The dichotomy of academic and everyday language

Closely linked to the focus on language in the context of school and mathematics education, the term academic language is often used. Normative views lead the academic discussion and open up dichotomous distinctions such as everyday versus

academic language or either formal or informal. Frequently, academic language is seen as a language register that is used in the context of school and education in order to impart knowledge, and that orients itself by written language with its higher degree of complexity, explicitness and decontextualization (Heller & Morek, 2015). Academic language is conceived as a medium of knowledge transmission, as a tool for thinking, and as a ticket or visiting card for selected language communities - which means that academic language has a communicative, cognitive, and socio-symbolic function. Consequently, the mastery of academic language is crucial for a successful learning process as well as for building up a social identity. In contrast, the register of everyday language is often characterized as context-embedded, with a lower degree of complexity and explicitness, and seems to be less suitable for the negotiation of technical and intellectual contents (Heppt, 2016). Considering publications about the existence of language registers within an educational context it becomes clear that mostly only terms like ‘academic language’ or ‘language of schooling’ are addressed. Terms like 'everyday language’ receive less attention and it remains implicit that everyday language has opposite features (Bailey & Butler, 2003; Kern, Lingnau, & Paul, 2015).

But a dichotomous distinction such as academic or everyday language limits the assumption that there are many co-existing registers in the classroom which are “intertwined and dialectically connected” (Moschkovich, 2018, p. 42). If we consider the fact that pupils are confronted with academic language in many (or even all) classroom interactions, we could contemplate that academic language in the mathematics classroom could be seen as an everyday academic language, since pupils become familiar with it and its norms when participating in lessons every day for many years. Using the term ‘everyday academic language’ the dichotomous and normative distinction of academic and everyday language should be avoided. Instead, a changed perspective on the pupils’ language use without passing judgements on ‘worse’ and ‘better’ ways of using language is taken up. During classroom activities, pupils use multiple resources from their experiences both inside and outside of school. In this regard, everyday language should not be seen as an obstacle for participation and learning within the more formal academic mathematical discourse. It should not be self-evident that academic language is used in all situations or by all pupils in the same way to share meaning and knowledge. Pupils (and also teachers) do not solely use ‘the’ academic language but rather a mix of multiple resources from different language registers when doing mathematics. Following Moschkovich (2018), distinctions between the language registers should be recognized, but not by opening up a dichotomy that creates a rigid division, as this view is oversimplified and limits the linguistic resources of the classroom participants. Language should be recognized as “a complex meaning making system” (p. 39). With the focus on the pupils’ language during different educational settings within the mathematics classroom, the presented research aims to comply with these recommendations. Thus, the term discourse is of particular importance.


Moving away from the dichotomy of ‘either-everyday-or-academic-language’ could help to consider mathematical classroom discourses as a hybrid of different discourses with many co-existing registers. With the notion of the term ‘discourse’ attention is paid to the situatedness of the use of language during different mathematical activities. Taking a closer look at educational studies that use the notion of discourse (Planas & Schiitte, 2018), one can identify multiple meanings for this term as well as different analytic approaches to study (mathematical) discourses (Morgan, 2014; Moschkovich, 2018). Many publications in the field of language and (mathematics) education use the term ‘discourse’ to underline relationships between language, the social and situational context in which language is used, and the produced meanings in this context (e.g. Heller, 2015; Morgan, 2014; Moschkovich, 2007; Sfard, 2012). The presented research project predominantly makes use of the discourse concept of Gee (1999), who states that language is a tool for saying, doing, and being. Following this statement, it depends on the situation itself, to be recognized as a high-achieving pupil in mathematics (being). Something — meaning either words, or actions, or behaviours - that works in one setting does not necessarily work in other settings. It is not enough to use a prepared list of vocabulary with mathematical words like ‘subtraction’ (saying at a basic level). One also needs to be able to make sense of ways in which the word is used or put together with other words (saying at a higher level) to constitute a mathematical meaning and to express conceptual understanding (Moschkovich, 2018). Still, one needs to behave in the right manner, e.g. by giving explanations to peers during classroom activities (doing). Different situations create different opportunities as well as requirements to use language and to behave, and the classroom participants could be seen as a microculture that generates special ways of‘doing mathematics’ (Tiedemann, 2015).

Gee (1999) distinguishes between discourse (with small d) and Discourse (with capital D).The former he defines as ‘language-in-use among people’. In this sense, we are interested in “how the flow of language-in-use across time and the patterns and connections across this flow of language make sense and guide in interpretation” (Gee, 2015, p. 2) to build identities. However, such identities or activities are rarely enacted only through language, but with non-language aspects. In this way, Discourse (with capital D) is defined as “language and ‘other stuff’” (Gee, 1999, p. 7), by which he means things like gestures, bodies, interactions and beliefs. Every situation creates specific language-based requirements as well as (in)appropriate and (unsuitable possibilities to use language.

During our observations and analyses of primary school mathematics lessons we recognized a group of scenes with noticeable particularities on a language and therefore also on a learning level: At moments in which the learning content is ‘wrapped’ in a real-world context it seems to blur what is (mathematically) important. Within these scenes, our prime focus is on the language itself (discourse). To take into account ‘other stuff’ (Discourse), we additionally pose assumptions on the participants’ gestures, intonation, aims, and the opportunities to learn mathematics that result from the connection of the mathematical with a real-world context. Following the assumption that different situations create different opportunities to speak and - as the ongoing discussion about discursive language aspects also illuminate - different ways to participate, one also has to think about the impact of language use during different situations for mathematical learning.

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