LINGUIST List 26.5502

Thu Dec 10 2015

Review: Applied Ling; Cog Sci; Lang Acq; Socioling: Witte, Harden (2015)

Editor for this issue: Sara Couture <>

Date: 19-Aug-2015
From: Tünde Bajzát <>
Subject: Foreign Language Learning as Intercultural Experience
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Book announced at

EDITOR: Arnd Witte
EDITOR: Theo Harden
TITLE: Foreign Language Learning as Intercultural Experience
SUBTITLE: The Subjective Dimension
SERIES TITLE: Intercultural Studies and Foreign Language Learning - Volume 16
YEAR: 2015

REVIEWER: Tünde Bajzát, University of Miskolc

Reviews Editor: Sara Couture


The volume entitled “Foreign Language Learning as Intercultural Experience” and subtitled “The Subjective Dimension” edited by Arnd Witte and Theo Harden is the 16th volume in the series of Intercultural Studies and Foreign Language Learning. The book is based on the topics discussed at the conference organized by the editors at the National University of Ireland in Maynooth in August 2013. It is comprised of two sections the first one contains discussions about the theoretical issues of the topic of foreign language learning, and the second part shows the empirical studies carried out in the field. The ‘Introduction’ explains the book’s focus and organization, and briefly describes each paper.

The first part of the book is entitled ‘Theoretical considerations’ and contains four articles presenting different issues in the field of foreign language learning.

‘The Subjective Blending of Spaces in Intercultural Foreign Language Learning: Theoretical Considerations and Issues of Assessment’ written by Arnd Witte deals with the issues of first language acquisition, socialization and enculturation of the mind, blended space theory (see Fauconnier 1997) and the problems of assessing the intercultural blended place. During the acquisition of the first language (L1), the child learns the language by participating in social activities, and the L1 transforms the child into a social being. The child acquires not only the language, but internalizes certain normative categories that structure social reality and subjective cognition. The foreign language classroom provides a new space for the subjective reconstruction of L1-mediated values and beliefs. When we try to understand and construct new information, we blend this new information with existing knowledge, which will result in novel knowledge. In intercultural foreign language learning, the processes of blending refer to the changes of aspects in one’s behavior, attitudes, emotions and identities. In the foreign language classroom it is important to occasionally step back and reflect on the learning process, because intercultural competence must be consciously, deliberately and intentionally addressed and developed. The author concluded that due to the high degree of subjectivity in intercultural blending spaces it is difficult to assess the progress of intercultural learning and the degrees of intercultural competence required by educational institutions, in an instructed learning context only cognitive knowledge can be evaluated.

In his paper ‘Communicative Competence for a Sitcom Audience,’ Virgílio Pereira de Almeida investigated which competences an English as a foreign language (EFL) learner must possess in order to be able to understand the humor of sitcoms. His research is based on Celce-Murcia’s model of communicative competence (2007), which contains the following competences: discourse, socio-cultural, interactional, formulaic, linguistic and strategic. According to the model, only by the means of integrated and cohesive use of the six competences can a person fully function in a speech community. The study analyzed the releases (i.e. when the audience laughs) in seven episodes of the sitcom ‘The Big Bang Theory’. The results showed that linguistic competence (70%) is the most required of the six competences, followed by interactional, socio-cultural and formulaic competences. The author came to the conclusion that an EFL learner with the proficiency of only the linguistic competence would not be able to understand 30% of the jokes, and at the same time the data proved that many other aspects of communicative competence is required for an EFL learner.

