Image courtesy of Javier Prazak
I think everyone has had one of those moments where something happens that you just need to share it with someone, anyone. I had one of those instances this afternoon. I was looking for something completely different when I stumbled on this fantastic research article from Merrill Swain and Sharon Lapkin (2011) on the role language plays in creating cognitive change. I’m sorry, what’s that? It doesn’t sound that fascinating to you? It didn’t to me either until I started to read it. For some reason, the subject resonated with me and I will attempt to explain why that is.
I think the easiest way to start is to take you through a bulleted summary before drawing out some of the salient pieces:
- Languaging is a term used by the authors to describe “the activity of mediating cognitively complex ideas using language”.
- The authors put forth a solid argument for using language to develop cognitively. They also hypothesize that memory and cognitive functions can be restored in older adults through the use of ‘languaging’.
- The authors also state that isolation and the reduction in the use of language in conversation can lead to a loss of higher cognitive activity, memory, and attention.
- The study involved a number of older adults in a living facility that have started to show signs of memory loss and are also isolated. The case study given involved a woman who had difficulty remembering details from her life after living in a long-term care facility due to MS. Through a series of interviews and conversations with the researcher, this woman begins to regain her higher level cognitive processing ability and starts to recall specific details and the order in which the narrative took place.
- Speaking is NOT simply about using vocabulary and grammar. As stated in the article, there are more things going on in our mind then simple memory recall. We are listening, remembering what they said, adapting to what has been said (especially if it goes against what we already believe), adapting to the culture and situation, and then producing. No wonder my students stumble in speaking!
- Speaking should be more than just utterances. We need to have students think about details, recall information, change the environment, and force them to think at a higher level. This will have long term gains in their ability to recall information.
- Our role as facilitator should not be dominant. We need to allow students to struggle and work through the language, not just interject when they are having difficulties. This needs to have some sort of balance or we will cause them to become discouraged, but we need to monitor the amount of times we step in to help.
- Fixing every error in a student’s speaking is not the objective. If we want students to learn to deal with language more cognitively, we need to allow room for negotiating the language without the reliance of the instructor. Also, since language is more than the use of words and their structure, it isn’t ‘wasted’ time.
Swain, M. and Lapkin, S. (2011). Languaging as agent and constituent of cognitive change in an older adult: An example. Canadian Journal of Applied Linguistics, 14(1). 104-117. Retrieved from http://ojs.vre.upei.ca/index.php/cjal/article/viewArticle/669