Opinion: The importance of language for learning

WHAT DO we as teachers need to know about the language of our discipline in order to communicate its knowledge and expectations? LITE fellow Bee Bond writes here about her project and its focus on making knowledge and language clearer to students.

As Internationalization moves further up the strategic agenda, and universities work on a global platform, English has become the lingua franca of academic communication. As Bourdieu and Passeron however, pointed out: ‘Academic English is nobody’s mother tongue’.

Anomaly

This dichotomy throws up a number of questions, such as: what language do we use in academia? How is it different across disciplines? What language do we use to express key, threshold concepts in our field? And is this the only meaning that this word holds? Probably not, so what other possible, and more common, meanings are there, and how did you learn all of this yourself?

As experts in a particular field, it is difficult to remember how or when you became fully socialized into the discourse of your subject.

And it is equally difficult to separate the language you use everyday to discuss your research, or the key concepts in your particular area of expertise from all the other English you use within the workplace.

This language is particularly important at post-graduate level, when students are expected to behave as true apprentice scholars in the discipline.

Supporting transition 

Whilst there has been a great deal of focus on supporting the transition of students into higher education at undergraduate level, there has been much less exploration of the issues faced by students as they move onto post graduate study.

With a large proportion of these students entering their programme from different, international educational contexts, and undertaking their studies in a second language, it is vital we understand where language, academic knowledge and expectations meet.

Developing expertise 

My project in LITE this year is using two sites, one STEM and one Arts, Humanities, Social Sciences, to explore these questions through ethnographic case study.

The aim is to highlight the kinds of understanding and expertise needed to support students through the complexity of subject specific language use.

Rather than seeing those students who do not speak English as a first language as needing remedial support to improve, and bringing some kind of deficit to the classroom, I hope to explore the strategies currently used by staff and students to enable their socialization into the culture of their subject.

How do they experience academic life in the UK? What do they find useful or troublesome in the work they are doing? What language do they need to know and how can we make this clear to them? How is use of language assessed, and is this clear to both staff and students? What kind of inaccuracies are acceptable, and why? And, how is this clearly communicated to our students?

‘Intellectual capital’

The development of an understanding around these questions has an obvious impact beyond the international student, as these questions are key to all inclusive teaching practices.

Teaching subject content without any language; teaching language devoid of all content are equally impossible tasks.

In order to support students in how to communicate within a specific academic discourse community, it is necessary for us to understand where the two intertwine and work together to understand how to make the connections more explicit.

Only through a deeper understanding of the linguistic, knowledge and cultural barriers faced by our students can we fully support, embrace and celebrate the intellectual capital that comes from being a truly international university.

For more information about Bee’s research visit our Projects page.