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Symbolic Competence in Interaction: Mutuality, Memory, and Resistance in a Peer Tutoring Context


Symbolic competence (Kramsch, 2009, 2011) has been proposed as a crucial addition to world language learning, as it enables a language learner to negotiate the complex symbolism of words, expressions, and discursive events from the target culture in order to reference them effectively and in the appropriate contexts. However, fostering symbolic competence is still a challenge within the day to day reality of the world language classroom. Moreover, there is still little research on what symbolic competence looks like in interaction. In this article I examine a peer tutoring context as one possibility for examining symbolic competence in interaction. Using a close discourse analysis of one peer tutoring session, I explore the intersections between interactional resources and the performance of symbolic competence. I show how the peer tutor’s enthusiastic and lengthy descriptions of a Mexican television program from the 70s constituted what I term a symbolic performance of her knowledge of this cultural artifact. At the same time, the peer learner’s reactions to these explanations, particularly her increasing lack of alignment, revealed resistance and interactional asynchrony between the two individuals. I examine reasons for this asynchrony, focusing on the difficulties of fostering symbolic competence in traditionally communicative-based language learning environments despite the potential richness that a peer tutoring environment could provide for transformative language learning. I suggest ways in which symbolic competence could be cultivated in peer tutoring and other additional language learning contexts.


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