October 2018
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Andy Curtis, Anaheim University, Anaheim, California, USA

The Promise

Why is peace linguistics (PL) still largely unknown and unheard of within the field of applied linguistics? The answer to this question relates to the politics of language education and the role of applied linguistics in helping to address some of the key contextual political and socioeconomic factors affecting the teaching and learning of languages. For example, it is possible that, in response to the hateful, hurtful, and harmful rhetoric emanating from the current government of the United States, the field of PL could help us better understand and alleviate some of the damage being done.

There are very few people in the TESOL field who have connected English language teaching (ELT) with the teaching and learning of second/foreign languages for the purposes of peacebuilding or peacemaking. One of those is Francisco Gomes de Matos, a professor emeritus of linguistics at the Federal University of Pernambuco in Brazil, who dates the first formal mention of PL back to 1977 (Gomes de Matos, 2014). However, in the 40+ years since then, very few applied linguists have even come across the term, much less read about it, and until very recently, nobody appears to have carried out, published, or presented any PL research. According to Friedrich (2007):

Crystal (1999 and 2003) has defined Peace Linguistics as more of a concept than a discipline: “A term reflecting the climate of opinion which emerged during the 1990s among many linguists and language teachers, in which linguistic principles, methods, findings and applications were seen as a means of promoting peace and human rights at the global level.” (p. 76)

Unfortunately, the reference to “many linguists and language teachers” does not appear to have been the case. Indeed, none of the many linguists and language teachers whom I have asked about PL, in more than a dozen countries over the last 2 years, have heard of PL. One reason for that may be the lack of linguistics as an integral part of what has been called PL, in terms of phonetics and phonology, morphology and syntax, and semantics and pragmatics.

In January and February 2017, I was invited to teach what appears to be the first course of its kind, titled Peace Linguistics, at Brigham Young University-Hawaii (BYU-H), as a key part of the University’s vision is to “assist individuals…in their efforts to influence the establishment of peace internationally” (https://about.byuh.edu/mission). Also, the course was offered by the English Language Teaching and Learning Department at BYU-H, rather than as part of the University’s Intercultural Peacebuilding program. Despite the desire to focus on language and linguistics, finding suitable materials around which to build the class proved formidable, as there are myriad materials on linguistics but none designed for a PL course.

After an extensive search for books, papers, course syllabi, curriculum documents—anything related to the teaching and learning of PL—we chose for the core course text a book by one of the few other people who have connected ELT with peacebuilding and peacemaking, Rebecca Oxford. Known for her work on learning styles, in more recent years, she has turned her attention to what she refers to as “peace language,” which she recently defined as “concerned with understanding and transforming communication to promote peace within ourselves, with others, and with our environment.” (Oxford, Gregersen, & Matilde Olivero, in press).

One of the distinctions between Oxford, Gregersen, and Matilde Olivero’s (in press) “peace language approach” and PL is that the former begins with a focus on intrapersonal communication, in terms of being at peace with our selves. However, PL focuses on interpersonal communication, especially the spoken and written texts produced by some of the world’s most powerful people, as their messages have the potential to make peace—or to start wars.

The Anticlimax

The anticlimax referred to here describes the sense of exciting possibilities when I first came across the idea of PL, followed by the disappointment when I found that, apart from Gomes de Matos (2014) and Oxford (2013), and maybe one or two others from many years ago, and in spite of Crystal’s 1999 prediction (Friedrich, 2007), there was still no field of PL, and not one in sight.

Having established that PL as a field did not yet exist, I set about trying to find out what PL was. After reviewing 20 years of published articles in the Journal of Peace Education and in the International Journal of Peace Studies, I found fewer than 10 articles in 400 that were focused on language, and none that focused on linguistics (Curtis, 2017). That was perhaps a reflection of the publish-or-perish pressures of the academic, university system which may have contributed to the creation of unconnected silos of academic knowledge, in which large amounts of work are being published in one field, but without that work being connected to other fields.

Perhaps as a result of those silos, the thousands of published papers in the fields of peace education/studies do not appear to have been connected to the tens of thousands of papers published in the fields of applied linguistics. But could academic, institutional “siloization” fully account for this missing link? There had to be more; another powerful factor in the nonexistence of PL as a field appears to have been, as previously noted, the lack of “L” in PL—in other words, the lack of linguistics. That, of course, raises the question of what we mean by linguistics, which is a question that has been discussed over many years by many groups, including the members of TESOL’s Applied Linguistics Interest Section.

