Intercomprehension briefly explained
The following paper briefly explains the intercomprehension approach starting from five perspectives. Its objective is to provide a rapid and sufficiently complete information.
I. Some previous explanations about intercomprehension
- Intercomprehension (< inter + comprehension) means “comprehension of a (foreign) language or linguistic variety without having acquired it by formal learning or in its cultural environment”. At the source of the skill, we find linguistic structures shared by different languages and individuals.
- Trying to understand and be understood is in the very nature of every human being. Without this double-sided quality, fed by volition and linguistic knowledge, no language can be acquired, not even the mother tongue. Intercomprehension responds to these basic human instincts. Obviously, intercomprehension is ‘natural’, which fully explains the intercomprehension approach’s successfulness: It simply exploits the naturalness of mental processing of linguistic data, fostered by an appropriate pedagogical guidance.
- Intercomprehension and intercomprehension based communication are much older than our modern European languages whose norms, standardization and social dispersion only date back some hundred years.
- Intercomprehension works remarkably well between typologically closely related languages or varieties. Day by day, we encounter striking examples of intercomprehension based communication.
- Of course, intercomprehension does not only work between Romance languages, but between Slavonic, Germanic or other closely related languages too. Nevertheless, intercomprehension between German and Swedish for example is less evident than between French and Italian. One reason is that the correspondent Romance target language is less unknown than Swedish. But in Scandinavia, communication between Danes, Norwegians and Swedes is very often of the intercomprehensive type: Using her/his mother tongue, one can be understood by the foreign interlocutor.
- Reading intercomprehension is more evident than listening intercomprehension. The reason is that the time slot, in which listening must take place, is quite limited and that of reading is not. Thus, reading intercomprehension leaves much more time to think about how a target language functions; a hypothetical grammar can be constructed and sustainability measures be undertaken.
- Boundaries between languages and languages, languages and dialects, dialects and dialects are often fuzzy and permeable. Besides, no language of our continent is exempted from what is called the European koine, which we particularly owe to Latin and ancient Greek. For more than thousand years, especially Latin enriched our modern idioms.
- The overall European tradition – Antiquity, Christianism, the Middle Ages, Renaissance, Enlightenment, Industrialization, modern life style, etc. – has bound our cultures and idioms together, far beyond language families. In German, Polish, Russian and Dutch…, most cognates are of Greek or Latin origin. In addition to the remote etymological relationship, the citizenship of each European language in the occidental Republic of Letters regularly demanded adaptations of the inherited ancient vocabulary to new linguistic needs. Very often, the ancient etyma were completed with new significations; in many cases, the new significations hid behind Latin forms. The lexical enrichment encompassed a large range of issues and domains: sciences, politics, culture, commerce, education, etc. Experts use the term “erudite filiation”. Finally, the Greek or Latin-rooted vocabulary provided elements (lexemes, morphemes) which served for creating new words. Linguists speak of “neo-Latin (Greek) compositions”. Mainly, our scientific terminologies and learned vocabularies consist of such compositions. The spreads of knowledge especially came from books, i.e. universities, cities, monasteries, schools, libraries and other places of erudition and learning.
- As the ancient remote and the modern type of etymology indicate, plurilingual competence – regularly accompanied by the intercomprehensive skill – has characterized the educated European’s profile from Antiquity to the Present. Without this widely spread plurilingual reading competence, no European culture would have been able to develop its individual shape.
II. Some pedagogic aspects: range and limits of the intercomprehension approach
- As intercomprehension is a natural phenomenon belonging to the common experience of an uncountable number of individuals (teachers and learners included), it cannot come as a surprise that it gave birth to some special didactics of intercomprehension even avant la lettre.
- It is a matter of fact that the intercomprehension approach can generate a far-reaching plurilingual reading competence in a very short time. In exolingual communication, it also creates – for example between persons of different Romance languages – a productive competence combined with a kind of ‘language mix’. Some experts use the term “intercommunication”. To make intercommunication easier and more effective, the encoding native speaker adapts his/her message to the addressee’s comprehension profile. Often, this type of intercommunication takes turn with phases where each partner speaks her/his mother tongue, being understood by the partner. Even if this is not in our European teaching tradition, intercommunication can be trained.
