Another angle: examining applied linguistics philosophically

Language assessment is a subfield of applied linguistics. That sounds like a reasonably incontestable statement. But can we simply assume that language assessment is a subfield of applied linguistics? In examining what has been written about that, we find that the claim is widespread — in fact since the earliest times, when applied linguistics was being established by the likes of Pit Corder and Alan Davies more than 50 years ago. Even to this day, language assessment scholars like McNamara make the claim quite confidently.

And yet, very little argument, let alone any evidence, is produced to substantiate this! It is odd, to say the least. It may be that it is such an obvious notion that some may think it is unnecessary to bother to substantiate the claim (that language assessment is a subfield of applied linguistics). It may also be that those who doubt the claim remain silent, since the effort of contesting it is not worth the candle.

It might well also be (and this doubter thinks that to be more likely) that it is once again a symptom of applied linguists simply being neither interested nor able to theorize about the foundations of the field. And who can blame them?

Applied linguists have urgent work to do, always. And in any event, theorizing about what applied linguistics is, and how it is conceptualized, is not proposing the urgently needed designs to alleviate large-scale or pervasive language problems, which is the heart of applied linguistics. Asking how we conceptualize the field is another kind of scholarly endeavour entirely. It is examining the discipline philosophically. And yet …

Applied linguists have urgent work to do, always.

Identifying three subfields of applied linguistics

A theory of applied linguistics is exactly what will enable us to make two arguments that language assessment is one of three subfields — the other two being language policy design and language course design — and with productive results.

What do they have in common?

The first argument relates to what language test development has in common with the other two (policy articulation and curriculum design), namely the moment of ‘design’. In fact, all are technically stamped entities.

They have design norms as to how they should be developed. What is more, their factual designs, user interfaces — like tests, in the subfield of language assessment — are dependent on normative specifications. Or take language management strategies (in the subfield of language planning) that give positive form to institutional language policies; or language courses (in the subfield of language teaching) that are the outcome of sets of conditions specified in curricula.

Yes, they also conform to type-specific norms: a test is not a policy; a policy is not a course, etc., since each has its own typical purpose: to assess language ability, or to regulate the use of language within an institution, or to enable language learning and development.

Apart from such specificity, however, these interventions also have a great deal in common. That is the second argument for language assessment being part of applied linguistics.

Subject to general design principles

All these interventions are planned, designed, shaped and formed. Their commonality lies in all of them being subject to general design principles.

That means that course design can learn much from test design. Perhaps curricula need to be validated with the same diligence as language tests. Perhaps language tests should take a leaf out of the book of language course design by becoming more specific in the abilities that they measure. And all might benefit from becoming more accountable and fairer.

I address all of these issues in a presentation to the Language Testing Forum / UKALTA 2021 Conference, being hosted online this year by Lancaster University. The paper is entitled:

You can also find the PowerPoint here:

I’d love to hear what you think. Has it now been adequately demonstrated that language assessment is indeed a subfield of applied linguistics? Let me know.

PS: This blog post emphasises the reciprocity among the three kinds of applied linguistic interventions. Also read how harmony can be achieved when the subfields complement one another: Get them in line: language policy, language tests and language teaching

2 thoughts on “Another angle: examining applied linguistics philosophically

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