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Foreign Language Learning as Intercultural Experience

The Subjective Dimension


Arnd Witte and Theo Harden

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.
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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...

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