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Intercomprehension in Language Teacher Education


Intercomprehension in Language Teacher Education


From language teacher to teacher of languages
or transfer of comprehension from one language to another

Michael Byram, University of Durham, UK.


I was invited to work as consultant on the final draft of the report in 2002 and to write en evaluation of the work. Previously I had acted as consultant to the Aveiro team and attended the international meeting of all teams in Vienna in 2001. I had therefore some understanding of the intentions of the international project although it became clear at the Vienna meeting that each team had, understandably and rightly, interpreted the overall project for their own educational system and context.

The concept of "intercomprehension" has thus been defined by practice rather than in advance by conceptual analysis. Furthermore the approach to teacher education has differed from one team to another. In the Norwegian case, experimentation in school classrooms was carried out before taking decisions on what should be included in a teacher education course, whereas in the Portuguese case, the focus was on working out a course for teachers based on concepts and aims of teacher education, linking this with classroom experimentation at a later stage. Both approaches seem to me to be reasonable.

Significant characteristics of the Østfold project

My purpose here is to consider how the Østfold project relates to other contemporary work in language teaching and teacher education.

1) "Intercomprehension" defined by experimentation

The authors have understood the notion of "intercomprehension" in terms of how learners can use their knowledge and experience of learning one language to learn others, and what this then means for teacher education and teachers' skills and identities.

They have shown what this concept means in school classrooms by experimenting, with the help of teachers willing to take risks, using techniques of developing children's awareness of language and how they can use their knowledge of one language (including their own mother tongue) to begin to understand and learn another. In this respect the project is related to work on "language awareness" started in the United Kingdom in the 1970s and 1980s, and to work on "éveil aux langues" in France and elsewhere at the current moment. The Østfold project has the merit however of comparing directly to what extent techniques can be used for different age-ranges, showing to what extent a technique can be used but has to be modified.

Furthermore, the Østfold project relies not just on language awareness and metalinguistic knowledge as the basis for transfer and intercomprehension. First, it shows how learners can be helped to use their knowledge of shared European culture and social structure to understand languages they have not actively learnt. Second, it introduces two further non-language elements which learners are encouraged to use, whatever their age, namely their understanding of genre and their familiarity with a theme which is being treated in their school in other subjects.

The use of genre to complement linguistic awareness is to my knowledge new and merits further study and development. It is shown in the report that learners can draw on their knowledge of genres which are at least European and perhaps even more international, to help their understanding of a text in a language they have not been actively taught.

The use of a theme/topic as an aid to understanding means that learners can draw upon their knowledge of a theme as treated in other parts of the curriculum than the languages class to develop comprehension strategies. This then in turn implies that a cross-curricular approach would allow language learning to be integrated into thematic and project work; often language teachers are left out of such project work.

So, in short, the Østfold project has extended the notion of language awareness in the service of intercomprehension to include genre and socio-cultural awareness - and also shown how all of this can be linked to cross-curricular thematic/topic/project work.


One of the questions I raised in a report for the Aveiro team after the Vienna meeting was the "extent" of intercomprehension, for example whether intercomprehension drawing on languages of the same language family is the same as that which relates languages of different families. In Europe today, there are not only languages of different branches of the Germanic, Romance and Slavic families, but also Semitic and other branches, not to mention the languages of Africa of quite different roots. The Østfold project brought out some of the differences between intercomprehension among Germanic languages and between Germanic and Romance languages. This needs to be highlighted and pursued in more detail. The question of a bridge between Western European languages and others has not been dealt with. It remains to be seen if other projects in other countries have done so.

2) Implications for teacher education

The second part of the report deals with plans and experimentation in a course for teachers who will be able to pursue the ideas which have been shown to work, with the help of volunteer and risk-taking teachers. Not all teachers are willing to take risks with new ideas without first having substantial help and it is reasonable to now consider what is required for teacher education if the ideas in the first part of the report are to be implemented more widely.

