Claudia Mewald, University College of Teacher Education Lower Austria


Linguistic and cultural diversity, as well as migration, are prominent characteristics of our globalized world. Signs of globalization become more and more visible, and are experienced most extensively in and around metropolitan areas. Teachers are at the forefront of this rapid development, as they have to come to terms with an increasingly diverse society, its educational requirements, and its multifaceted demands. Therefore, they should be aware of beneficial ways of exploiting the linguistic and cultural diversity in their classrooms and consider the targeted use of all language resources at their learners’ disposal as an important task of 21st century education. Moreover, they should acknowledge that language education is especially important for people whose linguistic resources create barriers in their access to education, or in obtaining vocational qualifications.

However, teachers cannot be left on their own with the tasks of handling increasingly heterogeneous classrooms. Methods to accelerate language learning and the effective use of shared languages as a bridge for intercomprehension: the meaning making between languages, are therefore at the heart of teaching in 21st century classrooms. They are also the goal of PALM, a European project funded through ERASMUS+ Key Action 2.


Promoting Authentic Language acquisition in Multilingual contexts

PALM aims to encourage authentic communicative exchange between multilingual learners. Six institutions of teacher education are collaborating with four schools in the collection of authentic written and oral texts produced by 6-14 year-old pupils, in genuine or close to real-life situations.

The authentic texts are recorded by teachers or students themselves in their original form, uploaded by teachers, and presented on a platform ( When they access these texts,  language learners will find not only the original reading and listening material, but also tasks and materials they can use to access their meanings.

Learning materials production is carried out by teacher trainees in collaboration with tutors and experienced teachers. It is based on a corpus developed from the authentic input texts and makes use of the findings from their analyses. This is the first time learning and teaching materials for young learners and teenagers have been developed exclusively with the help of a corpus based on written and oral texts generated through real communicative exchanges by the target group.

In PALM, the learners engage in text production in their lessons and free time with the aim of sharing them with peers who are learning their languages as new languages. They record oral presentations in subject matter lessons, produce stories, essays, book reviews, and blogs with the goal to present them to PALM boards at their schools. These editorial boards consist of students guided by at least one teacher. They select the texts for publication on the platform. Thus, text production becomes a real-life activity with a meaningful outcome. This contextualisation of text production, that is writing or speaking with the goal to publish rather than presenting output to a teacher only, makes output-oriented teaching an authentic procedure.

Moreover, authentic communication is fostered through a variety of modern classroom procedures. In addition to more traditional text production in the classroom, information exchanges via media capture, casual conversations and skype sessions, video conferencing, video tutoring as well as language ambassador meetings provide opportunities for genuine conversations between the learners. These are expected to be less constructed and guided by adult scaffolding, as is usually the case in classrooms, and thus create language that is closer to the authentic language of the target group. The fact that the partners in the conversations will share multilingual backgrounds but not necessarily the same first languages, safeguards a register that is informal but not too colloquial. This helps develop a feeling for what is comprehensible for a non-native speaker of one’s first language, and what is not. This kind of adaptation to the listeners, or mediation in Vygotskyan’s terms, makes the act of acquiring an additional language a social process where participants acknowledge the value of interacting with peers or more advanced users of the target language (Kramsch, 2002; Lantolf, 2001; Vygotsky, 1978).



When learners of diverse linguistic and cultural backgrounds meet to learn together, they work in genuinely multilingual settings. Sadly classroom work hardly ever makes use of the multilingual potential of the learners, and avoids plurilingual tasks. Plurilingual tasks  consider the use of the target language and all the other languages at the learners’ disposal, and allow the learners to use them simultaneously in the process of meaning making. Not using these available resources seems wasteful considering the potential benefits to individual learners.

Tasks which allow for intercomprehension to take place are therefore multilingual in their set-up. Intercomprehension happens if the learners’ starting points are various input texts they can comprehend fully or nearly fully. The tasks are designed as problems to be solved in collaboration with other learners, who may better understand the input, but who do not possess the same information. Learners then need to use  the target language to negotiate meanings together and solve the tasks.

