I have been looking for the perfect intercomprehension definition for a long time, and I unexpectedly found it on my plane to Strasbourg seven months after my graduation. It was a sunny September day in Rome, and a new linguistic adventure was waiting for me somewhere else. Although I had never spoken French and my mother tongue was Italian, I had attended an optional French course during my studies, and an intercomprehension laboratory coordinated by Elisabetta Bonvino and Diego Cortés Velásquez, both members of the Eurom5 team. Would all this have helped to face my first month in France? As soon as I stepped inside the plane, I had the answer that I was looking for: a huge YES.
The hostess greeted me very kindly: “Bonjour et bienvenue sur notre vol“. I looked for my seat and I was surprised to see that it was already busy. “Scusi, signore, credo che questo sia il mio posto”, I said. “Não há nenhum problema“, he answered. I finally took a seat and had a look at the in-flight magazine while sipping my morning coffee. At the end of the lecture, I realized that I could easily understand articles about food, travel and business in another language. But I wanted to go deeper, so I gave a quick and discrete look to the Portuguese novel of the woman by the window seat. Again, I could understand everything. During the intermediate stop, I met a Spanish guy who told me that he was very surprised to understand everything I was saying on the phone, even If he couldn’t speak Italian. For the first time, I was seeing with my own eyes what intercomprehension concretely was. For the first time I could figure out what “united in diversity” really meant. I felt that I was part of something bigger. I realized the power of speaking multiple languages, the power of diversity.
As a teacher once told to my class: “differences are just different ways to express the same thing. Discovering all these differences means discovering unity”.
Plurilingualism and intercomprehension as a result of the European policies on language education
Over the last decades, plurilingual approaches have grown in importance in the Council of Europe language education policies. According to the definition of the European frame for languages, plurilingualism emphasizes the fact that “as an individual person’s experience of language in its cultural contexts expands, from the language of the home to that of society at large and then to the languages of other peoples (whether learnt at school or college, or by direct experience), he or she does not keep these languages and cultures in strictly separated mental compartments, but rather builds up a communicative competence to which all knowledge and experience of language contributes and in which languages interrelate and interact“. (CEFR, 2001:4)
In other words, people have the great potential to exploit their linguistic background (which includes also dialects), in order to make sense of a text, either written or spoken. In intercomprehension, defined from Marie Christine Jaimet and Doina Spita as “a meta concept which includes the current concerns about multilingualism, lifelong learning, and the development of cognitive strategies for language learning” (Jamet & Spita, 2010: 9), the above mentioned principles of multilingualism have been theorized to design new didactic approaches.
Intercomprehension projects financed by the EU
Until the end of the 20th century, languages were compared mainly with the objective of preventing mistakes, while the advantages of exploiting them with a view to developing the multilingual competence of the learners were often overlooked. But on the threshold of the 21st century the situation started to change, largely thanks to the joint effort of the European Union and other national and international institutions, in financing and promoting research projects related to the issue.
The entry of intercomprehension in the didactic field was marked by international collaborative projects in which researchers, language experts, lecturers and institutions were involved. Most of the I.C (intercomprehension) approaches have been developed within the Socrates Lingua program: a measure which “aimed at teachers and students from formal or informal institutions in at least three countries coming together to form partnerships aimed on the one hand at raising awareness, motivating and informing European citizens about language learning and on the other at developing technical tools to facilitate language learning” (COE: 2007).
One of the first European projects to have made an handbook out of the I.C idea was Eurom4, coordinated by the linguist Claire Blanche Benveniste. The results of at least five years of experimentations formed part of an handbook published in 1997, which was enlarged and revised in 2011. The renewed edition allows to build receptive skills in Portuguese, Spanish, Catalan, Italian and French. The objective, as Cortés (2015:2) points out is “to train the learner to understand texts dealing with general topics in a short time (approximately 35/40 hours)“.
Within the Socrates Lingua program, we can also find Ariadna–Minerva, Galatea Galanet e Galapro, and Eurocom (for adults), e Intercom, Evlang, Ja-Ling, Itineraires Romans e Euromania (for children) and many others.
Even if the above mentioned approaches are based on the same theoretical principles, the objectives, and supports used can vary according to the target. Nevertheless, they share at least three objectives: enhancing the linguistic diversity of the European Union, exploiting the learner’s previous linguistic knowledge and emphasizing the positive transfer between related languages.