Werner Müller-Pelzer, in the study entitled ‘The Role of Corporeal Communication in Foreign Language Learning as Intercultural Experience,’ first discussed the theoretical approaches of subjective experience, intercultural social practice, language learning and acquisition, and corporeal communication. Then the author described the role of corporeal communication in foreign language teaching. In case of adult foreign language learners, the contact with the target culture is mostly indirect, the corporeal and atmospheric resources are limited, corporeal cultural contact are rare, the home country and its language is the predominant social and cultural reference. Therefore, Werner Müller-Pelzer suggested several activities that can be employed to help learners adopt to new situations and to integrate themselves into another culture. They offer several opportunities to acquire a foreign language as a subjective, corporeal grounded experience in different culturally determined situations. He concluded that foreign language teaching in universities reached a turning point and classroom teaching will be more of a coaching activity.

Theo Harden’s article, ‘The Most Frustrating Experience in Foreign Language Learning: Listening Intently and Still Not Understanding,’ investigated the issue of one of the four skills in second and foreign language learning, namely listening. Harden argued that although listening comprehension is the skill where foreign language learners experience the lack of success most, it is still paid the least amount of attention in foreign and second language research and in the classroom. He compared the differences of listening in one’s first language and in a foreign language, described the problems that non-native listeners encounter at all levels of speech processing, and mentioned a number of factors and compensatory strategies that help to process the information. Since listening is a potential source of stress and anxiety for language learners, he concluded the article by suggesting that more emphasis should be put on listening skills in the classroom and at the same time more structured research should be carried out in the area of listening comprehension.

The second part of the volume is entitled ‘Empirical studies’ and contains eight papers describing empirical research studies carried out in Europe, the Republic of South Africa and Brazil.

In her article, ‘Social Identity and Language Acquisition: A Case Study,’ Elke Hentschel studied the role that identity plays in foreign language learning through an early state of language attrition. The person who the author researched was a young university graduate whose native language is Serbian. He moved to Germany to continue his university education and later settled down in the German speaking part of Switzerland, where he had been living for four years at the time of the interview. At first, he used German only at work and spoke Serbian with his German-Serbian bilingual wife and his family and friends. However, without any conceivable reasons, he started to use standard German in his private life and underwent the first symptoms of language attrition, i.e. he developed an accent in his mother tongue, he started to experience increasing difficulties with word retrieval and, he sometimes found it difficult to judge the grammatical correctness of a sentence. Hentschel investigated the reasons why the language shift took place in a situation where the new language was not even the language of the surrounding majority. In Switzerland, standard German is only used by those people whose native language is French or Italian and there are negative stereotypes and prejudices against ex-Yugoslavs. She argued that in such a situation it would be a reasonable option for the researched person to aim for integration or assimilation and adopt the local language. She came to the conclusion that the most likely reason for the language change was attributable to the subjective discrimination the researched person perceived. In other words, he did not want to be recognized as a member of a group that has been discriminated against and he felt that becoming integrated into the surrounding culture would imply adopting negative evaluation of his own background. Essentially, language change is not a reaction to the influence of an outside language, but mirrors a change of linguistic identity of the speaker.

‘Writing Academic English across the Disciplines: Intercultural Experiences of Different Kinds’ showed the partial results of the research project entitled ‘Publish in English or Perish in German?’ (PEPG), which was about academic writing and publishing in English as a foreign language. The authors, Claus Gnutzmann, Jenny Jakisch and Frank Rabe, aimed to present how non-native researchers and publishers view and respond to the increasing influence of English. Despite the widespread use of English as the international language of research and the increase in English-medium instruction in tertiary education all over the world, the authors argued that in the academic context of Germany – with almost 100 million people speaking German as their mother tongue – German is predominantly used in higher education in Germany and publications in German play a significant role in this context. The focus of the PEPG project was on research publications in international journals and four disciplines were chosen for analysis: biology, mechanical engineering, German linguistics and history. Semi-structured face-to-face interviews were conducted with 24 researchers from the 4 disciplines from German universities and 16 journal editors or publishing staff (4 people from each discipline) from international publishing companies. The selected results proved that language demands made on researchers and the language of education vary across disciplines, because in the fields of biology and mechanical engineering English is required for publication and teaching is mainly conducted in English. However, for German linguists and historians, writing a research paper in German is more common and almost all university teaching is done in German. Since English and German as scientific languages vary across the disciplines, the demands on non-native researchers’ language skills differ, as well.

