Theorising academic language and learning: Past, present and future

  • Gordon Taylor
Keywords: theory, theorists, history, Enlightenment, uniformity, variety, agency, identity, power/knowledge, determinism, consistency/ completeness, practice


“Language is the only true and verifiable a priori framework of cognition.” George Steiner (1975, p.81) In this introduction to the symposium papers collected here I offer my own perspective on the past, the present – as represented by the papers before us – and the future of academic language and learning. The first is to remind ourselves of the restricted, not to say arid, theoretical state of our field of study when I first began this work in the 1970s. The widely used tags “study skills” and “remedial English” revealed this poverty of almost exclusively Anglo-American thought in all its nakedness. In the present collection readers will find many approaches to theorising with varying starting points, the great majority – with the partial exceptions of genre and rhetorical theory – stemming from the thought of Continental Europeans. I shall list these, making a few comments in passing, and then try to distil a few themes that struck me. Notably, there is an absence: the almost total abandonment of psychological learning theories as being at all helpful. Then there are three closely interconnected themes on which I focus. First, identity and difference raises its head in many of the theories, a question which has wide ramifications in what follows. The other two are the fortunes of the theory of power/knowledge regimes and the degree to which linguistic and rhetorical (or genre) structures constrain students as learners and human agents. This introduction concludes with a meditation on how the Academic Language and Learning (ALL) field might deal with the plethora of theories being offered, how a sophisticated “theory of practice” seems already to be emerging as a common pursuit, and how this development might be handled in the future amidst constricting Enlightenment ways of thinking – beliefs and practices which are seriously at odds with the kind of culture towards which most of these papers are striving.
How to Cite
TaylorG. (2014). Theorising academic language and learning: Past, present and future. Journal of Academic Language and Learning, 8(1), A1-A13. Retrieved from