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Open Access Publications from the University of California


The L2 Journal is an open access, fully refereed, interdisciplinary journal which aims to promote the research and the practice of language learning and teaching. It publishes articles in English on all aspects of applied linguistics broadly conceived, i.e., second language acquisition, second language pedagogy, bilingualism and multilingualism, language and technology, curriculum development and teacher training, testing and evaluation.

Symbolic Competence: From Theory to Pedagogical Practice

Preface and Introduction to the Special Issue

Preface to the Special Issue

It is with immense pleasure that I present to you this special issue of the L2 Journal on “Symbolic Competence: From theory to pedagogic practice,” guest edited by William Heidenfeldt and Kimberly Vinall. This special issue has been a magnificent labor of love. When, in preparation for my retirement from UC Berkeley in April 2015, the Berkeley Language Center community contemplated putting together a Festschrift in my honor, my colleagues, my graduate students and I agreed that a conference would be a much better idea - one that reflected more appropriately the intense intellectual exchanges we had had together over the years. That conference titled “ClaireFest” took place on 17-18 April 2015 in Dwinelle Hall. It offered a host of exciting scholarly papers, moving testimonies of professional teachers, and heart-warming stories of experience. But the idea of having something in print to commemorate the event remained. Thanks to Rick Kern, the director of the BLC, the idea of having a special issue of the L2 Journal dedicated to Claire Kramsch’s concept of symbolic competence started to take shape. Billy and Kimberly, who were finishing their PhD dissertations at the time (Heidenfeldt, 2015a; Vinall 2015), eagerly picked up the challenge. Kimberly had already published two articles on the application of symbolic competence in her Spanish classes (Vinall, 2012, 2016); Billy had published an article on one Spanish teacher with a particularly high degree of symbolic competence (Heidenfeldt, 2015b). Both had been seduced by the concept proposed by Claire in 2006, but were still looking for various ways to put it in practice in the classroom. Their Call for Papers met with widespread enthusiasm and they had a large number of abstracts to choose from. Framed by an enlightening Introduction and a thought-provoking Afterword, the four papers presented here constitute an honest appraisal of the notion of symbolic competence and its practical applications in the language classroom.

I wish to extend to Billy and Kimberly my most heartfelt thanks for having undertaken this demanding project, despite heavy teaching loads at their respective institutions. They have definitely clarified my initially attractive, but elusive brainchild, and given it a concrete and practical meaning. I hope that our readers find this special issue useful for both their research and their teaching practice, and that they are encouraged to further explore how symbolic competence can enrich the teaching and learning of foreign languages.

Introduction to the Special Issue

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.


Beyond a Tolerance of Ambiguity: Symbolic Competence as Creative Uncertainty and Doubt

Tolerance of ambiguity has been referred to as “the indispensable component of symbolic competence” (Kramsch, 2006, p. 251) and the recommendation was later made for college-level language instructors interested in emphasizing symbolic competence in their classrooms to “bring up every opportunity to show complexity and ambiguity” (Kramsch, 2011, p. 364). Within foreign language (FL) education, however, there is often a tendency to encourage negotiation of meaning in intercultural communication as a means of overcoming ambiguity. Yet ambiguity is an integral attribute of poetic and academic language as well as of day-to-day interactions, and embodies the very experience of language learning. Thus, FL pedagogies that incorporate the notion of symbolic competence emphasize that ambiguity—that is, multiplicity or indeterminacy of meaning—is not to be reduced, solved, or overcome. Rather, it should be promoted in order to emphasize the creative, productive side of the accompanying uncertainty and doubt. This can lead to the enhancement of creative abilities in learners—abilities that may be useful in navigating the ever-changing language game in which they are engaged.

This article makes the case for FL education to move beyond a pedagogy that simply tolerates ambiguity, to one that wholeheartedly embraces it so as to promote and activate symbolic competence. Drawing from a curriculum-development project for an intermediate German language and culture class at a large public university in the southwestern United States, I explore the three types of ambiguity that were highlighted in that course; namely, ambiguity of genre, ambiguity of perspective, and ambiguity of silence as they are experienced in and through a variety of literary and non-literary texts. The course focused on the ambiguity of a seemingly familiar genre, the fairy tale, and how learners’ understanding of this genre became more nuanced by engaging with multiple versions, perspectives, and cultural narratives related to it—from a variety of sources, including celebrity interviews, medieval literature, and sports discourse, among others. Based on the analysis of student reflections to various tasks and assessments, this article illustrates which moments of ambiguity learners identified, how they reacted to those ambiguities, and how this contributed to the enhancement of their symbolic competence.

