What influence does learning a language have on one’s life? Some aspects are highly underestimated. Thoughts on our extremely crucial role as language teachers.

Louise Potter

“The limits of my language mean the limits of my world” - Ludwig Wittgenstein

Learning a language goes way beyond its structure (morphology, syntax, phonetics, and semantics). Although students in language classes are immersed in drilling chunks of language, performing roles plays, analysing structures and learning how to write narratives with explicit beginning, middle and end, many crucial aspects of language learning, and teaching as a matter of fact, go unnoticed.

When analysing Coyle’s framework of the 4 C’s (content, cognition, communication, culture) one understands that it is more about the learner constructing his/her own knowledge of the world and developing his/her own life skills than specifically learning the language as a final goal. Language, cognition and culture are strictly bound together. So, what is the true role of a language teacher? How can we go beyond teaching the language itself?

Learning a language changes the way people interpret and view the world. It changes our perspectives. When one studies a language that is embedded in a culture different than our own, we begin to understand our own culture, sometimes unconsciously. Not only do we analyse our own culture but also begin to change our mindset and open our minds towards the understanding that individuals’ thinking differs according to the language they speak, which explains Wittgenstein’s quote above that “The limits of my language mean the limits of my world”.

Learning a foreign language is the ability to develop interculturality and intercultural awareness. Learning a language is the ability to travel and not only understand the language itself, but understand that thinking differs according to the person you are speaking to and according to the culture and context you are immersed in.

Although most language learners’ reason is that they want to learn a language to travel the world or get a better job, they underestimate the character changes that occur when we learn a different language. Having said that, we must then turn to the extremely crucial role a language teacher has in the classroom, as this role goes beyond teaching the language per se.

This is one of the reasons why we have embraced Project Based Learning. PBL is about making connections between what is happening outside the classroom walls and the content. In language learning, it is obviously also about linking all these aspects to the language. It is about inquiry, having students dig deeper into their own learning, interpreting meanings and analysing data and most of all, explore topics students are passionate about. This is when we see true engagement, collaboration and all the 21st- century skills being applied by the students. However, it means that we need to, now more than ever, understand the concept of student centeredness and all that comes with it such as design thinking, creative and critical thinking, thinking routines, understanding the impact of Bloom’s taxonomy and questioning in the classroom, and other techniques we can use to boost our students’ cognitive skills. Another key element for successful PBL is collaborative work. Students need to learn how to work as a team and at the same time be autonomous. All this can also happen inside the Language classroom, if we truly get students and teachers passionate about what they are analysing and exploring.

Teaching approaches such as PBL, task based, and content based are normally defined as using the dichotomies of fluency before accuracy or meaning before form (Littlewood, 2004), as students need to carry out the tasks by using the language and not simply understanding how the language works in a non-authentic manner. Nevertheless, as language teachers, we must understand that even though we are dealing with teaching in a student-centered context, moments of teacher centeredness do happen throughout these approaches. Teachers must be aware that there are different ways to conduct a class that engages and encourages students into deeper learning, despite being a little teacher-centered. The approach of PBL in a foreign language classroom is quite different than using PBL in the native language as students do have a certain language barrier to overcome. This is where we have to act and step in with our language teaching methodologies and also guide and scaffold students through their inquiry. At first, the inquiry is pretty much controlled by the teacher in order for the students to feel comfortable and confident. They need the time to understand how to take agency of their learning. Teachers must not dive straight into free inquiry for it may lead to unprepared and frustrated students.

Although techniques such as visible thinking and the thinking routines seem to be a little teacher-centered, as the teacher usually proposes a question and drives students’ thinking, these are techniques that make the implicit explicit, they guide learners' thought processes and encourage their active processing as they fully engage the students into their deeper learning, having them learn to observe, question and respond by showing evidence regarding a thought. These approaches go hand in hand when we are teaching children Art and Language, Science and language, Geography and language. Teaching children to observe, understand their thoughts and how they come to certain conclusions is not only working on their cognitive skills, but also encouraging them to think deeper and pay attention to small details they would otherwise completely miss out.

As I have said many times before, language is the means to learning about what happens in the world. As teachers, we must learn and use as many approaches necessary to engage our students in deeper learning and have them analyse the world around them and encourage them to express themselves in the target language, and while doing that, have them understand that people think differently according to where and how they live. Language learning is not only about the language.

Littlewood, W.: 2004, The task-based approach: some questions and suggestions, ELT Journal 58(4), 319-326.

Visual thinking :