Foreign Language Learning as Intercultural Experience

The Subjective Dimension

by Arnd Witte (Volume editor) Theo Harden (Volume editor)
Edited Collection VIII, 283 Pages


Learning a foreign language in its cultural context has a significant effect on the subjective mind, ranging from the unsettling to the inspirational. The complex interplay between native and foreign languages, their cultural conceptualisations and discourses and the mind and body of the learner results in the subjective construction of individual positionings located «in between» the languages and cultures involved. These processes are not restricted to the cognitive level of learning but also involve deep-seated habits, values and beliefs. These habits, values and beliefs are to a certain extent the result of subjective experiences and feelings; however, they are also embedded in a socio-cultural network of concepts, norms, traditions and life-worlds, so that they are characterised both by the learner’s subjectivity and by the sociality and (inter-)culturality of their environment.
The essays in this volume explore the subjective dimension of intercultural language learning, ranging from theoretical considerations to empirical studies and providing stimulating insights into this important area of study.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Introduction
  • Theoretical Considerations
  • The Subjective Blending of Spaces in Intercultural Foreign Language Learning: Theoretical Considerations and Issues of Assessment
  • Communicative Competence for a Sitcom Audience
  • The Role of Corporeal Communication in Foreign Language Learning as Intercultural Experience
  • The Most Frustrating Experience in Foreign Language Learning: Listening Intently and Still Not Understanding
  • Empirical Studies
  • Social Identity and Language Acquisition: A Case Study
  • Writing Academic English across the Disciplines: Intercultural Experiences of Different Kinds
  • Foreign Language Learning as Intercultural Experience: The Subjective Dimension
  • Cognitive Dissonance and the Subjective Mind in Foreign Language Learning: The Use of Structured Academic Controversy in the German Language Classroom
  • English Learner – English Speaker – Intercultural Speaker – Digital Native: Student Construction of Communicative Competence Gained through Reflection on Computer-Mediated Exchange
  • Can Studying a Foreign Language Build or Improve (Inter-)Cultural Competence? A Preliminary Case Study of Students’ Subjective Impressions
  • Measuring the Unmeasurable: On the Objective Assessment of Subjective Learning
  • Developing Self-Learning and Intercultural Skills in a Spanish Course for Volunteers in the World Cup Brazil 2014
  • Notes on Contributors
  • Index
  • Series index



Learning is an essential feature of human life. It is particularly consequential in childhood and adolescence, but it is also relevant for the self in adulthood. Learning a language is one of the more complex experiences of life because it is a cultural and linguistic system, an intersubjective communicative medium and a tool for subjective thought. It fundamentally transforms the mind, emotion and behaviour of the infant because, during the first years of life, the acquisition of language liberates the child from the constraints of directly felt bodily experiences. Although the body never ceases to be the ‘Ort der Selbstbildung’ (‘location of forming the self’) (Böhme 2003: 211), the acquisition of language enables the subject to transcend pre-linguistic experiences directly related to the body such as hunger, pain, joy, etc. In this context, language is more than just a system of signs used for the purpose of communication. As the central symbolic sign-system of a culture, it is a very complex tool which facilitates and typifies cognitive, semiotic, psychological, emotional and social activities of mind and body. At the same time, it mediates and instils in the subject the basic sociocultural concepts, values, norms, attitudes, plausibility structures and patterns for construction. All of these are internalised by the child, and they serve as the foundation of his or her construals of self, other and others. Thus, language is not just a neutral medium (or, as Andersen [1996] phrased it, ‘language is not innocent’), but it carries cultural baggage and it embroils the subject in the first language and culture to an extent that he or she becomes a cultural subject, completely relying on cultural patterns and linguistically mediated concepts for leading a conscious life. Language shapes thought, ideas, concepts, experiences, memories and desires, and it has a formative influence on emotions and activities. ← 1 | 2 →