Kristin Brogan, Helen Kelly and Muiris Ó Laoire in their paper entitled ‘Foreign Language Learning as Intercultural Experience: The Subjective Dimension’ described research on the relationship of cultural sensitivity and the development of language proficiency carried out among 50 Middle Eastern students attending a stay abroad preparatory program in Ireland. The findings pointed out that the participating students were highly motivated to learn English, took an active role in the process of language learning, and, in the classroom, they mostly enjoyed discussions, watching movies, language laboratory work, group work and music. They had a lack of time and opportunities to socialize and speak with the native-speakers and they had a strong cohesive group identity with a fear of losing face. In spite of these obstacles, their knowledge of Irish culture increased and their English language competence developed as a result of studying in Ireland. The authors concluded that the students’ cultural learning took place through self-discovery, development of relationships, increased familiarity with the host and own culture and the development of empathy.

In her article ‘Cognitive Dissonance and the Subjective Mind in Foreign Language Learning: The Use of Structured Academic Controversy in the German Language Classroom,’ Jennifer Bruen proved that ‘Structured Academic Controversy’ (SAC) is an effective tool in the language learning classroom. SAC is a pedagogical technique, which is designed to generate informed and constructive debate by learners on controversial issues with the aim of developing the learners’ critical thinking skills. She conducted her case study at Dublin City University among second year BA students studying German as a core subject. The objective of the German language module was to develop the students’ language proficiency and intercultural competency by using the SAC technique. The researcher selected a C-test as the measurement tool. A C-test is a complex language test, which was designed to measure a language learner’s overall language competence. It consists of several short texts written in the target language and from which the second half of every second word has been deleted, and the language learner is required to reconstruct the text. The results of the case study showed that the participating students’ language competence increased, which was measured by the pre and post C-tests and SAC was proved to be a useful technique in the language classroom.

Rachel Lindner in her study, ‘English Learner – English Speaker – Intercultural Speaker – Digital Native: Student Construction of Communicative Competence Gained through Reflection on Computer-Mediated Exchange,’ investigated the issue of telecollaborative projects. Such projects are effective tools for developing students’ linguistic proficiency, intercultural and computer-mediated communicative competences and critical thinking skills. She reported the findings of CMIC project, set up in 2001 initiated by Manchester University within the framework of a BA course in Language, Literacy, and Communication. In the English-medium online exchange, e-partners from Manchester, Munich and Ljubljana Universities took part in the study. After two months the students had to write a reflective assignment about the experience of their online interactions and project journals. All participating students were considered to be digital natives, i.e. they were born between 1980 and 2000 and are familiar with using digital and electronic technologies. The outcome of the study showed that the online environment concealed both cultural and language differences and shifted the students’ focus from communication on the large culture level and the differences between those cultures to the competences involved in collaborating in a small and culturally unique group.

Undine S. Weber’s paper ‘Can Studying a Foreign Language Build or Improve (Inter-)Cultural Competence? A Preliminary Case Study of Students’ Subjective Impressions’ was set in the South African environment. The Republic of South Africa with its eleven official languages and cultures is proud to be a multicultural country, where students need to engage with the many cultures, but it is also important to be interculturally competent. The aim of Weber’s case study was to find out whether South African students felt the need for intercultural competence in South Africa, and whether they are genuinely interested in other cultures. The participants who completed her questionnaire were 18 South African university students learning German as a foreign language. The results showed that most of the students felt that studying about the literature and culture of the German-speaking countries increased their intercultural competence and their ability to understand, appreciate and interact with people from other cultures and their increasing competence in language and culture was experienced as a positive development.

