A crash course on mediation

The buzz word around the Escuelas Oficiales de Idiomas (EOIs) in Spain this year is mediation and the importance of teachers at these centres getting to grips with the concept cannot be stressed enough.  In a series of three blog posts we will be taking a look at some of the key issues surrounding this topic.

For our first article we reached out to Manuel del Rio and Francisco J. Pose, two of the teachers who provide teacher training at the EOI in Santiago de Compostela.  Among the courses the EOI will be offering as part of their summer training programme for teachers is one led by Manuel and Francisco on linguistic mediation.  We had a few questions on mediation and we figured getting in touch with them would be a good place to start to get some clear answers.   Here’s what they had to tell us:

Question: Let’s start with the elephant in the room: What is the big deal with mediation?  Is it really all that important in our daily lives?

Answer: Mediation hasn’t come out of the blue. It was already present, albeit in a passing mention, in the Common European Framework of Reference (CFER). Its new Companion Volume, which was published in 2018, has placed it in a central spot as the essential and synthetic linguistic activity that encompasses all the others. And in Spain, from a practical point of view, the new EOI legislation has not only included it in the curriculum, but actually placed it on par with the old skills.

How important is it? The truth is that a language speaker has to use his/her mediating abilities all the time. More and more, our societies are becoming multicultural and multilingual, and the way our learners use language is drifting away from conversations solely with natives and towards speakers acting as language facilitators and mediators between a variety of peoples and cultures.

Q.: So, if it isn’t really new, haven’t we been doing it all along?

A.: Yes and no. Of course we have been including elements of mediation both in class and exam activities (and our students will have been using it in the real world), but the fact that it wasn’t underscored tended to make approaches to it serendipitous and haphazard at best, as is always the case for those things and areas that aren’t explicitly stated in curriculums. The issue is not only practicing and using mediation, but doing it better, in a more thorough, self-conscious and effective way; as a linguistic activity that is an end in itself, and not as an after-thought or after-effect.

Q.: So what exactly is mediation? Isn’t it just translation and/or interpretation?

A.: Actually, the definition for mediation provided in the CEFR did tend to conflate these three areas, making translation and interpretation sub-fields of the more general mediation. Since then, though, the scientific literature and the new Companion Volume have honed in and clarified things a lot.

Based on this, we could put forth a broad definition of mediation as any communicative activity in which an intermediary is needed to transform a linguistic input A into a linguistic output B, as without the intervention of a mediator, the possible recipients of the input wouldn’t be able to understand it.

The key idea lies, then, in the need for a third party, but also in three extra elements which help us to circumscribe mediation precisely:

  1. a) in the mediatory act the mediator subordinates his/her intentions, thoughts, etc…, as well as the literal meaning and/or intentions of the linguistic input to the perceived needs of the speaker. This establishes a first difference with translation/interpretation, where generally greater fidelity to the source text is required.
  2. b) mediation is a complex linguistic act, but any speaker of any level of a language is expected to be able to produce it (e,g, an A1 user is able to explain in very simple language to a vegetarian tourist which dishes on a menu contain meat or not), whereas translation and interpretation are professional activities which even a very proficient language user might probably not be able to carry out without some academic training.
  3. c) mediation puts the focus on the negotiation and co-construction of meanings, and on the crossing of linguistic borders: this implies that it takes places not only between different languages (interlinguistic mediation) but within the same language (intralinguistic mediation), traversing socio-linguistic, regional-cultural and other lines. A journalist writing an article on the latest winner of the Nobel Prize in Physics for the wider public after having had a conversion with a scientist that simplified the information for him/her is doing an exercise of mediation (and incidentally, jumping from the spoken/heard to the written/read).

Q.: How do we go about teaching and creating mediation activities in the classroom, then? And what about their assessment?

A.: Those are a couple of million-dollar questions! As for teaching, we can briefly say that designing mediation activities is a complex thing, but a very good guide is provided by the CEFR Companion Volume; besides definitions, it provides an excellent classification of mediation activities and strategies, further subdivided into mediating texts, concepts and communication on the one hand, and on strategies for simplifying texts and explaining new concepts on the other. All of these areas have even more sub-types which come with more descriptors for each framework level, along with their domain (personal, public, occupational and educational). Using all this information allows us to draw up a very detailed Sudoku with different types of activities for all the different levels.

Assessment of mediation is a trickier concept, and there is no clear consensus in this area among the different proponents: some go so far as to claim that it is entirely impossible to assess it! As mediation encompasses a wide variety of language (and social, and cultural, and pedagogic) areas and meanings, it is plain to see that many aspects of it are not easily reduced to the Procrustean bed of our examinations. But there definitely are some aspects of it (especially those related to the purely linguistic aspects of modifying and adapting texts) that are amenable to testing and assessing, both in the daily activity of the classroom and in certification exams.

Q: To conclude, what can a teacher attending your course expect to do or learn?

A.: Our course isn’t just a theoretical reflexion on this field: we have had to work with mediation all through this year as part of the implementation of the new, nation-wide EOI school curriculum, as well as incorporating it in our certification exams. Besides our accumulated experience, mediation has been the centrepiece of this year’s teacher-training program at our school, were we have reflected, read, analyzed and implemented proposals and exercises; some of our teachers went on a training course to Greece’s Kapodistrian University, which has done a lot of the pioneering work on applying mediation to classes and assessment activities through their KPG exam, and have already been giving seminars on the subject at different Galician EOI schools during 2018-19. All this accumulated expertise has been distilled into a wealth of knowledge, skills and abilities which will be shared with and acquired by those who enrol on our course.

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