The term 'applied linguistics' refers to a broad range of activities which involve solving some language-related problem or addressing some language-related concern. It appears as though applied linguistics, at least in North America, was first officially recognized as an independent course at the University of Michigan in 1946. In those early days, the term was used both in the United States and in Great Britain to refer to applying a so-called 'scientific approach' to teaching foreign languages, including English for nonnative speakers. Early work to improve the quality of foreign language teaching by Professors Charles Fries (University of Michigan) and Robert Lado (University of Michigan, then Georgetown University) helped to bring definition to the field as did the 1948 publication of a new journal, Language Learning: A Quarterly Journal of Applied Linguistics

During the late 1950s and the early 1960s, the use of the term was gradually broadened to include what was then referred to as 'automatic translation'. In 1964 following two years of preparatory work financed by the Council of Europe, the Association Internationale de Linguistique Appliquée (the International Association of Applied Linguistics usually referred to by the French acronym AILA) was founded and its first international congress was held in Nancy, France. Papers for the congress were solicited in two distinct strands—foreign language teaching and automatic translation.

Applied Linguistics Today

Over the intervening years, the foci of attention have continued to broaden. Today the governing board of AILA describes applied linguistics 'as a means to help solve specific problems in society…applied linguistics focuses on the numerous and complex areas in society in which language plays a role.' * There appears to be consensus that the goal is to apply the findings and the techniques from research in linguistics and related disciplines to solve practical problems. To an observer, the most notable change in applied linguistics has been its rapid growth as an interdisciplinary field. In addition to foreign language teaching and machine translation, a partial sampling of issues considered central to the field of applied linguistics today includes topics such as language for special purposes (e.g. language and communication problems related to aviation, language disorders, law, medicine, science), language policy and planning, and language and literacy issues. For example, following the adoption of English as the working language for all international flight communication by the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), some applied linguists concerned themselves with understanding the kinds of linguistic problems that occur when pilots or flight engineers from varying backgrounds communicate using a nonnative language and how to better train them to communicate in English more effectively.

Some applied linguists are concerned with helping planners and legislators in countries develop and implement a language policy (e.g. planners are working in South Africa to specify and to further develop roles in education and government not only for English and Afrikaans but also for the other nine indigenous languages) or in helping groups develop scripts, materials, and literacy programs for previously unwritten languages (e.g. for many of the 850+ indigenous languages of Papua New Guinea).

Other applied linguists have been concerned with developing the most effective programs possible to help adult newcomers to the United States or other countries, many of whom have limited if any prior education, develop literacy in the languages which they will need for survival and for occupational purposes. Other topics currently of concern to applied linguists are the broad issue of the optimal role of the mother tongue in the education of culturally and linguistically diverse students, the language of persuasion and politics, developing effective tools and programs for interpretation and translation, and language testing and evaluation.

In the United Kingdom, the first school of applied linguistics is thought to have opened in 1957 at the University of Edinburgh with Ian Catford as Head. In the United States, a nonprofit educational organization, the Center for Applied Linguistics (CAL), was founded in 1959 with Charles Ferguson as its first Director. CAL's mission remains to 'promote the study of language and to assist people in achieving their educational, occupational, and social goals through more effective communication'. The organization carries out its mission by collecting and disseminating information through various clearinghouses that it operates, by conducting practical research, by developing practical materials and training individuals such as teachers, administrators, or other human resource specialists to use these to reduce the barriers that limited language proficiency can pose for culturally and linguistically diverse individuals as they seek full and effective participation in educational or occupational opportunities.


In addition to the international organization AILA, there are also major national associations of applied linguists such as the American Association for Applied Linguistics (AAAL) and the British Association for Applied Linguistics (BAAL). The work of applied linguists is frequently presented or described in publications such as the journal Applied Linguistics (Oxford University Press) and the Annual Review of Applied Linguistics(Cambridge University Press).

*AILA Vademecum. Association Internationale de Linguistique Appliquée. Amsterdam, 1992, p. 2.