Introduction: Why mediation strategies are important
Pre-print version. Print version published in Language Problems and Language Planning 42(3)
Mediation strategies are deployed when people use translation, interpreting, lingua francas,
intercomprehension, language learning, or any combination of these to communicate in situations where
there is more than one language in play. Such choices can be seen as enacting trade offs between the goals
of mobility (across geolinguistic borders) and inclusion (primarily into labor markets and government
services). Mediation strategies are nevertheless selected in accordance with complex sets of criteria by which
they are evaluated and compared in each particular situation. Case studies suggest that, if seen as
performative language policy, the strategies tend to give more priority to social inclusion than to language
diversity. They might thus constitute a challenge to some approaches to official language policy.
“Four fish, per favor!”, says my mum to our village fishmonger in Spain. As a seasonally
visiting grandmother, she no doubt breaks all the rules: this is not inclusive communication; it
does nothing to respect or maintain the village variety of Catalan (xaporiao, “slapped
together”), let alone the official Spanish and Catalan spoken on either side of the border where
we live. No, this is decidedly not good language planning or language policy. My mother
blatantly imposes her native English, plus a code-switch to something resembling Catalan then
Spanish, but who cares about that difference? The thing is, accompanied by four raised fingers
and an extended index, the utterance does get her the fish. And the other women present
understand well enough; they accept my mum with good humor; they are actually the ones who
told me the story: At last, they said, our English lessons have been useful!
If not exemplary, the anecdote at least raises a question of alternatives. What else could
my mother have done? Perhaps, in the ideal world of professional linguists, she would have
learned the varieties (xaporiao, Catalan, and Spanish) then made subtle and intelligent switches
between all three. Yet she is a visiting grandmother, with little time and less inclination for
tedious language learning. Perhaps she could have taken an interpreter along with her: a
professional would certainly have cost more than the fish, but she has a son and three
grandchildren who could have mediated quite adequately. However, that too would have
required added effort for little actual benefit: the fish would be the same, and her social
inclusion would probably not have been enhanced. What else? She chose to use English, betting
on its status as some kind of lingua franca even though it is not technically a lingua franca in
this case (since it is her first language). Then she enacted a little code-switching, a minor
gesture to an alternative language space, perhaps meant as a fleeting apology or implicit plea
for inclusion. And as she was getting the fish, she probably grasped something like “cuatro”
and “pescado,” thus successfully negotiating a minimalist bilingual conversation, a fleeting
instance of intercomprehension. She made a choice between at least those alternative mediation
What I am calling “mediation strategy” here is simply a way to solve a communication
problem involving more than one language. Our purpose in this volume is to explore, though
a series of qualitative case studies, why people who move between countries and languages
(“mobile subjects”) use some strategies rather than others, and what consequences this might
have for language policy, mostly in Europe.
Names for things
The studies in this volume are from a work package called “Mediation,” which is part of a
European Commission project called Mobility and Inclusion in Multilingual Europe (MIME)
(2014-2018). Our mandate has been to look at the following strategies available to speakers:
- Translation, particularly the impact of free online machine translation;
- Interpreting, especially the provision of professional interpreters for public services;
- Lingua francas, when two or more speakers use a language that is not their first
- Intercomprehension, when each speaker uses their L1 and has at least passive
understanding of the language of the other person.
Despite a certain formal beauty in this menu, each of these terms is unhappy in various
“Mediation,” to start with, normally applies to situations where there is a clearly present
third party: a translator, an interpreter, or perhaps an online machine translation service. So
what about lingua francas and intercomprehension, where there need be no mediator physically
present? In those cases, we are forced to see language teachers as mediators whose efforts are
invested prior to the multilingual speech act. And if we take that step, then the whole of
language education should probably be added as a further major “mediation strategy” available
to speakers. In our various case studies, this is indeed the operative background assumption.
“Strategy” would seem less difficult. In military terms, though, a “strategy” is opposed
to a “tactic”: it is a choice designed to achieve a long-term beneficial outcome, and such long-
term planning can rarely be assumed in the kinds of encounters we analyze herein. A less
problematic alternative might be “mediation choice”, simply to stress there is a range of options
available and that people are able to choose actively between them. The insistence on choice
could then invite further key terms like agency, intervention, performance, and situational
complexity, which otherwise tend to find only marginal roles in discussions of language policy.
So if we stay with “strategy,” which was the spontaneous preference of the research group, we
do not forget the implications of active choice.