People have the great potential to exploit their linguistic background (which includes also dialects), in order to make sense of a text, either written or spoken.
My I.C researches
I came across intercomprehension studies because I really wanted to understand the role of comparisons between languages in foreign language teaching. For my thesis project, I started wondering how previous language knowledge of the learners could be exploited in order to learn/teach a language through other languages. In order to identify the main modalities and finalities of linguistic comparisons in traditional language learning, I analysed 50 course-books, with a particular focus on related languages (namely Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, French and Catalan).
At a later stage, I compared the results with the opinions of eleven teachers, (mainly university professors of Romance languages). The aim of contrastive references in the majority of L2 course-books appeared to be underlining the difference between the studied language and the mother tongue of the learners, or warning them about “false friends”. By doing this, learners are legitimate to think languages as parallel systems. This negative learning habit will be particularly unproductive when dealing when related languages. Furthermore, this mental attitude will affect the translation process in a negative way, making the realisation of a coherent and natural target text more difficult. In order to propose solutions that could benefit both the prior knowledge and the multicultural competence of the learners, I observed that the principles of intercomprehension could be integrated with a positive impact on the traditional didactic practices and translation degree courses.
Studying intercomprehension, ore more in general multilingual approaches can be a very helpful tool to boost ones linguistics horizons and to develop meta-cognitive strategies which can be applied indifferently to any language. Besides, as Blanche Benveniste already pointed out, this innovative way of considering languages can stimulate the learners to reflect on their own native language at a deeper level.
Last but not least, considered that comprehension is the first step in language learning, multilingual approaches can help the learner of a related language to overcome the initial obstacles of a new language.
From my personal experience with I.C, I can say that my attitude towards foreign languages has improved a lot, together with my “language wish-list”, which is getting bigger and bigger. Today I can read the press and watch films in Portuguese without having to pass through translation. Furthermore, I now dispose of an “inner store” of reading strategies that I use every day.
My interest in intercomprehension is always growing. Thanks to an Italian project, today I can be in France and continue my I.C studies, but in a few months I’ll be back to Italy to teach in a language school with a multilingual orientation. I sincerely hope to give my own small contribution in spreading the plural approaches in my country, and that these approaches will be known and applied worldwide.
Flaminia Paternoster holds a Master’s degree in Interpreting and Translation from the UNINT University of Rome (Università degli Studi Internazionali di Roma), and she received her B.A in Intercultural Mediation from Sapienza University of Rome. In March 2016 she graduated with a master thesis entitled “Contrastive dimension in language teaching. Analysis of didactic materials and practices”, with professor and linguist Francisco Matte Bon and Diego Cortés Velásquez. She is specialized in English and Spanish and she is currently studying French and German. She has spent her Erasmus in Seville. Her research interest include multilingualism, intercomprehension and translation. She is currently working on a project entitled “Intercomprehension and immigration: citizenship and new models for the social inclusion in Strasbourg.”
• Learn more about I.C approaches on the official European network of intercomprehension: http://www.redinter.eu/web/
- Blanche-Benveniste, C. (2001). “Nouveaux apports de la grammaire contrastive des langues romanes”. In Uzganga Vivar, I., Llamas Pombo, E. & Pérez Velasco J.M. (coord.), Presencia y renovación de la lingüistica francesa: atti del III Colloquio Internazionale di Linguistica Francese, Università di Salamanca, novembre 1997, Salamanca: Ediciones Universidad de Salamanca, 41-54. http://dialnet.unirioja.es/servlet/articulo?codigo=600446 [Last consulted: 18/10/2016]
- Cortés Velásquez, D. (2015). “Mona Lisa in the classroom. An education proposal for Integrated Training in Intercomprehension and Multilingualism”. In Dolci, R.Tamburri, A.J. (eds.), Intercomprehension and multilingualism an asset for the Italian language in the USA. New York: John D. Calandra Institute Transaction.
- Council of Europe (2001). “Common European Framework of Reference for Languages: learning, teaching, assessment”. Cambridge University press. http://www.coe.int/t/dg4/linguistic/Source/Framework_EN.pdf [Last consulted: 18/10/2016]
- Jaimet M.C. & Spita, D. (2010). “Points de vue sur l’intercompréhension: de définitions éclatées a la constitution d’un terme féderateur”. Redinter-Intercompreensão, 1: 9-28. http://redinter.eu/web/files/revistas/5REDINTER_intercompreens%C3%A3o_1.pdf [Last consulted: 18/10/2016]