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Description

In the context of Eu & I, we have started from the general concept of Discursive Competence. In this context, we have focused on the notion of Intercomprehension, taking it in its broader meaning: the receptive competence in an unknown language is to be seen, not only as the result of linguistic transfer (in-between languages of the same family), BUT (and especially) as the result of the transfer of receptive strategies in the framework of "a general interpretative process which underlies all communicative activity" (cf. the Intercomprehension Portfolio). These strategies should be used as heuristic tools in order to achieve comprehension tasks in any language, and learning awareness is to be based on the consciousness of their use. It is thus the strategic component of Discursive Competence that is studied and developed in the context of this Project.

Therefore, our main objective is:

  • To contribute to the enlargement of language awareness in Europe through the development of a specific methodology for the learning of Intercomprehension (heuristic and interpretative competence in any communicative code)

For this purpose, the work will focus on two fundamental axes:

  • To create learning materials that will concretely support a methodology for Intercomprehension;
  • To disseminate the notion of Intercomprehension and its concrete applicability on the daily life of common citizens.

Institutional frame

The EU+I project brings together teachers from 14 schools of secondary and higher education in 11 European countries.2 The aim of the project is to contribute to the improvement of language awareness in Europe through the development of a method for teaching intercomprehension skills. This is to be done through both the creation of learning materials and the dissemination of the notion of intercomprehension and its concrete applicability to the daily life of common citizens. In practice, the interactive learning materials have been designed for a DVD format.3
The design of the educational materials has been the responsibility of different thematic focus groups4, which were in turn aided by the findings of a small research group. Coordinated by the first author of this chapter, the research group set up an experiment to test a prototype educational activity (i.e. a task) on groups of participants in four countries. The aim of the experiment was two-fold. On the one hand, we wanted to assess the suitability of the task for promoting intercomprehension. On the other hand, we were interested in any (short-term) language learning effects that might be brought about "incidentally" during participants' quest for (inter)comprehension.

Theoretical frame

Whereas the majority of work done in the area of intercomprehension has up till now focused on multilingual comprehension between closely related languages, the EU+I project places intercomprehension in a broader framework, emphasizing the extra-linguistic interpretative strategies that underlie all human communicative activity (cf. Capucho 2002). The working definition of intercomprehension adopted in the project is as follows: "the competence to co-construct meaning in intercultural/interlingual contexts and to make pragmatic use of this in a concrete communicative situation" (Capucho & Oliveira 2005:14). In other words, intercomprehension is conceived first and foremost as a person's ability and willingness to give meaning to discourse in concrete interlingual /intercultural communicative situations, even if it is "foreign" to the interpreter and formally unrelated to the code he/she has learnt. Indeed, the working hypothesis is that, in order to interpret a message in an unfamiliar language, people will rely on non-linguistic elements in the situation which they may (deem to) recognize from familiar communicative situations in their her own language or culture.

The project draws on a model of discursive competence that was further developed by Capucho (2002:60; 2005) and Pencheva & Shopov (2003) on the basis of work by the Geneva School (see e.g. Roulet & Fillietaz 2002). In this model, a person's discursive competence and, for our purposes, receptive competence comprises three dimensions: a textual dimension including all the knowledge a language user has about genre and discourse or text structure; a situational dimension that is largely extra-linguistic as it consists of socio-cultural, interactional and pragmatic knowledge, and finally a purely linguistic dimension in the sense of morpho-syntactic, lexical and phonological knowledge. In this model, the three different dimensions of knowledge are built and activated by general cognitive abilities as well as strategic and affective components such as motivation. In case of a knowledge deficit on the level of one of the three knowledge dimensions, sufficient general cognitive, strategic and affective abilities are believed to activate the other two knowledge dimensions, allowing a person to construct some meaning in a particular situation even if the purely linguistic resources are limited.

Other authors have proposed slightly different categories of knowledge that can be activated if a person approaches a "text" in a language they do not know (see e.g. Doyé 2005b for more references). None of the models would claim, of course, that these other levels of knowledge will entirely compensate for a linguistic deficit in any situation[O1] .

Apart from these theoretical considerations, the project is also founded on the observation that in real every-day communicative situations and perhaps the more so in initial multilingual/intercultural contacts, people are predominantly faced with "text" that does not stand alone. Whereas comprehension studies and intercomprehension projects have often concerned themselves with longer monologic texts, EU+I has focused on "text" that is strongly embedded in other semiotic layers and has therefore based its work on e.g. songs, television news broadcasts, standardized internet forms and the like. If people are to be made aware of the reservoirs of knowledge they can mobilize to interpret text in a code they are not at all familiar with, the contextual triggers of that knowledge should also be clearly present. In the experiment that we will discuss in the next section, we tried to discover more about how people actually deal with a communicative task that was developed along those lines.

Whereas the possibilities and limits of intercomprehension in a particular simple task are in themselves interesting, language users, policy makers and linguists might be especially interested in the additional question whether and how much "language" people learn from doing such a task. Does the participant also pick up linguistic information that they might be able to use to their advantage next time? If the answer is affirmative, and doing a simple task in a "new" and fairly remote target language enables the user to remember some language on the way, chances are that over time they might be able to move on to tasks of increasing complexity, involving increasingly advanced linguistic needs. In effect, they would be learning to understand the language significantly better without formal instruction and also by-pass the necessity of one lingua franca. In other words, if intercomprehension is to become, in time, a realistic alternative or complement to the use of a lingua franca, then we should ask ourselves the question if simple realistic tasks like the ones we have designed with the aim to foster intercomprehension skills also have an "incidental" language learning effect. In fact, the long-term success of intercomprehension as a communicative process may to a considerable degree be dependent on its practitioners' ability to distil "knowledge" of the given unfamiliar language through repeated encounters with it, so that the target language "deficit" becomes smaller over time.