Discuss language and learning

The following passage is taken from a paper that was created in Strasburg under the direction of the Council of Europe. Noting the theoretical challenges associated with teaching a school language would be highly interesting.

“Language and learning

The insight that language has functions beyond communication, particularly that use of language is intricately related to the development of thought, has had important consequences for teaching, Theorists have differed on the precise relationship between language and thinking and in the past have perhaps over emphasised the degree to which language determines thought. It is perhaps more accurate to see language and thought as interdependent rather than to assert that they are identical or to try to say whether one determines the other but acknowledgement of the way they are intricately connected has underpinned important pedagogical considerations. The realisation of the nature of the relationship between language and learning meant that more stress was placed on the use of exploratory talk in the classroom to allow the expression and development of concepts. It is through language that learners can bring to explicit awareness what formerly they only had a sense of. If language use is seen as a primary means of learning, the learner needs to be seen as an active participant, using language to explore, develop and refine concepts not just to communicate them. This of course is true within all subjects of the curriculum and provides a theoretical foundation for the concept of the language across the curriculum (see separate paper). If, in contrast, language is considered solely as a system of communication this tends to relegate the learner to a merely passive role as a receiver of knowledge.

Language also has a key role in personal development, in exploring and defining responses and feelings. This leads to the view that one key aim of language as a school subject is the personal growth of the learner. This approach has often been related to what is referred to as the more creative or expressive uses of language e.g. writing stories, poems, and personal reminiscences often in response to literature. The different aims of language as a school subject can lead to unhelpful polarisation, with advocates of a personal growth view opposed by those who see the primary aim of language as a school subject as the development of functional literacy so that the learner can meet the demands of adult society. These polarised views can be avoided to some degree by placing theoretical perspectives on language at the fore; language is inextricably connected with the growth of learning of all kinds and this needs to be acknowledged in the way language as a school subject is conceived.

Language acquisition and development

There is considerable literature dealing with how children acquire language in the process of cognitive development, much of it emphasising the importance of active use of language. In other words, the child acquires vocabulary and rules of language within situations in which language is used. Psychological perspectives on language acquisition, therefore, relate to philosophical ideas about language and meaning in that both stress the importance of social and cultural contexts. A central idea which has had a significant effect on the teaching of language as a school subject is that language develops by its active use in meaningful contexts rather than just by narrow instruction in skills. This does not mean however that there is an easy consensus on the precise balance between the two. Some critics have taken the view that the ‘language in use’ approach can be taken to extremes. A traditional error in teaching language as a school subject was to concentrate on decontextualised grammar exercises and skills at the expense of meaning, but to many critics, it was equally mistaken to concentrate exclusively on the use of language without taking opportunities to focus on the language itself. A Framework for Language Education would have a role in laying out the different positions and suggesting how in practice they can be integrated to inform practice.

Changing perspectives in linguistics also had a significant influence on thinking about the teaching of language. The fact that language is a rule-governed system can lead to a prescriptive view of language which seeks to lay down the rules of ‘correct’ usage and asserts that one type of language is superior to another. The move to more descriptive approaches aimed not to evaluate different uses of language but instead to describe them, to say how people do speak not how they should speak. The dismissal of prescriptivism is a standard theme in books both in linguistics and language teaching but the polarization between descriptive’ and ‘prescriptive’ approaches does not necessarily resolve all the issues for the teacher of language as a school subject. Abandonment of notions of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’, ‘correct’ and ‘incorrect’ which do not sit comfortably within a descriptive approach to language can leave the teacher feeling rootless and directionless in terms of actual classroom practice where common sense suggests that notions of accuracy in language use still has relevance.

One approach has been to stress the idea of “appropriate rather than ‘correct uses of language. This is the view, for example, that the language used in informal situations is not necessarily the appropriate language to use when attending a job interview (notions of access and social mobility are inevitable aspects of developing a policy on language teaching). Another approach is to make more of the difference between speaking and writing often, as suggested, disguised in the use of the generic term ‘language. Some writers would argue that notions of accuracy are more appropriate for writing than for speaking and that tolerance of a wide variety of spoken types of language in the classroom does not mean abandoning rules for correct uses of written language. A third approach is to widen the notion of what knowledge about language entails. The prescriptive/descriptive polarisation tends to focus on language forms but knowledge about language as part of a school syllabus can also be extended to embrace language change (the fact that language has changed through history and is not static but constantly embraces new words and usages) and language variety (including different dialects, ways that language is used in society, how language is affected by social contexts). Such explicit knowledge about the language if relevant at all to the teaching of language as a school subject was traditionally thought to be the province of the teacher but there is an argument that a broad understanding and knowledge about language should be part of the language as school subject syllabus.”