Language in the real world
Language in the real world

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Language in the real world

2 Applied linguistics

Now that we have working definitions of ‘language’ and ‘linguistics’, what could ‘applied linguistics’ be?

Activity 4

Timing: Allow 5 minutes

What does ‘applied linguistics’ mean to you? Use what you have learned so far in this course to come up with a definition.


Broadly speaking, applied linguistics can be seen as one sub-discipline of linguistics, albeit one that is also broad and itself encompasses other fields. Watch the short animation in the next activity for a more specific definition of applied linguistics.

Activity 5

Timing: Allow 15 minutes

Watch the animation ‘What is applied linguistics?’ As you watch, make notes on:

  • what applied linguistics is and is not
  • the difference between applied linguistics and linguistics applied
  • Brumfit’s definition of applied linguistics and the problems with it.
Download this video clip.Video player: ee817_anim_v05.mp4
Skip transcript


When people hear the words ‘applied linguistics’, they often think of one of two things: ‘Err... Lots of languages?’ or ‘Aha! Teaching English!’

In fact, applied linguistics has little to do with the first of these and is nowadays much broader than the second.

As Guy Cook wrote in 2005, ‘Like Odysseus, applied linguistics has steered a difficult course between a rock and a whirlpool and has been in constant danger of hitting one or disappearing down the other. Its Scylla has been theoretical and descriptive linguistics (of all schools) from which it must in some way be distinct. Its Charybdis is the general public and language professionals – from whom, though it addresses their problems, it must also remain independent. A third peril has been within the ship itself. At times, it has had an unruly and divided crew.’

Historically, there have been two main views on applied linguistics and they've been called, perhaps less than helpfully, linguistics applied and applied linguistics.

Linguistics Applied was the initial understanding of the discipline in the 1970s and assumed that anyone working within this field simply took insights from theoretical linguists (the hard-core scientists) and dumped them onto contexts they encountered in real life, although the context was usually language learning and teaching.

Applied Linguistics, as rethought in the 1980s, rejected this thieving process and wanted to establish applied linguistics as a complete discipline in its own right – a complete and autonomous self –­­ that could also contribute to theory. The theoretical and applied disciplines could now coexist in an equal and mutually beneficial relationship.

As a reborn discipline with its own identity, applied linguistics could also examine contexts other than language teaching and learning, and therefore contribute further insights into theoretical linguistics.

But not everyone was pleased with this development. Some attacked applied linguistics for looking at too many things. Some didn’t like the idea of applied linguistics having a complete unique identity.

In fact, there is no such thing as a unique identity in any discipline – just like all of our selves are made up of many different facets and are affected by those around us. Applied linguistics is partners not just with theoretical linguistics, but also with psychology, sociology, neurology, anthropology and so on, and they all shape each other.

So where does that leave applied linguistics? Currently, while debates and controversies continue to exist, applied linguistics is seen as something that connects or mediates between knowledge about language in theory and knowledge about how people use language in various contexts for decision making in the real world.

The most widely cited definition comes from Christopher Brumfit, who in 1995 described it as: ‘The theoretical and empirical investigation of real-world problems in which language is a central issue.’

But there is a problem with the word ‘problem’. Applied linguistics is not only concerned with situations where there is a problem that needs to be solved. It also investigates situations where people are simply using language in particular ways. It develops models of language use dependent on context. And sometimes these models can help with problems but sometimes they simply allow us to better understand what is actually going on.

So applied linguistics really is the exploration of real-world situations, contexts and sometimes issues in which language plays a crucial role. These contexts include language learning and teaching, but also include the law, the language of institutions, workplace relations, medical communication, media discourse, translation and interpreting, lexicography, language policy and planning, advertising and branding, and many, many more. Language, after all, is everywhere.

End transcript
Interactive feature not available in single page view (see it in standard view).


Applied linguistics is not about the theory of language or the description of the structure of language. It is also not just about language teaching. Instead, applied linguistics is a field of study that connects knowledge about language in theory with knowledge about how people use language in various contexts.

‘Linguistics applied’ embodied a 1970s attitude: practitioners simply took insights from theoretical linguists and applied them to situations in everyday life. It was a one-way process. ‘Applied linguistics’, on the other hand, is a more recent view that sees the applied field as also being able to contribute to theoretical linguistics in a mutually beneficial way. The new view also allows for a wider range of contexts to be investigated.

Brumfit defined applied linguistics as ‘the theoretical and empirical investigation of real-world problems in which language is a central issue’ (1995, p. 27). The word ‘problem’ suggests that applied linguistics is only concerned with situations where something has gone wrong and always has a ‘solution’. However, sometimes applied linguistics is simply about understanding what is actually going on.


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