April 24th, 2006

ozarque figure

Why theoretical linguists are like Democrats...

On April 23rd [at http://itre.cis.upenn.edu/~myl/languagelog/archives/003056.html#more ], linguist Roger Shuy posted a Lament.

It tells us about the founding of the American Association of Applied Linguistics more than three decades ago (by Shuy, Bernard Spolsky, and Dick Tucker). It tells us that the goals they had for the organization were that it should bridge the gap between theoretical linguistics and applied linguistics, and that it should establish as fact that applied linguistics is not just "language learning, teaching, and testing."

And then it tells us that not only have those goals not been achieved, the gap between theoretical and applied linguistics has grown ever wider, and applied linguistics today -- as evidenced by its published papers and books and by the papers delivered at its professional conferences -- simply excludes and ignores the significant progress of linguistics in at least three additional fields: language and the law (forensic linguistics); medical communication; and business communication.

This, Shuy concludes, is "a pity." And I agree. For sure. Applied linguistics -- putting the information from theoretical linguistics to practical use in the real world -- should be a spectacularly exciting scientific field today. Its practitioners should have a solid grounding in the basics of contemporary linguistic theory and the methods of its application, and they should be moving forward to put that information to use in a long list of new fields. That this isn't happening is more than a pity -- it's a shameful waste.

The one thing it reminds me of most forcibly is the current gap between the Democrats (and other non-Right politicians) and the voters they claim they want and need to reach. In both cases, the core of the problem is the failure to find a way to communicate with ordinary people -- people who are not academics or high-status professionals or highly-educated intellectuals.

It's not impossible to teach linguistics in the English of ordinary daily life; the problem isn't that it can't be done, but that theoretical linguists are unwilling to do it. And it's not impossible to explain non-Right "values" and goals in the English of ordinary daily life; the problem isn't that it can't be done, but that the non-Right politicians (represented for the most part by Democrats, at the moment) are unwilling to do it.

Too much polysyllabic preaching and pontificating to the choir; not enough plain talk.