The Role of Language in Knowledge Construction


The following article is part of a series of articles examining the future of language learning in the Digital Decade. It is part of the Future Classroom Lab’s DIGI-LINGO project, a three-year initiative aimed at exploring the capabilities of digital environments to unlock the potential of language learning, developing new teaching guidelines for digital language learning, and designing easily accessible methods for virtual language exchange.

Language plays a crucial role in knowledge construction as it mediates conceptual development by “languaging” (Swain, 2006). Languaging refers to “the process of making meaning and shaping knowledge and experience through language” (Swain, 2006). Therefore, “languaging” is essential to internalize conceptual knowledge, and consequently, carry out a deeper learning (Meyer, Coyle 2017 p.10).

Language seems to be the “primary evidence of learning” for linguists (Mohan, 2010) because it has the potential to make thinking and learning visible (Meyer & Coyle, 2017 p.10). The learner reveals the conceptual understanding through the language repertoire used to express thinking and understanding (Meyer & Coyle 2017 p.10).

Thus, it can be said that language has two functions in learning. On the one hand, language makes the understanding and thinking of the learner visible. On the other hand, teachers can use language as a tool to intervene pedagogically to reconfigure the conceptual structures of the learners (Meyer & Coyle, 2017 p.11), this is, the learner’s understanding and thinking about a specific concept. Meyer & Coyle (2017, p.10) underline the following ideas to explain the interplay between language and thinking:

1. Concepts and propositions are cognitive patterns of varying complexity.

2. The shape of those patterns is determined by language which indicates how individual elements of a pattern are linked.

3. Analogous to the view of the mind as a constantly shifting system, these patterns aren’t static but meaningful and dynamic: “In nature’s pattern forming systems, contents aren’t contained anywhere but are revealed only by the dynamics. Form and content are thus inextricably connected and can’t ever be separated” (Kelso 1995: 1).

4. Conceptual growth is the result of the complexification of the patterns underlying concepts and propositions.

5. “Learning new concepts or complex skills depends on practice, which creates specific neural wiring that supports schema or skills formation” (Jackson, 2011: 96).

The ideas explained by Meyer & Coyle (2017, p.10) reinforce the understanding of the interplay of language and learning to make learning visible and reconfigure conceptual structures, however, what linguistic tool makes the learning visible? Cognitive Discourse Functions (CDF) “are the specific cognitive-linguistic tools that make thinking visible and thus allow teachers to mediate their learners’ thinking and understanding by reconfiguring their internal conceptual structures” (Meyer & Coyle 2017 p.16).

CDFs are the linguistic tools interconnecting the four dimensions within the PTDL (Pluriliteracies Teaching for Learning) model for learning (Figure 3). CDFs promote the active role of the student in the process of knowledge construction since CDFs activate specific language processes (report, describe, classify, explain and define) that are essential for the formation and strengthening of mental patterns (Meyer & Coyle, 2017). CDFs could be understood “as ‘micro genres’ which can be combined to “build” the larger genres representative of the various disciplines like a lab report, for instance” (Meyer, Coyle, 2017, p. 13). The use of CDFs in teaching allows integration in planning, when students are asked to report, describe, classify, explain and define content the four dimensions interplay as the teacher will have to create a rich affective context where the student will engage and selfregulate his/her learning to master certain knowledge while practicing subject specific strategies and procedures to construct factual and conceptual knowledge with a purpose to communicate the learning making appropriate genre, mode and style choices. The use of CDFs as linguistic tools that make students learning visible will also allow teachers to intervene pedagogically to scaffold, give feedback, apply summative and formative assessment and evaluate and design the dynamic processes (Coyle & Meyer, 2017: Coyle and Meyer, 2021).

Dalton-Puffer (2015) & Polias (2016) created a classification, adapted in Table 1 below, to explain the connection between the activity domains, CDF and corresponding genres (Coyle & Meyer, 2017): 


All in all, it can be concluded that language plays an important and crucial role in the PTDL model for learning and that CDFs could work as linguistic tools to foster the integration of the dimension and the interaction among factors. 

Keep reading insights about the future of language learning – “Analytical Framework and Identification of Best Practices”, “Methodology and questionnaire”, “Results and recommendations based on questionnaires”.