The journalist and scholar H.L. Mencken (1880-1956) once observed that “For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong.” One would think that academic literacy, the ability to use academic language competently, would be the first and only language concern of the academic communities that make up the university. Such is the complexity of language problems, however, that not all solutions for them will have to do with making education and study more effective. Student communities may, for example, make language demands that are primarily politically inspired, and have little bearing on scholarship. When decision-makers yield to the politically expedient solution, that solution may be rationalized in many ways that might have the pretence of having to do with education, but that actually has no theoretical justification. There are at least two recent cases in South Africa where the language policies of universities were changed for reasons other than academic ones, with negative consequences that were foreseen, but ignored. Continue reading
If you were a scientist working in the 1950’s, you would claim that your work, the theory that you subscribed to, and the results of your academic endeavours were all neutral and objective. In the heydays of modernism, the mere suggestion that there were any external, non-scientific influences on your work would have implied a threat to the integrity of that work.
Fast forward 60 years, and you would now find it difficult to acknowledge that your scientific analyses are indeed purely scientific, uninfluenced by any prejudice, and untainted by subjective issues. Continue reading
Is a theory of applied linguistics desirable? And if so, is it possible? My new book, Responsible design in applied linguistics: theory and practice (2017; Springer) proceeds from the thesis that applied linguistics needs a theoretical foundation. It is indeed possible to delineate its work (and specifically distinguish it from linguistics). Providing it with a theoretical foundation might additionally yield new insight into the principles that underlie applied linguistic designs. Those designs we encounter as the interventions that we call language courses, language tests and language policies. Continue reading
The solutions proposed by applied linguists are defensible in two ways:
First, the designs must be justified with reference to theory – not only linguistic theory, but also those found in other disciplines, like psychology and pedagogy, and across disciplines.
Second, applied linguists are accountable to the public for the designs they produce. This is because their plans affect ever-increasing numbers of human beings. A bad and inappropriate language test may prevent one from earning a decent living or gaining legitimate access to a country or resources. An inadequate language course may stultify personal and professional growth. An ineffective and inappropriate language policy or arrangement can inhibit optimal performance within an institution or the workplace. Continue reading