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Intercomprehension in Language Teacher Education

2.0 The ILTE project - ideas, definition, aim

The foundation for Intercomprehension in Language Teacher Education from the Norwegian partner's point of view was the firm belief that when learning a foreign language, the mother tongue will be of great help and support, and so will any other linguistic and cultural knowledge, explicit or implicit. When learning the second foreign language, knowledge of the first foreign language - and the mother tongue - will support understanding of that new foreign language and facilitate acquisition of it. Language teachers should keep in mind the significance of having this capacity for understanding and learning languages and make use of it in the classroom. In a multi-linguistic and multi-cultural society this capacity may become increasingly important. In that perspective the question of how the language teacher of the future may differ from the language teacher of the past turned out to be one of the main aspects of the project.

It may be interesting to reflect on how the role of language learning has changed over the years. In the distant past the learning of languages was considered valuable in order to be able to read literature. In the more near past it was looked upon as an instrument to communicate with native speakers. At the present its major role is perhaps the possibilities offered for communicating with different people in the world at large. In all three cases, there is also the humanistic education purpose of creating an understanding of other cultures and peoples.

Another main aspect of the project was therefore the idea that European citizens ought to be motivated and educated to develop language skills in several languages in order to be able to understand and communicate with each other: plurilingualism, defined by the Council of Europe's Common European Framework of Reference for Languages - a handbook for language teachers and other language professionals as:

the ability to use languages for the purposes of communication and to take part in intercultural interaction, where a person, viewed as a social agent, has proficiency of varying degrees, in several languages, and experience of several cultures. This is not seen as the superposition or juxtaposition of distinct competences, but rather as the existence of a complex or even composite competence on which the user may draw.
(Council of Europe, 2001: 168)

Complete proficiency in a foreign language is not always necessary; in many situations and contexts partial proficiency will do, for example listening and reading skills. These skills are frequently referred to as the receptive skills of language learning, while speaking and writing skills are referred to as productive skills. Although it must be recognised that 'receptive' skills require energy and commitment on the part of the learner too, and in this sense are active skills, as many teachers of foreign languages have experienced, it normally takes much longer to develop productive skills than it takes to develop receptive skills. In Norway, for example, there has been a tradition for good receptive skills. This could be a cultural feature, since many Norwegians want to feel confident that what they are going to say in a foreign language is correct. So, if Norwegians could be convinced that it is valuable (only) to understand the foreign language, they might be motivated to develop the receptive skills listening and reading in a number of languages. This might gradually lead to development of the productive skills speaking and writing.

There is much talk these days about 'European citizenship' in relation to language learning. For example, it is the European Union view, expressed in the White Paper, that there are two functions for language learning, first to create the means of benefiting from a single market:

Proficiency in several Community languages has become a precondition if citizens of the European Union are to benefit from the occupational and personal opportunities open to them in the border-free single market. This language proficiency must be backed up by the ability to adapt to working and living environments characterised by different cultures.

And, second, to create the means of interacting with other Europeans:

Languages are also the key to knowing other people. Proficiency in languages helps to build up the feeling of being European with all its cultural wealth and diversity, and of understanding between the citizens of Europe.
(European Commission, 1995: 67)

The White Paper then goes on to recommend that European citizens should master three languages, their own and two of the other official languages of the EU.

Does this notion refer to the idea that to benefit from belonging to the European community one needs languages? Or does it indicate that learning more languages creates European citizenship? Furthermore, when one talks of "the new Europe" and "the European dimension", could it be that one refers to all the languages spoken in Europe? If that is the case, the learning of neighbouring languages, i.e. nearness in terms of geography, or the learning of a lingua franca may no longer be as essential as it used to be. This could then, in the long run, mean that for example English will lose some of its status as a lingua franca. The global power of English may then be changed from having the role of a lingua franca to that of a language learnt to acquire basic skills in another foreign language, i.e. a platform onto which other foreign languages can more easily be added.

Such reflections are the background for the way we have come to define intercomprehension as a tool with which to handle multilingualism in the future foreign language classroom: The future foreign language teacher will be the teacher of (several) languages rather than the teacher of (a) language; his/her role will be to develop languages skills rather than language skills and in the process develop the capacity for language learning at large.

Part of this picture is the role the mother tongue plays: the sense of learning languages starts from learning one's own language - this is where the foundation is laid for all languages learnt later in life, whether it is to a high proficiency level or to a lower partial-competence level. This is all the more the case when children grow up acquiring more than one language in their natural environment as is increasingly the case not only in the indigenous minorities, for example the Sami in Norway, but also among new immigrant minorities of refugees, economic migrants and asylum seekers. Interaction between mother tongue and foreign language teaching and learning can be a field where mother tongue and foreign language teachers meet, exchange ideas and experiences and plan common strategies for language learning development. Such strategies will in the end benefit the learner and his/her development as a learner of languages.

All this means that teachers' attitudes and pedagogical practices in the classroom may have to change from a fairly traditional (and narrow) view of what learning languages means to a broader view, where new purposes and new possibilities in the classroom are seen and developed. It also means that linguistic and cultural diversity shall be appreciated as a powerful factor, which will promote respect for and interest in a variety of languages and cultures.

Intercomprehension in Language Teacher Education has thus been a project aimed at broadening the sense of what learning/teaching languages can imply. On the one hand several languages rather than one language may be the topic in the foreign language classroom. This will not exclude one language, for example English in Norway, as a language more focussed on than any other foreign language. But in addition to focussing on one foreign language, the teacher will include features of other foreign languages as well, by exploiting the students' capacity for comprehending words, phrases and other linguistic and cultural elements in foreign languages at large. This is particularly the case where European languages are concerned, since the philological relationships among European languages allow learners to perceive links and similarities. Furthermore, it is a, perhaps regrettable, effect of colonialization that European languages are present in many parts of the world - Spanish in South America, French in Africa, Russian in Eastern Europe, as well as English almost everywhere - and this allows learners to use their European languages to communicate on a global level. This, we think, will enrich the learning atmosphere in the foreign language classroom both for teacher and students.

On the other hand we see language learning in a European as well as in a global perspective because both European languages and other foreign languages spoken in Europe can play an important part in a more comprehensive language learning process. These two aspects are parts of the same picture because in addition to a linguistic dimension where the transfer of language skills and language knowledge is central, there will also be a cultural, social and political dimension that relates to the new socio-political European context. And as was stated above, this context will comprise not only existing European languages and cultures, but also include languages spoken in Europe today that have their linguistic and cultural roots elsewhere, this being the reverse of the coin of colonialization and economic dominance of the West.

Next - 3.0 ILTE and the Norwegian partner's national context

Previous - 1.0 Introduction



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