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'Developing the History of Applied Linguistics': Introductory Remarks

Richard Smith made the following introductory remarks as organizer and chair of a panel discussion on 'Developing the History of Applied Linguistics' at the Annual Symposium of the Henry Sweet Society for the History of Linguistic Ideas, University of Edinburgh, 21 September 2000:

Hello, and welcome to this panel discussion on 'Developing the history of applied linguistics'. My name is Richard Smith. I teach at the University of Warwick and I'll be chairing the discussion. Now let me briefly introduce the other participants. On my right is Tony Howatt of the University of Edinburgh, well-known for his A History of English Language Teaching. Tony and I have been collaborating in editing a set of reissues for Routledge, called Foundations of Foreign Language Teaching: 19th Century Innovators, which will be coming out later this year. Next to Tony is Bev Collins of the University of Leiden, whose biography of Daniel Jones - entitled The Real Professor Higgins - appeared last year and is available at a 50% discount, so I'm told, to Henry Sweet Society members. On my immediate right is Terry Gordon of the University of Dalhousie in 'the other Scotland', as he puts it, Nova Scotia in Canada, who is well-known for his work on C.K. Ogden, including the recent editing of a 5-volume set of Ogden's works on linguistics, including a critical edition of The Meaning of Meaning. On my left, Tony Cowie, of the University of Leeds, whose book English Dictionaries for Foreign Learners: A History appeared last year and has been recently shortlisted for a BAAL prize. Last but not least, on my far left, Louis Kelly of Darwin College, Cambridge, who is well-known to you all. Among his significant contributions are the book 25 Centuries of Language Teaching and his True Interpreter: A History of Translation Theory and Practice in the West.

I'm going to start our discussion today by just making a few preliminary remarks about our topic, 'Developing the history of applied linguistics'. I think the title can be taken in two basic senses: Firstly, in the less obvious sense perhaps, to what extent is it reasonable to talk of a history of applied linguistics which goes back beyond about 1948, when the term applied linguistics first came into common currency -- we'll be considering this aspect in the first, longer part of our discussion -- and secondly, and perhaps more obviously, how (if this is considered necessary) can the status and methodology of History of Applied Linguistics be enhanced, which we'll turn to in the second, shorter part, when I hope there'll be time for you, the audience, to also have your say. Before we begin, though, it's perhaps important to make quite clear that the phrase 'History of Applied Linguistics' itself doesn't have any common currency -- to a degree, it's been coined for the purposes of the present discussion, with a view to seeing to what extent it might be useful. History of Applied Linguistics, then, is nowhere near being a recognized area of study, either as a sub-area within History of Language Sciences / History of Linguistics / History of Linguistic Ideas or what have you, or within Applied Linguistics itself. However, there have been a few recent signs of interest in establishing historical perspectives within applied linguistics itself, partly connected with significant anniversaries, for example the 50th anniversary in 1998 of the generally accepted foundation point of applied linguistics, the appearance of the journal Language Learning -- A Quarterly Journal of Applied Linguistics, established at the Uniuversity of Michigan in 1948. I should also mention a symposium organized in Edinburgh in 1998 to celebrate 40 years of Applied Linguistics here -- the School of Applied Linguistics, as it was known then, was the first department of applied linguistics in Britain, established in 1957. In the context of these anniversaries, the interest that has arisen in history has mostly been focused on internal developments over the last 40-50 years. In 1998, though, an article appeared in the 50th anniversary issue of Language Learning by Ian Catford. In this article, Catford noted that there'd been uses of the term 'applied linguistics' prior to 1948, by Baudouin de Courtenay (in Russian) and an associate of C.K. Ogden (in English). In this rather literal manner, Catford identified de Courtenay and Ogden as significant precursors of applied linguistics. This brings me back to the first sense in which we might wish to 'develop' the history of applied linguistics, namely to investigate ways we can extend its scope back further than the 'literal' establishment of applied linguistics in 1948 -- are de Courtenay and Ogden the only (or even the most appropriate) precursors we can name? Although there are obvious dangers of anachronism, there might be value in taking a less literal approach than Catford, and the panel members will be attempting to do so in a minute.

Obviously, if we're to try to be non-literal, though, we need a working definition of applied linguistics to take us back to the times when this term wasn't used. The problem is that different conceptualizations of applied linguistics have evolved over the last 50 years, and the meaning of applied linguistics has been under almost constant dispute. There are at least three different conceptions which have evolved in succession in the post-war period, which all continue to have some contemporary currency, and which might therefore inform our discussion of applied linguistics 'avant la lettre'. Firstly, the original linguistics-driven conception whereby linguistic theories or descriptions are applied to an area of practical endeavour such as language teaching / speech therapy / translation etc. in a relatively top-down, theory-driven manner -- this being an activity originally of linguists, who in this new role became 'applyers' of linguistics. This clearly happened in the World War II Intensive Language and Army Specialized Training Programs in the USA which underlay the establishment of Applied Linguistics in the immediate post-war years. Secondly, a less linguistics-driven, more interdisciplinary and problem-oriented conception can be identified whereby applied linguistics is seen as a kind of 'buffer zone' between practice and theory, and where the applied linguist is seen as a mediator between practice and a variety of possible source disciplines, without priority necessarily being given to linguistics (in the case of language teaching, for example, learning psychology, general education, sociology,anthropology, policy studies, and indeed history might all be seen to have a role to play alongside linguistics in the problem-solving process). Thirdly, there is what we might call an autonomous conception, with applied linguistics as an independent discipline or activity, developing theories, descriptions or other schemata which are potentially more relevant to practical needs than those emanating from source disciplines -- the applied linguist is no longer a consumer of theories or descriptions in this conception but a producer of relevant theories on the basis of research (in relation to language teaching, the growth of Second Language Acquisition as a field of applied linguistic research perhaps best epitomizes this). This last conception, in particular, probably allows us to view many figures from the past as applied linguists 'avant la lettre' and I hope you'll point out some figures and phenomena worthy of further research later on. Today though we'll mostly be focusing on developing the history of applied linguistics back into the relatively recent past, as far back as the late 19th Century Reform Movement, when linguistics, in particular phonetics, began to be systematically referred to in relation to practical problems, including spelling reform and language teaching.

