What is the Difference Between Didactics & Applied Linguistics?


In simple terms, didactics is synonymous with teaching and instruction, in the general sense. And yet at the same time, a didactic approach involves a very structured and informed approach to teaching. But how does the term “didactics” differ from “pedagogy” and “applied linguistics”, as a whole?

What is the difference between didactics and applied linguistics? While didactics is essentially concerned with the science of teaching and instruction for any given field of study, applied linguistics is focused specifically on language-related problems. The two are diametrically different in that one refers to a science (didactics) and the other is one vast, but the specific interdisciplinary field of study (applied linguistics).

“Didactics” is a more generalized term referring to theory and practical application behind the science of instruction. It can also be viewed as the foundation or principal steps and stages involved in the act of teaching, within a specific field. In the field of education, we speak of research for instance, pertaining to the didactics of mathematics and science or language didactics.

And yet, you may still be wondering how this definition of “didactics” differs from the term “pedagogy”. Or you may want to understand how both of these words are related to the field of applied linguistics. As you will see, the term “didactics” differs greatly from “pedagogy” and “applied linguistics” in many significant ways.

Didactics: Positive and Negative Connotations

What does didactics mean? As mentioned earlier, “didactics” refers to the science of teaching within a specific field. Didactics is based on multiple theories of teaching, and in a wider sense, theory and the practical application of teaching and learning methods.

Textbooks and “do it yourself” (DIY) tutorials on YouTube or “how-to” books are all examples of “didacticism”, since their ultimate purpose is to instruct and educate. Some would argue that the word ‘didactic’ can have both a positive and negative connotation. For example, someone who possesses a “didactic” personality is an individual who is naturally inclined to teach and instruct.

This is the case of my husband, a knowledgeable math teacher and veritable “pedagogue” – we will come back to that term later – that uses every opportunity to share his knowledge and education. While he can be a real asset at times, his unending persistence can, every now and then, have the opposite effect. This example illustrates that an individual who is considered didactic can hence be considered both positive and negative. Very often; he is a truly fascinating fountain of enlightenment. However, there are moments when this “didactic” fountain just does not stop gushing information.

Case in point: vacation time. When on vacation, his knowledge and lessons on history, physics and geography literally keep flowing. This can become a real issue when all you want to do is sunbathe on the beach while listening to the waves crashing on the shore and the distant sound of passing seagulls.

Another illustration of how the word “didactic” can have a rather subtle negative connotation is the massive production of 17th-century French fairy and folk tales and the 18th century English nursery rhymes, such as the famous tales of Mother Goose. This type of literature was written specifically for children (and adults alike), with a clear didactic intent. However, it was often somewhat underhanded in that it was also created to teach children (and again, adults) a stern lesson about societal behaviour, norms and moral values.

Didactic Method or Approach

What is a didactic method or approach? A didactic method is a teaching method that adheres to a scientific approach or educational style. The approach or method is often researched or studied and adopted by the teacher in order to engage the student and ultimately stimulate the learning process and transfer of knowledge in any given field of study. 

For example in language didactics, the Content and Language Integrated Learning (CLIL) approach to language teaching is a very common approach used in European language classrooms (Di Pardo Léon-Henri, D. 2015. CLIL in the Business English Classroom: From Language Learning to the Development of Professional Communication and Metacognitive Skills. ELTWorldOnline, April, Special Issue on CLIL)

A modern and innovative didactic approach to distance teaching and learning is the open learning and Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs). Everyone has access to them and people can learn by themselves, in an unstructured manner. With unlimited access from across the globe, students are free to choose from various topics and domains of interest. And in addition, at some academic institutions, students can earn certificates and diplomas as they work through the online courses.

Didactic methods and their underlying principal theories focus on the baseline knowledge students possess, as well as their needs. These methods seek to improve upon this level and assist the teacher in conveying information, in the best possible way. A didactic method or approach is thus the very foundation or starting point in a lesson plan, where the overall goal is knowledge transfer. The teacher, instructor or educator functions in this role as the authoritative figure, but also as both a guide and a resource for the students. Depending upon the chosen didactic approach, the teacher may adopt various roles (source) in the classroom (source) from the principal instructor, to mediator or observer (source).

