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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Le Pouvoir du Théâtre: Foreign Languages, Higher Education, and Capturing the Notion of Symbolic Competence

  • Author(s): Keneman, Margaret Lynn
  • et al.

Published Web Location Commons 'BY-NC-ND' version 4.0 license

The study of foreign languages has historically been a cornerstone in higher education for a variety of very good reasons, one being that it will help students develop a sensitivity to diversity. This rationale is compelling in theory, but requires a practical approach for instruction that actually guides students towards such a learning outcome. Current research (e.g., Byrnes, 2006; Kramsch, 2006; Swaffar, 2006) has argued that the traditional focus on the development of communicative competence often promotes a functional understanding of the target language and dominant cultural values, thereby obscuring examples of linguistic ambiguity, power dynamics, and even cultural diversity. According to Kramsch (2009) these concepts can be highlighted by prioritizing symbolic competence, which is the “...ability to draw on the semiotic diversity afforded by multiple languages to reframe ways of seeing familiar events, create alternative realities, and find an appropriate subject position ‘between languages,’ so to speak” (pp. 200–201). This article discusses why the notion of symbolic competence is so important when teaching foreign language courses at the university level, and explains why theater offers a salient opportunity to engage with semiotic diversity. Specifically, theater allows students to interpret and play with meaning, and in the context of semiotics, students are able to observe, enact, and even dismantle meaning-making devices such as symbolic representation, symbolic action, and symbolic power. This article illustrates classroom activities and examples of student work from an intermediate (200-level) French course, and concludes by discussing the larger implications for foreign language teaching and learning.

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