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EL Research: The academic angle


Claudia Civinini surveys some of the world-class uni departments to discover the top priorities for research in applied linguistics

The Research Excellence Framework (Ref) 2014 was a government exercise that assessed the quality of research conducted at British universities. The data was picked up by Times Higher Education (THE) magazine and transformed into a ranking instrument that could potentially aid students from all over the world choosing a university in Britain. In April 2015 we printed our own version of the THE rankings, focusing on those departments that could interest teachers looking for a higher academic qualification in the fields of English language, linguistics and education. In the Ref, academics in the field of applied linguistics generally submit their research under one of these three categories.

We selected all departments that scored two and above on their GPA – grade point average, meaning their research has national, international or global impact. We then checked the staff teaching in ELT-related masters to see in which category they had submitted their research.

Scrolling down lists of names on the minimalist Ref website proved essential to assign universities and departments to their correct category. As journalists, however, we were missing the personal touch, which is why we decided to get in contact with some of those researchers and run a survey.

This time we decided to contact those academics whose research was judged to be internationally significant in the Ref 2014. We chose one contact for each department and sent them a brief survey to complete. We wanted to know what they were working on and what their views about the future of applied linguistics research are, both in terms of areas of research that will acquire more importance in the next five years and issues that still need further investigation. We also asked them what project they would present to bid for a £1 million grant for high-impact research. Eight academics replied, giving us a glimpse of the factors that are shaping our understanding of second language learning – and hopefully inspiring teachers and prospective students to contribute to this thriving field of research. Their responses don’t necessarily reflect those of their colleagues or of the department they belong to. Some of them also wished to remain anonymous.

What are the most-researched topics currently?

According to the eight academics that responded, the most-researched topic is second language acquisition, followed by vocabulary acquisition. Bilingualism, EAP, cognitive neuroscience, language teaching in early years and language testing and assessment provided the same number of responses. Some academics also indicated further areas of research, including corpus linguistics and discourse analysis, language learning anxiety, cross-cultural communication and sociocultural theory. None of the respondents mentioned English as a medium of instruction (EMI).

What will be the most important research areas in five years’ time?

Language testing and assessment and bilingualism were the favourites, followed by second language acquisition. Vocabulary acquisition, language teaching in early years, EAP and cognitive neuroscience received an equal number of responses. Again, EMI wasn’t mentioned.

Among other topics of research mentioned by the academics, technology makes an appearance – computer assisted language learning (Call) and technology in language teaching and assessment.

What is the single most pressing issue that still needs to be investigated in applied linguistics for language learning?

Being researchers, most academics didn’t just stop at one. We can broadly divide the issues that came up into two categories: those concerning how to improve language teaching and learning, and those looking at the impact of language teaching and learning on society. 

Contributing to the first group, Professor Tony Green from the University of Bedfordshire commented that the field needs to better understand the cognitive processes that underlie performance in the four language skills (speaking, listening, writing, reading) and how these impact on teaching, learning and assessment processes.

Dr Andrea Révész from UCL Institute of Education focused on the interactions between leaner abilities and methods of instruction, and how these need to be investigated to identify combinations that allow L2 learners to benefit most from instruction.

This was echoed by Dr Clare Wright, University of Reading, who pointed out a need to identify how to maximise learning with less teaching contact time, adding that teachers should be offered more training in linguistics and second language acquisition in order to ‘move beyond the trope that practice makes perfect and motivation is the answer’.

A researcher from the University of Bristol mentioned the need to investigate technology – both its strengths and limitations – as a tool to enhance L2 learning. A researcher from the University of Birmingham commented that neurolinguistic approaches are particularly promising.

The answers that we ascribed to the second category brought up relevant and current issues about the role of language learning and teaching in wider society. A researcher from the University of Swansea said that the single most pressing issue for the field is to investigate how language teaching can impact social crises (migration, refugees and poverty) and help refugees in their professional development effectively and quickly. She indicated she would also present this project to bid for the hypothetical £1m grant for high-impact research.

A researcher at the University of Cardiff concentrated on the impact of English as a lingua franca in international workplaces – and he would also present this project for the grant. He highlighted the need for a series of ethnographically informed corpora of professional contexts to feed back into workplaces where English is used as a lingua franca and where L2 English users interact with lingua franca users.

The comment from Professor Monika Schmid, University of Essex, focused especially on the British situation – and had the whole newsroom nodding sympathetically: there is a need to further investigate the additional benefit of learning other languages in order to encourage more students to study modern languages at school and university.

What project would you present to bid for a £1m research grant?

Coming up with a plan for such an important proposition can be daunting, but our researchers seemed to have very clear ideas.

Dr Wright would focus on a project on multilingualism. ‘Multilingual speakers are the most common in the world but cognitive and social factors remain poorly understood in achieving social and academic success for younger learners,’ she said, ‘especially given the attitude to foreign language learning in the UK.’ She also added that other languages, such as Chinese and Arabic, need to be studied for bilingual and biliteracy (literacy in two languages) effects. Young learners were also the focus for Professor Schmid, who would investigate the benefits and potential disadvantages of an early start in language teaching. Dr Révész would conduct a series of longitudinal studies to investigate second language acquisition through technology-enhanced techniques. A researcher from the University of Bristol would pursue a more socially oriented project, investigating the connection between language, communication, migration and social integration.

Finally, Professor Green would tackle the topic of EMI, with research to develop a better understanding of the academic literacy required to study successfully at English-medium universities. ‘Students can struggle to access courses for a variety of linguistic and cultural reasons,’ he commented. ‘We need to build a fuller understanding of these issues and how they may affect student learning to offer better support and widen access to the opportunities afforded by university studies and the English language.’

Ranking university departments

The following universities offering masters in applied linguistics and related subjects were ranked as having world class research. Different departments submit their applied linguistics research under three separate headings. They are listed below under the appropriate heading with their grade point averages.


University of Oxford (3.57), King’s College London (3.42), University of Exeter (3.28), University of Birmingham (3.26), University of Bristol (3.26), UCL Institute of Education (3.21), University of Edinburgh (3.21), Queen’s University Belfast (3.20), University of York (3.20), University of Manchester (3.11), University of Warwick (3.04), University of Reading (3.04)


Queen Mary, University of London (3.58), University of Edinburgh (3.29), University of Southampton (3.23), University of Cambridge (3.20), University of Essex (3.20), Bangor University (3.13), Newcastle University (3.04)

English language:

Swansea University (3.36), University of Sussex (3.28), University of Nottingham (3.27), Cardiff University (3.27), University of Aberdeen (3.24), University of Bedfordshire (3.23), University of Sheffield (3.20), University of Birmingham (3.19), University of Liverpool (3.18), Lancaster University (3.14), University of Westminster (3.11)

Pic caption: MOVING FORWARD The impact of the refugee crisis on language teaching was an issue that two of the applied linguistics academics we talked to wanted to address. Shown above are Syrian refugees attending informal courses at Relief International’s centre in Turkey. The Gazette attended a recent British Council conference in London on language learning for Syrian refugees. Attendees noted that, just as many developments in medical practice emerged in time of war, so the refugee crisis has caused online education to develop more quickly.
Courtesy: British Council