Where is Applied Linguistics headed? Cambridge Journal editors weigh in

In advance of the upcoming AAAL Annual Meeting in Chicago, we asked editors of Cambridge applied linguistics journals for their thoughts on the state of the field.

Where is applied linguistics headed? Are there new approaches, methods or priorities that you think will have real impact on research and related practice in coming years?

Martha Crago, editor of Applied Psycholinguistics“In the next year’s two major developments, one technological and one social, will have a striking impact on applied linguistics: 1)The disruptive technology of machine learning (artificial intelligence) is based on the early work on neural networks in neuropsychology as well as on reinforcement learning that was once considered a learning mechanism for language acquisition. These new technological developments are likely to circle back and inform or intersect with work in applied psycholinguistics and its underlying theories. In addition, “big data” (computational linguistics) and its growing ability to look at large data sets in increasingly sophisticated ways will become a future direction for the field. 2) Human migration has reached vast proportions in the last few years. It is leading to very large numbers if refugees who are either in transit, often for years, or who are arriving to become residents, both legal and illegal, in a new country. These migratory patterns have striking implications for multi-lingualism and -literacy in people of all ages. This in turn has consequences for social integration and education. As a result, refugee populations will become a major preoccupation for applied psycholinguistic researchers.”

Alex Boulton, Editor of ReCALL “Applied linguistics is itself a controversial term which means different things to different people, and covers different domains in different languages. In French, for example, “linguistique appliquée” fell largely out of favour in the 1990s as it suggested simply applying linguistics to real-world problems. What is probably the largest domain is now referred to as “didactique” – i.e. language teaching and learning. Various initiatives have been undertaken to explore this at national and international levels, notably through AILA – the International Association of Applied Linguistics, founded in France in the 1960s.

Published by CUP and owned by EUROCALL, ReCALL is a leading journal focusing specifically on computer-assisted language learning. In the 30 years of its existence, we have seen increasing democratisation of technology and access to it, especially via the internet. This is evident in everyday practices (learners no longer have to be in a classroom or a computer room) as well as in the research being conducted into informal online learning. While early papers tended to place the software itself at the centre of the paper, today the emphasis is more on what actually happens in the learning process when using various types of technologies in different situations for different purposes.
In terms of methodologies, various surveys have found the majority of studies in applied linguistics to be quantitative in nature; while these were traditionally considered the most prestigious by many researchers, the situation is certainly evolving. There is no question of abandoning quantitative work, especially for learning outcomes or large-scale surveys, but there seems to be increasing room for more qualitative approaches, which allow greater emic understanding of the complexity of the learning process and the individuals involved. Of particular interest are mixed methods studies which, appropriately conducted, can draw on the strengths of both quantitative and qualitative work. Another evolution is the rise of rigorous research syntheses of various types, from the quantitative meta-analysis to the more qualitative narrative synthesis, each with its advantages and disadvantages.

Julia R. Herschenesohn, Coordinating Editor, Journal of French Language Studies “As we approach the third decade of the 21st Century, the most important opportunity that I see in applied linguistics research is the accessibility of big data—large corpora of empirical evidence that are available online to all researchers. Cloud storage, open access and increased computational power open a range of options for obtaining and analyzing evidence of language use and acquisition. Open access databases allow scholars to use statistically significant quantities to form generalizations, test hypotheses, replicate earlier studies and reanalyze previous research using different methodologies. The combination of language data—including controlled experiments, monitored production, informal speech and spontaneous dialogue—and sophisticated statistical software has already impacted research and related practices and will continue to expand in the following decades. As Editor of JFLS, I have seen a shift in the submissions we receive to a much larger number of articles including evidence from public access databases. For example, our next special themed issue comprises articles drawing from a few corpora of carefully transcribed and annotated examples of contemporary French speech that are analyzed by several authors in terms of lexical, morphosyntactic and phonological characteristics. The contributors bring to bear different methodologies and sub-discipline perspectives while mining the same source of data. The availability of big data allows scholars to test theoretical hypotheses with solid statistical tools to further our knowledge of how language is acquired and used under various circumstances.”

Graeme Porte, Editor of Language Teaching

Recurrence, revitalization, and replication in Applied Linguistics

“Like any dynamic field of science, Applied Linguistics (AL) is both in constant change and ever eager to be of practical use to those who benefit from its research discoveries. As researchers we are urged to “apply” our discoveries – ideally to some kind of language learning context. Since those contexts will almost certainly involve a practitioner, the nexus between the FL teacher and the AL researcher should be a close and mutually-benefitting one.