“Translation” and “interpreting” are not really any simpler. The professional
distinction is between “interpreting” as spoken mediation and “translation” as written. The
studies herein nevertheless concern what is more technically known as “Public Service
Interpreting and Translation,” where the important part is not the mode of delivery but the
service being delivered between members of a community, particularly for the reception of
migrants (cf. Hale 2011: 232). The distinction between the oral and the written is not
necessarily paramount: the work of interpreters is often backed up by translated written (and
ideally audiovisual) materials; the same people often provide both services (Brown 2001); the
professional distinction, although maintained in our studies, is not the main thing here. A
further professional division is sometimes made between “interpreting” as the close oral
rendition of a speech, and “mediation” (or these days sometimes “translanguaging”) as a looser
way of explaining what was said or what has to be done. In our context here, where we position
interpreting as a mode of mediation, that division is also of limited interest: what counts is
whether or not there is a person there (a “mediator”) to help cross-language communication.
The more important distinction, involved in all our studies, is thus between the presence of that
person and what can be done in the absence of that person, notably with free online machine
translation and, technically, the knowledge gained from prior language learning.
“Lingua franca” is no less tricky. Technically the term refers to a language that is not
the communicators’ first one: for example, English as used between speakers of German and
Portuguese. But then, when one of the speakers does have the language as a first language, do
we really want to bring in a new term? Not really. In our studies we have generally opted for a
loose reading of “lingua franca,” applying the term to cases like my mother’s English in Spain,
where she makes use of an international lingua franca.
“Intercomprehension” then merits similar leeway, allowing for situations where the
languages in a bilingual exchange are not the L1 of one or both of the speakers. We insist more
on the role of “receptive” comprehension, where the speaker understands the other’s language
but does not normally speak it. This mainly happens between cognate languages, but other
scenarios crop up in our data.
All those terms are more than a little loose, yet still distinct enough to name strategies
that can be compared. Tighter definitions are then offered in most of our actual case studies, to
suit the particular circumstances under discussion.
Our wider project also brings in two further terms, of rather more importance.
“Mobility,” in European Union parlance, is simply the condition of people who move,
in this case across geolinguistic borders. Our case studies concern various kinds of mobility:
migrants, language teachers, visiting family members, and families adopting children abroad.
We assume a world of people in movement, since that is what set up the multilingual encounters
we are looking at. Mobility, however, is these days rarely limited to just one jump: people can
choose to keep moving throughout their entire life, and the intended duration of each stay thus
becomes a key factor in the choice of mediation strategies. There is not just one kind of
“Inclusion” is the other main variable in our wider project, where it is generally seen as
the ability of a person to participate in social life, particularly with respect to access to the labor
market and government services. There are definitions of “inclusion” to suit all tastes. Our
approach here is mostly minimalist, where the mobile subject is broadly considered to be
included if they understand the language in which employment is made available or a service
is provided – even though they may not feel included, and there might be other factors
inhibiting their access. The range of definitions can also be extended to the point where the
fully included subject feels they are co-author of the community’s laws (Habermas 1995).
Many points in between are then located when our subjects are asked if they have ever felt
“excluded.” No matter how much doubt there may be about what “inclusion” means exactly,
there is much less doubt about what it feels like to be excluded.
Identified as such, mobility and inclusion might seem mutually incompatible: a person
who uses only English and achieves a high degree of mobility will likely be socially excluded
when employment and services are provided in other languages, and a person who achieves
maximum social inclusion by using no more than a local language is likely not to benefit from
much mobility. The conceptual beauty of the MIME project, modeled in Grin et al. (2014), is
that both mobility and inclusion are considered desirable goals, such that the aim is to locate
trade-offs where degrees of both can be attained at the same time. That is considered to be the
general goal of multilingual language policies: to allow citizens both to move and to be
included. In principle, our mediation strategies all allow trade-offs of this kind, since they all
function as ways in which degrees of inclusion and mobility are achieved at the same time.
Even my mother, with perhaps the least sophisticated mediation strategy around, is able to get
her fish, have a laugh with the women, and keep coming back to our village year after year.
And all the other choices would probably have fared even better. That is why, I posit, mediation
strategies should be important for language policy.
In what specific ways do mediation strategies allow for trade offs? Here we seek answers in a
series of case studies, all of which involve interviews with fairly small numbers of people:
- 51 Russian-speakers in southern Catalonia, Spain;
- 20 English-speaking migrants in Leipzig, Germany;
- 34 asylum seekers in Ljubljana, Slovenia (selected from 127 answered
- 23 language teachers in Ljubljana, Slovenia;
- 10 international adoption families in Italy.
