Linguistic and Cultural Mediation
In its broadest sense ‘to mediate’ means to act as an intermediary in a conflict between parties in order to help bring about agreement. ‘Mediation’ of this kind often occurs in political and industrial disputes, for example, but also in the domestic sphere. In the field of language use ‘mediation’ has come to have a related and equally important meaning, namely to assist people to communicate effectively with one another when they speak different languages, do not understand certain terms or concepts, or when they are dealing with situations or ideas that are new to them. This kind of mediation is summarised in the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages 1 as follows: “… the written and/or oral activities of mediation make communication possible between persons who are unable, for whatever reason, to communicate with each other directly. Translation or interpretation, a paraphrase, summary or record, provides for a third party a (re)formulation of a [spoken or written] source text to which this third party does not have direct access. Mediating language activities – (re)processing an existing text – occupy an important place in the normal linguistic functioning of our societies” (p.4).
Reasons for mediation
Difficulty in communicating may result from, among other factors, language- or terminological differences; lack of proficiency in the other language or register (for example, between speakers of different languages, or between experts in a given field and non-experts); cognitive gaps, i.e. unfamiliarity with certain concepts or processes (e.g. caused by insufficient access to education, low literacy, or cognitive development); lack of relevant information (e.g. about how to apply for housing); cultural differences (e.g. relating to concepts of politeness or punctuality); or disability (e.g. partial sightedness, hearing impairment). These are certainly situations which are likely to confront migrants arriving or settling in a new host country. Mediation is therefore very important for them and for anyone who is new to a country, its language and its culture. Indeed, some of these difficulties are common to all of us. Thus mediation is a normal part of education, of most kinds of learning, and of life.
While linguistic communication is the most useful, the most frequently used and most versatile means of mediation, non-linguistic elements such as pointing/gestures, using signs (e.g. on roads) and drawing maps may also be useful ways of mediating information and understanding in certain situations. Moreover, electronic devices with internet access offer various - often interactive - means of coping with gaps in understanding through written text, images and automatic translation.
Migrants and mediation
Due to their special situation, migrants of all ages, but especially adult migrants, are likely to need support in the form of linguistic and cultural mediation from their interlocutors in the host society, including from people who have been through the migration experience themselves, or from fellow migrants who have a shared language and are now less affected by the given issues, and of course from volunteers who work with migrants. Such mediation can be provided through formal channels or informally. For example, many government offices and community centres provide translations into some migrant languages on their websites or in printed form. Some also offer consultation and orientation for those who need them to make arrangements in the host society regarding housing, health, employment and financial support, and in some cases support is also available from interpreters. In addition, teachers working on language and knowledge-of-society courses and volunteers often find themselves playing the role of mediators. As Coste & Cavalli (2015)2 point out, it is important that those involved in mediation with migrants understand and accept the considerable responsibility that the role of mediator involves (p.62). They are effectively aiding migrants’ entry into a new community that is (in varying degrees) different from what they know, with its own linguistic and cultural norms, conventions and practices. Depending on their individual backgrounds, this life-changing process may be difficult and chaotic for migrants and asylum seekers, and may involve surmounting many obstacles. Specific mediation measures may be needed depending on individual migrants’ perception of what is different and new, their capacity to integrate with and participate in a new social group, and the specific difficulties they experience.
Seeking mediation, learning to mediate
Formal language courses and informal language support can contribute greatly to adult migrants’ ability to seek linguistic and cultural mediation for themselves when it is needed, and can enable migrants to become more confident and self-reliant in narrowing the gaps between their own experience and their linguistic and cultural repertoire on the one hand, and what is unknown, alien or incomprehensible to them in their new environment on the other. Formal language courses can involve activities that give migrants practice and experience in asking for information, getting linguistic help (e.g. ’sorry, could you speak more slowly’, ‘What does xxx mean?’), cultural orientation (‘Should I call her Mary or Mrs Jones?), or directions to a destination. Activities organised by the teacher can also help adult migrants to obtain linguistic and cultural mediation and practical information independently, for example by using the internet, consulting online dictionaries, and making contact with relevant agencies. In addition, role-play and simulation activities in the classroom and also practice in paraphrasing, can enable migrants to put themselves in the position of people who are able themselves to provide linguistic and cultural mediation to others. The mediation that learners can offer may be at a simple level, such as showing someone the way, explaining what a word or name means, answering questions about customs or aspects of daily life, culture or religion that they are not familiar with, and so on. But learning how to seek and offer mediation assistance will raise migrants’ awareness of the language that is used for mediation purposes and develop their mediation strategies. It may also improve migrants’ general confidence as participants in the host society and raise their self-esteem. Teachers who organise such activities will first need to gauge through informal diagnostic assessment what kinds of linguistic and cultural mediation support individual students are likely to need, and to what extent they are already able to seek such support and provide it to others.
The host community and mediation
The linguistic and/or cultural mediation that is provided formally through government agencies, language courses and knowledge-of-society courses is unlikely to be sufficient from the point of view of individual migrants leading their daily lives and needing to gain a foothold in the host society. Informal learning is also crucial in this process, especially the mediation that others in the community - employers, service providers, neighbours, the general public and other migrants – can provide through their interactions with migrants. Integration is commonly described in Council of Europe documents as a two-way process. All too often, however, members of the host community are unaware of - or do not think about - the part they can play in the integration process. More emphasis on combatting discrimination, xenophobia and prejudice is needed within formal and informal education and in publicity campaigns, and more initiatives are required to improve the host community’s understanding of the kinds of linguistic and cultural mediation that they can provide informally for people who do not yet have proficiency in the language or a full understanding of the culture and norms of the host society. Being willing to provide such support, and to learn about the cultures and situations from which migrants come, is a way of reducing the distance between those who have grown up in the host community and migrants settling in it, and a means for the host community to play their part in the integration process.
 Council of Europe (2001): Common European Framework of Reference for Languages: Learning, Teaching, Assessment (CEFR), CUP, Cambridge. Available on line at www.coe.int/lang-CEFR.
 From D. Coste and M. Cavalli (2015), Education, mobility, otherness - The mediation function of schools, Council of Europe, Strasbourg, Chapter 3.1.1. www.coe.int/lang