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50th Conference: Roundtable Discussion on The Future of Applied Linguistics

PhD Student Agnès Marchessou has written a blog about the Roundtable Discussion on The Future of Applied Linguistics.

Prof. Claire Kramsch, Prof. Mike Baynham, Prof. Ben Rampton, Prof. Adam Jaworski, Prof. Tim McNamara and Prof. Greg Myers

Written by PhD student Agnès Marchessou

I felt extremely fortunate to be able to attend this discussion, in which some of the most influential academics articulated with clarity, the challenges and opportunities for Applied Linguistics. Given the focus of this debate, I could not help but recall the title of Professor Michael Clyne’s article (2007) - Are we making a difference? Such questioning referred to the lack of prominence of the field on the Australian public scene, despite the significance of language in all spheres of life. Professor Clyne deplored a monolingual mindset that remained fairly unchallenged, in a context of globalisation, terrorism and neoliberalism, in which linguists could play an important role at a socio-political level.

Professor Li Wei (UCL Institute of Education) hosted the talks, with contributions from Professor Baynham (University of Leeds), Professor Jaworski (University of Hong Kong), Professor Kramsch, (University of California, Berkley), Professor Mcnamara (University of Melbourne), Professor Myers (Lancaster University) and Professor Rampton (King’s College London).

Professor Ben Rampton – A need to get the “digital natives” involved.

Professor Rampton kicked off the roundtable, with the changing nature of higher education:

  • Universities are becoming more regional, with a move towards entrepreneurship and technology.
  • Social research methods recently grew and diversified.
  • These methods are now being challenged by the digital.

What is the impact on Applied Linguistics?

  • Academics must connect with the general public through civic engagement, by making sense of what is happening globally, through a philosophical approach which deals with concepts such as superdiversity, translanguaging and metrolingualism. A good example is the Multilingual Manchester University Program, which by changing teaching methods, dealt with global challenges through local involvement.
  • In the new digital era, the easy access to data raises fundamental questions (Who? What? Where? When? How?) which can be answered through a sociolinguistic description, with the help of computer scientists, given the complex technical skills required.

Professor Mike Baynham - “...history to shape and inform the future...

In the 1980’s the discipline was mainly associated to ELT and second language learning, which seems to have had little impact on mainstream Applied Linguistics, evidence that dominant traditions are not always the most interesting and productive.

Language is everywhere, it plays an essential role in all parts of social life, and applied linguists have to make the general public aware of this. This theme, recurrent throughout the roundtable, was also present in Clyne’s article (2007). We need to continue this dialogue with the wider community, an endeavour to which Professor Christopher Candlin vastly contributed.

Professor Baynham concluded his talk with a successful example of collaboration between academics and the wider public. A British Council conference on lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ) issues in Adult TESOL brought to people’s awareness, a widespread uncertainty amongst teachers, as to how to deal with questions of sexual identity in a classroom. This has now become a requirement in terms of the Equality Act, thanks to a group of applied linguists who pooled together a team of teachers, researchers and LGBTQ activists, to focus on this research topic.

Professor Claire Kramsch - “...the tension between the technical and the symbolic aspect of the field...”

Professor Kramsch, President of the International Association of Applied Linguistics, was voted the most influential applied linguist in Kees de Bot’s History of Applied Linguistics.

Following a degree in German and Literature in France, Professor Kramsch moved to the US, where she discovered Applied Linguistics, a discipline which finally gave her answers to the challenges that she was encountering in her practice as a teacher. A few years later, she came across Bourdieu’s Language and Symbolic Power, a revelation which allowed her to build her own theory of her own practice. This led Professor Kramsch to dedicate herself to Applied Linguistics, much to our benefit!

I found this testimony personally quite touching, given a similar epiphany that I experienced, whilst at the University of Melbourne, where I was looking for answers to the challenges that I was experiencing when bringing up my sons in French, in an Australian context. I could tell something was happening, beyond word level, but I did not know what it was. Going back to University to study Sociolinguistics and discovering Bourdieu made me realise the symbolic dimension of language, which ultimately led me to start a PhD at Birkbeck.

