Open Mic is a new, informal interview series with editors of open access journals, offering insider perspectives on publishing culture across disciplines and fields.
In this Open Mic interview with UC Berkeley’s L2 Journal of applied linguistics, we spoke with founder, General Editor, and Professor of German Claire Kramsch; Managing Editor and French Department PhD student Emily Linares; and Mark Kaiser, Associate Director of the Berkeley Language Center, which sponsors the journal, and creator of the BLC Library of Foreign Language Film Clips. (The original sponsor of L2 Journal was the UC Consortium for Language Learning & Teaching.)
To start with the basics: what exactly is applied linguistics? How would you describe it to someone with no knowledge of the field?
Claire Kramsch: Well, it’s not like we don’t have an official definition! We do, and that is Christopher Brumfit’s 1995 definition: Applied linguistics is the application of linguistics and other fields, such as psychology, sociology, and communication, to the study of real problems in the real world where language plays a role. One of these problems is the acquisition and use of a second language.[Laughter all around: Dr. Kramsch has clearly had to do this before.]
Given this real-world, practitioner-based focus of applied linguistics, do you think L2 benefits particularly from being published open access?
CK: Definitely yes. That’s the advantage of a field like applied linguistics that is not only practical– not only focused on how to learn and teach foreign languages, how to better doctor-patient relationships in hospitals, and these sorts of problems applied linguistics has typically dealt with– but the theory behind it. There is a “theory of the practice,” to quote Pierre Bourdieu, really several theories of the practice devoted to solving language problems, which form the theoretical underpinning of the intellectual enterprise of the discipline. So yes, I think open access, which makes the insights from researchers accessible to practitioners and vice versa, is hugely beneficial.
Emily Linares: We actually received an email from someone recently thanking us for making our journal open access: a student at the University of the Philippines Open University who is currently based in Australia while she completes a Master of Arts in Language and Literature. She told us she’s had trouble accessing a huge number of journals, and she was very happy to come across the journal and the eScholarship platform. She said to please keep it that way!
Mark Kaiser: Another factor is that because the journal is concerned with language teaching– a big part of applied linguistics is how to teach language– making it open access gives access to the many thousands of teachers of English in high schools who would not have institutional access to journals that are paid for by a university library. So having an open access journal like this one is important for the intellectual activities of scholars across the field.
Was any of this part of your vision for the journal when you established it in 2009?
CK: To be honest, not primarily. Because it grew out of the efforts of the Consortium [the UCCLLT], the original clientele, so to speak, was understood to be all the language teachers within the UC system across the campuses, so L2 Journal was pitched as a journal for researchers in applied linguistics, but also for language teachers, specifically lecturers within the UC system. And we have reached well beyond that now, obviously.
That’s why we instituted a new Teacher’s Forum within the journal, as a more pointed way of reaching out to practitioners in the field beyond the lecturers in the UC system. The Teacher’s Forum is column of only 3000 words that is meant to capture not only best practices in the field, but also descriptions of pedagogic practices that can be shared with the rest of the profession.
How has the L2 Journal been received by the field of applied linguistics?
CK: Very well. Honestly, astonishingly well. I think this is due to the combination of the Berkeley name, of the people on the board– we’ve got luminaries on our board, which actually creates another problem because they accept to be on the board even if they don’t have time to review papers [knowing laughter from the table]…. I think we’ve got a reputation, and I say that from attending the AAAL [American Association for Applied Linguistics conference], where I learned we’re known for giving good feedback even if we sometimes don’t publish submissions. I think we give especially useful feedback for young researchers, like young PhDs or even graduate students, and for that reason we’re known among graduate student advisors and directors of graduate programs. From this perspective, we’re very pleased. In terms of the submission themselves, I still don’t think we get as many individual submissions as we would like, which is why we tend to be a little heavy on special issues.
What milestones and markers of success has the journal seen so far?
CK: As one of the markers of success, we’ve been able to have a more rigorous acceptance rate.
EL: Yes, we’ve become more selective. We’ve also recently been indexed in the Directory of Open Access Journals, and with ERIC [Education Resources Information Center]. Both indexes have increased the visibility of the journal and attracted readers who might not have encountered us through other venues.
CK: What I notice the most are the citations. I mean that has really struck me: that some of the papers that we’ve published are really part of the mainstream literature now.
Do you have any favorite special issues or articles from the first decade of the L2 Journal?
CK: In terms of what’s been most read, eScholarship is very good at sending us the rundown of statistics. I would say our Symbolic Competence issue  was particularly strong. In terms of individual papers, Rod Ellis’ ‘Corrective Feedback and Teacher Development’ is always #1 for readership. And the second is Mark’s article on the use of film clips to teach language, ‘New Approaches to Exploiting Film in the Foreign Language Classroom.’
Are there any types of submissions you wish you received more of?
CK: We receive a lot of individual studies on the teaching of speech acts and pragmatics, and most of the time they’re just case studies that don’t necessarily add up to a theory. It would be nice if we could get more theoretical pieces. I’m guessing they probably get sent to the Oxford Journal of Applied Linguistics, which is the prestige journal in field. Interestingly enough, for mostly English teachers who operate in language and literature departments, our authors rarely send us manuscripts on the teaching of literature or literary texts. I wish we received more such submissions.
MK: Some go to the journals that are dealing with that language.
CK: Exactly. So they go to the Slavic Review or The German Quarterly… all the papers we receive have to be in English, so it ends up being English that dominates. And of course English is more generally the language benchmark against which all this research is done.
Are there other ways you’re hoping the journal will continue to evolve?
