Linguistics in Applied Linguistics MA programmes (24 May 2004)

Date: 24 May, 2004
Location: CILT,
Event type: Workshop

Programme | Abstracts | Event report

workshop attendees

Past event summary

The Subject Centre’s Linguistics Group organised a one day seminar on the general subject of the role of Linguistics in Applied Linguistics MA programmes, focusing particularly on MA programmes TESOL, TEFL and English Language and Applied Linguistics.

Students tend to have a very varied experience of Linguistics before they come on such courses, so they have to be offered an introduction to the discipline. They also have to be offered introductions to other foundation disciplines, and in addition, since they are usually aimed at a clientele that is strongly motivated by career concerns, these programmes have to offer vocational options.

There is some national guidance (e.g. from the ESRC) about what taught Master's level courses of this kind should include in terms of knowledge and skills and it is interpreted rather differently from institution to institution. There is also a range of issues that need to be addressed, including for example:

  • How can both 'postgraduateness' and vocational relevance be achieved?
  • What differentiates postgraduate study from undergraduate study?
  • What skills should be developed at postgraduate level and how are these best assessed?

This seminar provided an opportunity for practitioners on MA Applied Linguistics courses to present their own approaches to these issues and discuss them with colleagues from other institutions facing similar challenges. We plan to publish a version of these papers in the Subject Centre’s online Good Practice Guide.


10.00 – 10.30 Coffee and registration
10.30 – 11.10 Creating Coherence in an Applied Linguistics Masters
Professor Christopher Brumfit (Southampton)
11.10 – 11.50 The role that Linguistics should play in a Master’s programme in Applied Linguistics
Professor Roger Hawkins (Essex)
11.50 – 12.30 Turning students into researchers: Introduction to research methods in Applied Linguistics
Dr Marjorie Lorch (Birkbeck)
12.30 – 13.30 Lunch
13.30 – 14.10 Relating the study of Linguistics to the expectations and professionalneeds of ELT practitioners
Dr John Field
14.10 – 14.40 Relating linguistic theory to TESOL practice in a distance MA programme
Dr Pamela Rogerson-Revell (Leicester)
14.40 – 15.15 Tea and discussion
Chair: Dr Keith Brown


Creating Coherence in an Applied Linguistics Masters

Christopher Brumfit
Centre for Applied Language Research, University of Southampton

If there is a single academic core for a masters’ programme, it should probably rest with descriptive linguistics, but a pedagogic core should rest with the needs of the participants. The tension and potential conflict between these will be explored, with particular reference to a succession of only partially successful attempts to make descriptive work directly relevant to language teaching and other applied concerns. The talk will also try to show some associated ways of making the overall course both coherent and genuinely research-based.

The role that Linguistics should play in a Master’s programme in Applied Linguistics

Roger Hawkins
University of Essex

Students enrol on MA programmes in Applied Linguistics for a variety of reasons: to gain insight into real-world uses of language, to improve their performance as language teachers, as a stepping stone to doctoral research, to increase their employability, among others. Such students can differ enormously in their prior experience of Linguistics. This paper considers two things: (a) how linguistics should be integrated into an MA in Applied linguistics, given the variables of student expectation and experience; (b) how the study of Linguistics in an MA in Applied Linguistics differs from the study of Linguistics in undergraduate degrees.


  1. The centrality of empirically-based description and ‘linguistic levels of analysis’
  2. The relationship between data and theory
  3. Making the transition from consumer to producer of linguistically-informed ideas in Applied Linguistics

Turning students into researchers: Introduction to research methods in applied linguistics

Marjorie Lorch
Birkbeck College, University of London

The teaching of research methods to postgraduate students in applied linguistics presents a particular challenge. For the most part student will come to the course with a humanities degree. Their undergraduate study previously involved reading secondary sources, textbooks or review chapters that summarized large bodies of evidence and spelled out their theoretical significance. In postgraduate study and research, primary sources of evidence become crucially important. In the first instance, understanding research methods provides students with insight into the conventions practiced in the literature of academic research journals. Research in applied linguistics encompasses formal and theoretical work which falls within the humanities tradition but equally in social science, cognitive science and medical science. Diverse research methodologies are available to address questions of interest in applied linguistics. Students need to become acquainted with a variety of empirical approaches to research questions--descriptive, qualitative, quantitative; hypothesis-generating and hypothesis-confirming; text-based, ethnographic, experimental, etc and understand the consequences of adopting a particular formal/scientific methodology. Students must learn to pose questions in such a way that clearly specifies the type of evidence and analysis required to produce the answers being sought. In addition, there are general research skills which are essential equipment for academic pursuits. These include library, database and internet search procedures to identify the relevant literature, the way to read and eventually write research papers for publication, management of data and planning a research protocol, consideration of ethical issues involved in working with human subjects, etc. Training students to become researchers in applied linguistics presents a challenge: how to encourage the development and acquisition of the critical skills, conceptual and analytical tools as well as the practical knowledge to enable students to navigate the research literature and develop their own research agenda.

