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Introduction to the Special Issue

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Over a weekend in April 2015, a community of over one hundred language instructors, language learners, and applied linguists gathered at the University of California, Berkeley, to celebrate the ongoing teaching, research, and service of Claire Kramsch. Several panels took on the challenge of responding to and exemplifying Kramsch’s research in applied linguistics, contributions to language and culture teaching, and service to the community of language educators. The panels presented new studies that shed light on different strands of her interests in applied linguistics: the relationships between technology and second language (L2) learning; the ongoing construction of the multilingual subject; and, history, historicity, and foreign language education.

One implicit thread that linked all the panels together—directly addressed by some panelists—was the relationship between language and symbolic power. For instance, papers such as “Language, power, and the development of disciplinary textual practices” (Gebhard, 2015) and “Communicative language teaching and language under duress: Global contexts for language pedagogy” (Levine & Phipps, 2015) explored the often unequal power dynamics at play in second language learning in different settings. Extending the description of power dynamics in language learning to symbolic competence in language instruction, presenters, including Dorothy Chun (2015) in “Developing language teachers’ symbolic competence through an online exchange,” proposed that symbolic competence offered language users a way to engage in the power play at the heart of language learning in a globalized context.

That exciting weekend created the opportunity for further discussion of and research into symbolic competence, especially in classroom-based language learning and instruction. Specifically, in this special issue, we address questions that emerged from those discussions, attempting to weave together and extend the various strands of work on symbolic competence:

●      Theory: How can symbolic competence be further theorized?

●      Teaching and learning practices: What is the relevance of symbolic competence to the language classroom?

●      Research: How do we conduct research on symbolic competence, its theoretical potentials and limitations, in relationship to classroom learning and pedagogical practices?

It is these three questions that guide the organization and content of this special issue. This introduction thus includes evolving understandings of symbolic competence as a theoretical construct, potential fields of inquiry that have motivated the articles in this collection, summaries of the articles’ contributions to our understandings, and considerations of future directions for instruction and research focusing on symbolic competence. At the end of the issue, we feature an afterword, which invites readers—language educators and language learning researchers—to imagine concretely where encounters with symbolic competence might lead.

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