Language isn’t Academic

The issue

Many people believe that language is different depending on if you are in the classroom or outside of the classroom. People call this difference, academic language (classroom language), or basic interpersonal communication (outside of the classroom – social language). When classifying language into “social” versus “academic”, teachers may prioritize academic language development because of their belief that it will lead to success in the school setting. To service these priorities, teachers buy specific curricula, attend expensive workshops, and invest valuable time in learning how to support the development of academic language in students. It would not be unfair to say that academic language education has become an industry that supports many livelihoods.

What we know

Because so many teachers have invested money and time in the academic language education industry, or profited from it, they believe that the division between academic and social languaging is real. Were it not, their investments would be invalidated. Yet, many linguists argue that academic and social language are not two different ways to communicate. For example, children when talking about characters in video games, may make references to increasing their character’s attack power. This kind of communication requires mathematics. Yet, there is an innate assumption that talking about mathematics only really happens in the classroom.

In fact, linguists argue that academic language and social language do not exist and children use the same kinds of language in the classroom as they do in social situations (see the example about video games). The linguists point out that what we think of as academic language often represents very specific notions of how people should think and communicate, and can be discriminatory against people from families or communities who do not use language that way.

Not thinking of language as two different kinds, academic and social, is a good thing! It means teachers do not have to focus on building two different kinds of language. Instead, they can focus on supporting the development of a single language.

Yet because teachers have invested so much time, energy, and money into learning about academic and social languages, they often resist ideas that are critical of that way of teaching language. But if educating is to progress, we must be able to examine new theories, even those which show our current way of teaching as harmful. A huge investment in a way of teaching, either with time, money, or both, should not make an idea immune to criticism or disposal. 

If not academic and social language, then how can we explain the different kinds of communicating people do depending on person, environment, or conversation topic? My favorite alternative is to think of languaging shifts as floating in a lazy river. A lazy river is a constructed water ride that carries people slowly in a pre-designed course, typically on top of circular air tubes (see Figure 1 for an example). In this metaphor, rather than moving from discrete language type to discrete language type, or from register to register, people subtly adjust how they are communicating based on the interactions between the person(s) they are talking to, the conversation topic, and the environment that the communication is happening in.

Figure 1: An overhead shot of a lazy river.

Implications

Teachers can support communication skills in their students through the following methods:

  • Helping them recognize each of the parts of communication:
    • the other person and their status (e.g. parent, teacher, friend),
    • the topic,
    • the environment (classroom, home, office),
    • and showing them different ways of languaging based on how each can change.
  • They can ask students to identify (here we use identify and recognize differently. Recognize here is from teacher to student, and identify is from student to teacher):
    • who was speaking or signing in the conversation,
    • what the environment is (e.g., the classroom, the doctor’s office, the playground),
    • and the conversation topic.
  • Teachers can help students strategize how they would phrase what they said differently as each part of the conversation changes (e.g., the environment, or the topic).

Most importantly, teachers should always wait to implement these strategies until after the original conversation is finished.

Posted on December 18, 2020 by
Jon Henner
University of North Carolina, Greensboro
j_henner{at}uncg.edu

Further reading