Answering the question ‘Why?’: the conflict between postgraduate course content and students’ perceived needs

Dr John Field

Most MA courses in Applied Linguistics or TESOL offer at least one module which provides a background in general linguistics. It is by no means easy to decide what the precise content of these modules should be. One solution is to treat pure linguistics as a fixed body of knowledge, and to pose the question: ‘What does an MA graduate need to know in order to pass muster as an MA graduate?’ A second is to view the issue in terms of personal development, and to focus on those areas of linguistic theory which are most useful in enhancing the language awareness of the student.

Neither of these approaches takes sufficient account of the expectations and the long-term needs of those who attend MA courses. A large number of the latter are language teachers, sometimes highly experienced ones. In an era where university marketing jargon makes much of ‘client-centredness’, it is surely incumbent upon course designers to be aware of the backgrounds (and sometimes the false assumptions) that students bring with them. It is also important to consider the future uses which students will find for the information with which we supply them, thus ensuring that the courses we offer have some kind of ‘face validity’.

This paper starts by outlining the knowledge of grammar and the attitudes to it that one can reasonably expect a language teacher to possess. It then proposes a set of criteria for determining which areas of linguistic theory are most relevant in the context of an applied postgraduate course. The following goals are specified:

  1. heightening awareness of the structure and functions of language;
  2. informing the ways in which target-language grammar is represented to learners and syllabuses are designed;
  3. tracing underlying patterns of meaning that obtain across languages;
  4. identifying other possible syntactic and morphological patterns than those which obtain in the target language;
  5. ensuring an understanding of the literature of SLA research;
  6. raising awareness of the psychological processes involved in syntactic parsing.

The presentation also stresses the advisability of an introductory session in which the tutor explains the purposes of the language component and makes clear its relevance to the students’ interests and aspirations.

Relating linguistic theory to TESOL practice in a distance MA programme

Pamela Rogerson-Revell
University of Leicester

How can both 'postgraduateness' and vocational relevance be achieved?'

This talk considers some of the issues involved in ensuring that a distance Masters programme is both academically rigorous and vocationally relevant. In the talk I will demonstrate that our students are motivated not only by career concerns but also by their desire to deepen their understanding of theoretical aspects of linguistics and language learning and show how we try to meet this demand in our distance MA in Applied Linguistics and TESOL.

Event report: Linguistics in Applied Linguistics MA programmes

by Alison Dickens

In the six papers presented at this event the role and place of linguistic theory in Applied Linguistics programmes were examined together with the need to provide a programme that is both academically rigorous and vocationally relevant. As Christopher Brumfit highlighted in his talk, students will frequently arrive to begin their course with well-formed views on language teaching but little grounding in the theoretical approaches to language needed to inform those views. Indeed the question of what theories and how to incorporate them meaningfully into the programme is one that was addressed by several speakers. Roger Hawkins, proposes a process-oriented approach which seeks to develop students' ability to collect, understand and present linguistic data, as identified in the QA benchmark statement for Linguistics. In his talk John Field considered four possible approaches which help take students from theory to application: Banking (Linguistics knowledge), Language Awareness (Task-based activities), Local Goals (e.g. need to study SLA), Long-term goals (professional development). An analysis by Catherine Walter of what is actually being included in these programmes indicated that there is considerable variance in the balance and scope of Linguistics across programmes whereby some will offer no core modules in Linguistics, while others teach syntax, phonology and lexis as part of a general language analysis module. In her talk Marjorie Lorch introduced the issue of how to develop research skills in students who are largely progressing to practice rather than research. She argues that these skills are necessary for students who are mainly from a Humanities background as they need to both be able to read the literature critically and to develop the skills needed to complete their dissertations. Finally, the issue of teaching an Applied Linguistics programme at a distance was explored by Pam Rogerson-Revell who highlighted the additional considerations that must be made in this context e.g. that teachers are generally in practice', but may lack access to discussion with peers.

Altogether, the day was very thought-provoking and informative and highlighted that Linguistics in this context should really be helping students to do what they want to do both in a practical and in a research environment. This means having to tread a careful line between what aspects of Linguistics academics may feel are important and what students actually need to know.

Full papers from this event will shortly be available in the Subject Centre's online Good Practice Guide.