Depending on their age, a multilingual group of learners can, for example, be given instructions to carry out a more or less complex physical experiment in their first languages, and asked to present the experiment in one of their shared languages or a language they are allin the process of acquiring.

Such tasks, which allow for more than one language in the input, and make use of the shared language(s) in the classroom for the output, create natural information gaps making the subsequent exchanges, and the collaborative compilation of knowledge in the target language, a natural process of mediation.


Abilities of multilingual learners

Multilingual learners have acquired the ability to understand and use two or more languages. This ability may have developed equally in all skills, or to differing levels of competency in some.. Likewise, the qualities of language ability in different languages may vary. Few people are equally well equipped in all the various languages they understand or use. Teachers have to be aware of this variety and acknowledge that learners who may be able to comprehend aural input may still struggle with it in its written form, particularly if they are not sufficiently familiar with the script they are expected to read or produce.

Through intercomprehension, multilingual people have also developed the ability to make sense of spoken or written texts in and across languages they have not yet fully acquired or studied. Detecting and understanding intercomprehension strategies may aid teachers in their support of learners becoming more effective in their comprehension and communication. This includes the use of English as a Lingua Franca (ELF), i.e. English as a common language, between speakers whose native languages are different.

Whenever learners use two or more languages in one conversation for the purpose of effective communication, they engage in a plurilingual discourse. When they are using their acquired languages to understand the unfamiliar languages of the others, and to communicate with them, they are translanguaging. This process requires intercomprehension and it works best when the learners have learnt to do this consciously.

It is a characteristic trait of intercomprehension that it does not demand the ability of verbal production in the target language. (Doyé, 2005, p. 7)

We thus differentiate between intercomprehension competence, the capacity to understand other languages without having studied them, and intercomprehensive performance during which each person uses his or her own language and understands that of the other.

A typical real-life example of intercomprehension competence is the reading of a menu in a foreign country. Knowledge of the world, extralinguistic features (such as pictures and pragmatic knowledge about the sequence of courses and food and drinks offered in a menu) help in comprehending it. If a multilingual group of guests are trying to order food from a menu in an additional language, their conversation about what is what will most certainly make use of a shared language, while frequently the one person who is most confident in doing so, will order for the whole party giving an intercomprehensive performance.

Intercomprehension has thus become an alternative, or complement to, the common use of a Lingua Franca. It exploits previously acquired knowledge, skills and strategies, and employs extralinguistic features such as background knowledge, knowledge of the situation, or visual support in making sense of languages not studied. It is highly individual and dynamic in its development.


A Framework for Intercomprehension Methodology

Teachers can foster intercomprehension in various ways. They can create learning designs that make conscious or unconscious intercomprehension possible, and plan for variation in the use of languages in their lessons. This can be realised in providing opportunities for learners to draw on input in their stronger languages, in addition to the input in the language of instruction, or through making use of modern media and the dictionaries, glossaries, thesauruses and translation tools.

Teachers who allow for variation in language input, foster strategy use, support awareness for and sensitivity to language needs, and who scaffold learner autonomy, establish the necessary conditions of learning (Marton, 2015) that facilitate a multilingual acquisition process. This, in turn, encourages the development of intercomprehension competence. Through establishing intercomprehension as a guiding principle, teachers in fact help pupils to “acquire the strategies needed for the understanding of the texts and utterances of any new language they might encounter in the future” (Doyé, 2005, p. 20). This can only be achieved if the various languages the learners own are given attention in the learning process, and if teachers consciously employ methods that make intercomprehension explicit.


A framework for intercomprehension methodology (FRINCOM) relies on the following elements:

  • authenticity of input and task
  • scaffolding of learning
  • awareness for multilingual potential and identity
  • sensitivity to cultural and personal predispositions
  • autonomy in learning and personal language development
  • strategies that foster meaning making within and across languages

The interplay of all these elements is crucial for the effectiveness of intercomprehension methodology.


Children usually enter education with a reasonably sound command of their family languages and with a well-established ability to infer meaning from aural input without understanding every word they hear. Most of them will already have learnt to interpret meaning from additional clues such as body language, facial expressions, sound and tonality. They can make use of their situational knowledge and their knowledge of the world (KOW) to exploit limited language resources creatively. They mix or adapt language they have picked up when they communicate and they are inventive in creating their own languages.