In her article ‘Measuring the Unmeasurable: On the Objective Assessment of Subjective Learning,’ Rebecca S. C. Domingo suggested the medium of translation as a method to assess intercultural communicative competence (ICC). She described three ways that can be set up for this purpose. Firstly, students would translate a text, which has been carefully selected to convey intercultural information and after finishing the translation students may write a reflective piece to compare the source culture with their own. Secondly, students would analyze the source text and highlight the potential areas of intercultural interest; a good example might be a well-known piece of literature. Thirdly, students would carry out a cultural translation of the source text. She explained that the purpose of assessing the levels of subjective ICC learning is to show students how to engage with and express their own learning processes, and to help teachers assess the students’ own perception of their level of ICC and what the teachers can or need to do to promote their learning. Therefore she suggested guided writing exercises in the mother tongue as an assessment tool. She concluded by adding that the nature of ICC development is a lifelong learning and requires students to regularly reflect in regard to their own development.

Edna Gisela Pizarro and Juan Pedro Rojas’ paper ‘Developing Self-Learning and Intercultural Skills in a Spanish Course for Volunteers in the World Cup Brazil 2014’ investigated self-learning in distance education in a Spanish language course for speakers of Brazilian Portuguese developed for the Brazilian Ministry of Education and Culture’s volunteer program for the FIFA Confederations Cup in Brazil in 2013 and for the Football World Cup Brazil in 2014. The aim of the program was to train volunteers to assist the foreign visitors of the sports events in Brazil. The objective of the authors’ project was to develop self-learning and intercultural competences. The article illustrated with examples how each of the skills of intercultural competence was integrated in their project. After the course the volunteers had to fill out a questionnaire, the questions of which were included in the paper. The results pointed out that the course was useful for the participants, sufficient in terms of self-learning, and an enriching experience to look at their own language and culture through the eyes of a foreigner.


The edited volume offers twelve studies on foreign language education and intercultural competence development from the subjective dimension. Each paper discusses the topic from a different aspect providing theoretical background, core issues and key findings, research approaches, implications for foreign language education and further reading on the topic.

One of the major strengths of the volume is that it contributes to the field of foreign language education by providing different perspectives of foreign language teaching and intercultural competence development. It is an outstanding book, because it discusses foreign language learning from a new dimension, i.e. the subjective dimension. The fact that the authors are from different countries and cultural backgrounds and carried out their research studies in different linguistic and cultural environments of several countries and continents makes the book even more interesting and enjoyable to read. The volume is unique, because it examined studying not only English as a foreign language, but also German and Spanish.

Although each paper is written by a different author(s), the writing style is uniform, the partition of the volume provides for sufficient coherence and the relationship among contributions is maintained. Also, the bibliographies at the end of each paper offer the reader ample opportunities to further explore the topic, which is another merit of the book.

Besides the above-mentioned advantages, the volume is useful for foreign language teachers, practitioners and course designers because they can find several examples that they can employ in their everyday teaching and by adopting these techniques they can raise their students’ motivation, make their classes more interesting and help their students’ to further develop their linguistic and intercultural competences.

The book is an essential volume for scholars and researchers of linguistics interested in the issues of foreign language learning and intercultural competence development, because it describes several research studies and provides several examples of scientific literature, which will inspire thinking, theorizing and action.

In short, the volume edited by Arnd Witte and Theo Harden is a worthwhile read and welcome addition to our body of knowledge on foreign language learning and intercultural competence. At the same time it is an important contribution to the fast-evolving field of Intercultural Communication Studies. The book is of manageable size and scope, clearly worded, interesting, useful and opens new avenues for future research and study.


Fauconnier, G. (1997), Mappings in Thought and Language. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.


Tünde Bajzát is an Associate Professor of EFL in the Language Teaching Center at the University of Miskolc and she holds a PhD in Applied Linguistics. Her research interests include foreign language teaching, intercultural communication, business communication and English for Specific Purposes. She has published widely in these fields.

Page Updated: 10-Dec-2015