By Lourdes Barquín Sanmartín, Teaching Fellow at the Spanish School of Languages, Cultures and Linguistics, University College Dublin
Europe serves as a remarkable example of a linguistically diverse continent, where people speak various languages. In European high schools, nearly half of the students engage in learning two or more foreign languages (EUROSTAT, 2022). As multilingualism becomes more prevalent, there is a growing need to develop teaching methods that cater to students who already possess knowledge of multiple languages. These approaches, known as “pluralistic approaches” (Candelier et al., 2012), aim to adapt current teaching strategies for learners studying two or more additional languages beyond their native tongue, such as a third or fourth language.
This post explores a language learning approach called "Inter-comprehension between related languages" (FREPA) with a focus on learning French and Spanish in the UK. In the UK, French, Spanish and German are the most popular foreign languages and, often referred to as “the big 3” (Collen, 2021, 2022, 2023). Additionally, some primary schools offer Latin and Mandarin on a smaller scale.
French accounts for 72.4% of the most frequently taught foreign languages in primary education in England (Collen, 2023, p.8), making it the very first foreign language studied by most British students. Spanish, on the other hand, is introduced later in secondary education, typically as a third language. This language combination, with French L2 and Spanish L3, lends itself well to inter-comprehension due to the shared characteristics between these two Romance languages, both in grammar and vocabulary. Moreover, since French is learned as a foreign language, when studying Spanish, learners naturally build upon their explicit knowledge of French instead of relying on English, which is typically acquired more implicitly.
Inter-comprehension refers to the ability to understand a speaker of a related language, even without formal instruction in that specific language. For example, an Italian speaker can comprehend a Spanish speaker without having received explicit training in Spanish. This phenomenon is commonly observed in societies or communities where multiple related languages coexist, such as Catalonia or Galicia. In the Iberian Peninsula, a monolingual Spanish speaker visiting these regions can grasp the meaning of written materials like traffic signs, menus, or advertisements in Galician or Catalan to some extent. This understanding or inter-comprehension arises because the listener inherently relies on their knowledge of prior languages that are typologically similar to the new language, using them as a point of reference for comprehension.
Inter-comprehension is a natural occurrence in language and has been rediscovered and formally proposed as a plurilingual approach to foreign language instruction. This approach holds significant potential for teaching grammar and vocabulary, especially when learners possess prior knowledge of languages closely related to the target language, which is the case of many British nationals as mentioned earlier. Inter-comprehension specifically emphasizes receptive oral and written skills, relying on the natural intelligibility and cross-linguistic transversality that exists among related languages. The ability to engage with multiple languages simultaneously, both the target language and a previous language, fosters increased interlinguistic awareness, metalinguistic knowledge, and the potential for positive transfer.
Inter-comprehension is still unfamiliar in the UK, but there are European projects like EuroComRom and EuRom5 that focus on exploring it. These projects use texts written in Romance languages such as Catalan, Portuguese, Spanish, Italian, and French to teach grammar and introduce new words. Students analyze these texts in search for similarities and differences, for which they use techniques like underlining, arrows, numbering, and color coding. They also compare vocabulary across different Romance languages to find similarities and differences. This helps learners become more aware of how language works in general and the unique characteristics of the Romance languages they're studying.
Overall, inter-comprehension offers promising avenues for language teaching and learning in the UK, allowing British learners to leverage their existing linguistic knowledge in French to enhance their understanding and proficiency in Spanish.
Collen, I. (2021). Language Trends 2021. Language Teaching in primary and secondary schools in England. British Council. Recuperado de: https://www.britishcouncil.org/sites/default/files/language_trends_2021_report.pdf
Collen, I. (2022). Language Trends 2022. Language Teaching in primary and secondary schools in England. British Council. Recuperado de: https://www.britishcouncil.org/sites/default/files/language_trends_report_2022.pdf
Collen, I. (2023). Language Trends Northern Ireland 2023: Language teaching in Primary and Post-Primary Schools. British Council. Recuperado de: https://nireland.britishcouncil.org/sites/default/files/language_trends_2023_report.pdf
Candelier, M., Camilleri-Grima, A., Castellotti, V., de Pietro, J., Lörincz, I., Meissner, F.-J., et al. (2010). Framework of Reference for Pluralistic Approaches to Languages and Cultures (FREPA). Strasbourg: Council of Europe. Retrieved from: https://carap.ecml.at/Portals/11/documents/CARAP-version3-EN-28062010.pdf
European Commission, Directorate-General for Translation, (2012). Intercomprehension: exploring its usefulness for DGT, the Commission and the EU, Publications Office. Retrieved from: https://data.europa.eu/doi/10.2782/63143
Lourdes Barquín Sanmartín is a Teaching Fellow for the Spanish School of Languages, Cultures and Linguistics, University College Dublin. She recently submitted her PhD in Applied Linguistics at the University of Edinburgh.