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Language in the real world
Language in the real world

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2.2 Problems with ‘problem’

You may have noticed that quite a few of the scholars you encountered in Activity 6 mentioned language-related ‘problems’. This goes back to the much-cited definition of the academic discipline of applied linguistics put forward by Brumfit in 1995, which you saw in the animation. This useful and widely quoted definition is precise in one sense: it pinpoints applied linguists’ concern with investigating the ‘real world’, and thus differentiates it from other types of linguistics. But there is a problem with the word ‘problem’.

Activity 7

Timing: Allow 20 minutes

Listen to the interview with applied linguist David Block below. He describes a particular language-related problem he has investigated, and defines this ‘problem’ as something he wished to understand rather than solve. Make notes on what situation he was investigating and the distinction he draws between issues which are ‘problems’ and those which are ‘problematic’. Think also about the following:

  • To what extent was Block’s study about language?
  • What does he mean by ‘violating the research process’ when he describes how his students sometimes try to approach research?
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David Block was trying to understand how Spanish-speaking Latinos lived in the context of multilingual London. He gives a subtle and complex take on the notion of language-related problems which will help to guard against any simplistic notion that they can be ‘solved’ by ‘experts’. He outlines how he needed to locate the issue he had encountered locally (in London) in the wider context of research conducted in other countries and contexts, and in terms of migration and globalisation, and how this led him beyond a narrow view of what language and applied linguistics research means.

Block describes the focus of his research as a ‘puzzle’ rather than as a problem. He is clear in particular about the need to avoid framing his research subjects – the Spanish speakers – as a ‘problem’; rather, he chooses ‘focus of enquiry’ to make it clear that his interest in them is not geared towards ‘fixing’ them.

When Block describes some of his students violating the research process, he means that they sometimes don’t begin from a puzzle – something that they want to understand. He describes how such puzzles then naturally lead to research questions that then guide the rest of the research process.

Aside from the issues with ‘problem’ that Block outlines, as we noted earlier, not every area worthy of investigation by applied linguists necessarily constitutes a ‘problem’. Some scholars therefore prefer to adopt an alternative, broader, definition to allow for a range of contexts in which an understanding of language can be useful or simply of interest:

Applied linguistics is the academic field which connects knowledge about language to decision-making in the real world.

(Simpson, 2011, p. 1).