Another dot in the blogosphere?

Is language ability a barrier to thinking?

Posted on: September 5, 2014

I read this MindShift article on the problems with BYOD for immigrant students. Not only did the students have relatively low access to their own technology, their inability to communicate in a common language was a major barrier.

But the author made a statement that made me pause for thought: They don’t have the academic language yet to show any critical thinking because that’s where they’re at in their language development.

I can relate as a person who struggled with a second language. I could not express my thoughts or ideas. But that did not mean that I did not have thoughts or ideas.

My experience with older learners has been different from the article’s author. I have conducted week-long workshops with learners from Korea and Bhutan.

The Bhutanese had a better command of English, but they would return to their native tongue every now and then in group discussions. The Koreans struggled with English and I interacted with them through an interpreter. But when they had work to do, they would rely on Google Translate to transliterate what they wrote in Korean to English.

In both cases, I found that my learners were both creative and critical. They did not let their lack of ability in English hold them back. They resorted to educational technology tools like translators, YouTube videos, mindmaps, and photo editors to express themselves.

It would have been ideal if all of us had a similar level of proficiency with English, but the circumstances dealt us with a mixed deck of cards. That did not stop us from devising our own rules for the communication game. That will not stop other learners from doing the same if we simply get out of their way and let them show us how creative and critical they can be.

2 Responses to "Is language ability a barrier to thinking?"

I understood his sentence to mean that the learners COULD NOT EXPRESS THEIR CRITICAL THINKING IN THE NEW LANGUAGE…. and implies that language skills are necessary to both reflect and to inform critical thinking….in his view, that the language expertise required is that of “college academic” level. SO – your comment reflects that what your learners reflect in their level of “critical thinking” is adequate enough (from your point of view) to be called “critical thinking”…. but THAT is a matter of perspective and personal interpretation. Since the expression of critical thinking is generally a product of education and language skills – (compare and contrast, etc…) – lacking those diminishes the discourse to simple terms and constructions, hence, cannot express very complex thought processes….and this is why we don’t often have “philosophical” discussions in language classes…..


…and so – just as we have noted that students with low reading (language) skills have difficulty in showing their capacity to think critically…. (and they seldom do well past 6-8th grade)…. we can note that the lack of vocabulary and language knowledge results in a barrier to thinking…. in general (because they don’t understand higher level discussion in a foreign language and may not have higher level critical thinking skills) AND-OR they have a major barrier to thinking in the foreign language about things that require critical thinking. Either way,the need to resort to “creative” ways to express themselves reflects the problem….


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