Linguistic and cultural mediation

EuRopean community Action Scheme for the Mobility of University Students

Linguistic and cultural mediation

In its broadest sense ‘to mediate’ means to act as an intermediary in a conflict between parties
in order to help bring about agreement. ‘Mediation’ of this kind often occurs in political and
industrial disputes, for example, but also in the domestic sphere. In the field of language use
‘mediation’ has come to have a related and equally important meaning, namely to assist
people to communicate effectively with one another when they speak different languages, do
not understand certain terms or concepts, or when they are dealing with situations or ideas
that are new to them. This kind of mediation is summarised in the Common European
Framework of Reference for Languages 1 as follows: “… the written and/or oral activities of
mediation make communication possible between persons who are unable, for whatever
reason, to communicate with each other directly. Translation or interpretation, a paraphrase,
summary or record, provides for a third party a (re)formulation of a [spoken or written] source
text to which this third party does not have direct access. Mediating language activities –
(re)processing an existing text – occupy an important place in the normal linguistic functioning
of our societies” (p.4).

Reason for mediation

Difficulty in communicating may result from, among other factors, language- or terminological
differences; lack of proficiency in the other language or register (for example, between
speakers of different languages, or between experts in a given field and non-experts);
cognitive gaps, i.e. unfamiliarity with certain concepts or processes (e.g. caused by insufficient
access to education, low literacy, or cognitive development); lack of relevant information (e.g.
about how to apply for housing); cultural differences (e.g. relating to concepts of politeness or
punctuality); or disability (e.g. partial sightedness, hearing impairment). These are certainly
situations which are likely to confront migrants arriving or settling in a new host country.
Mediation is therefore very important for them and for anyone who is new to a country, its
language and its culture. Indeed, some of these difficulties are common to all of us. Thus
mediation is a normal part of education, of most kinds of learning, and of life.
While linguistic communication is the most useful, the most frequently used and most versatile
means of mediation, non-linguistic elements such as pointing/gestures, using signs (e.g. on
roads) and drawing maps may also be useful ways of mediating information and
understanding in certain situations. Moreover, electronic devices with internet access offer
various – often interactive – means of coping with gaps in understanding through written text,
images and automatic translation.

Seeking mediation, learning to mediate

Formal language courses and informal language support can contribute greatly to adult
migrants’ ability to seek linguistic and cultural mediation for themselves when it is needed, and
can enable migrants to become more confident and self-reliant in narrowing the gaps between
their own experience and their linguistic and cultural repertoire on the one hand, and what is
unknown, alien or incomprehensible to them in their new environment on the other. Formal
language courses can involve activities that give migrants practice and experience in asking
for information, getting linguistic help (e.g. ’sorry, could you speak more slowly’, ‘What does
xxx mean?’), cultural orientation (‘Should I call her Mary or Mrs Jones?), or directions to a
destination. Activities organised by the teacher can also help adult migrants to obtain linguistic
and cultural mediation and practical information independently, for example by using the
internet, consulting online dictionaries, and making contact with relevant agencies. In addition,
role-play and simulation activities in the classroom and also practice in paraphrasing, can
enable migrants to put themselves in the position of people who are able themselves to
provide linguistic and cultural mediation to others. The mediation that learners can offer may
be at a simple level, such as showing someone the way, explaining what a word or name
means, answering questions about customs or aspects of daily life, culture or religion that they
are not familiar with, and so on. But learning how to seek and offer mediation assistance will

raise migrants’ awareness of the language that is used for mediation purposes and develop
their mediation strategies. It may also improve migrants’ general confidence as participants in
the host society and raise their self-esteem. Teachers who organise such activities will first
need to gauge through informal diagnostic assessment what kinds of linguistic and cultural
mediation support individual students are likely to need, and to what extent they are already
able to seek such support and provide it to others.

The host community and mediation

The linguistic and/or cultural mediation that is provided formally through government agencies,
language courses and knowledge-of-society courses is unlikely to be sufficient from the point
of view of individual migrants leading their daily lives and needing to gain a foothold in the host
society. Informal learning is also crucial in this process, especially the mediation that others
in the community – employers, service providers, neighbours, the general public and other
migrants – can provide through their interactions with migrants. Integration is commonly
described in Council of Europe documents as a two-way process. All too often, however,
members of the host community are unaware of – or do not think about – the part they can play
in the integration process. More emphasis on combatting discrimination, xenophobia and
prejudice is needed within formal and informal education and in publicity campaigns, and more
initiatives are required to improve the host community’s understanding of the kinds of linguistic
and cultural mediation that they can provide informally for people who do not yet have
proficiency in the language or a full understanding of the culture and norms of the host society.
Being willing to provide such support, and to learn about the cultures and situations from which
migrants come, is a way of reducing the distance between those who have grown up in the
host community and migrants settling in it, and a means for the host community to play their
part in the integration process.

[1] Council of Europe (2001): Common European Framework of Reference for Languages: Learning,
Teaching, Assessment (CEFR), CUP, Cambridge. Available on line at
[2] From D. Coste and M. Cavalli (2015), Education, mobility, otherness – The mediation function of schools,
Council of Europe, Strasbourg, Chapter 3.1.1.

Fonte: Consiglio si Europa – Intégration Linguistique des Migrants Adultes (ILMA)
Link: Reference guide on Literacy and Second Language Learning for the Linguistic Integration of Adult
Migrants (LASLLIAM) – Linguistic Integration of Adult Migrants (LIAM) (