In most families the individual members speak different language varieties such as dialects, sociolects or idiolects, and many families even use different languages simultaneously in their conversations. Thus, most homes provide a plurilingual language environment and so do most playgrounds. The proximity and retention of initial language acquisition seems to shape children’s and teenagers’ attitudes towards new languages. They create a positive, relaxed and unharmed starting point that language learning can utilize. Taylor (1994) considers the classroom a real and authentic place. Other researchers support this position, if skill-getting (Rivers & Temperley, 1978, p. 4), pre-communicative activities (Littlewood, 1992, p. 44) or language-learning activities are kept authentic.

Breen (1985, p. 58) distinguishes four types of authenticity in the language classroom:

  • the authenticity of the texts used as input data,  
  • the authenticity of the learner’s own interpretations of such texts,
  • the authenticity of the tasks conducive to language learning, and
  • the authenticity of the actual social situation of the language classroom.

Most authentic texts written by adults for children of the same age as the target group are likely to be too difficult to comprehend for beginners of a new language. Thus, teachers tend to use children’s books or materials originally produced for younger readers or listeners, as well as simplified texts. However, real life input is not necessarily abridged, and as already mentioned, children are used to gaps in comprehension, and can still make meaning from what they hear or read, even if they cannot understand every word.

Listening to language by peers usually provides more comprehensible input, because their lexical range is similar. If the input in a new language comes from peers who are native speakers of that language, this may create different challenges. However, in authentic communication, the shared KOW and mutual interest in topics support successful exchanges. In this situation, strategies can also help bridge obstacles.


When learners are asked to make meaning from texts or utterances in new languages, they usually activate prior experience and knowledge. The most intuitive strategy learners employ in this process is to search for cognates, i.e. words or phrases that are similar in meaning, pronunciation and/or spelling. In most cases this happens subconsciously. However, an awareness of and the strategic use of cognates in certain languages creates associations which will accelerate the comprehension of language input and the readiness to produce output.

International words have similar effects on comprehension and fluency – many of them are readily available and understood. Making learners familiar with cognates and international words is therefore recommended (see links in reference list below for a list of online resources for doing this). This seems particularly important in topic areas related to modern media and interactive computer games that include linguistic components.

Similarly naturally come strategies making use of visual and additional auditory clues to understand what is going on in a text: Pictures or body language and facial expression support comprehension equally as well as the conscious discernment of tonality and mood. These paralinguistic strategies draw on behavioural knowledge, i.e. the use of “verbal signs to express ideas, emotions and intentions … [and] other norms of behaviour to serve the purpose of conveying information” (Sarıçoban & Aktaş, 2011, p. 151), as well as situational experience (Doyé, 2005).

Cultural knowledge can serve or impede intercomprehension. Depending on its direction, it may lead to stereotypes and false generalizations, or to shared social practices, in which participation is considered attractive. The learners’ diverse cultural knowledge and experiences are important in the development of their intercomprehension. Teachers therefore need to know about and understand their learners’ cultural backgrounds to be able to uncover the differences and similarities in their social and cultural lives and experiences.

Acknowledging the cultural diversity in classrooms and knowing about cultural facts and practices can aid teaching and learning. When specific actions or events in the learners’ cultures are similar to those in the target language societies, learners will make helpful associations. If their social and personal lives differ significantly, clashes need to be bridged. Awareness of what is possible in certain cultures, and sensitivity to the impossible, are recommended.

In addition to intercomprehensive behaviour, which operates subconsciously, intercomprehension competence can benefit from conscious strategy use. This is the application of pragmatic knowledge about text type and its social function. Once learners have identified familiar words and gained an overall understanding of the text, they can apply selective attention to understand concrete information that is explicit and easy to identify or spot, especially if there is visual support. As soon as gist and specific information at micro level are understood, learners can be encouraged to understand detailed information in a context. This requires careful attention or reading. Depending on their readiness, learners may need different variations of scaffolding when a task requires understanding details.