The case-study approach has been preferred because of the complexity of the variables
involved and the quantitative incommensurability of the main values. After all, how can one
compare, in abstract quantitative terms, long-term language maintenance, variable-term
mobility, and short-term social inclusion? How could language policy juggle those kinds of
affective and moral values with the quantitative measures of time, effort, and money? Yet when
people actively choose one strategy rather than another, they are effectively making value
judgments of that order of complexity: “when something is of value for social actors, their
behavior indicates it” (Grin 2002: 21). And those judgments, inherently individual yet
accumulatively social (since they concern communication), provide a basis on which
policymakers can indeed compare values. On the level of policy, one might perhaps make a
global comparison of mediation strategies in the same way we ultimately compare
governments: by seeing how people vote – except that they are electing mediation strategies
almost every day.
Although efforts have been made to ensure that the sample groups represent wider
populations to some degree, our studies can lay no major claim to generalizability. Asylum
seekers in Ljubljana do not represent asylum seekers everywhere; the Russian-speaking
community in Spain is in many respects a very particular immigrant group even within the
Spanish context; migrants in Germany are learning a language that is closer to the international
lingua franca than most other languages are; adoption families tend to be defined and regulated
nationally, so what happens in Italy need not be the case elsewhere; and language teachers are,
perhaps by definition, uniquely aware of language issues, in a way that a more general
population would tend not to be. Our case studies will always be open to challenges on those
flanks. What we are mainly looking for, though, are not so much quantitative correlations as
conceptual relations, the logics by which trade-offs are made, with their particular operational
criteria. And those logics involve far more than the kinds of values that can be put into
quantitative boxes. Although our mandated variables are mobility and inclusion, our subjects
indicated that other major criteria are operative: the (intended) duration of mobility, the costs
of each option (in terms of economic, physical, or cognitive effort), the relative independence
allowed to the communication partners, and “accuracy” as a broad measure of the linguistic
quality attained. Our various discussions over the years, comparing our evolving studies, have
given rise to a rule-of-thumb guide to the values entering into trade-offs (Table 1).
Table 1. General criteria for mediation strategies
Cost to user or
Public-service interpreting and
Variable / high
Learning host language
Variable / high
This analysis suggests, for instance, that online machine translation tends to come to
the fore in situations of short-term mobility when little effort is to be invested (indicating a
low-risk situation), linguistic accuracy is thus not required, and inclusion is not a high priority.
Each mediation strategy thus has its strong and weak points, to the extent that a certain
commonsense balancing act could predict which should be used when. Our studies nevertheless
often find that the options are combined and effectively reinforce each other: online machine
translation might be used to prepare for a visit to the doctor (thus providing some language
learning), while the actual visit is then carried out in a lingua franca, for example.
Some less than convenient findings
As neat as the language of trade offs may sound, there are several points in Table 1 that could
leave some language-policy theorists perplexed or otherwise less than enthralled.
Most of us, for example, like to see ourselves as fighting on behalf of translators and
interpreters, who certainly deserve more social recognition of the roles they play in enhancing
inclusion. In this vein, the data from all our studies happily put paid to any suggestion that the
provision of translation and interpreting services restricts people’s motivation to learn host
languages, and do so quantitatively. The questionnaire used for asylum seekers in Ljubljana
and Russian-speakers in Catalonia asked whether the interviewees would learn the host
language if they were provided interpreters for all their interactions, and our subjects
overwhelmingly replied that they would indeed learn the host language (cf. Pokorn and Čibej
2017). So that particular ideological battle could be considered won: interpreting services need
not harm language learning. Yet our mobile subjects also tell us, repeatedly, that they prefer
not to use professional translators and interpreters because those human mediators tend to
restrict the speakers’ independence. Our subjects would rather rely on friends or otherwise
manage things for themselves. This could be because people seeking asylum from oppressive
regimes (many of our subjects are asylum-seekers) tend not to believe in neutral mediators; it
could also perhaps be because people interested in language like to use these occasions as
learning experiences; but sometimes it is also because, as one adoptive parent put it, “era più
bello spiegarsi da soli” – “it was more beautiful to explain ourselves alone” (Fiorentino, in this
volume). Mediators can get in the way. As mentioned, the generalizability of our studies will
always be a problem, but it is clear enough that we cannot generalize professional translation
and interpreting as ideal communication solutions. Their virtues are relative to the costs, risks,
and emotional values involved in each situation.
