Language Education Policy Studies
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Defining Language and How to Act on It 

Language is typically used for communication (intelligibility) as well as linked to culture and identity, but is more than diction, syntax, structure, and symbolism. The consideration of language in education policies entails debates over how to conceptualize and what assumptions are in language itself.

First we find different “kinds” of languages: sacred languages, “killer” or dominant languages, “national” languages, the languages of schooling, lingua francas, etc.  “Indigenous” languages have their own semiotic system, more clearly tied to world view and way of life than the later secularization and detachment and translatability of western languages and invention of religions. Embedded in these are historical changes. See Indigenous Languages; World View; Monolingualism, Linguistic Intolerance, and the State.

         Different fields and different assumptions lead to multiple forms of praxis. Some scholars argue for grammars, dictionaries, proper instruction. Linguists may have constructed languages as monolithic, bound, and written systems for purposes of power. This so-called essentialized view may allow languages to be controlled and counted, and may have allowed identities to be tied to the building of nation states and used now for ethnic integration or disintegration. Other scholars argue for more fluid constructs of socially situated practice that draws on a linguistic repertoire. While the former allows a clear link between language, culture, and identity, and an approximation to biological species- the latter claim that identities and languages are performative and constantly negotiating. See Social Justice.

These definitions become important in order to decide how to discuss or act on issues such as language rights, language teaching, and language in education policies. It affects the way second and foreign language learners are taught and assessed. Clarification and conception of language concepts would contribute greatly to formulating more appropriate and just language in education policies and practices.


See Indigenous Languages, Language Variations, Linguistic Human Rights, Language Education Policy, almost every other topic in this website.

Another vision of language: Sacred Languages and Sacred Geometry:

The World Atlas of Language Structures (WALS) is a large database of structural (phonological, grammatical, lexical) properties of languages gathered from descriptive materials (such as reference grammars) by a team of55 authors (many of them the leading authorities on the subject):



  • Hill, J. H. (2001). Dimensions of Attrition in Language Death. In L. Maffi (Ed.), On Biocultural Diversity: linking language, knowledge, and the environment (pp. 175-189). Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press.
  • Lehmann, C. (2006). On the value of a language. European Review, 14, 151-166.
  • Pennycook, A. &. (2006). Disinventing and Reconstituting Languages. Clevedon: Multilingual Matters. 


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This information was originally published on the website of the International Network for Language Education Policy Studies ( as

Harrison, K.  M. (2013). Defining Language and How to Act on It. In F. V. Tochon (Ed.), Language Education Policy Studies (online). Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin—Madison. Retrieved from: (access date). 

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