The role of Linguistics in the Applied Linguistics MA

Author: Roger Hawkins


This article first asks what linguistic knowledge, understanding and skills a graduate from an MA programme in Applied Linguistics should ideally have, and then considers what might reasonably be expected of graduates in the real world.

Table of contents

Linguistics in Applied Linguistics in an ideal world

Widdowson proposes that "the business of applied linguistics ... is to mediate between linguistics and other discourses and identify where they might relevantly interrelate" (2000: 23).

Assuming this characterisation, what might a graduate with an MA in Applied Linguistics be expected to know about Linguistics in an ideal world, where students have unlimited time, energy and motivation? A good place to start thinking about this is the consensus that has been reached about the knowledge, understanding and skills that undergraduate Linguistics students should have on graduation, reflected in the statement from the Subject Benchmark Group for Linguistics (2001). The following are edited highlights from that statement:

By graduation students should have:

  • an appreciation of the basic concepts, modes of analysis and theories in more than one of the linguistic levels of analysis (phonetics, phonology, morphology, syntax, semantics, pragmatics, discourse)
  • knowledge of empirical linguistic phenomena and relevant descriptive terminology, ideally including data from a wide range of languages
  • a (critical) understanding of one or more approaches to describing/explaining empirical phenomena in the levels of analysis studied
  • an understanding of how levels of analysis interact
  • an understanding of the nature of theory and what constitutes an explanation
  • an awareness of the need for a systematic approach to linguistic phenomena
  • familiarity with the basic techniques for collecting and analysing linguistic data
  • ability to present linguistic data and analyses for use by others

In an ideal world, a graduate with an MA in Applied Linguistics might be expected to be in possession of at least the same range of knowledge, understanding and skills as that of the average Linguistics undergraduate, possibly with greater control over a broader range of topics. Additionally, graduates must be able to relate their understanding/knowledge/skills to one or more of the 'discourses' referred to by Widdowson. According to the ESRC (Guidelines 2000), the discourses that Applied Linguistics might concern itself with include:

  • Theory and practice of language learning and teaching
  • Language in education
  • (Critical) discourse analysis
  • Development of corpora for computational treatment
  • Anthropological approaches to language
  • Development of language policies

Linguistics in Applied Linguistics in the real world

Unfortunately the real world is somewhat different. MA Applied Linguistics students follow 9- or 12-month programmes. Typically these consist of the following (the details are based on the MA, MPhil, MSc programmes running at Cambridge, Edinburgh, Essex, Lancaster and Southampton):

6-8 taught modules
6-8 assessed coursework assignments
A dissertation

Of the modules, typically 3-4 are core (i.e. obligatory) Applied Linguistics (SLA, Language Teaching, Discourse Analysis etc); 1-2 are research methods/statistics, 2-3 are elective on Applied Linguistics topics, and 0-1 Linguistics.

Few departments, I believe, would be willing to reduce time devoted to core Applied Linguistics topics, or student choice in opting for special areas of study in Applied Linguistics. So the space for work on 'linguistic levels of analysis' is quite restricted. Furthermore, many students admitted to MA Applied Linguistics programmes nowadays have first degrees where linguistics is a minor part. Even where 'Linguistics' is on the degree transcript, if students have non-UK degrees, few of the topics described by the Subject Benchmark Group for Linguistics may have been covered.

So, we may wish graduates with an MA in Applied Linguistics to have at least the same range of knowledge/understanding/skills in Linguistics as that prescribed for undergraduates in Linguistics, to enable them seriously to undertake 'the business of applied linguistics', but this has to be achieved in a year or less which is already crowded with work on Applied Linguistic topics and research methods. What is to be done?

Approaching the ideal, but in the real world

One possibility is not to have a 'Linguistics' component at all in the programme, but to develop linguistic knowledge/understanding/skills as a by-product of work on the Applied Linguistics discourses. Some programmes do this. To illustrate how this might work, consider a topic I deal with as part of a module on Second Language Acquisition at Essex: the overuse by L2 speakers of passive morphology with intransitive verbs, as in the examples in (1) (taken from Zobl 1989):

1a The most incredible experience of my life was happened 15 years ago.
b My mother was died when I was just a baby.

