L is also for Language

What is the language of your subject discipline, and how do you support your students to become fluent speakers of that language?

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“This is our language

Katie, who teaches on an Operating Department Practitioner’s course, had asked one of her students to ‘define key surgical terms used in operating theatres’. When he asked her why this was necessary, she answered “because this is our language.”

Watching this interaction, I was struck by the power of that word ‘our’. It links to the theory of communities of practice where learning takes place as people start to interact on the edges of a new group, in this case, the community of those working in operating theatres (although communities of practice occur in traditional academic disciplines too).

‘So what?’ you might ask. Well, this gave rise to several thoughts.

The first is about what we count as professional knowledge. It’s all very well to read specialist terms in books but at this point they are ‘dead’ on the page and students are engaging with language in a very passive way. Katie, as a recent practitioner, talked about how the terms were used in practice and in doing so brought them to life. Wenger describes this process as ‘reification’. But it’s not enough for Katie alone to use this language. The students need to participate in its use as well.

This can be done in lots of ways across subject disciplines. In this context students could

  • watch a video of a surgical procedure and pause it at key points to predict or discuss the vocabulary used
  • role play a routine operation and then consider the language they used and if it ‘feels right’
  • read a journal article involving the use of such terminology and interpret and discuss its meaning
  • experience the authentic use of such language while on placement or in the workplace, and reflect on this (this can work particularly well as part of an apprenticeship programme)

These processes don’t just apply to vocational areas.  Students on more traditional academic courses such as History can also practice using specialist language, for example through videos, role plays, reading, discussions and visits (say, to conferences or exhibitions).

Using the language of a community helps to develop a sense of group identity

Secondly – I thought about how using the language of a community helps to develop a sense of group identity. While they speak and listen appropriately, students engage with that community’s practices, imagine their place in the landscape of the community and hopefully align successfully with its culture. According to Wenger, engagement, imagination and alignment are all ‘modes of belonging’ that can help to form identity and foster learning.

On Katie’s course, one way in which the university facilitates engagement and imagination is to provide a reconstructed operating theatre on campus, within which students can converse in simulations. These communication skills can also be developed through work placements, where students shadow and are mentored by more experienced practitioners, or in undergraduate or postgraduate research, where students meet regularly with supervisors to discuss their projects. All require the active use of specialist terms and phrases in authentic contexts.

However, engagement on its own isn’t enough to ensure that learning takes place – it must also involve alignment with the context. This is done, for example, when we assess our students and their practices, including their use and understanding of key vocabulary. Katie used a quiz, but you can also use practical tasks, observation, role play or presentations to check students’ use of specialist language.

Over time, imagination has the power to change the landscape but students must first engage fully with the subject, its associated practices and its language before trying to conceive of how it might be different. They therefore need as many opportunities to do this as possible, including via online learning (if done well) so that they can engage from a distance as well as face to face.

On the other hand, alignment without imagination runs the danger of a community stifled by its own rules. From this perspective, specialist language should be considered critically, and any underlying assumptions in its use questioned and examined. An example might be encouraging students to adapt their specialist language use for different audiences, such as experts/non-experts or medical professionals/patients.

In this way, engagement, imagination and alignment – and thus professional identity – are all inextricably linked with language and its use. An abundance of opportunities to try out that language in authentic contexts and to get structured feedback on its use are a must, whatever topic is being studied.

What language is key in your subject discipline? What forms of language and meaning are negotiated? How can you induct your learners into this terrain while supporting them to construct their own identities within it? And what constitutes ‘your very own language’ in such a landscape?

Rachel Stone and Sylvia Ashton

Further reading

Barton, D., & Tusting, K. (2005). Beyond communities of practice (Learning in doing: social, cognitive, and computational perspectives). Cambridge: CUP.

Wenger, E. (1998) Communities of Practice: Learning, Meaning and Identity. Cambridge: CUP

Wenger, E. & Wenger, B. (2015). Learning in landscapes of practice boundaries, identity, and knowledgeability in practice-based learning. London: Routledge.




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