Teachers, who highlight cognates and international words and who add pictures to crucial points which cannot be inferred, scaffold intercomprehension effectively.

Scaffolding and autonomy

Scaffolding and autonomy may not necessarily look like a matching pair because the former makes the learner dependent on the teacher’s or the material’s help, while the latter aims at independence in the learning process.

However, combining scaffolding and learner autonomy seems particularly important in multilingual settings. Teachers faced with a linguistically diverse group of learners cannot but personalise learning to differentiate appropriately and to cater for all learner needs. This means viewing learning as a dynamic process of knowledge creation and exploration which varies with every single learner (Herdina & Jessner, 2000).

Making learning meaningful for a linguistically and culturally diverse group of learners goes beyond identifying topics of interest. Fostering intercomprehension requires teachers to provide scaffolds so that every single learner can make their own connections and develop a personal understanding of what they are expected to learn. This includes a careful analysis of what individual learners already know and to provide them with the necessary scaffolds to understand and learn based on the information gained. Teachers cannot possibly do this simultaneously for a whole class. Therefore, materials and tasks with opportunities for self- and peer-assessment are necessary scaffolds in heterogeneous settings.

Intercomprehension works best when learners have opportunities to reflect on what they understand, how they understand it, and what they need to do next to understand more. Teachers therefore need to employ varied approaches and materials that allow for different ways learners approach texts, and how they make meaning from them. This may include variation in input, which can be written or aural, supported by visuals or subtexts in a Lingua Franca all learners in the group understand – in most cases this is ELF. This may also include input in the strongest language when prior contextual and content understanding may aid comprehension in the new language.

Planning intercomprehension can thus never be seen as a finished process resulting in a lesson plan that will be followed strictly. Effective planning for intercomprehension is a dialogic and dynamic process in which goals, activities and materials are varied according to learners’ reactions and needs. What looks like a messy process is in reality an interactionist approach based on a resourceful programme that fosters learner autonomy including diagnostic material with a component of immediate feedback that enables teachers to

  • select learning objectives that relate to the individual learner,
  • identify suitable learning materials and scaffold their implementation,
  • observe learner behaviour, assess their performance and/or encourage self- and/or peer-assessment, and to
  • select new objectives and materials based on previous learning outcomes.

Learners who are developing self-direction in such learning scenarios will be aided by being able to rely on mutual understanding and support. They will better be able to learn to readjust and select simpler or more challenging material according to informed decisions based on evidence of successful or failed comprehension.

The following scaffolds are considered useful in intercomprehension methodology:

  • visualisation
  • annotated input texts (margin notes, word banks, glossaries)
  • digital texts with the opportunity to use on-line dictionaries and thesauruses
  • video input subtitled in the target language, the shared Lingua Franca or the individual learner’s strongest language with the opportunity for repeated input
  • highlighted texts with margin notes and summaries
  • glossaries


Awareness and sensitivity

Supporting learners in the development of the awareness of their competences and what they can do in their various languages is motivating. Encouraging them to make use of all their resources available to make sense of new texts, taps into concepts of strategies as well as autonomy. The super-teacher who is able to detect all connections their learners are making at a certain moment, does not exist. It lies in the learners themselves, to become aware and sensitive to learning opportunities and meaningful connections between their languages.

Nevertheless, it is the teacher’s task to convey that intercultural communication is mutually compassionate, respectful, tolerant and collaborative. Teachers should be aiming at transcultural education, which differs from intercultural education, in that it intends to create a transformed cultural understanding and shared new cultures, rather than parallel worlds of two or more cultures next to each other.

In PALM, the ambition of creating language with the goal to help readers of listeners of the authentic texts to acquire the language used provides the sociocultural background which is expected to create transcultural learning opportunities, especially if multilingual learners provide texts in more than one of their languages on the platform or if they use them in translanguaging activities during PALM face to face or virtual meetings.

AS important AS peace and AS security

The elements of FRINCOM can be abbreviated in three “A-S” pairs:

  • Authenticity and Scaffolding
  • Awareness and Sensitivity
  • Autonomy and Strategies

They can combine to create a mnemonic aid that refers to the overarching goals of the FRINCOM: AS important AS peace and AS security.