The homepage of the Linguistic Society of America website provides a clear and concise definition: “Linguistics, in a nutshell, is the scientific study of language,” which is reiterated in their tagline: “Advancing the scientific study of language,” although it is important to note that there are many different theories of linguistics. As a senior science officer, working in hospitals in England in the 1980s, I was a product of many years of training in the classical, Western scientific method, complete with its highly problematic notions regarding objectivity. Therefore, in my work (Curtis, 2018), I have slightly redefined linguistics as the systematic study of language, by which I mean, in a nutshell, identifying language-related points of interest, seeing the patterns made by those points, and drawing on the traditional linguistic tools of phonetics and phonology, morphology and syntax, and semantics and pragmatics.

The presence or absence of those kinds of tools brings us to Gomes de Matos, whose work has been very important, over many years, in connecting ELT with peacebuilding and peace making. That said, there appears to have been little or no linguistics (i.e., systematic language study) within his use of the term peace linguistics. However, Gomes de Matos has given a great deal of useful advice to language teachers, to help them and their learners to be more aware of and more peaceful in their language use. In that sense, his work may be closer to the idea of “peaceful language use,” while Oxford’s work on peace language is “concerned with understanding and transforming communication to promote peace within ourselves, with others, and with our environment” (Oxford, Gregersen, & Matilde Olivero, in press). Those two bodies of work have made important connections between language teaching/learning and peacebuilding/making. However, PL, as I define it, uses in-depth language analyses to deconstruct the language used by people in positions of power, such as the president of the United States, to peel away the surface layers, so that the deeper, underlying meanings of their words can be laid bare.

The Resurrection

By resurrection here, I am using the lower-case, nonreligious, non-Christian meaning of the word related to bringing something back into use. After teaching the pilot PL course at BYU-H in January and February of 2017, I was invited back to coteach the course in January and February of 2018, with Dr. Nancy Tarawhiti, who will be the professor teaching the course from 2019 onwards. As a result of those two experiences (Curtis, 2017, 2018) and the research needed to teach a course that appears not to have been taught anywhere else before, a special issue of the TESL Reporter will be published (online and freely available) in November/December of 2018, titled “From Peace Language to Peace Linguistics,” and a new book, the first to be titled Peace Linguistics, will be published by the University of Michigan Press in the Spring of 2019. Based on that teaching and research in PL, this is the current definition that I have developed and am using:

Peace linguistics (PL) is an area of applied linguistics, based on systematic analyses of the ways in which language is used to communicate/create conflict and to communicate/create peace. PL is interdisciplinary, drawing on fields such as peace studies/peace education and conflict resolution/transformation, bringing those together with fields such as sociolinguistics and critical discourse analysis, including text/genre analysis.

It is my firm belief that PL will begin to be more recognized and to grow rapidly in the next few years.


BYU-Hawaii. Mission and Vision. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://about.byuh.edu/mission

Curtis, A. (2017). Back from the battlefield: Resurrecting peace linguistics. TESL Reporter, 50(1), 20–34. Retrieved from http://tesol.byuh.edu/sites/tesol.byuh.edu/files/TESOLReporter50-1_article2.pdf

Curtis, A. (2018). Introducing and defining peace linguistics. The Word, 27(3), 11–13. Retrieved from http://www.hawaiitesol.wildapricot.org/resources/Documents/Word/2018%20May.pdf

Friedrich, P. (2007). English for peace: Toward a framework of peace sociolinguistics. World Englishes, 26(1), 72–83.

Gomes de Matos, F. (2014). Peace linguistics for language teachers. DELTA: Documentação de Estudos em Lingüística Teórica e Aplicada, 30(2), 415–424. Retrieved from http://www.scielo.br/scielo.php?script=sci_arttext&pid=S0102-44502014000200415

Oxford, R. L. (2013). The language of peace: Communicating to create harmony. Charlotte, NC: Information Age Publishing.

Oxford, R. L., Gregersen, T., & Matilde Olivero, M. (in press). Peacebuilding: Fostering the language of peace in TESOL. TESL Reporter.

Andy Curtis received his MA in applied linguistics and his PhD in international education from the University of York, England. From 2015–2016, he served as the 50th President of TESOL International Association.

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