You are what you talk about

18th November 2005 at 00:00
Whenever people meet they speak, usually about the weather. This language interchange stretches from family life to the meaning of life.

Noam Chomsky says that language is innate, but it requires stimuli from other humans for language acquisition. The journey from "mamma" to elaborated language usage is long.

Steven Pinker says in The Language Instinct: "Language and its usage is a uniquely human characteristic enabling one person making noises to cause ideas to form in the mind of another."

Teachers often argue that language is the responsibility of the English department. This is a fallacy. Language is defined as "words and the ways of using them" - definitely not the sole perrogative of English teachers.

Schools are saturated with language. They are places where books are thumbed, summarised and revised; essays are prepared, written and marked; teachers explain, lecture, shout, and make jokes; and pupils listen, chatter, discuss, argue, reply, and make less funny jokes.

Teachers use elaborated language, richer in vocabulary and containing better grammatical structures than pupils, enabling a broadening of their linguistic horizons. As the Bullock report, A Language for Life, said: "It is the clear responsibility of all teachers to reflect the role of language."

The language a teacher uses will reflect the importance he attaches to it.

Teachers are proficient in their own subject's language, but pupils may encounter difficulties when faced with technical vocabulary.

Language skills would be acquired slowly, even with little effort to promote them. However, they are more effectively acquired if a teacher constantly and consciously reinforces them.

Douglas Barnes, in Language, Learner and the School, says: "The crucial quality of a teacher's language is whether it is warm, exploratory, available, encouraging the child to involve himself actively in the learning process or whether it is cold, inflexible, defensive or offensive."

Language, both oral and written, is the essential vehicle for communication. Lack of such skills limits thought. An awareness by teachers of the central role of language in the curriculum should enable pupils to have access to fuller and richer experiences in adult life.

Jim Goodall is a science teacher from Torfaen

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