Overuse of the passive apparently occurs significantly more often with unaccusative verbs like happen, die than with unergative verbs like laugh, walk, so there are far fewer cases like:

2 *The postman was laughed when he saw the postcard

An explanation of the empirical observations requires:

(i) reference to a claim that with unaccusative verbs the single participant in the event (e.g. 'the experience', 'my mother' in (1)) originates in an object position in the derivation of the sentence and moves to the subject position, just as the object of a transitive verb moves to subject position in passives (the 'unaccusative hypothesis'). By contrast, the single participant in unergative events starts out in a subject position:

3a unaccusative
[VP happen the experience 15 years ago] ? the experiencei [VP happen ti 15 years ago]
b transitive
[VP write the book] ? the booki [VP be written ti]
c unergative
[VP the postman laugh] ? the postmani [VP ti laugh]

(ii) the inference that some L2 speakers make a connection between movement in passives and movement in unaccusatives, and extend passive morphology to unaccusatives, but typically not unergatives.

If I deal with the details of the unaccusative hypothesis, and with a principles-and-parameters theory account of internal argument movement in passives and unaccusatives as part of considering why L2 speakers might overgeneralise properties of the target language, there is a risk that students will not see the forest for the trees. Students may complete the module knowing some technical devices for describing certain verb types and a particular example of L2 performance but without understanding why anyone should want to talk about internal arguments, movement and different types of intransitive verbs either in Linguistics or in SLA.

Another possibility is to dedicate a separate module in the MA programme to 'Linguistics', identify the relevant features of linguistic knowledge, understanding and skills required specifically for work in the Applied Linguistics modules, and deal with these in that module. Continuing with the example above, although this would free up my SLA module to concentrate on the data, issues and theories relevant to SLA, the exposure that students get to Linguistics still risks stressing knowledge of technical solutions to descriptive problems at the expense of the understanding of why those solutions have been proposed.

Neither of the above seems the best way to deal with the problem. A possible solution I want to suggest is the following. Implicit in the Subject Benchmark Group's Statement for undergraduate Linguistics degrees is emphasis on the processes involved in linguistic enquiry:

  • developing awareness of the need for a 'systematic approach to linguistic phenomena'
  • developing familiarity with techniques for collecting and analysing data
  • developing understanding of what constitutes an explanation
  • developing understanding of how to present linguistic data and analyses

Given this, the place for Linguistics in Applied Linguistics MA programmes could be as an independent module that focuses directly on the process-like aspects of linguistic enquiry, for example:

  • How standard linguistic arguments are developed in a number of the levels of linguistic analysis
  • The kinds of data that are standardly used to construct arguments, and the presentation of those data
  • How describing linguistic phenomena is not the same thing as explaining them

The empirical phenomena and specific descriptive terminology covered in the module are less important than fostering a systematic approach. This might mean that when students engage with the Applied Linguistics topics, they have not yet encountered the specific empirical phenomena or descriptive terminology required for those topics, but they will know how to think about them. There is a greater chance that they will see how the specifics follow from a broader systematic approach to the investigation of language.

To illustrate the way a Linguistics module might deal with the processes of linguistic enquiry, let me continue with the case of unaccusative/unergative verbs. Andrew Radford (1997: 392-401) discusses the unaccusative in a way that brings out how linguistic arguments can be constructed for syntactic phenomena, what types of data can be used, and how description is not explanation. He firstly gives empirical reasons for thinking that the single argument of intransitive unaccusatives is a subject that originates in an object position:

(a) Only unaccusatives appear in there-expletive constructions where the argument is in an object-like position:
There came a cry of anguish from inside the house
*In the dentist's surgery, there groaned a toothless patient

(b) The verb in there-expletive constructions agrees with the postverbal argument, and not with there, suggesting it is a subject syntactically:
There have arisen several problems/*There has arisen several problems
There has arisen a problem/*There have arisen a problem

(c) The postverbal argument carries nominative Case, the Case of subjects:
There (but for the grace of God) go I/*me

(d) The past participles of unaccusative verbs can be used adjectivally, and in this they resemble passive participles, but the past participles of unergatives cannot:
The man recently returned from Thailand is my brother (unaccusative participle)
A changed man (passive participle)
*The man loudly shouted at the lecturer is my brother (unergative participle)

(e) In one non-standard variety of English (a dialect of Belfast English - Henry 1995) unaccusatives can have postverbal subjects in imperatives, but unergatives cannot:
Arrive you before 6 o'clock!
*Read you that book!