- Why does intercomprehension work (between most European languages) and why can it be even useful for teaching productive skills? At least, three answers are obvious:
- Even if our largely phonographic European alphabets originally try to ‘visualize’ pronunciation, there is no denying that listening, speaking and reading demand to identify the same linguistic schemes (words, significations, syntactic patterns, etc.), even though these schemes appear in different acoustic and visual forms. In other terms, even if mental language processing profoundly differs between various linguistic skills, the words’ phonetical, phonological, lexemic and morphologic features always provide a common material basis for lexical identification and retrieving.
- Of course, acquiring the speaking skill needs considerably more investment in terms of time and volition than reading. Regarding the noticeable differences related to the required resources, we can ask: Why should foreign language teaching ignore this difference? It is crucial for the learners’ experience of foreign language learning and positive self-awareness: As more comprehensible input generates more intake, the intercomprehension approach enables the learner to exploit richer learning arrangements and to benefit from more exposure to the target language. It goes without saying that these effects can be boosted by using modern technology.
- Both points (issue 12 a, b) explain why native speakers of Russian or German mastering French to a certain degree acquire reading skill in Italian or Portuguese easier when starting from French (as a bridging language) than from their mother tongues. The same can be said of Russian or German as the bridging idioms and Polish or Dutch as the target language, and vice-versa.
- Nevertheless, if the share of transfer schemes between the bridging and the target languages is too small, intercomprehension based language acquisition turns out to be strenuous and ineffective. The critical limit is about 30 percent of non-identifiable tokens.
- As English is part of the Germanic and the Romance family as well, and because of its global diffusion as a mother tongue or a second language, English can be used for bridging between various language families. For students with non-European mother tongues, it can facilitate the acquisition of other European languages. Thus, English too provides a remarkable and world-wide potential for promoting “eurocomprehension”.
- Intrinsically and just like intra-lingual comprehension, inter-lingual comprehension does not require a special attentiveness. Based on our available linguistic and encyclopedic procedural knowledge, we understand different varieties automatically. Nevertheless, a systematical approach is indispensable for constructing the hypothetical grammar. The level of intercomprehension and sustainability depends on our resources invested, be they linguistic or volitional.
III. How the intercomprehension approach works
- It is a truism that each foreign language learned increases our personal and societal knowledge about foreign language learning. Acquiring languages through the intercomprehensive approach makes no exception to this. In any case, learning a foreign language demands the mobilization of volitional resources: motivation, language and learning awareness, self-sensitivity, tenacity, etc. Features like these are crucial for what is called ‘language learning competence’ (Sprachlernkompetenz). As the intercomprehensive way of language acquisition demands self-monitoring and learning sensitivity right from the beginning, it significantly supports autonomous or self-guided learning (see the following issues).
- Demanding systematic and conscious recourse to comparing linguistic schemes between the bridging and the target languages, intercomprehension processing itself, supported by an appropriate method, sensitizes learners (a) to the structures of the languages involved; (b) to the strategies which are productive to mobilize and control the necessary linguistic and volitional resources for performing the interlingual identification of forms, significations and functions; (c) to the individual’s very concrete activities and experiences affecting her/his own learning. Evidently, the intercomprehension didactics is rooted in a method of comparing and transferring. Thus, its empirically founded theory has completed the traditional transfer typology: (1) interlingual identification transferring, (2) intralingual t. concerning a bridging language’s system or inventory, (3) proactive t. identifying a target language-related signification, form or function on the basis of an already known scheme, (4) retroactive i.e. the identification of a ‘new’ linguistic scheme triggers a restructuration of the learner’s mental lexicon; it changes the bridging scheme wherefrom transferring started, (5) t. of intercomprehension-based learning, etc.
