Element 13 – Applied Linguistics

The Dark Side of Linguistics Applied

In the 1920s, Francisco Franco was the youngest general in Spain. Being conservative and a man of tradition, he was shocked when, in 1931, Spain removed the Monarchy and replaced it with a republic.A few years later, the conservatives lost the elections, and Franco and his friends took drastic measures. They tried to take over the government with military power. They were only partly successful. What followed was the Spanish Civil War. Franco received help from Italy and Nazi Germany. The Spanish Civil War lasted for 3 years. By 1939 Franco had won, but during the war, over a half a million people died, and Franco became the absolute ruler.

Hitler and Franco (Photo: bitly.com/abceshitlerfranco

He called himself “El Caudillo,” or the Head. He controlled both the military and the state. As absolute leader, Franco acted with violence toward his political and ideological enemies. Between 200,000 to 400,000 people died in forced labor camps, concentration camps, and in executions. Franco also enforced a strict language policy. In answer to the question, “What should we do about language?” he was clear.

For legal and government documents, only Spanish could be used. You could not use the minority languages of Catalan, Galician, or Basque for a legal document. If you did, the document was void. Spanish law also forbade the use of these languages in shop signs, road signs, advertising, and in schools. The rule was clear for all of Spain. “Si eres Español, habla Español.” If you are Spanish, speak Spanish.

Image (Spanish Wikipedia)

Franco’s language policy (See Mar-Molinero, 2000) shows the dark side of what powerful people can do when they make decisions about language. Tragically, Franco decided his language policy purely by political motives. However, from an academic perspective, applied linguistics can help inform these kinds of policy decisions.

Solving Real World Problems

Applied linguists use knowledge about language and apply it in the world. According to Schmitt (2010, pg. 1), “Applied linguistics is using what we know about (a) language, (b) how it is learned and (c) how it is used, in order to achieve some purpose or solve some problem in the real world.”

With this definition, we can rethink the old Spanish language policy. (A) What do we know about the 4 main languages of Spain: Catalan, Galician, Basque, and Spanish? (B) How are these languages learned? (C) How are they used? What should we do about this for schools, government documents, advertising, etc.?

Today in Spain, minority languages have a co-official status in the whole country. For instance, in Catalonia (where Barcelona is the capital), Catalan is the language of education, and students are required to learn it in schools. Today there are 3.75 million native speakers of Catalan, and around 5 million people use it as a second language. (See Ethnologue.)

These are big issues. Though applied linguists tend to focus on language education, it is difficult to separate the principles of language learning from language policy. For example, as of 2015, the United States has more Spanish speakers than Spain. It is the second largest Spanish speaking country in the world after Mexico. If many children come to American schools that are native speakers of Spanish, how should schools manage the language education of these children?

Should we “mainstream” these students: give no attention to their first language? Or because they come to school as native speakers of Spanish, should we teach them to read in Spanish first, and then teach them to read in English?

Research in applied linguistics supports the second option. It’s easier for kids to read in a language that they already know. Moreover, after they learn to read in their L1, they can more easily learn to read in their L2 because the L1 reading skills form the basis for their L2 skills. Thus, if leaders want these children to participate in American life using English, so the argument goes, they make it easier for students to read and use English by teaching them to read in Spanish first!

Applied linguists mainly focus on these kinds of educational questions, but the field is broad. We can see the full scope of applied linguistics in the following activities as outlined by Cook (2003) and Schmitt (2010).


  • First-language education. Children study their home language or languages.
  • Second-language education. Students study their country’s official language that is not their home language, for example native Hindi speakers in India who study English.
  • Foreign-language education. People study a foreign language, for example, Japanese children who study English.
  • Clinical Linguistics: Medical professionals study how to treat speech and language impairments.
    Language-testing. Educators study how to assess language achievement and proficiency.
  • Deaf education. Educators decide on which form of sign language to use how to educate the hearing impaired.

Work and Law

  • Workplace communication: Researchers study about how language is used at work and how it affects status and power relations.
  • Language planning: Leaders make laws about the place of languages in government and education. For example, the Ministry of Education decides when children start studying English.
  • Forensic linguistics: Lawyers and police evaluate language as evidence in legal investigations. For example, a man is killed, and Joe Blow is accused of the murder. The accuser brings a written text and claims that Joe Blow wrote it. In the text, a man says that he is going to kill the victim. Linguists and lawyers evaluate the text. Do the linguistic patterns in this text match Joe Blow’s style of writing or not?

The Oxford English Dictionary (Wikipedia)

Art, Interpretation, and Persuasion

  • Stylistics: Linguists analyze the linguistic aspects of literature.
  • Critical Discourse Analysis: Critics analyze and criticize how we use language to persuade and control others.
  • Design: Designers think carefully about how they use text in design, for example in typography.
  • Lexicography: Language experts plan and create dictionaries and bilingual dictionaries.
  • Translation: Interpreters and translators make and use principles that guide how we render ideas between languages.

The Value of Applied Linguistics

Paul Nation’s Book on Best Practices in EFL Teaching

Obviously, applied linguistics deals with many issues that affect us on a day-to-day basis. Whenever we look at a text on a well-designed advertisement, whenever we look up a word in a dictionary, whenever we listen to a politician persuading an audience, we are living within the scope of applied linguistics.

Nevertheless, as stated before, applied linguistics mainly deals with languages and how they are taught and learned. And if applied linguistics is worth anything to us, it should give us insight into the best ways to teach and learn our first and additional languages.

Fortunately, there is good news. Though we are far away from making a perfect pill that gives us native-like fluency with an additional language, we do have many approaches, methods, and techniques that can help us more efficiently and effectively learn languages. For example, with the “RISE-&-GO” principle, we will look at research from educational psychology and apply it to language teaching and learning.


13-Element – Applied Linguistics 2020 RFS

Dr. Joseph Poulshock

Dr. Joseph Poulshock works as Professor of English Linguistics in the Faculty of International Communication at Senshu University.