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Mediating languages teaching and learning.

Michelle Kohler (2015). Teachers as mediators in the foreign language classroom. Bristol: Multilingual Matters.

Intercultural orientations to language learning have become increasingly dominant over the past two decades, supplanting communicative approaches. This orientation is nowhere more evident than in Australia, where it underpins the Australian Curriculum: Languages, so far developed for more than a dozen languages. A framework for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Languages and curricula for further languages are also under development.

A critical element in realising intercultural understandings in languages classrooms is the process of mediation, or how 'more knowledgeable' participants in the learning process (usually teachers) assist 'more novice' participants (learners) in developing linguistic and intercultural understandings and competence. In this text, Michelle Kohler, who has been instrumental in developing intercultural language learning theory and elaborating intercultural language learning practice since she co-authored the report into intercultural language learning commissioned by the Australian Government in 2003, provides a timely and evidenced account of how mediation works in an intercultural orientation to languages learning.

Kohler points out that although intercultural language learning has been theorised extensively over the past two or so decades, there is little evidence of the nature of intercultural language teaching and learning itself, and in particular the act of mediation of understanding. In her text, drawn from her doctoral study incorporating multiple case studies and participatory action research, she provides such evidence through examining the mediation practices and thinking around mediation of three school-based teachers of Indonesian. These teachers deliberately set out to adopt an intercultural orientation to languages learning in their classrooms, and to work with Michelle (herself an accomplished teacher of Indonesian) to investigate and explain their thinking around understandings of language, culture and learning and their interrelationship, and to illustrate such understandings in classroom practices, through the act of mediating learning.

The introductory chapter sets out some key ideas: the nature of the study, why mediation matters, and how evidencing intercultural language learning practice through multiple case studies provides insights that will be useful to teachers of languages everywhere, and particularly to those who wish to proceed beyond now problematised communicative approaches. Chapter 1 expands on understandings of language and culture in languages teaching and learning, providing an extremely useful historical and developmental survey of the movement towards intercultural language learning, and its most recent theorisation and realisation. This summary will be of particular use to practicing teachers, pre-service teachers and teachers of languages teachers in succinctly elaborating the work from Hymes in the 1970s, to Byram, Zarate and Nostrand in the 1990s, through to the work of Kramsch, Crozet, Sercu, Carr, as well as Liddicoat, Scarino, Papademetre, Kohler herself, and other members of the team at the Research Centre for Languages and Cultures at the University of South Australia who have been so instrumental In developing this work in Australia, and which informs much international thinking. This summary shows the progression from notions of intercultural competence conceived as ways to understand 'the other', to more nuanced and deeper understandings about learning to understand the process of communication itself. Such understanding involves reflecting on one's own role in being both actor and audience in engaging with languages and cultures through lived experience and interpretation, and through realisation of change in oneself arising from this act of engaging with other languages and cultures and with people in intercultural communication.

Kohler then supports her own elaboration of understanding language and culture In languages teaching and learning to teachers' understandings of these ideas, In Chapter 2, in case studies of her three teachers, pseudonymously Collette, Kelly and Maria. Kohler details their understandings through snippets of conversations linked to classroom practice, to reveal highly Individualised perspectives, Informed by their own linguistic, cultural and teaching and learning perspectives.

Chapter 3 returns to theoretical explanation of understandings of mediation, through three lenses: from a language teaching and learning perspective: a sociocultural learning theory perspective: and for Intercultural language teaching and learning. She follows this with a companion chapter (Chapter 4) on her three teachers' ways of mediating, again drawing on conversations and classroom examples of mediation in practice, and the teachers' interpretation and explanation of what they were attempting and finding. These data provide a fascinating insight Into the work of teachers in classrooms, and of what teachers make of, and learn from, their own work, and how intimately such mediation Is connected to each one's understandings of language, culture, learning and intercultural language learning.

In the final chapter (Chapter 5), Kohler returns to the concept of mediation, findings from her study, implications for intercultural language teaching and learning and preparation of teachers: as well as suggesting ideas for further research, including attention to 'the discourse of the language teaching profession itself and how mediation and the concepts underpinning intercultural language teaching and learning are understood' (p. 198). She suggests such further research might unseat entrenched structural views of language learning and a cultural studies view of culture study, to reflect more contemporary views. She notes that any ongoing research must pay attention to the highly personal and developmental nature of the intercultural orientation, and offers to continue the dialogue through such ongoing research including teachers, students and researchers.

Appendices provide interesting data and process materials from the study, including planning documents, advice to consider in observing lessons, materials developed by the teachers, and data analysis tools. These provide further insights into how others might extend this study, to grow the volume of practice knowledge.

While the title is a little jarring for Australian readers and those for whom 'foreign' language learning is an outdated, judgmental and problematic formulation, it is presumably a publisher requirement. The text sits within the Multilingual Matters Languages for Intercultural Communication and Education series, the editor of which is Michael Byram. Kohler's work is therefore located in excellent company and positioned as a significant text to extend understanding about intercultural language teaching and learning internationally. It is, as Lo Bianco, in the cover review states 'attracting worldwide interest' for this field of specialisation that is an established Australian tradition, for which Kohler herself can claim a substantial contribution.

Anne-Marie Morgan is Deputy Head of School and a member of the English, Languages and Literacies Education team in the School of Education at the University of New England, and a member of the Languages, Literacies and Literature Research Network. Her research, publication and teaching interests include languages, English and literacy education, Indonesian and teachers' work and wellbeing. She is the outgoing editor of Babel and President Elect of the Australian Federation of Modern Language Teachers Associations, actively involved in advocating for languages teachers, nationally and internationally.


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Title Annotation:Teachers as Mediators in the Foreign Language Classroom
Author:Morgan, Anne-Marie
Article Type:Book review
Date:Nov 1, 2015
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