Linguistics for applied linguists and lecturers in English language

Author: Gillian Brown


A brief description is provided of the content of a master’s programme which focuses on preparing participants to teach English Language and/or Applied Linguistics at university level. An overview of the content shows the role of linguistic theory in the programme. A slightly more detailed account is given of the content of the phonology component to illustrate how linguistic theory relates to practical issues in language learning.

Table of contents

1. Applied Linguistics and English Language

The field of Applied Linguistics has expanded enormously in the last twenty years and in many master's level programmes the discipline of linguistics now contributes rather little, as interests develop in new areas which are emerging from other disciplines such as education, social anthropology and sociology. At RCEAL in Cambridge, as in some other departments in universities such as Essex and Edinburgh, linguistics still plays a significant role. Our M.Phil. in English and Applied Linguistics is addressed to a fairly small group of 12-15 students each year, selected from a large number of applicants drawn from the UK and around the world. They typically are already, or intend to become, lecturers in Applied Linguistics and/or English Language and, in many cases, they hope to proceed to PhD. research. No linguistic theory is taught for its own sake in the programme, and there are no courses on general linguistic topics such as 'syntax', 'semantics' or 'phonology', but a good deal of linguistic theory of various kinds is incorporated in teaching the content of the four core courses: Forms of English (phonology, orthography, morphology and syntax); Meaning in English (philosophy of language, semantics, pragmatics and discourse analysis); Second Language acquisition and development (sociolinguistics, psycholinguistics, morphology, syntax, semantics and pragmatics); Psychological Processes of language production, comprehension and language learning (psycholinguistics and cognitive psychology more generally). The approach is essentially interdisciplinary and participants are helped and encouraged to see the links between the courses. Each core course is taught for at least 18 two-hour sessions over two terms. The sessions vary in structure but many take the form of a seminar accompanied by a voluminous and detailed handout so that participants don't need to make extensive notes. The seminar is typically broken up by one or more interludes which may last up to half an hour during which participants work in pairs on a practical problem in which they apply relevant concepts from the seminar and then the pairs report back to the whole class on their results or their progress. Two sections of the core courses on Forms and Meaning (syntax and semantics) also have associated one-hour open tutorials where whoever turns up (most if not all partipants) discuss issues arising from the seminars and work together on any problems. A further section of the core course on Forms (phonology/orthography) also has an associated practical phonetics course (see below).

A range of 9-hour option courses either contribute more theory, some of it linguistic (e.g. in Vocabulary, Translation, Psycholinguistics and connectionism, Morphology in language development) or lean on the theory already acquired (e.g. in Pedagogical Grammar, Assessment of Language Proficiency, Contrastive Linguistics). There is also a 36-hour Research Methods course which, in the final 6 weeks, consists of a series of debates which begin with two participants proposing, and two opposing, support for views put forward in well-known publications on such fundamental issues as: the nature of 'internal ('I')-language' and 'external ('E')-language', the nature of mental representation, the representation of one or more languages in one mind, etc.

In the short section below, I exemplify our approach to the role of linguistic theory in the phonology course which I teach.

2. Teaching phonology and phonetics

In some master's courses, phonology and phonetics have been abandoned as no longer relevant to the type of applied linguistics taught in the programme. And many applicants, particularly those educated in European countries, nowadays speak excellent comprehensible English. However many European universities, like most universities in India, Africa, South America and the far East, require that the pronunciation of English is systematically taught at university level, so we need to help our students do this effectively. In order to persuade them to abandon some of the unhelpful practices often still employed, we teach a current version of English phonology which focuses on phonological processes rather than on lists of phonemes, and on short/long vowel contrasts rather than a mythical monophthong/diphthong contrast (see e.g.Harris 1994), on rhythmic patterns in words and phrases (see e.g. Fudge 1999, Giegerich 1992) and on intonational discourse functions rather than on the variable detail of forms (see e.g.Ladd 1996). Focussing on phonological processes which have the effect of losing a good deal of the information that is present in the citation forms of words makes it possible to clarify the relevance of such processes to problems for second language learners in understanding the spoken form of the language (see e.g. Brown 1990, Rost 1990). Working with current versions of phonology (particularly government and optimality phonology) also means that participants become sufficiently acquainted with the concepts and constructs of these approaches to be able to read technical material on the second language acquisition of phonology which began to appear in the 1990s (see e.g. Archibald 1998, Hancinn-Bhatt 2000, Hannahs and Young-Scholten 1997). We also devote a session to the relationship between phonology/morphology and orthography, an area where most participants are quite unaware of the helpful generalisations to be made.

The phonology course is backed up by a practical course on general phonetics which gives participants the opportunity to learn to produce and to recognise a wide range of sound-types (see e.g. Ladefoged 2001, Rogers 2000) so that, when they hear students producing sound-types intermediate between those of the first language and those of the target language, they can judge whether or not the new sound-type is closer to the target or not. Each hour begins by 20 minutes which add a new parameter of articulation to those already discussed: participants observe themselves and each other articulating the resultant sound-types and compare them with other sound-types which they have already mastered. This is followed by a 20 minutes' eartraining session which begins by working on newly-introduced material and gradually includes previous material, and for the final 20 minutes we discuss and transcribe, both phonologically and phonetically, examples of fluent English speech, taped data, which illustrate the processes of information loss described in the phonology course.


Archibald, J. (1998). Second language phonology, phonetics and typology. Studies in Second Language Acquisition. vol.20, no.2, 189-213

Brown, G. (1990). Listening to Spoken English. London: Longman

Fudge, E. (1999). Words and feet. Journal of Linguistics. vol.35, 273-296

Hancinn-Bhatt, B. (2000). Optimality in Second Language Phonology: codas in Thai ESL. Second Language Acquisition Research. no.16.3, 201-232

Hannahs, S.J. and M. Young-Scholten (eds.) (1997). Focus on Phonological Acquisition. Philadelphia: Benjamins

Harris, J. (1994). English Phonology. Oxford:Blackwell

Giegerich, H.J. (1992). English Phonology. Cambridge University Press

Ladd, D.R. (1996). Intonational Phonology. Cambridge University Press

Ladefoged, P. (2001). Vowels and Consonants. Oxford: Blackwell

Rogers, H. (2000). The Sounds of Language. London: Longman

Rost, M. (1990). Listening in Language Learning. New York: Longman

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