality of foreign language teaching by Professors Charles Fries (University of
Michigan) and Robert Lado (University of Michigan, then Georgetown University) helped to
bring definition to the field as did the 1948 publication of a new journal, Language Learning:
A Quarterly Journal of Applied Linguistics.

During the late 1950s and the early 1960s, the use of the term was gradually broadened to
include what was then referred to as 'automatic translation'. In 1964 following two years of
preparatory work financed by the Council of Europe, the Association Internationale de
Linguistique Appliquée (the International Association of Applied Linguistics usually referred to
by the French acronym AILA) was founded and its first international congress was held in
Nancy, France. Papers for the congress were solicited in two distinct strands—foreign
language teaching and automatic translation.

Applied Linguistics Today

Over the intervening years, the foci of attention have continued to broaden. Today the
governing board of AILA describes applied linguistics 'as a means to help solve specific
problems in society…applied linguistics focuses on the numerous and complex areas in
society in which language plays a role.'* There appears to be consensus that the goal is to
apply the findings and the techniques from research in linguistics and related disciplines to
solve practical problems. To an observer, the most notable change in applied linguistics has
been its rapid growth as an interdisciplinary field. In addition to foreign language teaching
and machine translation, a partial sampling of issues considered central to the field of applied
linguistics today includes topics such as language for special purposes (e.g. language and
communication problems related to aviation, language disorders, law, medicine, science),
language policy and planning, and language and literacy issues. For example, following the
adoption of English as the working language for all international flight communication by the
International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), some applied linguists concerned themselves
with understanding the kinds of linguistic problems that occur when pilots or flight engineers
from varying backgrounds communicate using a nonnative language and how to better train
them to communicate in English more effectively.

Some applied linguists are concerned with helping planners and legislators in countries
develop and implement a language policy (e.g. planners are working in South Africa to
specify and to further develop roles in education and government not only for English and
Afrikaans but also for the other nine indigenous languages) or in helping groups develop
scripts, materials, and literacy programs for previously unwritten languages (e.g. for many of
the 850+ indigenous languages of Papua New Guinea).

Other applied linguists have been concerned with developing the most effective programs
possible to help adult newcomers to the United States or other countries, many of whom

have limited if any prior education, develop literacy in the languages which they will need for
survival and for occupational purposes. Other topics currently of concern to applied linguists
are the broad issue of the optimal role of the mother tongue in the education of culturally
and linguistically diverse students, the language of persuasion and politics, developing
effective tools and programs for interpretation and translation, and language testing and

In the United Kingdom, the first school of applied linguistics is thought to have opened in
1957 at the University of Edinburgh with Ian Catford as Head. In the United States, a
nonprofit educational organization, the Center for Applied Linguistics (CAL), was founded in
1959 with Charles Ferguson as its first Director. CAL's mission remains to 'promote the study
of language and to assist people in achieving their educational, occupational, and social goals
through more effective communication'. The organization carries out its mission by collecting
and disseminating information through various clearinghouses that it operates, by conducting
practical research, by developing practical materials and training individuals such as
teachers, administrators, or other human resource specialists to use these to reduce the
barriers that limited language proficiency can pose for culturally and linguistically diverse
individuals as they seek full and effective participation in educational or occupational


In addition to the international organization AILA, there are also major national associations
of applied linguists such as the American Association for Applied Linguistics (AAAL) and the
British Association for Applied Linguistics (BAAL). The work of applied linguists is frequently
presented or described in publications such as the journal Applied Linguistics (Oxford
University Press) and the Annual Review of Applied Linguistics (Cambridge University Press).

For further information, you should also see the Applied Linguistics Virtual Library.

*AILA Vademecum. Association Internationale de Linguistique Appliquée. Amsterdam,

1992, p. 2.