- The term ‘Hypothetical Grammar’ denotes a construct which is created in the very moment of interpreting a message composed in a hitherto ‘unknown’, but partly comprehensible target language. Decoding a text comprises at least two steps: the identification of its content as well as of the signs, which convey the information (lexemes, morphemes, rules concerning tenses, moods, aspects, word order, etc.). Whereas competent speakers normally focus their attention exclusively to the contents, acquisition directed language use demands the identification of forms, regularities and functions. In intercomprehension based processing, discovering these features happens partly based on an analysis concerning the interaction between contents and forms given in the message itself (plausibility check), partly because of semantic and formal schemes as well as experiences due to the languages the individual already knows. Thus, learners discover the functioning of the target language, i.e. the target language’s hypothetical grammar, as well as some regularities located between the target and the bridging languages involved. These interlingual regularities and systematicity can be summed up in an ‘Hypothetical Inter-Grammar’. Of course, each hypothetical grammar needs validation and proof, which can be given either by the consultation of traditional target language grammars, word-books or by competent speakers. In intercomprehension didactics, validation is a necessary part of sustainability measures.
- Whereas intercomprehension can take place incidentally, intercomprehensive based language learning needs awareness, monitoring and guidance. The necessary sensitiveness focusses both the language structures and the construction of the hypothetical grammars in addition to the strategies chosen to achieve it. That is why, the intercomprehension approach must be considered as an efficient way to foster awareness to languages and language learning.
- Emerging in the very moment of the interpretive identification of foreign language structures, the hypothetical grammar comprises the leaner’s interlanguage in statu nascendi. This explains why it has the same characteristics: systematicity, dynamics and instability. Just like the idiosyncratic interlanguage, it links elements of the bridging idioms to those of the target language. Both, the Hypothetical Grammar as well as the interlanguage, integrate into the continuum of individual language growth.
- The intercomprehension approach requires continual work to bring one’s hypothetical grammar to more perfection.
- “I know that I know nothing” – the famous Socratic paradox must be subdivided into four cognitive categories: Knowledge can be ‘conscious’ or ‘unconscious’, just as its corollary, i.e. the absence of conscious or unconscious knowledge. The intercomprehension approach tries to transform systematically the learner’s available unconscious linguistic and self-guidance related knowledge into conscious knowledge. This can be considered as the psychological nucleus of intercomprehension-based learning:
IV. Experiences with the intercomprehension approach
- In the beginning of intercomprehension based teaching, we find the practitioners’ own experiences with intercomprehension and the acquisition of individual plurilingualism. In addition to these palpable experiences, we meanwhile dispose of numerous empirical studies which solidly document the approach’s efficiency and give evidence of the functioning of intercomprehension based language learning. Nota bene: Reflecting on languages, comparing linguistic structures and regularities can already be found among children of nursery schools and very young learners. Empirical research in this domain reveals promising results.
- Learners who are familiar with this approach indicate nearly unanimously that the method’s efficiency arises from (a) the very rapid acquisition of plurilingual or a target language related comprehension, (b) the raising awareness to one’s own mental processing of linguistic structures, (c) the experience of self-efficiency about the intercomprehension approach.
- In addition, empirical data (diaries, interviews) about students who regularly read in various foreign languages give evidence that plurilingual reading fosters pluricultural open-mindedness and even plurireferential identity building which goes beyond the relationship with one nation.
- Practicing intercomprehension quickly turns into an attitude concerning languages and foreign language learning in general.
V. The intercomprehension method’s potential for improving foreign language teaching and learning in general
- Even if the intercomprehension approach explicitly intends to foster the rapid acquisition of receptive skills in one or several hitherto unknown languages, its methodological repertoire should be used in an overall, four basic skills-targeted language course too, whenever it seems advantageous. This applies when language and learning awareness formation are targeted.
- The following point resumes why a well pondered revision of the foreign language curricula is highly advisable: (1) More comprehensible input (due to the intercomprehension approach) creates more intake; (2) disposing of more words and linguistic patterns makes reading in foreign languages easier and more efficient; (3) a better reading and listening performance in the target language allows more exposure to interesting issues dealt with in the target language(s).