(f) In the L1 acquisition of English, children sometimes use postverbal subjects:
Go truck, Come Mommy, Fall the cradle

This is found with unaccusatives, but rarely with unergatives.

(g) In earlier periods, English unaccusative verbs could select be as a perfective auxiliary, but unergatives did not:
Is the Duke gone? She is fallen into a pit of ink

(h) Cross-linguistically, the equivalent of be occurs as a perfective auxiliary with unaccusatives, but not unergatives (Italian, French, Sardinian, German, Dutch, Danish).

Here we see a range of data drawn from the syntactic distributional facts of more than one variety of English, from language acquisition, from language change and from cross-linguistic variation to develop a linguistic argument that the participants in events described by intransitive unaccusative verbs originate in a structurally different position from the participants in unergative events. Radford then goes on to discuss how this descriptive generalisation follows from a theory of VP shells, where the interpretation of arguments in events maps directly to the position of the nominal in a structural configuration.

The approach here is more important than the detail of the unaccusative hypothesis itself. As part of a Linguistics module, working through the stages of the argumentation encourages students to develop a systematic approach to linguistic enquiry.

The MA Applied Linguistics student: from consumer to producer of linguistically-informed ideas

A minority of graduates with an MA in Applied Linguistics will go on to doctoral research; a majority will go into (or back to) careers in public service or private enterprise. In either case an MA programme in Applied linguistics has a responsibility to foster creativity in its graduates: to turn them from consumers to producers of linguistically-informed ideas. How might this be achieved? An obvious way is through a progression in the assessed work that MA students do that I will refer to as the 'three r's': review, replication and research. Review is the critical assessment of the linguistic assumptions of existing Applied Linguistics studies in terms of the standards of description, argumentation and explanation they have encountered in the Linguistics module. This is the first type of work they should be expected to do. Next comes replication: students replicate an existing study, but on a small scale, perhaps with just one informant. The rationale is to take students through the processes of defining a research question, identifying existing research on the topic, designing a study, and collecting/analysing data, but with the support provided by the existing study. The final stage is novel research, where the student formulates her/his own research question, identifies existing research her/himself, designs a study, collects/analyses/ discusses the findings. This is the domain of the MA dissertation in many programmes.


Applied Linguistics mediates between Linguistics and other discourses in the investigation of language learning, language in education, etc. In an ideal world, graduates with a Master's degree in Applied Linguistics would have at least the same range of knowledge, understanding and skills in Linguistics as the average graduate with a first degree in Linguistics, with the capacity to relate this knowledge to the discourses of Applied Linguistics. In the real world this is practically difficult to achieve. It has been suggested that an achievable goal is to foster awareness of the processes involved in linguistic enquiry, i.e. to cultivate a linguistically-informed frame of mind. This awareness should then be channelled into the critical review and replication of existing Applied Linguistics studies, followed by an independent and original research project to turn students from consumers to producers of linguistically-informed ideas.


ESRC (2000). Guidelines: F7 Linguistics (and Applied Linguistics)

Henry, A. (1995). Belfast English and Standard English: Dialect Variation and Parameter-Setting. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education (2001). Subject Benchmark Statements: Linguistics.

Radford, A. (1997). Syntactic Theory and the Structure of English: A Minimalist Approach. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Widdowson, H. (2000). On the limitations of linguistics applied. Applied Linguistics 21:3-25.

Zobl. H. (1989). Canonical typological structures and ergativity in English L2 acquisition. In S. Gass & J. Schachter (eds), Linguistic Perspectives on Second Language Acquisition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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