Didactics vs. Pedagogy

So how does “didactics” differ from “pedagogy”? Think of pedagogy as being transversal in nature and pertaining to the method and practice of teaching and instruction, in particular in terms of the ability to match theoretical concepts with practical methods of knowledge transfer in education. 

This can be true for any given field of study. Pedagogy is more related to the correlation between the teaching material (resources) or theoretical information (methods) and the intellectual capacity of students, as well as their individual needs.

A teacher is considered a bona fide “pedagogue” when they are capable of making a perfect match and succeeding in the act of knowledge transfer. In the best-case scenario, students who are actively partaking and advancing in the learning experience are the end result of a successful instructor’s pedagogy. And yet, if students are having trouble understanding the lesson, this does not automatically mean that the teacher is a terrible pedagogue. There may be other factors involved, such as a student who is ill or tired, or students who are distracted or not able to hear the teacher or see the blackboard, etc.

On the contrary, with experience and time, teachers often naturally develop many metacognitive skills (critical and analytical thinking) with regard to their ability to recognize student lapses in the transfer of knowledge. With reflective teaching practices, they learn to automatically troubleshoot their lessons and adapt their pedagogical approach before, during and after a lesson. Therefore, pedagogy deals with the teacher’s cognizant act of teaching in the classroom, while adopting the best-suited supports (whiteboards or slide presentations) and resources (video and books) to better serve their students’ learning strategies.

Didactics and Applied Linguistics

As we have seen, didactics is a term that signifies the science of education within a specific field. It differs greatly from applied linguistics, which is a vast interdisciplinary field on its own. This single but immense field identifies, investigates, and offers solutions to real-life problems related to language and (verbal or non-verbal) communication. 

There are many academic fields related to applied linguistics, such as education, psychology, communication research, anthropology, and sociology. In terms of language studies, for example, linguists can be focused on the practical applications of teaching, translation, and speech therapy. 

Other branches of applied linguistics include:

  • Bilingualism and multilingualism
  • Conversation analysis
  • Contrastive linguistics
  • Sign language
  • Language assessment
  • Literacy
  • Discourse analysis
  • Language pedagogy
  • Second language acquisition
  • Language planning and policy
  • Stylistics… and the list goes on! 

So, while didactics is essentially concerned with the science of teaching and instruction for any given field of study, applied linguistics is focused specifically on language-related problems. The two are diametrically different in that one refers to a science (didactics) and the other is one vast, but the specific interdisciplinary field of study (applied linguistics).

Are you looking for answers or to improve your teaching skills? Feel free to browse through other articles on our site for more information on didactics, pedagogy and reflective teaching.

Related Questions

What are applied linguistics? Applied linguistics is a vast interdisciplinary field that identifies, investigates, and offers solutions to real-life problems related to language and communication (verbal or non-verbal). In terms of language studies, for example, linguists can be focused on the practical applications of teaching, translation, and speech therapy. 

What is pedagogy? Pedagogy is the correlation between the teaching material (resources) or theoretical information (methods) and the intellectual capacity of students, as well as their individual needs. 

What is the difference between didactics and “pedagogy”? Pedagogy is transversal in nature and pertains to the correlation between methods and practices of teaching and instruction, in particular in terms of the ability to match theoretical concepts with practical methods of knowledge transfer in education. Didactics refers to the science of teaching and instruction for any given field of study. Based on theoretical foundations, a didactic approach involves a very structured and informed approach to teaching and instruction.

Read this publication for more on the origin of the word “didactics”

Dana Di Pardo Leon-Henri

Dana Di Pardo Léon-Henri is a senior researching lecturer with ELLIADD (EA 4661), currently teaching English for Special or Specific Purposes (ESP) at the University of Bourgogne Franche Comté at the UFR SLHS in Besançon, France. Her research is focused on ESP and LSP Language Teaching, foreign language learning and teaching, pedagogy, didactics, evaluation, artificial intelligence and language teaching, language policy and professional skills development at the higher education level.

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