Designing Applied Linguistics masters programmes: the issue of "coherence"

Author: Christopher Brumfit


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 are 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. This paper will also try to show some associated ways of making the overall course both coherent and genuinely research-based.

Table of contents

1. Background

Applied Linguistics Masters programmes in the UK have now been running for approaching 40 years. The first of these was the Edinburgh Applied Linguistics programme (where postgraduate work started with a Diploma, later to become an MSc). Essex started an MA at the end of the 1960s. By the mid 1970s there were 9 postgraduate Applied Linguistics MA (or the equivalent) courses, growing quickly to 22, and by the end of the 1980s (when the Thatcher government expected universities to balance their books with overseas student fees) over 100 courses in closely-related areas, though not always called ‘Applied Linguistics’, were on offer. The UK has therefore gone from a position where aspiring researchers had to move to the places available, to one where there is probably some sort of applied linguistic course within commuting distance from most places in the country.

During this period the clientele has become less and less British. Without the British Council (and later ODA) funding that sustained Edinburgh and the pioneer courses, and the LEA funding that helped in the period roughly from 1974-1994, British students have either been self-funded or been dependent mostly on ESRC funding for a limited number of Places, a point developed below. At the same time more and more overseas students have come into the courses, subject to the volatile demands of individual government-sponsored agencies or shifts in market fashion. Today (2004) Africans and Indian sub-continental students appear more rarely than 20 years ago, and the preponderance of Chinese and of Korean students is very striking. Both at Masters level and for research degrees, full-time students are mostly from overseas, and most home students opt for part-time courses. At the same time national definitions of the content and goals of ‘M-level’ have been developed and there has been more and more external control of curricula and assessment practices by outside agencies such as the QAA. Diplomas counting as postgraduate qualifications have died and all PG work is expected to fit into an M-level pattern. Courses in Applied Linguistics have thus lived in a world of constant tension between academic goals and market expectations.

2. Recruitment

To sustain an individual course in a market in which high-quality students are spread increasingly thinly across a large number of programmes, a wide range of initial experience may be admitted or encouraged. Figure 1, set out as a simplified “substitution”, table illustrates the situation facing an admissions officer

Figure 1. The background and expectations of prospective MA students


First degree + Language experience + Professional experience + Expected destination
4 + living
Modern languages 2 living Secondary Ministry of Education
Other relevant 1 living Tertiary administration
Other dead only private FE private sector
None   other language teacher training
None research

First degrees are typically in ‘a relevant field’. This has always included Modern Languages and perhaps English in addition to Linguistics, but may now range more widely, especially with the increase in numbers of joint honours degrees. Experience of language learning/acquisition may vary widely from the confident multilingualism of Africa to ‘none at all’ from some British English graduates. Professional experience may compensate for lack of academic success, or even experience, and that may be very varied. Finally, while (depending on the age and experience of students at entry) expected destinations may range from high-level professional positions that genuinely need Applied Linguistics perspectives (head of the language curriculum development section in a ministry of education, for example) to students who see the MA as a reluctant prerequisite for any EFL teaching post.

Thus the table above can be used to illustrate something of the wide combination of different backgrounds and expectations which may be found in any year in any single course.

Further, funding opportunities for British postgraduates have become harder to find over the last thirty years. Most students are self-funded, and those who can obtain funding from the main source, ESRC, are restricted to a small number of departments, and to the willingness to commit themselves, in advance, to a 1 + 3 model with the MA as a specific research training prelude to doctoral study. Since most of our best doctoral students are well-qualified professionals (usually with excellent first degrees who went into teaching), they frequently do not discover the excitement of research (often because they were too modest about their own abilities in the first place) until they are on the MA year. Consequently having been attracted by substantive work in necessary academic fields relevant to their needs, they will have opted for a non-research-training course. Thus, even with a distinction, they become ineligible for ESRC funding for PhD work without taking additional research training, and risk joining the major body of talent lost to research. The situation is further complicated by ESRC quota funding in the Linguistics field being restricted to a small number of institutions that have deservedly high reputations for Linguistics, but may not have similarly outstanding applied departments. So the development of a cadre of British applied linguistic researchers is made more difficult by bureaucratic structures.

Thus two tensions emerge for courses:

  1. Client-orientation  v.  curriculum disciplinary requirements
  2. ESRC or other funding demands  v.  client requirements.

3. The structure of courses

As courses have chased markets, part-time, distance learning and modular courses have proliferated. The model tacitly supported by national and local university administrations favours the unit or module as the core structural element. Yet the majority of post-professional students, whether home or overseas, are coming for a single one-year postgraduate experience. They expect a coherent course, albeit with some freedom of choice, and the most typical structure is a number of core units and a number of options. Yet universities typically demand evaluations for each individual unit, without requiring formal evaluation of the overall course. My own University is typical in this respect. In spite of this, however, we aim to provide a coherent, varied but integrated experience for students: our ambitions are modernist, rather than post-modernist, because that is what the students seem to appreciate most.

