Sequential recommendation aims to model dynamic user behavior from historical interactions. Existing methods rely on either explicit item IDs or general textual features for sequence modeling to understand user preferences. While promising, these approaches still struggle to model cold-start items or transfer knowledge to new datasets. In this paper, we propose to model user preferences and item features as language representations that can be generalized to new items and datasets. To this end, we present a novel framework, named Recformer, which effectively learns language representations for sequential recommendation. Specifically, we propose to formulate an item as a "sentence" (word sequence) by flattening item key-value attributes described by text so that an item sequence for a user becomes a sequence of sentences. For recommendation, Recformer is trained to understand the "sentence" sequence and retrieve the next "sentence". To encode item sequences, we design a bi-directional Transformer similar to the model Longformer but with different embedding layers for sequential recommendation. For effective representation learning, we propose novel pretraining and finetuning methods which combine language understanding and recommendation tasks. Therefore, Recformer can effectively recommend the next item based on language representations. Extensive experiments conducted on six datasets demonstrate the effectiveness of Recformer for sequential recommendation, especially in low-resource and cold-start settings.