On October 20th, 2012 Professor Claire Kramsch (University of California at Berkeley) was conferred the degree Doctor of Letters, honoris causa, by the University of Waterloo. Kramsch is one of the most prominent scholars in applied linguistics worldwide; her work has greatly influenced second and foreign language research around the world.
A professor of German at Berkeley, and director of the Berkeley Language Center, Kramsch has extensively researched the interrelationship of language and culture. Born in France and educated as a French scholar of German, she immigrated to the US to become a professor of German. Her multilingual and pluricultural biography has shaped her research as well. Her many publications include books on culture and language teaching, discourse analysis, and the multilingual subject.
Prof. Kramsch addressed convocation, pointing out the value of having learned a language to the graduating class, and showcasing especially the personal dimension of language competence: Students who speak another language (or several other languages), Kramsch explained, have the privilege of being intercultural communicators.
Afterwards, Claire Kramsch gave a public lecture on invitation by the Department of Germanic and Slavic Studies, entitled “Symbolic Competence: New Goal for Global Times.” She highlighted the increasing importance of languages in our global times, arguing that language is not only a neutral means of communication, but a powerful symbolic system that is imposed on us, yet at the same time it allows us to put our world into words and thus give meaning to it. She took the audience on a journey through examples of multilingual speakers’ skilful and often artistic ways of mediating between languages and cultures. The lecture demonstrated how much of our understanding of the world around us is actually a matter of interpreting language in its specific context, and how we can often change our and others’ understanding of the world by reinterpreting it through language use.
What students need to be taught in today’s global world, she explained, is symbolic competence (a term she coined several years ago), which entails the capability of interpreting and reinterpreting language in context. Kramsch concluded that foreign language learners of today should not only learn to communicate in another language, but develop symbolic competence and become cultural translators.
There was plenty of food for thought, rounded off by a well-attended post-lecture reception which gave many attendants the opportunity to venture into further thoughts and discussions about symbolic competence, and talk with Waterloo’s new graduate – Dr. Dr. h. c. Claire Kramsch.
- Written by Barbara Schmenk