This part of the report is forward-looking in that the materials proposed are being developed and implemented; there are as yet no conclusions on the effectiveness of this work. (It remains to be seen whether the plans here can be complemented by work carried out by the other teams, for example in Aveiro, who started with teacher education rather than with school classroom work.) What needs to be highlighted however is that, as indicated in the sub-title of the project report, there are major implications for teacher expertise and teacher identity. At the very least, teachers will need to see themselves as teachers of more than one language and indeed not just the languages in which they have high expertise. Their role will be to encourage learners (and themselves) to pursue plurilingualism, i.e. a facility and capacity in languages which is adaptable and dynamic.

There is also a possible implication in the report that teachers should see themselves as teachers of both foreign and mother/first languages, i.e. the notion of being "language educators". This is ambitious and unlikely to materialise in the near future but it is surely the way forward.


The materials and techniques proposed for the teacher education course do not have to be "re-invented" since such materials have been produced by those involved in language awareness and éveil aux langues projects. Such material has indeed been included. It is also noteworthy however that the experimentation materials and results form the first part of the project can be used in teacher education and thereby make the work more easily related to the Norwegian classroom. This is good for credibility in that it shows teachers on such courses that what they are studying is feasible in their own teaching situations.

The course is however also adding to the materials for training teachers in language awareness by identifying the significance of genre and them (and socio-cultural knowledge) for intercomprehension and transfer. It is perhaps here that more development is needed. How is this approach to transfer to be introduced to teachers so that they can use this knowledge systematically in their planning and in creating cross-curricular projects. Similarly, the explicit links with the teaching of mother tongue, Norwegian, is an issue which will need to be addressed, even though this goes beyond what the National Curriculum envisages.

It is evident therefore that the project will lead to further work and will have a longer term effect. This is important to note as projects often close and have no further effect after funding has finished.

The national and the European contexts

As pointed out earlier, it is evident that the different teams have adopted the project as a whole to their specific contexts. In the Østfold case, there is an explicit link to developments in the Norwegian national curriculum. This provides a springboard for the experimental work and a justification for the cross-curricular work and for work in the language classroom which involves more than one language - including the use of the mother tongue.

The experiments show that first/mother tongue work (in this case in Norwegian) can be linked to foreign language work. At the moment the national curriculum seems to encourage multi-language work in the (foreign) language classroom. It remains to be seen if the implications for (foreign) language work in the mother tongue classroom - or some integrated approach to language education - can be developed from ideas such as these.

It is evident that the Østfold project is in harmony with developments at European level. The pursuit of plurilingualism is recommended by both the Council of Europe and the European Union. It is evident that this cannot be attained simply by adding more language learning to the curriculum in the form of more languages demanding a higher proportion of curriculum time, but that work on "intercomprehension" is a possible way of bringing greater linguistic diversity into the curriculum. (The Council of Europe in Strasbourg is currently working on ways in which policy deciders can promote linguistic diversity and "intercomprehension" work is clearly one option).

It is also a legitimate expectation in LINGUA projects that the question be asked to what extent a project has an extra dimension which would not have existed if the individual national projects had evolved independently. This is difficult to discern in the report of the Østfold project but it is evident that there has been cross-fertilisation of ideas (which I also saw during the Vienna meeting) and it is probably also the case that such a project would not have been possible without the funding but also the intellectual stimulus of international work.


The value of international projects is that ideas are more quickly shared and disseminated, and that individuals find professional stimulus by working with new colleagues and seeing conditions and contexts in other countries. This is the well-proven value of all Comparative Education. The evidence for these processes does not appear, as suggested above, in the products, but there is no doubt that it exists in minutes of meetings and informal interactions and exchanges.

It is also important in the specific context of European cooperation, that the particular processes and products of projects should be compared and contrasted with European level policies and developments. Policy and practice evolve on the ground in schools, colleges and universities as well as at governmental and European levels. Because of the ways in which ideas circulate, the two are often similar and compatible with the former showing how the latter can be realised and implemented. It is however also the case that work on the ground pursues different agendas which can inform governmental thinking and it is important to produce an overview of the results of projects such as this one and of their wider significance. This is still to be done, but the evidence from the Østfold project is that it would be worthwhile.


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