Language and its sociocultural context are initially given to the child by relevant others such as parents, siblings and relatives. The child tries to make sense of the phonetic features of language and tries to relate the sounds to objects and concepts. He or she also actively tries to deduce the linguistic patterns guiding the speech of others by testing them out and receiving feedback. The more successful children are in these endeavours, the more independent they become of direct bodily experiences: ‘Once they begin to think conceptually, children are able to reflect upon and therefore gain conscious control over their mental activity. In this way, memory, attention, planning, learning, and rational thought become voluntary’ (Lantolf/Thorne 2006: 17). The internalisation of language and the underlying cultural patterns of construction condition the transformation of the child’s mind and psyche during the processes of individuation to socialisation and culturalisation. Vygotsky describes this transformation as follows:

Every function in the child’s cultural development appears twice: first on the social level, and later, on the individual level; first between people (interpsychological), and then inside the child (intrapsychological). This applies equally to voluntary attention, to logical memory, and to the formation of concepts. All the higher functions originate as actual relations between human individuals (Vygotsky 1978: 57; emphasis in the original).

The egocentric bodily stage of development has now been overcome by the fundamental inscription of culturally generated symbolic sign systems, in particular language, which enables the subject to transcend direct experiences. The mechanism of internalisation of language and inherent cultural patterns, values and norms subjectively appropriates the sociocultural instrument of language in a way that is specific to the individual cognitive, psychological, emotional and social requirements, intentions, activities and desires. Consequently, the individual mind is positioned on the borderline between the embodied self and the socioculturally generated symbolic systems of cognition, communication, emotion and behaviour. Hence, ‘our mastery and use of language is crucially dependent on the fact that we are beings which are embodied as well as situated within a culture of shared practices’ (Zlatev 1997: 1–2; emphasis in the original). The embodied aspect of our existence lends subjectivity to our thoughts, experiences, memories, ← 2 | 3 → actions, interactions and feelings. The culturally situated aspect relates to the fundamental intersubjectivity of our lives, because we are what we are only through (symbolic) interaction with others.

The cultural instrument of language influences the train of even our most private thoughts in a manner which can be compared to the influence physical tools exert on our physical movements (cf. Slobin 1996). The use of a shovel, for example, allows us to dig better and faster than if using our bare hands. However, it compels us to make particular movements that are specific to this tool – and markedly different from movements imposed on our action by other tools, e.g. hammering or sawing. Transferred to the semiotic level, the tool of language also imposes certain patterns on mental activity, since inherent in each human language is a specific ‘subject orientation to the world of human experience, and this orientation affects the ways in which we think while we are speaking’ (Slobin 1996: 91; in Lantolf 2005: 347; emphasis in the original). It is important to note that the activities triggered by the use of tools are being referred to here. The tool alone cannot infer its function; only through participation or observing the tool in action do we understand the function of the tool, be it a hammer, a saw, a shovel – or language. Just as physical tools compel us to move in certain ways, language, by its inherent concepts, patterns and grammar, compels us to think in a certain way (cf. Whorf 1956). However, language as a social and semiotic tool is much more powerful than any physical tool, such as a hammer or a saw, in that it is capable of being reflective. It constructs realities, structures and organises communicable human experience and defies time. Unlike material tools, language as a sociocultural product also requires the participation and co-construction of conscious others, and it is characterised by an element of ambiguity, as there cannot be a simple one-to-one transmission of thoughts, ideas, or experiences from one person to another; the other person will always add or take away some of the meaning that I intended to convey to him or her. This ambiguity of language in use leads Wittgenstein (1953: § 109) to define the influence of language on our minds as ‘bewitchment of our intelligence by means of language.’

