The Language of Learning

Posted: February 26, 2012 in Academics, Analysis, Communication, Education

The philosopher and pedagogist, John Dewey, once emphasized that for education to be constructive for the society: it must not alienate the student in its processes. That means it must be authentic and grounded on the real-life experiences of the students. Chomsky establishes that language is not limited to the verbal structures, there are other symbolic means to represent the world which has impact into the learning processes of the individuals. Learning is a complex cultural, social, psychological and biological process, and the dominant world language is not the only medium for learning.

Vygotsky defines learning as a permanent behavioral change in an individual and this takes place with the nurturing supervision of a mature adult to scaffold a learner from the current development to a more competent state. Freire argues that genuine education that is emancipatory is grounded in the cultural context – in the lived cultural experiences of individuals in a geopolotical system. Bandura establishes that learning takes place in social interactions – in our connection to the social world and everything in our environment. These philosophical and theoritical assumptions on learning establish the empirical bases to consider that education is adaptive to the social, cultural, psychological and biological nature of the learner, where the language that fits education is not reduced to a single dominant language.

Language is a vehicle of communication. Education which is all about teaching and learning is a communicative process. It is axiomatic that for teaching and learning to take place that language is used in the interaction between the pedagagouge and the learner. But learning is not simply about the interaction of the learner and the teacher. The learner must be engaged with other elements in the process, such as books, realia objects, environment, cultural artifacts, tools and technology. In these interactions, mastery of specific language is required for the learner to have a grasp of the learning concepts.

English is a language, and so are Filipino, French, German, Nihonggo, Mandarin, Latin, Arabic and the many others. The Filipino language which is a cultural artifact does not carry a value higher or lower than any other language, because culture is a rich and neutral matrix of values. Should teaching then be confined to the use of English languge when not every student is adept with it? Or should teaching be more flexible to adapt a language that is understood by most? But, how about the existing social expectations of the larger community about the language of the educated person?

This is a dilemma for a country which operates with a largely Western orientation about education. An effective curriculum should adress, foremost the learning needs, secondly the society’s needs and lastly serve the institutional dictum. When students raise the need for understanding, language must be adjusted to their level so that discursive interaction may take place. When the society and the industry demand for graduates with very high English language proficiency, the curriculum must provide the mechanisms and programs for that. What is the language of business? What degree of proficiency in that language of business is needed? The institution must adjust the curriculum to both the learner’s needs and the society’s needs.

Learning should be authentic, that it should adress societal needs. At least, within a framework of the universty as a manufacturing stage to produce qualified resources for capitalistic labor, higher education should match their graduate attributes to industrial needs to make their products more employable. In culturally-based frameworks of education, Paolo Freire argues that it should be emancipatory. Education must be liberating for the learners, moving the students from ignorance to knowing, from passivity to taking actions to better their causes.


A learner’s ineptitude or lack of proficiency in one language can be delibitating. That is true in cases when language is so foreign or alien to the learner. To learn better, the student needs to be more adept with the language. One who is not just good in English will be challenged as they are at risk of not understanding anything in a largely English based curriculum. That learner needs to proficiency in reading and speaking the required language to participate in the active process of academic discourse. But, is English the only medium of instruction? Is English the language of economic production? Is English the only language the industry speaks? Is English the language of liberty and progress? Is it the language of the Filipino’s daily life?

The issue of language in Philippine Education has long been debated upon. There are those who think it should be English. Others think it should be Filipino. Some others think it should be bilingual. There are various perspectives. Theoretically though, there is not one specific language for Education. For if this is so, the world’s education will have common language of instruction. English proficiency is not a language of social status, it is just another language among the many others. The best language of learning is one that changes the behavior of learners, which turns them to become vital contributors to the development of our society.

  1. dledda says:

    I like your discussion on the language of learning. There are many faces to this language policy issue but I think it still boils down to the quality of education in the country.

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