The Mysterious Field of Applied Linguistics and how it Relates to Translation What is 'Applied Linguistics,' exactly, and why is it so closely related to translation? Here are a few basic concepts for those who may be unfamiliar with the topic.

Greater than 9 minutes, my friend!

As someone who would never have previously touched any academic subjects in the field of Sociology with a thirty-nine and a half foot pole, making the decision to dive into the task of building my career as a freelance translator has made me realize just how necessary understanding sociological and psychological concepts of language really is.

In the past year or so, I’ve been doing a lot of research into M.A Degrees in Translation…and Applied Linguistics?  “What’s that?” I wondered to myself, as 80 percent of the programs I stumbled across were named as such.  It was only this past summer, when I needed to study for an Applied Linguistics entrance exam for one of these programs, did I begin to scratch the surface of what this relatively new and still evolving field entails.

Like I mentioned before, I’m not a big fan of sociology. Personally, I’m more of a logical, fact-based, orderly type of girl; maybe that’s why I’m so into grammar, punctuation, and linguistic rules. I understand the importance of critical thinking, sure, but as I poured over the readings and textbooks I needed to study for this AP Ling. exam, I often found the academics who wrote the articles to be a bit too de-constructive of ideas and concepts that have existed for centuries, if not millennia – like those of specific differences in culture, nations, and linguistics.

However, I can’t deny that I learned a heck of a lot regarding how different cultures use language to communicate, and how this communication can be received, judged, interpreted, and understood in a variety of ways – in real life scenarios. Fascinating stuff, I realized, and, in today’s world of technology and globalization, extremely important for translators to be aware of.

For those who might not be too familiar with this particular field, which only began to emerge in the late 1950s, as technology blossomed and intercultural communication became increasingly necessary, here are some examples of what I took away from my studies that I personally find to be the most important concepts (for linguists) to understand:

  1. Systematic Functional Linguistics, Functions of Language, and Communicative Competence

Two big names in the field of Applied Linguistics are Dell Hymes and M.A.K Halliday. These gentlemen primarily researched language use in relation to discourse, meaning, and communication in speech and text.

For example, Halliday studied social contexts of language:

  • what’s happening (field of discourse);
  • who’s taking part (tenor of discourse); and
  • what role the text language plays (mode of discourse).

These titles led to his theory on functions of language:

  • how semantic content is expressed (ideational function of language, related to field);
  • how semantic content is exchanged/negotiated (interpersonal functions of language, related to tenor); and
  • how semantic content is structured within the text (textual functions of language, related to mode)

This further led to Hyme’s Theory of Communicative Competence, or the knowledge of where, when, and with whom it is appropriate to use certain utterances and/or grammar in speech situations (ceremonies, trips), speech events (ordering food, giving a lecture), or speech acts (greetings, compliments).

Finally, came Hyme’s Five Communicative Competences – Functional, Grammatical, Cultural, Interactional, and Sociolinguistic. When to speak, how one should speak depending on culture, with which register to speak, and which body language/level of formality to use.

For professional translators and interpreters alike, it’s important to have a good understanding, or at least, awareness of how you, as a liaison between different cultural/linguistic groups, shape your speech and method of communication. If we as communicators don’t understand with whom we are communicating, or how we should be communicating, misunderstandings can happen in a flash.

  1. Cognitive Discourse Analysis, Conceptual Blending Theory, and Contemporary Discourse Analysis

This first theory, coined by Dutch Linguist Teun van Dijk, is an approach that takes into account the mental representations and/or processes involved in the production and/or comprehension of discourse, speech, or text, and how there is usually a cognitive and social overlap – something very useful to understand for those trying to cross a communication bridge between different cultures. If two people understand some or many social aspects of the cultures they’re trying to bridge, this shared knowledge will make communication more straight-forward.

This ties into a concept called Conceptual Blending Theory, which seeks to explain how the meaning of a text is comprehended in real time by a listener or reader prompted by linguistic cues that activate mental stimuli. This is especially important in my field, literary/academic translation, because this theory seeks to find the best ways to communicate the original message in a way that appeals most to the target audience – usually through emotions. Translators in this field shouldn’t just focus on linguistic clarity, but a deeper mental appeal.