Language and Lebenswelt (as the common-sense area of reality which the attentive person takes unquestioningly for granted) anchor the subject in a cultural space in which ‘a body of people [are] united in terms of ← 3 | 4 → a shared culture’ (Parekh 2006: 154). Culture provides the subject with certain options for conceptual design of self and other – and at the same time excludes other options. In this respect culture, as a generative and structuring context of construction, arranges and provides to the members of a cultural community the norms, values, schemata and patterns for subjective and collective understanding, construction, inter(action) and emotion. These form the central parts of tacit cultural knowledge, and they are stabilised and substantiated in social conventions. As such, culture provides the categorical frame of a social and societal blueprint of reality (or realities) which all members of the cultural community harbour – albeit subjectively to different degrees. Although inherent in culture are constellations of conflict, difference, dynamism and mixing of influences, it provides the subject and the collective with a dynamic and coherent system of rules, explicit and implicit, which has been established by the group in a historical dimension in order to ensure their survival. These rules (in the widest sense) have been communicated across generations; therefore, they are relatively stable but have the potential to change over time (cf. Elias 1976; Matsumoto 2000: 24). If lingualisation, socialisation and enculturation are so consequential for the rooting of the subject in his or her cultural and linguistic community, living in another society and/or learning a foreign language has the potential to unsettle, for the subject, the very foundations of construals of self:

Kulturelle Topographien sind in der Regel mit Routinen verbunden, die einigermaßen enttäuschungssicher physische und symbolische Bewegungen verschalten und damit ‘kulturelle Selbstverständlichkeiten’ und Vertrautheiten schaffen. Brechen kulturelle Topographien weg oder stößt man auf sie, ohne ihren Code zu kennen, entstehen Fremdheiten, Orientierungsstörungen, Anomien oder gar Identitätskrisen (Böhme 2007: 65).1 ← 4 | 5 →

The sudden and unprepared encounter with the foreign triggers the loosening of the embedment of the self in the sense-producing fabric of internalised configurations; the unquestioningly taken-for-granted safeties of the first language and culture are no longer valid in the space of the foreign language and culture. This can be a deeply harrowing experience for the self which finds its expression in confusion about the values and norms required in (inter)acting, as well as about one’s own positioning, the role expectations of cultural others, one’s own feelings and one’s identity.

The foreign cultural space is, like all cultural spaces, structured by the performative social practice and the significative praxis of generating, typifying and developing cultural patterns of cognition and emotion. The foreign cultural space initially presents itself to the learner as linguistically diverse. However, with the increasing duration of learning the foreign language it is also progressively experienced as foreign in pragmatic, performative, lebensweltliche and emotional dimensions. Foreign language learning is initially focused on the other linguistic system and on simple subjective communicative performance through it. This can already be experienced by the learner in the first lessons as having liberating, but also threatening repercussions for one’s self: liberating, because one can express oneself, albeit initially only in a very limited manner, in an alternative semiotic system, and one can generate thoughts one could never have in the first language (cf. Kramsch 2009a: 5); threatening, because the sounds, rhythms, constructs and applications of the foreign language can upset the unquestioned familiarity of the own and the intimacy of the self which can be a result of incoherent stuttering and the performative reduction of the self in the first lessons. The carefully constructed image of oneself as ‘cool’ can be put at risk by these imperfections for all to see in the semi-public space of the classroom.

Foreign language learning is, right from the first lesson, a very subjective and a necessarily intercultural experience. The foreign language classroom typically provides the first space in which learners are explicitly confronted with the complex interplay of language, thought and body. This experience is triggered by using the foreign language (and its cultural context) as the medium of expression, something which has an effect on the subjective mind, ranging from the unsettling to the inspirational. Learners are not ← 5 | 6 → only looking at the foreign (and, by extension, the first) language, but increasingly they are also constructing and expressing themselves through the foreign language and its inherent cultural patterns. Learners are constantly interpreting and analysing linguistic and (inter)cultural constructs inside and outside of the foreign language classroom; they are making connections between linguistic and cultural patterns, and they are relating their discoveries to their subjective stances. In this context, foreignness is not a specific quality of a relation between the self and the other, but it is a relational concept, always having alienating repercussions on efforts of construing self and other. The foreign as a relation is at the same time a threshold or an interspace between the familiar and the unfamiliar. This transitory space constitutes a place of encounter with the foreign which typifies the notion of not yet understanding the foreign and not yet alienating the familiar. As such, it is characterised by a high degree of subjectivity, as no-one else can occupy this particular transitional space between languages and cultures at that particular moment in time. The more the other cultural constructs come into play, the more the learner is developing a highly subjective space between the language and cultures involved.