A second less than convenient finding can be found in Table 1 where “lingua francas”
are considered to allow “moderate” inclusion. This has been the object of mild debate within
the MIME project, where some defend the principle that English as a lingua franca is the
ideological opposite of social inclusion, indeed the enemy of multilingualism in general. This
might be expressed, for example, in the proposal that, when all else is equal, the best language
policy is the one that favors maximum multilingualism – a principle that would probably see
any lingua franca lose every time. Our studies challenge that blunt principle by noting the use
of several lingua francas: English is indeed omnipresent, but the function of lingua franca is
also taken on by Spanish in a Catalan-speaking part of Spain, by Russian for people from the
ex-Soviet Union, by BCMS (Bosnian, Croatian, Montenegrin, Serbian) among migrants in
former Yugoslavia, and by Esperanto in its own inclusive communities and beyond. In all these
contexts, the use of a lingua franca is found to constitute a mediation choice that can open paths
for enhanced inclusion. So if there is a problem with English, it is not particularly because of
its status as a lingua franca. And even if we do want to focus on English alone, it is not hard to
find ways in which its international status can play a positive role in the acquisition of further
languages, particularly in the case of closely related languages like German (see Fiedler and
Wohlfarth in this volume).
A third cause of disconcertion might then be the surprisingly marginal role played by
intercomprehension in our studies. Minor instances turn up almost everywhere, often as very
transitory solutions, but we have come across no long-term stable situation where interlocutors
each speak their L1 and have receptive comprehension of the other. This is unlike reports of
relatively stable intercomprehension between Scandinavian languages (Verschik 2012) or
between Dutch and German (Berkens 2010), for instance. In our studies, the mediation choice
that might otherwise seem the most equitable and economical, touted by European intellectuals
of the order of Claude Hagège (1992: 273) and Umberto Eco (1993: 292-293), is strangely not
generalized. Indeed, our data contain more instances of code-switching and code-mixing,
strategies by which speakers flaunt rather than demarcate the borders between languages.
In sum, a few of the things that a theorist or policymaker might like to see in mediation
strategies are not substantially there. This suggests that something slightly more profound
could be at work.
No language policy without mediation strategies?
Since our studies work mostly bottom-up, from empirical data to questions of policy, we could
be on a collision course with the kind of top-down thinking that goes from questions of policy
to mediation strategies. An instance of the latter might be the approach adopted by Meylaerts
(2011), where analysis starts from brave appeals to “democracy,” “justice,” “fairness,” and
“multilingualism” on the level of language policy, and then points out that such noble aims
should require considerable use of translation at the level of social implementation. Hence the
slogan, “No language policy without translation policy” (Meylaerts 2011). A brilliant
application of this approach is González-Núñez’s study of translation policy in England (2015),
where the legal bases for language rights are analyzed on the international, national, regional,
and local levels. As one moves down each level, it becomes very clear that the rights cannot
be exercised without the provision of translation services, which are often absent or inadequate.
That top-down approach is certainly not wrong; it retains a strong critical import. When we
work bottom-up, though, starting from the mediation strategies deployed on the ground, it
quickly becomes clear that professional translation and interpreting services are only a small
part of what is being done. Why should translation be the only strategy? Because it is the only
one you are looking for? We could just as easily say that there is no language policy without
lingua francas, or machine translation, or language learning, or intercomprehension, or relative
transaction costs, or communication risks, or we might just say, without mediation strategies.
There is an even more serious issue here. When people choose between mediation
strategies, their criteria are a long way from the abstract ideals of those who would defend the
justice of multilingualism. When you are in a European university and perhaps close to
Brussels, multilingualism tends to mean the defense of official national languages, with their
clear borders, extensive language resources, and established teaching programs. From the
perspective of the people actually making mediation choices, especially in the situations
currently constituted by immigration from beyond Europe, there are many more languages
involved, far fewer trained professionals available, and much less faith in language rights. From
that second perspective, the best policy could be one that maximizes not multilingualism, not
the defense of any one language against others, but social inclusion. As Lo Bianco (2002: 25)
puts it, language policy thus shifts from “universal western state models” to the “evaluation of
In the end, the kind of policy that prioritizes a formal diversity of languages is not likely
to evaluate language practices in a less systemically segmented sense. Where some thus claim
that there is no language policy without translation policy, we might reply that, if inclusion is
indeed what counts most, there is no social inclusion policy without mediation strategy. Both
When people make mediation choices, they can be seen as performing a kind of
communication policy, a policy they negotiate with others, enacted in each particular situation
and for that situation. True, one might then hope that official policies influence those choices
in the interests of greater goods: one could make it easier for seasonally visiting grandmothers
to enjoy learning local languages; stimulus could be given to intercomprehension skills in all
additional-language classes; campaigns could inform users about the strengths and weaknesses
of online machine translation; the training and provision of professional interpreters can be
adjusted to suit the languages and situations where they are most needed, for example. But the
first step, in order to achieve any such influence, must be to understand the complex reasons
why people make decisions on the ground.
That is ultimately why mediation strategies are important.
The research leading to these results has received funding from the EU’s Seventh Framework
Program (FP7/2007-2013) under grant agreement no. 613344.
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