ALAA Candlin Lecture 2020

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ALAA Christopher N. Candlin Memorial Lecture 2020 Presented by Professor Emeritus Joe Lo Bianco

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Candlin Memorial Lecture 2020

Presented by ALAA Distinguished Scholar and Service Award recipient

Professor Emeritus Joe Lo Bianco

  • What kind of political activity is applied linguistics?
  • What kind of political community are applied linguists?
  • What are the language problems we aim to solve?


This lecture will be scheduled in two parts:

1. Pre-recorded lecture, available one week prior to the online forum to those registered via Eventbrite

2. Online Q&A forum, 23 November, 4.30-5.30pm (AEDT).

Please note that the online forum will be followed by the ALAA AGM, 5.30-6.00pm (AEDT). Participants are welcome to remain or leave at this point.

This is a free event and we encourage you to distribute this information to interested colleagues and post-graduate students.



In the Christopher N. Candlin Memorial Lecture for 2020 I want to interrogate an advanced version of an old idea about the relation of knowledge and power. I will probe who are we, as applied linguists, what is our claim to influence language teaching, language testing, or language policy, and what are the problems we aim to solve. What power and status do we expect what we know, our technical expertise, to have in the polity of which we are part, the community of public life? What are the language problems we are trying to understand and, dare I say it, solve? Whether in political practice or political theory, just like in academic research and teaching, we encounter the dilemma of describing the world and wanting to intervene to change it. For applied linguists, in common with other academics, wanting to apply the knowledge we generate to social improvement raises the question of what kind of a 'political community' we are, and what claim we make for the knowledge we produce

In 1988 I was asked by Chris Candlin and Tim McNamara to contribute a chapter to a Festschrift they were editing in honour of the career of Terry Quinn, who had recently retired due to ill health. My chapter was entitled Science or Values: the Role of Professionals in Language Policymaking, and appeared in their book titled Language, Learning and Community, (NCELTR, Macquarie University, 1989). In the chapter I explored a concept some policy analysts identified as the 'technical-political' dichotomy, in which they imagined that the contours and content of knowledge were shaped by its ultimate destination aligned along a continuum from political purposes at one extreme and technical scholarly purposes at another. I want to re-inform and re-frame key arguments of this understanding of knowledge focused more on who applied linguists are, and what the knowledge of applied linguistics is and does. In doing this I will reactivate the dormant but critically important, issue of what is a language problem.

The distinction between action and knowledge, power and information, is as old as antique philosophy. This distinction isn’t an abstract rumination as posed by political philosopher Hannah Arendt in her 1958 meditation on the human condition. In the wake of the horrors of war and hatred, she asked intellectuals to strive for a vita activa in preference to the socially disengaged vita contemplativa. In each generation we frame the challenge of knowledge and action, and the problems these are directed towards understanding, in a new way, but always carrying similar elements. The dichotomy may be forced, or even extreme, but can we deny there is tension between the functions of knowledge for and in policy and politics, on the one hand, and in academic, scholarly or educational settings, on the other? In language planning research and theory this issue, like the related but even more problematic idea of language problems, is a sleeper. Scholars might deny the utility, robustness or validity, or even the very existence of 'language problems', but in policy and political settings some notion of language problems motivates most of the activity and the justification for paying any attention to language at all.


Joseph (Joe) Lo Bianco served as chair of language and literacy education at the Melbourne Graduate School of Education, University of Melbourne from February 2004 to June 2020. He is now an Professor Emeritus and Honorary Fellow at the University. He is specialist in language education policy, minority language rights, literacy and social opportunity, language planning with a specific interest in multiculturalism and multilingual rights, conflict mitigation in South East Asia, educational equity for immigrant and Indigenous populations, anti-racist education and language revitalisation. His academic analysis and theorisation of language problems is accompanied by real-world policy writing, advising and engagement in 25 international locations. In recent years this has included a 8 year project in Southeast Asia for UNICEF under the title of Language, Education and Social Cohesion, focusing on conflict resolution in Malaysia, Myanmar and South Thailand and as consultant to a series of projects on Multilingual Cities in 14 European municipalities responding to recent inflows of immigrants. In 1987, he authored Australia’s first national language policy, between 1990 and 2002 was Director of Language Australia/The National Languages and Literacy Institute of Australia.

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