We have been lucky in that both AL researchers and practitioners have traditionally embraced new methodologies and promising trends – together with the occasional fad and damp squib – with anticipation. A cursory historical overview of these apparently novel approaches will, however, reveal timely re-emergences of elements which are key to many of these movements.

There has been a tendency actually to re-discover what we often think we are discovering and then mould it through more modern hands into something more acceptably novel, consistent with current attitudes and/or linguistic fashion (Cook, 2003[1]). Such “discoveries” can be seen as heralding in a new age for practitioners or even paradigm shifts for researchers. Whole new careers can be forged, exciting new angles on L2 learning revealed – and novel text book series sold by the thousands! Some teaching methods – such as TPR or Suggestopaedia – can be short-lived; others, such as the “communicative approach”, can become thoroughly regenerated into other methods. Yet others, as Michael Swan reminds us in his latest position piece for us (Language Teaching, 51.2 April), are regularly dismissed in their entirety as deficient approaches only for latter-day AL pioneers to uncover seemingly redeeming kernels of wisdom in their theoretical and practical bases. In the case of “Grammar-Translation”, for example, there are still many L2 learners who feel knowledge of grammar and L1-L2 equivalences improve their understanding of the target language and continues to satisfy a perceived need for going about “serious” language learning.

A similar picture might be painted of our research paradigms. In our embracing of AL as an essentially social science endeavour, we might be accused of being over keen to dismiss methodological approaches which smack too much of a “pure science” rather than a “social science” approach. Once again, however, we are witnessing a recent re-visiting of these previously out-of-favour research approaches.

Language Teaching is now at the forefront of a push for a renewed effort to recognise the contribution of replication studies to our literature. Replicating previous studies as a serious research methodology has only emerged onto the applied linguistics scene relatively recently; it has been a subject of interest elsewhere for much longer and has appeared as a fleeting subject of debate in the general social sciences literature for decades. Its feted re-appearance owes much to the concern expressed by many who depend on our research for its possible pedagogical implications and applications and who are rightly concerned about the presence of undetected error or the lack of confirmatory evidence provided across many of our empirical endeavors.

We may go back empirically to a study for several reasons, but that revisiting is predicated on the idea that no one piece of research (or researcher!) can include, or control for, all the many variables that might affect an 0utcome. It follows that a particularly important study only stands to benefit from such renewed attention if it can have its findings more precisely validated, its reliability focused on, its generalization tested, or even delimited, and its eventual application in learning contexts more finely tuned.

[1] Cook G. (2003). Applied Linguistics. Oxford: Oxford University Press

Andrew Moody, Editor of English Today “The question of where Applied Linguistics is headed is a very difficult one to address because the field is already quite diverse. As a new editor (for English Today), I don’t feel highly qualified to be making predictions about the future of the disciplines that work within Applied Linguistics, but there are two developments that I have noticed as a reader and researcher in sociolinguistics and I think that these two are likely to become more prominent.

First, sociolinguists (and this is especially relevant to sociolinguists who are working with the English language) have become increasingly comfortable working with data that would traditionally have been discarded as ‘non-spontaneous’ or ‘not naturally occurring’. Data sources might include English-language media, literary texts or texts from popular culture. These texts show a rich interplay between local voices (ones that might be thought of as ‘authentic’ languages) and global voices, and the sociolinguistic analyses of these kinds of interplays and tensions (between, for example, ‘global English’ and ‘local English’) have grown in sophistication and cogency. Consequently, the relationship between language and identity — a relationship that all too often had been conceptualised as a simple and static one-to-one exchange between identity and language use — is a relationship that is increasingly being explored as more pluralistic, situated, complex and performative. I imagine that this trend will continue within the disciplines of Applied Linguistics for some time.

Secondly, I have also noticed within the space of my career in English sociolinguistics an increasing degree of comfort that teachers and researchers have when discussing ‘Englishes’, and the linguistic variation that is represented by such a term. When I was writing my PhD dissertation on Hong Kong English, the consensus opinion among scholars working in Hong Kong (with only a few very prominent exceptions) was that ‘there was no such thing as Hong Kong English’. The justification for that point of view was that the variety of English used in Hong Kong was a ‘learner variety’ and that this somehow negated or diminished any status that the language might have as a variety of English that deserved to be studied sociolinguistically. Increasingly there is a willingness to accept the existence and the status of varieties like Hong Kong English, Japanese English, Chinese English, etc. and to allow these varieties to be studied more fully as English varieties. I expect that this trend will also continue for some time within English sociolinguistics, and within applied linguistics more generally.”


Going to AAAL? Visit the Cambridge booth to browse our journals, pick up new books, and grab a few freebies! Even if you are not attending, visit our website for 20% off all books on display.

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