This paper argues that the most significant trend in applied linguistics is the emergence of the field as a generic discipline, involving several subareas, all characterised by the aim of developing theoretical and empirical studies of language as a key element in real world problems. Various subsidiary trends are apparent including numerous methodological and theoretical developments. The paper argues that so far these trends respond only inconsistently to two major challenges in the relationship between the academy and the lay community: (1) identifying and studying issues held to be problems by those outside the academy; and (2) clarifying the nature of the contributions of research to those real world problems. Three themes are considered: the relationship between surface data and theory development; the problem of the specific and the general; and the importance of problematicity. The paper concludes that applied linguistics needs to be accountable to two communities, the academy and the lay communities it aims to work with.