Albert Weideman presenting at Ghent University

How hot is ‘hot’? How practical can theory be?

When Kees de Bot asked a few hundred applied linguists in 2015 whether they needed to have a theory of the field, he found that they thought they did not (De Bot, K. 2015. A history of applied linguistics: From 1980 to the present. London: Routledge). Are they missing something?

How practical can theory be? On 7 October, I tried to demonstrate just that, taking further the argument of a previous blog (Another angle: examining applied linguistics philosophically) in a lecture on this topic at Ghent University. It formed the first presentation of a colloquium kindly arranged by Bart Deygers as a “hot topic” lecture.

We were privileged to have as discussants Constant Leung who came all the way from King’s College, London, and Jordi Heeren of KU Leuven. In addition, there were colleagues not only from Ghent, but also from nearby Antwerp, as well as from North-West University in South Africa, the latter represented by Tobie van Dyk. And what a productive session it was!

Prof. Bart Deygers, Ghent University

Jordi Heeren’s presentation pried out the implications of the kind of theory of applied linguistics that I am proposing for the reconceptualization of validity and language test validation. I found it intriguing and insightful, and the delight was evident too in the faces of other participants. One hopes that it will at some point find its way into print. Thanks, Jordi, for such a meaningful contribution.

Dr Jordi Heern, Katholieke Universiteit Leuven

Constant Leung was, expectably! incisive and innovative, asking penetrating questions, and at the same time stimulating participants to think about the real-life problems of English as lingua franca, the issue that engages him. Here is a sample, one of several probing questions from him:

How do we deal with the overwhelming masses of observations when we do applied linguistics?

Prof. Constant Leung, King’s College, London

My response is one that we often overlook: we are always in the business of abstraction when we deal with theory. Theory handles the problem of being overwhelmed by abstracting away from some dimensions or aspects of an issue, momentarily disregarding them in order to focus on the single aspect that is selected. The trouble comes in when we take abstraction too far, and are tempted to elevate the aspect we have taken as key to be the alpha and omega, promoting it to a mode of explanation for everything. Then we have crossed the line in our thinking, and have arrived in reductionist territory. Reductionism is characterized by an attempt to explain all of experience in terms of a single dimension. It is far removed from responsible abstraction. If, for example, we make ‘power’ and the political dimension the explanation for everything, we have stepped into ideological terrain. How about applying this theoretical insight to current applied linguistics?

Making ‘power’ and the political dimension the explanation for everything, we have stepped into ideological terrain.

Why theory is practical (and necessary)

It gives us us an angle of approach…

The practicality of theory lies, first, in recognizing that when we abstract responsibly, the modal view that we take becomes the angle of approach. One angle of approach can never explain everything. In applied linguistics, our angle of approach is the modality of design, the technical. We abstract that in order to examine it more closely.

It reveals fundamental concepts which provide us with principles of design

When we do this, we discover a second practical use for theory. The abstracted modality, the technical mode, resists abstraction because it is tied to all other modes of experience. This coherence with others yields fundamental applied linguistic concepts and ideas – like homogeneity (reflecting the numerical), range (an analogy of the spatial), reliability (showing the connection to the kinematic), validity (a physical analogy), and a number of other ‘primitives’. The use of these – ideas like accountability, accessibility, utility, fairness, justice and others – is to provide us with principles of design, which we respond to when developing applied linguistic interventions like language tests, courses and policies.

A wonderful agenda for applied linguistics

The practicality of theory therefore lies in its offering us a set of principles for responsible design (see, e.g.: The top 14 design principles of language interventions.) I think that is a wonderful agenda for applied linguistics, that I hope to continue to work on.

I am indebted especially to Bart, Constant and Jordi for their effort in making this a memorable experience, and a worthwhile discussion. Thank you!

Applied linguistics "Hot topic" lecture at the University of Ghent.
A memorable occasion, a worthwhile discussion

The paper on which this presentation is based has been submitted for publication in SPIL Plus, an Open Access journal. I will update this post as soon as it becomes available, or simply write to me if you want to be notified (

More information in the PowerPoint presentation:

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