CK: That question brings us to something that we are discussing right now quite a bit… the journal is in the Berkeley Language Center, so our direct and first readership is supposed to be the 65 language teachers who teach languages at Berkeley, yet we’re not quite sure that we’re reaching them in a way that is useful to them. This question intersects with the whole issue of the status of language teachers on the UC campuses: these teachers are lecturers, not tenured faculty, who usually have 5 courses to teach and are not rewarded for writing anything.
MK: Publishing is not part of their official review. They can submit a publication record, but it’s not required, and it’s not supposed to be a factor in the review process. So there’s really no reward to the lecturer for spending the time to write up an article about an interesting new teaching method that they have developed.
EL, to CK: And your idea of starting a journal was to reach these people, and not necessarily to start an international journal.
CK: Yes, that was the original idea as presented to me by Bob Blake [Robert Blake, director of the UCCLLT and Professor of Spanish and Classics at UC Davis]. On the other hand, we always wanted to have a journal that would have international reach, with international prestige, and so it was never going to be primarily a pedagogic journal. It was to be a research journal that would be on par with other journals in the field, which it has become. No doubt about that. The question now is to what end, and that’s the discussion we’re having.
I’m interested in hearing what you think the future of publishing practices will be in the field of applied linguistics, compared to what it was when you started L2 Journal.
CK: Applied linguistics is in a sort of adolescent crisis of identity at the moment, due to globalization and the Internet, which deeply affect this field dedicated to the pursuit of language as social practice. You can imagine how social media and the globalization of language knowledge is really affecting a field like applied linguistics, which now finds itself wondering, for example, if applied linguistics is a true discipline, or a trans-disciplinary field that no longer fits into the traditional department structure of universities.
So one of the driving question is where we will find applied linguistics in the academic landscape. In schools of education? In departments of linguistics? (Linguistics at Berkeley generally doesn’t want to have anything to do with applied linguistics.) You’re also not going to find it in departments of foreign language and literature within the Humanities, as applied linguistics is seen as a social science. Sociolinguistics is on the ascendency right now like there’s no tomorrow; and applied linguistics intersects with sociolinguistics but is not sociolinguistics because sociolinguistics has nothing to do with language learning and teaching.
What’s on the horizon for applied linguistics? Right now what’s coming up on the horizon is what Alastair Pennycook (2017) has called “transhumanism”– man-machine interactions that make us question what we mean by language.
Is language just a bunch of linguistic structures that students learn in textbooks or is it a way of making meaning through verbal and non-verbal means such as gestures, pictures, film, and in face-to-face as well as online communication? Who would not prefer to watch a video or use social media to learn a foreign language rather than lists of vocabulary? [Laughing and looking significantly at Mark.]
MK, laughing: Why are you looking at me?
CK: Because you are so well-known as the film guy!
MK: I’m the film guy.
CK: He’s the film guy.
MK: My partner calls me Dr. Clip.
What wisdom would you share with someone starting an applied linguistics publication in this brave new transhumanist, perhaps trans-disciplinary, field?
CK: Well, I think the fact we are an electronic journal publishing on eScholarship is fantastic. Because then we can bring in all these other modalities. That’s clear.
MK: In fact, I talked to somebody at eScholarship who handles rights issues, and they gave us permission to put a link from an article to a clip from a feature film under a fair use claim. To my knowledge, it’s the first time that someone has actually tested the waters on creating a link to an excerpt from a feature film under fair use.
CK: I want to add something to this issue of language teachers, lecturers, and the field of applied linguistics. It has to be said that the field of applied linguistics is in great ascendency. The annual meeting of the AAAL now counts up to 2000 people. Until 10 years ago, it was only 700-800. Last March in Chicago it hit 2000, which is almost as much as the MLA [Modern Language Association] convention. So the field itself is in ascendency. It is becoming very well known by department heads of language and literatures that it is a desirable field where people do get recruited like language program coordinators, and increasingly all over the country universities are hiring language program coordinators as tenured faculty in the field of applied linguistics. People who, say, come out with a PhD in German literature and can’t get a job as a german literature professor do end up becoming, if they are good teachers and interested in teaching, language program coordinators, often on a tenurable track. The UC campuses that still hire language program coordinators on the non-tenure track are behind the times.
So that speaks well to a journal dedicated to applied linguistics… and it’s precisely because the field is so multidisciplinary, bridging the theory and the practice, that it is a field that is eminently characteristic of our times.
Could you give an example of the kinds of research questions that the field is currently wrestling with?
CK: Well, language learning and teaching has generally, in the public imagination, been about how to teach adjectives and verbs and fill-in-the-blanks grammatical exercises. And the idea is that after you’ve done this, you can go to the foreign country and you’re able to converse. [Laughing] People of course realize this is just not true, and it’s certainly not true online. So the field of applied linguistics has had to deal with more than just how to string correct sentences together to make paragraphs. It has had to deal with cultural and ideological frames of mind, with worldviews, with identities.
The issue of language and identity is a big issue now in applied linguistics because it deals with immigration, with all the mobility that globalization has brought, with the people who have to learn a host country’s national language and what they grapple with. How does someone with an Ethiopian name or Chinese name find a subject position, as we would say, in a German society? So the field is grappling now not just with issues of the structure of the sentence but with issues of identity, language, and power… young people between 18-22 know that language intersects with issues of symbolic power in a big way.
What’s coming up for L2 Journal?
EL: We just published a special issue on living literacies. And we’re looking forward to our next issue. We have a special section of our Teachers’ Forum called “Instructors Perspectives,” which we’re re-launching and redefinining this year. The idea there is to gather reflections on different aspects of teaching from different language instructors, as well as responses, so in our September issue we have a reflection on textbook writing that’s coming out along with three responses.