Figure 2 is based on the course titles in a range of courses currently on offer in the UK. It is not by any means comprehensive, and is meant to be indicative rather than authoritative in scope, in order to keep it to a manageable size. However, it does illustrate some (though only some) of the possible relationships between applied and linguistic courses.

Figure 2. Types of unit options


Linguistic Applied linguistic Teaching applied Other applied
general theory, history, etc      
general descriptive:
  • syntax
  • semantics
  • discourse analysis
  • pragmatics
  • phonology/phonetics
  • writing
sociolinguistics Language & power
World English
Language policy
Language & gender
CLT Stylistics
Forensics, etc
psycholinguistics Language learning IT & language learning
philosophy of language      
    Language pedagogy Translation
relevant research methodologies, statistics, etc

Several points may be made about this table. First, the descriptive linguistic elements have a skill-relationship with some of the applied areas, but also with some of those within Linguistics. Making sense of Sociolinguistic or Language Acquisition data requires basic descriptive skills which may emerge from (e.g.) courses in Syntax, Phonetics, Semantics, and Discourse Analysis. Similarly such courses should feed directly into work on Specific Purpose Language Teaching, Assessment, and Curriculum. Now how these relationships are structured in particular course designs will vary from degree to degree Although this table reflects many of the headings found as named units or modules on courses, the content may be distributed variously in particular institutions. Courses may attempt to teach Syntax within an analysis of textbooks, or within Sociolinguistics, for example, in an effort to establish immediate relevance for the necessary analytic skills training. But if there is a Linguistics component within Applied Linguistics at all it cannot avoid a direct concern for descriptive categories that students can identify, talk about, and put together within a system as they confront data in any field.

It might be argued that this approach makes a course seem quite elementary since students may be working at a descriptive level that is similar to that of undergraduate Linguistics first year courses. Thus we may question how this is postgraduate.

To address this, we need to recognise the complexities of cross-disciplinary and post-experience work. First, we have to acknowledge that courses with an intake typically of good honours graduates plus experience, should be working at a general postgraduate level of critical sophistication. Second, a valuable role for post-professional courses is to enable students to interpret and better understand their experiences of (in this case) language use and language-related problems in society. To do this for any practitioner will mean embracing disciplines from which they were excluded by their first degree training, because pedagogical, political, psychological, economic, sociological and philosophical analyses (to mention only the most obvious) are directly relevant to the understanding of any particular professional issue. A concern for Linguistics may be the disciplinary characteristic that applied linguists share, but it may not be the central discipline for particular real world practitioners. Economics or Political Theory may be more important for language planners, Pedagogy for teachers, Design for writers of simple texts to explain government policies, for example. But none of these can afford not to have a competent grounding in basic linguistic principles. Thus at postgraduate level a combination of first-degree and professional post-graduate level expertise will inform the community, and the academic task for university staff is to integrate this student-expertise with the research-based and research-aware experience that they themselves bring.

Many courses achieve this well; many courses are also having to adapt to the market-led influx of younger, less experienced students in recent years, so again there is a tension between the demands of post-graduateness and the pull of the market. Courses have to adapt constantly.

Yet we should not forget that each course is a community, and its major contribution is to the maintenance and formation of both national and supra-national communities of committed professionals. The less experienced are being inducted into membership of a community that believes in the value of empirical evidence, of coherent argumentation, of competence in appropriate skills, and thus of professionalism in both research and practice.

4. Relationship with Linguistics

The ESRC requirements for courses in (Applied) Linguistics are summarized in Figure 3 below:

Figure 3. ESRC Requirements

For Linguistics:

  • standard descriptive terminology
  • theory construction, problem formulation & explanation
  • nature & status of linguistic data; role of formalization
  • linguistic argumentation & status of counter-examples
  • search for universals
  • language variation & change
  • language acquisition & learnability
  • relationship to adjacent disciplines
  • in depth knowledge….

“The preparation of a student of Applied Linguistics need not necessarily have covered all aspects of Linguistics… a grounding in most of the basic techniques of Linguistics and more specialized knowledge… as it applies to their particular research problem… knowledge of other disciplines relevant to their particular research.”

And in addition for Applied Linguistics:

  • an understanding of the relation between academic, professional, public and user conceptions of language
  • the practical implications of theoretical developments in Linguistics and other relevant disciplines
  • an understanding of the ideological assumptions (and their implications) of linguistic research
  • In addition qualitative, quantitative and computer-based research training is required

(Summarized from ESRC Postgraduate Training Guidelines (2001))

We have to be clear that if Applied Linguistics is held together by any discipline it has to be Linguistics. Individual groups of practitioners may need other disciplines more centrally, but what we share is a concern for real-world problems in which language is a central issue. So we have to also share an interest in ways of addressing the nature of language. We should note, though, that the extensive argument around the scientific methodology involved does not commit us to believing that Linguistics has a monopoly of useful things to say about language. Isolating language as a phenomenon is a metaphor: “what does language look like if we treat it as an isolated `phenomenon?” Thus we can simultaneously recognise that language acts are always instantiated in human minds or in human behaviour and still ask how much we gain from pretending they are not, or from inferring a cognitive structure underlying these acts.