The subjective intercultural space between the languages and cultures facilitates a genuinely new place of intercultural knowledge and perception which moves in a continuum between the patterns, norms, values and constructs of the internalised and the foreign cultures (both understood as multi-layered, open and dynamic concepts). Whereas the term space relates to the options of subjective construal between the dominant discourses and conceptualisations of cultures, the term place denotes the momentarily occupied place of cognitive, emotional and behavioural construal which does not know stagnancy; it rather is characterised by the continuous subjective development and the hybrid status between the languages and cultures involved in acts of construal. Therefore, it makes sense not to talk of the subjective place as one fixed point within the dynamic intercultural space, but rather as a fluid succession of multiple highly transitory subjective places within that space. This sequence of places is not always progressive in a linear manner, but can be circular or even regressive, characterising the cognitive achievements of the subject in his or her efforts to learn in a specific intercultural space within the planned and guided framework ← 6 | 7 → of learning. The space is provided by the collective learning efforts of the foreign language class, guided by more knowledgeable others (typically teachers and/or peers). Trying to understand the foreign and becoming communicatively competent in the foreign language and its sociocultural context presupposes the preparedness to invest time and effort into the learning process. In the institutional foreign language classroom, this may not always be the case, as some learners might not be prepared to put their selves at risk; therefore they may retreat to the perceived safeties of their internalised language and culture. ‘What drives them to learn the forms but retain their own accent and grammar is a deep desire to preserve what is theirs’ (Kramsch 2009a: 15). Here, the perceived threat of losing face can have an adverse effect on the willingness to further engage with learning the foreign language. Typically, in subsequent classes, these learners tend to depend more on teacher-directed work, do not ‘assume an active role during the course’ (Kohonen 2001: 52) and find foreign language work demanding and distressing. Consequently, these learners might decide to withdraw from active participation in class and reassure their selves by monolingual means in a monocultural environment. In this precarious situation, the cooperation and scaffolding of teachers and peers is required. This is normally applied in the classroom as a community of practice whose members mutually engage in the endeavour of learning about foreign configurations by doing activities, talking, and negotiating beliefs, values and power relations. The classroom thus provides a non-threatening and trustful space for collective learning and mutual scaffolding in the construal of new configurations with respect to the foreign language and socioculture, while at the same time questioning and qualifying the perceived safety of the internalised patterns, norms and values.

Although the classroom can be very effective in creating a space for collective learning and mutual scaffolding, the concrete learning activities have to be carried out by every learner individually according to his or her subjective levels of knowledge, interest, ambition, desire and preparedness to invest in the learning effort. Thus, there is a complex trade-off between collective and subjective endeavours which are mutually enriching. Unlike first language acquisition, the learning process in institutions is not incidental, but carefully structured and guided by more knowledgeable others, ← 7 | 8 → for instance teachers and peers who can provide targeted and purposeful scaffolding. According to Vygotsky, learning takes place in the ‘zone of proximal development’ (Vygotsky 1978: 86), which denotes the cognitive space of development located just beyond the stage of the learner’s present state of knowledge. The zone of proximal development (ZPD) allows for understanding the hitherto unknown, which can be accessed under careful assistance of more knowledgeable others. Vygotsky defines the ZPD as follows:

The zone of proximal development defines those functions that have not yet matured but are in the process of maturation, functions that will mature tomorrow but are currently in an embryonic state. These functions could be termed ‘buds’ or ‘flowers’ of development rather than the ‘fruits’ of development. The actual developmental level characterizes mental development retrospectively, while the zone of proximal development characterizes mental development prospectively (Vygotsky 1978: 86–87).

