Bridging the Gap: Applied Linguistics Enriches Our Language Education

In a court case1 in the Northern Territory, a witness gave evidence in Aboriginal English that a person involved in the case was “properly his father”. This was misheard and transcribed as “probably his father”. In Aboriginal English, ‘properly’ distinguishes the relationship as that of a biological father, rather than a father figure. ‘Probably’ obviously changes the relationship from one of certainty to one in question.

In linguistics, this example is about phonetics – the difference in the [p] and the [b] sounds; and semantics – the definition of ‘properly’. But it is also a question of equity and access. Aboriginal English is a variety of English that is not always mutually intelligible with Standard Australian English so the court should have used a translator. This would pose another problem. If the judge says, ‘just translate word for word’, anyone who has tried to explain an idiom in another language can tell you that isn’t going to work. Then there is the fact that cultural knowledge for Australian Aboriginals is subject to a knowledge economy. Some knowledge is protected, and a person needs to be initiated into the knowledge of the particular cultural group. It can be culturally inappropriate to speak in a courtroom of jurors, lawyers, witnesses and a judge, who are not part of that cultural group and have not been initiated into the knowledge.

This is an example of applied linguistics, which examines how language is used in society. Applied linguistics tries to identify problems in society to do with language and ameliorate them. One of these problems is that not enough people understand that issues like these legal ones – about equity and culture and fairness and justice – are indeed about language.

And right here is a job opportunity for a student who wants English to be practical and have real world applications and more concrete answers.

In 2022 St Leonard’s College added another VCE subject to its offerings. It is called English Language and can be studied from Units 1-4 as an alternative to VCE English or Literature. If you imagine a blend of sociology, psychology, history and linguistics, this is English Language. It is English for science- and maths-minded students.

The wonder of studying a Master of Applied Linguistics while I teach the subject is that I am bringing the very latest findings of the academic world into the classroom, in ways that make it relevant, practical and hopefully inspiring. Because we need more linguists in the world to help make it a better place.


Prudence Meggitt 

Teacher – English


1 Discussed in: Rickford, J. and King, S. (2016). Language and linguistics on trial: Hearing Rachel Jeantel (and other vernacular speakers) in the courtroom and beyond. Language, Vol 92, No 4, p.948-988.