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.
Even though the study is with older adults who speak English, I feel this work lends itself to the area of language teaching quite nicely. As I read through the article a second time, I tried to think about my students and how this would transfer into the classroom. Here are some of my thoughts:
  1. 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!
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
I don’t expect that everyone will feel the same way as I do about this article, but I hope you take the time to read it over and think about how this may apply to your classroom. Let me know what you come up with!


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

4 thoughts on “Languaging

  1. Good article, summary and food for thought. You might find Swain’s (2006) book chapter (see below) interesting, too. My question is, how does pronunciation fit into the concept of languaging?

    Swain, M. (2006). Languaging, agency and collaboration in advanced language proficiency. In H. Byrnes (Ed.), Advanced language learning: The contribution of Halliday and Vygotsky (pp. 95-108). London: Continuum International Publishing.

    1. Good comment, although I’m not surprised coming from you. 🙂

      I think there is a place for both. The purposes are different and would look different in the classroom. There would be a time for freer conversation and a time for correction. It doesn’t even have to be at that moment. It could be that you keep track of things that you can address with the student afterward.

      Thanks for the Swain reference. I will check it out.

      By the way, you may want to check out the #AusELT Facebook group. I may have mentioned you on there. 🙂

      1. Interesting. Corrective feedback is, ultimately, one of the art forms of pronunciation instruction.

        Thanks for the tip ree Facebook group. I’ve joined (hope they’ll grant me permission to do so).

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