So, on to our first discussion question:

To what extent and in what ways does it make sense to talk about various figures from the past as applied linguists 'avant la lettre' or precursors of applied linguistics?

I'll ask each panel member to consider this in turn, for 4 minutes each, with reference to their own historical interests.

[In turn, A.P.R. Howatt considered Henry Sweet; Bev Collins spoke about Daniel Jones; Richard Smith about H.E. Palmer; Terry Gordon about C.K. Ogden; A.P. Cowie about A.S. Hornby; and Louis Kelly about some earlier figures - unfortunately there is no record of these remarks.]

Well, I think we've seen that there is some justification for seeing certain figures from the past as 'applied linguists' despite the dangers of anachronism. But what might be the value of doing so? Is History of Applied Linguistics a legitimate and worthwhile field of enquiry which is worth 'developing'? To avoid over-abstraction in this very short time, I've asked each panel member to prepare a two-minute statement on their own motivations for engaging in what might be callled 'History of Applied Linguistics', in answer to the following question:

On the basis of your experience in the worlds of linguistics, applied linguistics and/or related professional activities (language teaching, translation, etc.), why (if at all) is HoAL needed? 

We each have just two minutes for this, and I'll kick it off:

I'm not sure whether a focus on the HIstory of Applied Linguistics will appear to have value to historians of linguistics such as are gathered here today, but I am convinced of its value to those involved in the practical activities most affected by applied linguistics -- in my main area of interest, language teaching. Single theory-driven applications have been argued against (e.g. by Mackey, Widdowson, Stern) but still remain a constant feature, and tend to bind language teachers to cycles of fashion, makng them dependent on legitimation by background theory. As Pennycook (drawing inspiration from Foucault) has argued, genealogy can show what is left out of the dominant applied linguistics paradigm which has been established since the Reform Movement (in particular, an over-emphasis on linguistic and psychological factors at the expense of educational, sociological or politcal factors in the case of language teaching) and can suggest or lend support to alternative conceptions of the relationship between theory and practice (for example, those of Claude Marcel in the mid-nineteenth century with his emphasis on educational factors involved in modern language teaching, or Harold E. Palmer, with his relatively dynamic, two-way conception of the relationship between theory and practice which I'll talk about in my paper on Saturday.) Having said that I'm not sure about the value of history of applied linguistics to the history of lInguistics, I'm sure historians of applied linguistics can gain a lot from the methodological point of view from historians of linguistics in general. However, if historical research is to become a better respected acrtivity within applied linguistics itself, there are likely to be new methodological considerations and other sources of inspiration also, to the extent that applied linguistics is, to some extent at least, autonomous from linguistics. For example, the need to investigate history of theory-practice links entails a need to imaginatively reconstruct past practices, not only theories - and we might need to draw inspiration from historians of education and other practical pursuits as much as from historians of (linguistic) ideas.

[Other participants then read their own statements: unfortunately there is no record of these.]

Now we have about 10 minutes for points from the floor, in particular in relation to the question, 'Why (if at all) is History of Applied LInguistics (HoAL) needed and how can it be enhanced?'. Some things you might like to contribute your ideas on are : What might distinguish HoAL from History of Linguistics (HoL)?. On the model of HoL, but also in distinction from it, how can the status, methodology etc. of HoAL be further enhanced in the future? What topics would be worth investigating by future historians of applied linguistcs?

[Contributions from the floor then ensued - there is no record of these.]

Summing-up i'm afraid our time is over, and it only remains for me to say I hope you agree we had a productive discussion and to ask for your continuing input into the development of the History of Applied LInguistics, which -- if it does develop further -- might be said to have been born here, in the last hour, in front of your very eyes! Finally, I'd like to say thank you to my fellow panel members, to John Joseph for conceiving this baby, and to all of you for your ideas.

Notes: John Joseph, Professor of Applied LInguistics at the University of Edinburgh and main organizer of the conference, proposed the organization of this panel discussion to Richard Smith, who was studying part-time for his PhD in the Department of Applied Linguistics at the time. The above is transcribed directly from a word-processed text Richard referred to. In a few parts, some reconstruction has been necessary to convert notes into full sentences.

Follow-up publications by Richard Smith, have included:

(2009) 'Claude Marcel (1793-1876): A neglected applied linguist?' Language and History 52/2: 171-181. Also available online:

(2011) 'Harold E. Palmer’s alternative "applied linguistics" Histoire–Epistémologie–Langage 33/1: 53-67. Pre-publication version here.

See also:

Linn, A. (2008) 'The birth of Applied Linguistics. The Anglo-Scandinavian School as discourse community'. Historiographia Linguistica 35/3, 342-384.

Candel, D., Léon, J. and Linn, A. (eds) (2011) Themed issue of Histoire Epistémologie Langage ( 33/1) on the history of applied linguistics.