Professor Kramsch then described the four characteristics of Applied Linguistics:

  • Improvements to language teaching have been made, thanks to our reflection on the practice.
  • There is a tension between the technical and the symbolic aspect of the field, between its great practical usefulness and its low symbolic prestige, both deriving from the fact that it is applied.
  • The spread of English around the world, with English as a lingua franca potentially making the need for foreign language teachers redundant...
  • The ever growing diversification of research cultures in Applied Linguistics.

Professor Kramsch continued with three challenges for the field:

  • The fragmentation of Applied Linguistics into many subfields.
  • The maintenance of the link between theory and practice, without devaluing the practice in a symbolically hierarchical manner, imposed by academia.
  • Given the vitality of English, the risk for the field to become an Anglo-Saxon field of research.

Professor Adam Jaworski - “...the decentering of Applied Linguistics...

Professor Jaworski underlined the need for students and the general public to learn about language use in relation to social structure, hierarchy and social power: what is the meaning of having access to a certain register, in terms of privileges.

Professor Jaworski talked about the decentering of Applied Linguistics, through his experience in Hong Kong. This provides him with a different geographical space, where he can access new knowledge and traditions, looking at novel research sites in terms of social stratification, from the marginalised and the dispossessed, to the more privileged middle class.

Professor Tim Mcnamara - “...there has been a great broadening of the field of theory...”

Professor Mcnamara, the incoming Chair and President of the American Association of Applied Linguistics, recalled how it all started for him at Birkbeck. Back then, being taught by French sociolinguists or psycholinguists gave him a different understanding of Applied Linguistics, from a non English perspective. Professor Mcnamara went on to describe the three dimensions of theory in the field:

  • Language teaching and learning is at the very core of Applied Linguistics (from a practical point of view), but there are also other important areas linked to language in social life.
  • The theoretical source of Applied Linguistics is in Linguistics, both fields informing each other.
  • Applied Linguistics is a practical field, which also generates theory from the practice.

Professor Mcnamara concluded on the broadening of the field of theory, with the work of Pennycook (2001). Although these fields are crucial, they are not central, and it seems important that applied linguists engage in these theoretical debates, through poststructuralist work for instance. These can offer a critique of Social Science, Linguistics, Ethnography and Phenomenology, which constitutes the foundation of Conversation Analysis. This close philosophical reading has been deeply informing for Professor Mcnamara’s work and his commitment to language teaching. These ideas are essential, and the challenge is to reconcile them within the theory.

Professor Greg Myers – Applied Linguistics as “an enormously centrifugal field”.

Professor Myers, current Chair of the British Association for Applied Linguistics, underlined the fragmentation of the field, which has become exceedingly diverse. Different applied problems are being researched, with many different applications, leading to many directions. The solution is to remain in speaking terms with one another, through some institutional grounding and improved communication. Professor Myers suggested some sort of social setting which perhaps is what applied linguists need, in order to find out what others are doing.

Questions were then asked by the audience, including one echoing Professor Clyne’s concern (2007): do applied linguists have the power to influence policy and solve real world problems?

Professor Mcnamara reflected on his work in language testing in relation to the Australian citizenship test, which is perceived as easy in terms of content, but requires a high level of English, a dimension that is rarely considered. This is inconsistent with the Australian legislation which states that only a basic level of English is required to become a citizen. Professor Mcnamara pointed out this discrepancy to the Australian government, which never acted upon it.

Experiences such as Professor Rampton’s work on securitisation, the above mentioned Multilingual Manchester Program or the LGBTQ Equality Act, gave a more optimistic outlook for young researchers, in relation to success in solving problems on the ground.

Professor Kramsch reframed the question in terms of how do we achieve institutional change, suggesting a broader approach to cause and effect.

This roundtable gave me plenty to reflect on, and with Michael Clyne’s question still at the back of my mind - Are we making a difference? The answer was an emphatic Yes...but it is not going to be easy...

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BOURDIEU, P. & THOMPSON, J. B. 1991. Language and symbolic power, Cambridge, Polity Press in association with Basil Blackwell.

CLYNE, M. 2007. Are we making a difference? On the social responsibility and impact of the linguist/applied linguist in Australia. Australian Review of Applied Linguistics, 3.1.

DE BOT, K. 2015. A History of Applied Linguistics. [electronic resource] : From 1980 to the present, Hoboken : Taylor and Francis, 2015.

PENNYCOOK, A. 2001. Critical applied linguistics : a critical introduction, Mahwah, N.J. : L. Erlbaum, 2001.

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