Intercomprehension in Germanic Languages

German and English as Transfer Resources for Reading Comprehension in Dutch

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2013
26 Pages, Grade: 1,0


Table of contents

I. Introduction

II. Intercomprehension in Germanic Languages
II.I. Intercomprehension – Definition(s)
II.II. Learning Processes and Reading Strategies
II.III. Intercomprehension in Germanic Languages – Diachronic Aspects

III. L1 German and L2 English as Transfer Resources for Reading Comprehension in Dutch – A Study
III.I. Theoretical Background
III.II. Methodology
III.III. Results
III.IV. Critical Discussion

IV. Conclusion

V. Works Cited

VI. Signed Acknowledgement

VII. Appendix

I. Introduction

Since communication relies on comprehension, intercomprehension as a learning principle is a way to save time and energy when learning a language. In this respect, (partial) multilingualism or plurilingualism becomes attainable for many more language learners at a time. But in order to reach the goal of multilingualism in the form of partial skills learning, some basic requirements have to be met. (van de Poel in: Kischel 2002: 97)

This statement by Kris van de Poel already emphasizes the importance of intercomprehension as a learning principle in order to achieve the skill of communicating in a foreign language that has not been acquired in a `traditional way`. The concept of (receptive) multilingualism becomes more and more important, especially within the framework of the European Union. A poll by the responsible Committee of the European Union in 2001 showed that about 74% of the British population and 60% of the German population do not speak a second language in addition to their L1[1] (EU poll qtd. in Rieder 2001: 5). Considering these results and the tendency that, according to Rieder, “es heute in zunehmenden Maße nicht mehr die Staatsgrenzen (sind), die Barrieren darstellen, sondern Sprachen”, it seems obvious that methods and procedures need to be developed and implemented to face this complex of problems. The European citizenship implicates the interaction between people with different languages and cultural backgrounds. Hence, according to the main principles of the EU`s language policy, there is a certain necessity to provide a (common) basis for intercultural communication between Europeans and, at the same time, to conserve Europe`s language diversity and avoid a lingual monoculture (cf. Wagner 2007: 4). In this respect, the implementation of English as a lingua franca for all European citizens might be a possible approach to solve the problem of language barriers. However, choosing one language (namely English) as a `compulsory` L2 for all EU citizens holds, to some extent, the danger that a monolingual, Anglophone Europe might develop in the course of time. Thus, there have been alternative approaches to achieve mutual comprehension and communication within a multilingual and multicultural Europe (cf. Rieder 2001: 9). One of them is the development of a receptive multilingualism – the development of intercomprehensive skills.

In this paper, I want to prove that L1 speakers of German are able to understand the main information provided by a short text in Dutch – a language, no one of the subjects in the short study I conducted has formally acquired before. The basis of such receptive comprehension of Dutch by L1 speakers of German is laid by the principle of Germanic intercomprehension, whose main characteristics and aspects will be discussed in the first part of the paper. In the second part, the study itself will be presented and analyzed. Is L1 German the `only` important resource language for reading comprehension in Dutch? Do L1 speakers of German with a high proficiency in L2 English have a higher success rate in this respect than L1 Germans with low-intermediate proficiency in L2 English? What are the possibilities of Germanic intercomprehension? With the help of the study presented, these questions shall be answered in the course of this paper.

II. Intercomprehension in Germanic Languages

Against the background of a multilingual and multicultural Europe as well as the language policy of the European Union, it is important to analyze what the intercomprehensive approach in order to achieve receptive multilingualism actually implies. Therefore, the main characteristics of this concept will be presented in the following, as well as the basic learning processes and reading strategies that it incorporates. Based on this general definition and aspects, the intercomprehension in Germanic languages will be examined more closely. In this respect, the linguistic relatedness of English, German and Dutch and their diachronic developments are of major importance since their common roots lay, to some extent, the foundation for intercomprehensive processes.

II.I. Intercomprehension – Definition(s)

Franz Joseph Meißner defines intercomprehension as “die Fähigkeit, fremde Sprachen oder Varietäten zu dekodieren, ohne sie in spielerischer Umgebung erworben oder formal erlernt zu haben“ (Meißner qtd. in Schmidt-El Khaldi 2011: 10). According to Christina Reissner`s definition, intercomprehension is described as “die Fähigkeit, in einer Gruppe von Sprachen kommunizieren zu können, ohne diese formal erlernt zu haben“ (2010: 821). However, the communicative aspect in Reissner`s definition is not specified. Therefore, I would prefer Meißner`s definition since it already suggests the significance of receptive communicative skills (reading and listening comprehension) – the recipient or learner decodes the new, unknown language or variety by transferring his or her previously acquired linguistic and cognitive knowledge. This approach is also underlined by Elisabetta Mazza, who states that the basic principle of intercomprehension is to “utilize the pre-exiting language knowledge of the learner: his mother tongue and other possible foreign languages […] considered as the reference language” (in: Kischel 2002: 183).

Concerning the definition(s) of intercomprehension, it is important to mention that the concept of intercomprehension is not to be confused with Eurocomprehension, which describes a specific approach to the principle of intercomprehension limited to the European context or, to be more precisely, intercomprehension in the three major language families in Europe: the Germanic, Slavic and Romance languages. The term of Eurocomprehension, based on the general intercomprehensive principle, has been formed by the research group EuroCom, founded in 1998. The aims of Eurocomprehension are consistent with the aims of the language policy of the European Union, regarding the development of receptive communicative competences as an access to multilingualism that is being pursued[2] - “dabei liefert die linguistische Interkomprehensionsforschung die interlingualen Transferbasen zu kognitiven Nutzung von Verwandtschaftsbeziehungen in Sprachgruppen, die eine Mehrsprachigkeitsdidaktik umsetzt” (Klein in: Kischel 2002: 35). Various projects (mainly concentrating on Romance languages) of the EuroCom research group have proven that the implementation of intercomprehension in practice is indeed a functional means in order to make an (alleged) `unknown` language accessible for the learner (cf. ibid.).