Then, we have Contemporary Discourse Analysis, whereby our reflexive thoughts (based on culture, values, and beliefs, for example) affect the meaning and interpretation of a text, according to Linguist James Gee.

Before a text becomes a text, he says, it must be produced. Then, once it has been, it is comprehended based on different contexts – ideological, linguistic, proximal, temporal, interpersonal, and geographical. As professional translators who translate for various demographics and cultures all over the world, we need to take different contexts into account when we deliver our final products to our clients.

  1. Barriers in Specialized Translation fields and how to overcome them (through technology)

As I’m sure we’re all familiar with, there are many different genres within translation (general, medical, legal, technical, literary, etc.) that have and require different ranges of vocabulary, expertise, and comprehension. According to German Linguist and Technical Translator Thorsten Roelcke (German link only), there are two different types of language varieties when it comes to translation specializations: horizontal and vertical.

Horizontal language variety refers to the broader concept of translating in a specific field. It is independent from inner, more complex speech, in the sense that one needs only to hear a name or term to understand the general type of text. For example, I, as a literary translator, could (and have) translate(d) an automotive technical text, since I have a basic horizontal understanding of technical translation from related experience, but this isn’t recommended for very high-quality translations. The same could be said for technical translators taking a crack at literary or legal translations.

Vertical language variety, on the other hand, refers to the inner levels of specific technical areas, including abstractions, theories, language comfortability, and specific terms. Often times, communication between a client who has no experience with a translation specialization and a translator trained in said specialization can be difficult, as the client may or may not know exactly what they need or want.

This means that the translator will have to focus on three main points in getting the message across in a way that the client will get: clarity, understandability, and economy. How can I make a text, not only grammatically coherent, but understandable to my client and target audience within a reasonable time-frame?

This is where translation technology comes into play – giving present-day translators a major advantage over their predecessors, who only had access to dial-up (or nothing at all). Now, we have software like:

  • Terminology Management that distinguishes between descriptive terminology (already existent terms) vs. prescriptive terminology (new terms);
  • Statistical Machine Translation – an automatic ‘decoder’ that gathers massive amounts of linguistic possibilities and word combinations in a database to form a sensible text;
  • Alignment Systems that literally match two documents sentence by sentence or paragraph by paragraph to make our jobs easier;
  • Translation memory, wherein Computer Assisted Translation (CAT) tools form a relatively coherent machine translation with a press of a button

As wonderful as this technology is, however, it is our job as human translators to apply our linguistic skills to connect the dots between the information we receive from computers to human tendencies. As Applied Linguist Dr. Karlfried Knapp (German only again) puts it: once technology has given us all it can, we need to control the language – to focus on clarity, consistence, understandability, and conciseness. Only then is our job complete.

  1. Linguistics and Culture

This is an area of Applied Linguistics that I don’t really agree with too much, particularly the critical analysis of language and culture from Sociolinguist Ingrid Piller, among others. These academics took it upon themselves to criticize the concept of ‘culture,’ and that, in a globalized world such as today’s, culture, as a unique set of peoples, languages, historical figures, global contributions, values, beliefs, etc. should be put aside to make way for a ‘global culture’ that brings everyone closer together.

Personally, I believe it is very important to recognize different cultures for what they are and were, especially when it comes to communication and translation. As demonstrated in all of the points I listed above, social, cultural, and linguistic differences need to be taken into account when it comes to proper communication – for the simple fact that different cultures have always existed and will always continue to exist. I know, I know, I can’t tell the future, but as an ex-pat, and as an individual privileged enough to have lived in several different countries and geographical areas for long periods of time in an already largely globalized world, cross-cultural communication und understanding different values from different nations is unbelievably essential in getting one’s message across to others.

I found it very interesting to read these academics go on about how culture embodies different identities such as gender, religion, language, history – and I agree with that – but then make a U-turn and denounce culture as ‘imaginary’ or ‘non-existent’ because the concept is based solely off of invisible ideas that don’t actually prove that a culture is real at all. In my opinion, just because culture is grounded on concepts doesn’t make them any less real, valuable, or informative.