- Promoting studying less learned languages: Among the world’s human languages, we find mammoths, elephants and midges. Regarding the current globalization, there is no doubt that an increasing number of individuals need – apart from their mother tongue – an overall practical mastery of at least two foreign languages (mammoths or elephants), used by a very important number of native or second language speakers. At the same time, our minor languages (which are related to important cultures) will continue to exist. Just like the greater animals, the midges essentially contribute to the humanity’s cultural richness. For individuals, knowing such languages is a prerequisite for the integration into the target society, be it local, regional or national. Starting from the individuals’ knowledge of a closely related mammoth or elephant idiom, the intercomprehension approach prepares the ground for learning less studied languages.
- Non scholae sed vitae. In our days, the Roman dictum means successful long-life learning. To increase successfulness and to avoid frustrations, people must be prepared to meet the challenges of a global and multilingual world. This includes plurilingualism. As, apart from the necessity of knowing English and the local national tongue, nobody actually knows what foreign languages a young European will need in the future, language learning competence is so important. Should we be reminded that the intercomprehension approach is a plurilingual and language learning awareness raising strategy?
- The intercomprehension approach does not intend to substitute current forms of language learning and teaching. It responds to the needs of a multilingual Europe in a globalized world, where more and more individuals must acquire a diversified and graded plurilingualism.
V. The intercomprehension-based plurilingualism potential impacts on political education
- In the long run, the EU cannot exist without a large consent of its peoples and citizens, although those are separated in various linguistic communities. Helping to pave the way towards plurilingualism and to a pluriculturally grounded European identity, the intercomprehension approach must not remain without impact on political education. Its pedagogic potential derives from several factors:
- Fostering plurilingual reading skills – from only one language to a linguistic family – allows Europeans to get first-hand information from different target-cultures (without detours through translation). Are concerned: media, world wide web, newspapers, hybrid texts (composed by a mix of written and acoustic texts, pictures and videos).
- As mentioned in issue 24, most students familiarized with intercomprehension highlights that plurilingual reading supports the formation of a plurireferential European identity. It goes without saying that this competence provides a potential which can not only enrich the teaching of non-linguistic subjects but the students’ psychic income in general. Without being naïve, we can resume: Regular plurilingual reading and the consumption of information from different cultures and their political discourses lesser the dependence from one-national media reports and information. Thus, it is a strategy to prevent or diminish nationalistic narrow-mindedness. It is significant that authoritarian and pseudo-democratic regimes reduce the media’s freedom of reporting and coverage. That is why a broad plurilingualism must be part of political education.
All in all, there are compelling arguments to integrate the intercomprehension approach into European foreign language learning and teaching.
For further reading
Hufeisen, Britta & Marx, Nicole (Hrsg.) (2007): EuroComGerm. Die sieben Siebe: Germanische Sprachen lesen können. Aachen: Shaker.
Klein, Horst G. & Reissner, Christina (2006): Basismodul Englisch. Englisch als Brückensprache in der romanischen Interkomprehension. Aachen: Shaker.
McCann, William. Klein, Horst G. & Stegmann, Tilbert T. (1999): EuroComRom. The Seven Sieves: How to read all the Romance languages right away. Aachen: Shaker.
* Meissner, Franz-Joseph (2012): Teaching and learning intercomprehension: a way to learner autonomy. In: De Florio-Hansen, Inez (ed.): Towards Multilingualism and the Inclusion of Cultural Diversity. Kassel: Kassel University Press, 37-58.
** Meissner, Franz-Joseph (2016): The ‘Core Vocabulary of Romance Plurilingualism’ (the CVRP-Project). In: Ambrosch-Baroua, Tina & Kropp, Amina (Hrsg.): Mehrsprachigkeit und Ökonomie. München: Open Access LMU (forthcoming).
Apps or practical exercises
 The present paper is the updated version of the French one, published in Le français à l’université 3/2016 (http://www.bulletin.auf.org/index.php?id=2287) as well as of the Portuguese one, Abordagem de Intercompreensão explicada em 26 puntos, In: Revista Ensino e Pesquisa 14 (supl. Especial), 2016, 121-131. Available under http://periodicos.unespar.edu.br/index.php/ensinoepesquisa/issue/view/87 (see Karim Siebeneicher Brito).
 The term was coined by the German linguist Horst G. Klein. It means that speakers of Indo-European languages can easily acquire an overall European reading comprehension, if they succeed in developing sensitiveness to the affinities and similarities between European languages.