The difference between the two zones of development, actual and proximal, forms the key to the concept of the ZPD. It is the role of the more knowledgeable other person to be cognisant of the actual stage of development of every learner and provide tailored scaffolding to him or her in a constructive manner in order to bring the buds of learning to fruition with respect to the immediate effort of learning. The scaffolding process is not necessarily characterised by a situation where only the teacher is in a position of providing assistance to the learner. In the place of the teacher, more capable peers of the same age group can often provide more adequate support for structurally creative and developmental processes of learning. Peers have a better understanding of the particular circumstances in learning a certain aspect of the other language or culture, because they are at roughly the same developmental stage as their fellow pupils. From this position, they can provide tailored scaffolding beyond formal linguistic accuracy and include sensitive assistance for developing communicative and intercultural competences, subjective and social identities, and self-regulation. They can also themselves benefit from providing scaffolding to weaker learners because, in these scaffolding activities, they have to reconstruct their own knowledge and thus gain a deeper understanding of the issues under discussion. Foreign language learning is fundamentally ← 8 | 9 → a subjective and embodied process which needs to be carefully nurtured in the classroom by providing broad scope for experiential learning and diverse modes of facilitating subjective learning.

The well-trained teacher should have a good idea about the principles and processes how the foreign language is learned, how interlanguage is structured, how a non-threatening and supportive learning environment is created, how the individual learners in the group (co-)construct their subjective knowledge, and how the learners in their respective stages of the ZPD can be supported. Ideally, the teacher should also know about the individual differences in foreign language learning with regard to the level of preparedness of each learner to invest time and effort in the learning process, learner personality (for instance, risk-taking versus cautious), age (for example, the sensitive period), learning styles (e.g. visual, auditory, tactile, analytic), and favoured learning strategies (e.g. social, emotional, cognitive, metacognitive). Only a familiarity with and awareness of these factors enables teachers to effectively tailor their assistance to the requirements of the learner (as a subject and in a group of learners):

Mediation […] cannot be offered in a haphazard, hit-or-miss fashion but must be tuned to the learner’s ZPD, which means taking account of individual’s or group’s actual level of development as well as continually recalibrating the mediation offered in order to accommodate – and indeed bring about – changes in the learner’s ZPD (Lantolf/Thorne 2006: 356).

Only this sensitive tailoring of minimal scaffolding can foster the learner’s increasing progress from other-regulation (e.g. by guided activities and scaffolding) to self-regulation (i.e. autonomous learning) in the classroom. This is an important precondition for actively developing one’s own momentary intercultural place in the space that has opened up between the cultures by engaging in the collaborative learning activities. Culture is not one worldview that is shared by all members of a cultural community to the same degree; rather, culture is multi-layered, dynamic and at times conflictual. Although co-construction between peers and between the teacher and learners opens up the intercultural space of construction, the subjective place has to be negotiated by the individual learner against the background of his or her subjective experiences, attitudes, beliefs, memories ← 9 | 10 → and desires. It is ultimately the learner as a subject who, stimulated by classroom activities, has ‘to analyze and interpret, find connections and discover patterns in cultural contexts and relate their results to their own subjective stance’ (Kramsch 2009b: 232). Learners attach very personal meanings to certain linguistic and cultural constructs which can involve their own experiences, feelings, attitudes, behaviours and bodies. Therefore, the intercultural constructs of learners can only partially be verbalised and communicated. Foreign language learning is fundamentally an embodied process which needs to be carefully nurtured in the classroom by providing great scope and opportunities for experiential learning and diverse modes of facilitating subjective learning.


VIII, 283
ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2015 (March)
Oxford, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, New York, Wien, 2015. VIII, 283 pp., 18 fig.

Biographical notes

Arnd Witte (Volume editor) Theo Harden (Volume editor)

Arnd Witte is Senior Lecturer in German at the National University of Ireland in Maynooth. He has published widely in the field of foreign language learning and intercultural communication, with a particular emphasis on intercultural competence. Theo Harden is Professor Emeritus of Linguistics and Second Language Studies at University College Dublin and Professor Adjunto at the University of Brasilia. He has published widely in the area of second language acquisition, particularly German as a second language.


Title: Foreign Language Learning as Intercultural Experience