Performing Deafness: Symbolic Power as Embodied by Deaf and Hearing Preschoolers

Symbolic competence, “the ability to actively manipulate and shape one’s environment on multiple scales of time and space” (Kramsch & Whiteside, 2008, p. 667), offers researchers and educators the ability to understand how learners position themselves. This positioning involves a vying for semiotic resources as a means to question established constructs and re-signify or reframe them (Kramsch, 2011). Theorizations of symbolic competence have thus far given limited attention to the multimodal dimensions of intercultural communication in action, that is, during the process of positioning. In this study, I utilize the operating principles of symbolic competence (positioning, historicity, reframing, and transgressions) to explore the embodied uses of symbolic power (Bourdieu, 1982) in multimodal interactions between deaf and hearing preschoolers. Specifically, this project asks: What understandings are we offered through an analysis of symbolic power in the multimodal dimensions (the visual, auditory, tactile, and spatial) of intercultural communication? What might this teach us about how symbolic power is distributed not just through the various languages of interaction, but also through the bodies in interaction? This fine-grained analysis, which is part of a larger ethnographic study, finds that deaf and hearing participants draw upon multimodal forms of communication to both question and play with the cultural constructs of ‘hearingness’ and ‘deafness.’ It is also through what is not spoken or signed––that is, silence, face-work, and body positions–– that the focal L2 learners position themselves in a struggle over symbolic power. This research aims to expand the theorization of symbolic competence to include a focus on the meaning-making that takes place through the embodied dimensions of language. An embodied approach could be particularly useful in research that draws attention to multimodality and the various ways in which language learners make meaning, positioning self and other in the process.


Exploring Symbolic Competence: Constructing Meaning(s) and Stretching Cultural Imagination in an Intermediate College-Level French Class

This study, conducted in a 300-level college French class with15 students, builds on previous research on symbolic competence (Kramsch, 2009, 2011).  Using a film scene and a “Semiotic Gap Activity,” we examine how students construct meaning. What do students prioritize? What do they bring from their past symbolic representations? Are they aware of their own perspectives?  What do they gain from the activity?


Students were divided into three groups.  Each group worked on only one component of the scene (soundtrack and script; subtitles; or scene without sound) and stretched its imagination to answer a questionnaire about the meaning of the scene compensating for the semiotic gap. Groups shared their findings before they viewed the original scene with all components present.  Finally, students responded to a Post-Viewing Questionnaire .


Data originated from answers to the questionnaires and instructor’s notes.  Findings showed students’ minute description of their component. However, when constructing meaning and filling the gap, they appealed to myths deeply rooted in their schema of French culture, which contradicted their actual observations. In doing so they often confidently positioned themselves as knowers of both cultures. We discuss pedagogical implications and make suggestions to continue developing students’ semiotic awareness and symbolic competence.

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

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.

Afterword to the Special Issue

Afterword: Where Do We Go from Here?

The focus of this special issue as posed in the call for papers highlighted explorations of symbolic competence at several levels: theory; teaching and learning practices; and research. In this Afterword, we consider these levels central to our reflections on the particular contributions of this special issue as well as to considerations of future areas of inquiry. The guiding questions for each included:

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?

The articles in this special issue have made significant contributions in responding to these questions. These articles all grapple with theorizations of symbolic competence in relationship to questions of symbolic representation and language users’ understandings of the relationships between form and meaning; symbolic action and language users’ manipulation of semiotic resources to meaningfully engage in the multilingual and multimodal game; and, symbolic power in terms of how learners engage these resources to play this game. From pedagogical practice to classroom interactions the articles have all demonstrated the relevance of symbolic competence to the language classroom as well as offering insightful and innovative pedagogical practices designed to potentially support its development. Additionally, they provide differing models of research, from the level of detailed analysis of conversation and turns at talk to thematic analysis of reflections on the implementation of new pedagogical practices and considerations of their potentials.