Another one of Piller’s ideas that sort of had me shaking my head was the theory that because words have many different meanings based on many different concepts, we can’t really be sure of anything. Oy. Yes, words have different meanings based on different concepts and interpretations, but isn’t that where professional communicators and linguists come into play? Isn’t it our job to research our source material and target audience to the point where we can be pretty darn sure of what something means?  Believing in such instability won’t help or improve communication, in my opinion – it will only create uncertainty and division in how best to progress.

Okay rant over. Point is, I think understanding cultural and national differences between people is more effective at communicating and cross-cultural relationships in general, rather than squishing these differences all together in the hopes that people will just ‘get along.’ Same goes for translation and interpretation. The only way to adequately and effectively communicate a message is to sort through different meanings, expressions, cultures, and sociological tendencies between source and target languages/audiences and find ways to deliver an accurate final product because of these differences, not in spite of them. There’s nothing wrong with recognizing and appreciating these differences. Okay… Now the rant’s over. J

  1. Language hierarchy, authority, policy, and planning

Sometimes, linguists (and by this I mean translators, interpreters, language teachers, language learners, editors, and writers) will have to make decisions regarding which type of language to use: formal vs. informal language, as well as accents, dialects, and intonation.  In many cases, speaker/listener relations (according to well-known linguist and philosopher Noam Chomsky) can create real hierarchies – on both sides.

For example, living in Bavaria, I am often surrounded by people who speak ‘Bavarian,’ a strong regional dialect from South Germany. For many Germans who speak High German, the Bavarian dialect is looked down upon as sort of a redneck-y quality (I personally think it’s sweet); on the other hand, many Bavarians are very proud of their language, and some look down upon other Germans for disrespecting their dialect.

Other examples include certain British accents, or East-Coast Canadian/American accents that carry higher/lower-class connotations, or many Asian languages that change noticeably when moving from formal to informal language. Linguists may need to take these sort of situations into account when working with clients.

Then, we have language policing and planning, the former including legal/statutory measures to regulate language use, and the latter describing practical implementation of these policies (Joan Rubin, 1983). This can be further divided into implicit language policies made by teachers, parents, social situations, etc. and explicit language policies made by governments, associations, school boards, etc.

Language planning can be very useful for a variety of goals such as preserving languages, helping immigrants integrate into a new culture and learn a new language, promoting intercultural communication, and helping smooth over any cultural miscommunication between different groups, whether in person or through text. It is also important for translators to take evolutions in language policy/planning into account when delivering their final work – as a word or expression may mean or may have meant something completely different from one language/culture to another.

To be honest, I could go on about Applied Linguistics forever. There are so many more concepts, definitions, and theories that are still floating around in my notebook. I still can’t believe I managed to learn so much through a relatively small list of readings I studied for an exam. These five points were some of the main aspects I took away from this field, and how they relate to translation and linguistics as a profession.

I now understand a lot more about why these two fields are so often paired together. I’m excited for the day when my Masters Program finally starts – when I’ll be able to say I’ve more than just scratched the surface of such an intriguing and, sometimes, controversial topic.  I hope you learned something too!


Vanessa Walsh is a freelance translator and aspiring linguistic entrepreneur who loves working with languages.
Check out her websites at and

Vanessa Walsh

About Vanessa Walsh

Language enthusiast, currently teaching and translating in beautiful Bavaria, Germany. Also very much involved in politics and music. Looking forward to working with you in the future!

4 thoughts on “The Mysterious Field of Applied Linguistics and how it Relates to Translation What is 'Applied Linguistics,' exactly, and why is it so closely related to translation? Here are a few basic concepts for those who may be unfamiliar with the topic.

  1. “Once technology has given us all it can, we need to control the language – to focus on clarity, consistence, understandability, and conciseness”
    Amen to that! Technologies are supposed to aid us in our work, taking away from us the most wearying duties, and we should not risk wasting that extra focus we are allowed to have.

    I took more than one Linguistics courses back in university and I definitely share your fascination with this whole dimension that studies what we often take for granted 😉

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  2. Thank you very much for this article, Vanessa. I will pick up some of the authors you mentioned because I’m extremely interested in this field (a recent discovery to me). I just finished reading a book written by Steven Pinker, “The Stuff of Thought”, that is mainly about the mental processes and the cultural competencies involved in speech production. Amazing.

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