Two possible ways of using this centrality to contribute to coherence can be mentioned:

  1. By being client-centred in our material for analysis: basing it for example on learner data, child-language, relevant sociolinguistic examples, or textbooks as examples of linguistic phenomena;
  2. By using two theoretical models, perhaps Chomskyan and Hallidayan, or one of these plus a less theorised model such as those of the Quirk grammars as contrastive examples; in this way motivations for types of description will be brought to the forefront of students’ attention.

The first approach attempts to link student skills to their own experience and needs; the second to reinforce the notion that linguistic descriptions have a theoretical motivation.

5. A model of the overall process of curriculum design

Figure 4 tries to reflect how the overall design of the course might be conceptualised. The Masters experience aims to pull together the three elements below so that they are integrated as one single holistic experience.

Figure 4. Model for the Curriculum Task

The three elements: data/evidence, structure/theory, student opinion/views

Masters work may be seen as an attempt to shift students from being holders of opinions derived largely from personal experience to being users of appropriate, theoretically interpreted and structured evidence to inform considered views of cultural, social and linguistic phenomena. The three elements above are increasingly brought together into one single experience of incorporating (1) knowledge as data, and (2) interpretation as structural process, into students’ formation of their own understandings.

We thus have a number of ways of promoting this integrated experience.

5.1 Curriculum

In relation to the curriculum we can relate the ‘applied’ topics to the linguistic topics by systematic links, more subtly than suggested in Figure 2 above, by a variety of cross references to descriptive categories from applied work, and to applications from descriptive work. We can also relate all activities to relevant examples drawn from practice, as far as possible. Assessment could be carried out through problem solving with data, through dissertation topics chosen for their relevance to individual local practice and need, and through varied procedures that capture a range of possible practical applications of skills of linguistic analysis. All of this contextualized within explanations of why particular procedures are justified, developing skills of reasoning that are directly relevant to later needs of researchers as well as practitioners.

5.2 People

In relation to people we may provide counselling and advice on students’ roles and performance in the course overall, not just specific units, particularly on the relationship between what may be perceived as abstract linguistic issues and more concrete practical issues. There could be regular ‘business’ meetings, once a week at first though less frequently later, providing opportunities for one or two staff and all students to discuss the total impact of the course. Similarly at least one concluding session could be run which tries to pull together the overall experience and prepare for life beyond the course as advanced professionals. It may be helpful if some staff at least make a point of attending (as much as possible of) the whole course at an early stage in the design (a very demanding but ultimately rewarding commitment of time), so that they are aware of everything that is being taught. Lecture notes, handouts, etc. from all units would be regularly provided for all who teach on the course with cross-referencing to other courses being actively encouraged. Team teaching is also to be encouraged with at least some of the staff seeing themselves as demonstrating to students a whole-person engagement with the totality of applied linguistic experience, not just operating within their own specialisms.

5.3 Research

While descriptive work for Applied Linguistics is unlikely to be cutting-edge work on (e.g.) syntax or phonetics or the lexicon, it will, nonetheless, be research-informed and will rely on pedagogical or other ‘applied’ grammars for its prime point of reference (though these may be innovative within applied research). Thus, applied work will be research-based wherever possible, depending on the main expertise in the department, incorporating methodologies and findings from recent local projects, and from research students’ work, wherever appropriate. For example, in Southampton we have used work on Knowledge about Language (KAL) among teachers of English and foreign languages, progression in language learning, theoretical discussion of the nature of Applied Linguistics, data on criticality, digitisation of language learner data in Childes, and on the interpretation of the changing world role of English. These are all fields in which we have researched and published in recent years. Additionally, brief histories and synoptic overviews might be offered periodically to set local work within a broader perspective of history and practice in Linguistics. These are brief surveys, but they are intended to show how the Applied Linguistics curriculum and the research and development activity of staff and students fit into wider networks of past and present work elsewhere in the world.

And finally, all these are attempts to integrate the different parts of the programme - but so do regular social events!


Brumfit, C. J. (2001). Individual Freedom in Language Teaching. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
[Chapter 14 discusses the history of the relationship between linguistics and applied linguistics]

Cook, G (2003). Applied Linguistics . Oxford: Oxford University Press

Cook, G & B. Seidlhofer (eds) (1995) . Principle and Practice in Applied Linguistics . Oxford: Oxford University Press

Seidlhofer, B . (2003). Controversies in Applied Linguistics . Oxford: Oxford University Press.
[Discusses five major areas of current interest, several of which are concerned with the relationship between linguistic data and applied problems]

Related links

British Association for Applied Linguistics

ESRC Postgraduate training guidelines (3rd edition)

Linguistics Association of Great Britain

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