SOCRATES/LINGUA ACTION A
Intercomprehension in Language Teacher Education
REPORT ON ØSTFOLD UNIVERSITY COLLEGE
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.