Security is important in any learning process. Security can be provided if learners know where they are going, how they will get there and what they can do if they get lost on their way. The “where” is given by defined goals. The “how” is demonstrated through the implementation of strategies. The “what” to do in case of disorientation, is determined by the scaffolding the teachers suggest or the learners select.

The more autonomous learners are in their selection, the faster they will obtain the necessary help. This, however, requires targeted diagnosis and feedback, because

…any teaching method is most useful when there is plenty of prompt feedback about whether the student is thinking about a problem in the right way. (Hattie, 2012, p. 88)

Speed in the delivery of feedback is crucial for its effectiveness. Therefore, self-directed and collaborative solutions like self- and peer-assessment should be encouraged. This closes the circle to awareness and sensitivity.

These elements are crucial in the process of developing intercomprehension. In the absence of awareness, all the other elements can be applied, but they will not succeed in creating an understanding between languages. Sensitivity, on the other hand, is equally important, not in the just in the provision of feedback but also as cultural sensitivity and sensitivity about the impact and power of language.

Last but not least, authenticity is the overarching element which transcends all the other elements. Any work in language education that does not create an authentic need for communication, or that does not aim for an authentic use, will not trigger the kind of comprehension that it takes to make learners create meaning through, and within all the linguistic resources they possess.


Peace - at last

I started my contribution with the claim that linguistic and cultural diversity, as well as migration, are prominent characteristics of our globalized environment. I would like to end it with the hope that sufficient and successful intercomprehension supports the awareness that a globalized and peaceful world depends on:

... people who can communicate, each speaking his own language and understanding that of the other, but who, while not being able to speak it fluently, by understanding it, even with difficulty, would understand the “spirit”, the cultural universe that everyone expresses when speaking the language of his ancestors and of his own tradition. (Eco, 1994, p. 292)

Supporting multilingualism and providing free resources to learn whenever and wherever its users are ready to learn is the goal of the PALM platform, which is hoped to encourage authentic communication free from the expectation to be perfect but full of the cultural and social spirit of its authors instead.



Breen, M. P., 1985. Authenticity in the Language Classroom. Applied Linguistics,, Volume 6(1), pp. 60-70.

Doyé, P., 2005. Intercomprehension. Guide for the development of language education policies in Europe: from linguistic diversity to plurilingual education. Reference study. [Online]
Available at:

Eco, U., 1994. The Limits of Interpretation. Bloomington: ndiana University Press.

Emberley, E., 1992. Go Away Big Green Monster!. Boston: Little, Brown & Company.

Hattie, J., 2012. Visible Learning for Teachers. Maximising Impact on Learning. New York: Routledge.

Herdina, P. & Jessner, U., 2000. A Dynamic Model of Multilingualism: Changing the Psycholinguistic Prespective. Clevedon: Multilingual Matters.

Kramsch, C., ed., 2002. Language Acquisition and Language Socialization. London: Continuum.

Lantolf, J., 2001. Sociocultural theory and second language acquisition. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Marton, F., 2015. Necessary Conditions of Learning. New York: Routledge.

Sarıçoban, A. & Aktaş, D., 2011. A New Intercomprehension Model: Reservoir Model. The Journal of Language and Linguistic Studies, 7(2), pp. 144-163.

Taylor, D., 1994. TESL-EJ: Inauthentic Authenticity or Authentic Inauthenticity?. The Electronic Journal for English as a Second Language, 1(2).

Vygotsky, L., 1978. Mind in society. The development of higher psychological processes. Cambridge, M.A: Harvard University Press.



English Cognate Words understandable to Spanish, Portuguese, French and Italian speakers

Cognates in the Cambridge P.E.T. (Preliminary English Test) Vocabulary List – CEFR B1

Basic International Wordlist

Ogden’s International Word List

International Internet Words

21st century basic English International Words

Foreign words and phrases in English

Erasmus+The European Commission support for the production of this publication does not constitute an endorsement of the contents which reflects the views only of the author, and the Commission cannot be held responsi­ble for any use which may be made of the information contained therein.

0 comments | 16 July 2018 | | Thom Kiddle

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