Language Learning as Concept-Based Learning

To understand how to support English Language Learners in a diverse classroom setting, we must first have an idea of how it is that second or additional languages are learned. Obviously, immersion as a means to becoming fluent in a language is a well-understood and widely-employed method in language teaching, but how students learn language is still largely unaddressed. As in the traditional teaching of mathematics, where students are often not doing the math but instead watch the teacher do it for them, English teachers often put too much emphasis on memorizing grammar rules outside of any practical context.

In an article titled “Approaching the Grammatical Count/Mass Distinction From a Multimodal Perspective”, Derek J. Brown introduces a case study on teaching countable and uncountable nouns. Brown argues that language learners need to make their own meanings, and need mutl-modal interactions to help achieve this. In the case study, when ELLs were given the opportunity to rank and discuss criteria that make a noun countable versus uncountable, they exhibited a deeper understanding of the grammatical concepts. Students essentially created their own conceptual understandings of what makes some nouns countable and others not, and were able to engage with the language at a much deeper level than just memorizing word lists.

Teaching with the idea that students are not simply learning new words and memorizing them, but are in fact learning language concepts is crucial when integrating ELLs. Imagine a student from Indonesia who is learning English. “Good morning” is a common phrase that they will encounter daily, and is easy enough to memorize, but how does this student understand the phrase conceptually? The direct translation would mean “a blessed sunrise to 11:00am”, since selamat pagi in Indonesian is said only until 11:00am. From 11:00am to 3:00pm a different greeting is used; the day in Indonesia is divided differently than in the West. With all of the culture that comes embedded in languages, there are countless examples where meaning cannot be conveyed by simply translating. Sometimes the concepts simply do not exist in another language. The Portugese word saudade for example might be translated as “longing” or “yearning” in English, but is a much bigger concept, evidenced by the huge range of contextual uses it has in song lyrics.

In this TEDx talk titled “Teaching English without Teaching English”, educator and author Roberto Guzman describes how he engages his students in interactions where the focus is on students’ content (ideas) not form (perfect English). In line with David Perkin’s call to have students “play the game”, Guzman describes language learning as a painful process done most effectively by having students jumping in and trying to express their ideas. He stresses the importance of making mistakes or “developmental errors”. The language that students learn is important because of its relevance as they express their opinions. The “facts” of the language are memorized as vocabulary, but the concepts are learned when students have the chance to manipulate them. With this in mind, the challenge now is to create a classroom environment where ELLs have the opportunity to create their own meaning in English alongside their non-ELL classmates.


  1. I just happened to see this article yesterday. It is about words in other languages that describe an emotion for which there is no equivalent English word. It might be great material for some kind of learning engagement to do with a class. Perhaps there would be opportunities for the ELL students to be explaining something to the other students – flipping the paradigm in the classroom and providing a chance for the type of engagement talked about in your Welcoming ELLs in the Classroom post.

  2. Thanks a lot David, both for the article and the great suggestion. I love the idea! I did a brief discussion with the class about how a dog barks in Spanish vs. Chinese vs. English, and students were engaged. The inability to translate/transfer concepts would work superbly in a diverse class.

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