The introductory quote of this paper does not only give another general definition of intercomprehension, it also mentions a significant aspect of it that is indispensable for its further examination: the characterization of intercomprehension as “a learning strategy” (q.v.). Thus, the main learning processes and reading strategies that occur automatically/ unconsciously or that the learner needs to be directly conveyed with[3] will be briefly discussed in the following.

II.II. Learning Processes and Reading Strategies

Intercomprehensive-based language acquisition is a transfer-based language acquisition. Hence, the learning process is based on the knowledge the individual learner has already acquired and its transfer and connection to the new learning content. This individual previous knowledge includes “die Sprachlernerfahrungen aus der Muttersprache und die bereits erworbenen Fremdsprachen, die metalinguistischen Kenntnisse sowie Spracherwerbsstrategien mit sich bringen“ (Reissner 2010: 825). Certainly, the fact that a learner in some cases might have more than one L1, that he can utilize as a resource language, needs to be added to Reissner`s assumption. Furthermore, I think that the wording “Sprachlernerfahrungen” referring to L1 acquisition, needs to be regarded critically, since this acquisition is an implicit one, generally lacking metalinguistic examination and individual reflection. Hence, it is debatable whether the process of L1 acquisition is available as a “Sprachlernerfahrung” in the individual learner`s mind.

According to Schmidt-El Khaldi, the acquisition of a second language is, from the age of 12 on, carried out by a “kognitiv expliziten Methode”, that includes e.g. contrastive analysis and grammar rules (2011: 22). As it was already mentioned, the cognitive requirement of intercomprehension is the transfer and the linking of previous knowledge to (new) linguistic input. The results of this cognitive and linguistic transfer can be described as a “synergy” between the resource and the target language (Mazza in: Kischel 2002: 183) or as the cross-linking of “interlingualen kognitiven Schemata“ (Reissner 2010: 824). Such schemata are considered basic elements of all knowledge, “building blocks of cognition”, that are not fixed, but can be modified by new input (Rumelhart qtd. in Mazza in: Kischel 2002: 185).

These cognitive schemata are as individual as the intercomprehensive learning and reading process. Intercomprehensive reading can be regarded as “a process that involves not only knowledge of linguistic elements, but also the entire knowledge of the reader” (Mazza in: Kischel 2002: 183). Since intercomprehension is mainly relating to reading comprehension in a foreign language, it becomes obvious that reading processes and strategies are of major importance. In this respect, Lutjeharms emphasizes the difference between a reading strategy and a reading process: while a strategy can be regarded as a (at least partial) conscious technique, a process runs automatically, accompanied by the awareness of what is being done, but not how it is being done (in: Kischel 2002: 120). As a general strategy for (successful) intercomprehensive reading, the following four steps can be identified:

1. Inferieren: den Kontext zum Erraten von Wortbedeutungen verwenden;
2. Ableiten: grammatische Regeln anwenden, um Wortformen zu identifizieren;
3. Elaborieren: Vorkenntnisse einsetzen;
4. Transferieren: Erkennen, Kognaten benutzen. (ibid.)

This strategy proposed by Lutjeharms combines two other major reading strategies: Inferencing, “das bewusste Ableiten einer Bedeutung” as a process that is generally limited to the lexical level, and Monitoring, “das (bewusste) Anwenden sprachlichen Regelwissens zum Verstehen einer L2-Äußerung“, limited to the grammatical level (Rieder 2001: 27). Although both Inferencing and Monitoring are described as two strategies to decode a text in a foreign language and extract information from it, it is important to mention that Monitoring designates a process rather than a strategy, since it is mostly runs unconsciously on the basis of the L1 and accordingly other foreign languages that have been previously acquired. Hence, the dimension of implicit metalinguistic knowledge is strongly involved here, whereas Inferencing represents a conscious strategy to deduce meaning from words in a foreign language by transferring individual (linguistic) knowledge.


[1] Although these data are now more than ten years old, they still allow us to retrace a certain tendency considering the distribution of multilingualism in the European Union: while 44% of the Dutch and 31% of the Danish and Belgian population speak two or more foreign languages, this only applies to 7% of the German and 6% of the English population (cf. ibid.).

[2] In the introduction of this paper, the importance of the EU`s language policy in the context of intercomprehension has already been discussed (briefly).

[3] Here, the important role of a modern „Mehrsprachigkeitsdidaktik” that Klein mentioned (q.v.) becomes evident: multi-lingual didactic needs to convey the learner with the major strategies to decode a text in a foreign language and lead him to activate and transfer his previously acquired knowledge in order to do so.

Excerpt out of 26 pages


Intercomprehension in Germanic Languages
German and English as Transfer Resources for Reading Comprehension in Dutch
University of Potsdam  (Institut für Anglistik/ Amerikanistik)
Transfer in Second Language Acquisition
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ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
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603 KB
Germanic, intercomprehension, German, Dutch, language transfer, lexical transfer, reading comprehension
Quote paper
Wiebke Pietzonka (Author), 2013, Intercomprehension in Germanic Languages, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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