Education and linguistics

Author: Christopher Brumfit


This article considers the relationship between linguistics and education. It outlines the key differences between the two disciplines, briefly summarises the history of linguistics within Education teaching in HE, and lists the ways in which linguistics informs both general educational practice, and the methodology of teaching languages.

Table of contents


The purpose of this article is to provide the background and a description of the ways in which Linguistics and Education interact with each other in current HE teaching. In a complementary article, 'Language and Education', on this site, Ros Mitchell, outlines some of the ways linguistic research contributes to the understanding of teaching and learning.

Two disciplines: education and linguistics

Much human activity could be described as educational, for human beings are distinguished by their capacity to learn, and learning is usually co-operative. "Education" can refer both to formal activity within controlled and planned educational institutions, and to the more informal upbringing of children or helping adults who wish to benefit from others' experience. Language is of course the most distinctive means of human communication and therefore for transmission of cultural understanding, skills and value systems.

The disciplines that have developed for the study of these two phenomena are known in higher education as "Linguistics" and "Education", but their histories as the sources of professional and scholarly understanding have taken different routes. Both are characterised, like most disciplines, by the tension between tidiness and manageability on the one hand, and closeness to their object of study on the other. The first takes us towards idealisation and formal models, and the second towards contextualisation and embeddedness in "real world" data. Linguistics has tended to move towards idealisation and formalisation of data, while Education has tended to resist calls for a formal science of learning. This is partly because Education is inevitably bound up with conflicting goals about the nature of the society it is aspiring to create, and political debates about control and investment. Linguistics is less liable to external political interference in the definition of its goals and procedures. Nonetheless, language and learning are so deeply implicated each with the other that it is difficult to conceive of a study of education in which communication and language are not central issues.

One effect of the different domains that each of these addresses is that Education, as studied and taught in higher education, is regarded as a field of human activity which can be investigated from the standpoint of many different, well-established disciplines: history, philosophy, psychology, sociology, among others - and of course linguistics. Branches of Education include not only pedagogy (procedures for effective teaching), but curriculum design, policy, comparative education, and the traditional core disciplines of earlier teacher education (but now largely abandoned) of psychology, sociology, philosophy, and history of education.

Linguistic study impinges on Education through two main routes. First, it has been the core discipline in work on teaching languages, mostly foreign and classical, but to some extent mother tongues. Second, it provides a foundation for studies of communication in the general educational process, mainly in relation to (a) literacy, (b) social behaviour in formal educational settings, and (c) learning processes).

The historical relationship between the disciplines

The close relationship between language and education is recorded for almost as long as either has been discussed. Certainly, in the western tradition since classical times the association of learning with rhetoric, reflected in (eg) Quintilian, testifies to a close connection between educational standing and oral linguistic performance. Even stronger has been the association between education and the development of literacy (reflected in the widespread use of the term "grammar school"), though this has also been closely connected with the political concerns about who, and how many, in any population should learn to read and write.

Current practice is most directly affected by the past century's greater involvement of government in all levels of education, including HE. This saw an immense increase in access to formal education throughout the world, alongside a similar increase in our understanding of contemporary, particularly spoken language use.

In English-speaking countries much HE work on the interface between the two fields has been driven by the expanding market for English as a foreign language, and for professionally qualified teachers in this field. This has been part of a world-wide development in which government agencies in most countries funded their educational provision to respond to pressures from a wide range of sources. Between them, parents, taxpayers, international agencies and researchers influenced governments with three major aims. These were (a) to increase multilingualism, including especially command of English (b) to defend minority cultures and thus minority languages in the face of a greater threat by global economic and political power, and (c) to exploit linguistic understanding that had been acquired as the volume of research in this field increased.

Language in education work has to make sense of the effects of these pressures on current educational practice. It is clear that the three aims potentially conflict with each other.

The contribution of linguistics to education

Areas in which Linguistics has been seen to contribute to understanding the total education process, beyond teaching methodology, include the following:

  1. the relationship between language and cognition;
  2. the role of language as a socialising agent within educational institutions;
  3. the relationship between language in the educational institution and the wider community;
  4. the role of language in general educational policy, in relation to (for example) national and international literacy policies, language in development, and language as a marker of local, regional, national and wider identities;
  5. language and its relationship to power structures and the manipulation of communicative strategies by those with power.

Areas in which Linguistics typically contributes to work on language pedagogy include the following:

  1. Basic descriptive and analytical work to establish skills necessary for (eg) describing target models and styles, learner errors or literary sources (conventional phonology, morphology, syntax, lexis, semantics, discourse);
  2. Sociolinguistic studies, geared to the understanding of language variation and change;
  3. Institutional sociolinguistic work aimed at national and educational language policy decision-making;
  4. Language acquisition and learning;
  5. Categories for the structure of language curricula: formal, functional, situational, etc.
  6. Research methods for understanding language use in the classroom (or in other acquisition settings);
  7. Language and ideology: power relations, the development of languages of wider communication, language loss (both individual and societal) - providing the context of much language teaching;
  8. Various specialised fields: literary stylistics, lexicology, etc for courses with particular orientations.

Educational linguistics

A fully developed Educational Linguistics has to integrate linguistic understanding with all the areas listed above. Thus educational linguistics is inevitably a sub-branch of applied linguistics, the study of language in real-world situations where the problems and conventions are defined by non-linguists, whether the general public or language professionals such as (eg) teachers or translators. It needs to be informed by linguistic research but it cannot be limited to it, for language activity is constrained by social, economic, political and ethical factors which are beyond the immediate concerns of Linguistics proper. Thus the individual contribution that linguists can make to educational work is twofold. First, they can provide technical understanding deriving from linguistic, psycho- or socio-linguistic research to address educational problems, or to enable educational practitioners to become more proficient in addressing them themselves. Second, they can contribute by collaborating with colleagues, or by themselves operating both as linguistic and as educational researchers and teachers, understanding the inevitable "messiness" of classroom and broader educational practice, in which so many agendas are competing for attention in limited space. The first contribution is relatively easy; it is in a sense a loaning of linguistic understanding to another field. The second is more valuable, but is more difficult, and involves individuals understanding sympathetically the nature of two distinct approaches to understanding and practice.


For the recent history of language and linguistics in teacher education: Brumfit, C. J. (1992). Language awareness in teacher education. In C James & P Garrett (eds), Language Awareness in the Classroom, 24-39. Harlow: Longman.

For the most authoritative history of language teaching related to linguistic ideas (broader than the title suggests in its consideration of theory of language teaching): Howatt, A.P.R. (1984). A History of English Language Teaching. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

For expansion of many themes of this article: Brumfit, C.J. (2001). Individual Freedom in Language Teaching. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

For an overview of language in school education: Brumfit, C.J. ed. (1995). Language Education in the National Curriculum. Oxford: Blackwell.

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