aesthetics and culture Learning from literature

Books open up new worlds
Books open up new worlds | photo: © Schuster – plainpicture

If one focuses initially on the way literature plays with language, and with its forms and meanings, rather than interpreting it as a reflection of reality, one can discover its incredible potential for reflecting on language and culture. An appeal for a different approach to literature in GFL lessons.

Looking back at the history of foreign language teaching, it is noticeable that the status of and role played by literature have changed considerably. Until the 1960s, the primary focus in lessons that were geared first and foremost to the acquisition of symbolic capital was on the ability to read literary texts (especially literary classics). This changed with the growing mobility of goods and people and the new communicative requirements that arose as a result: foreign language teaching was then aimed at achieving active language proficiency in everyday life and at the workplace, the new learning goal being communicative competence. Literary analysis with what might be termed more elitist objectives appeared unable to contribute anything to the acquisition of such competence. Thanks to the rise in the 1980s of reception aesthetic and intercultural literature didactics, literature remained firmly anchored in communicative foreign language teaching, though only to the extent that it could provoke discussions or provide information about a region or country. The specific literary character of the literary texts – which draw the reader’s attention to the text itself, its form and the way it is created – was accepted with certain reservations, if at all. The potential that such literary engagement with text and language offers for foreign language learning – in both a linguistic and cultural sense – remained unexploited.

Encouraging interaction vs. fostering symbolic competence

The situation today is characterized by contradictory tendencies. On the one hand, current GFL textbooks use literature almost solely as a means of encouraging interaction; any intercultural view of literature has disappeared. However problematic such a view may have been (its inherent cultural comparison always entailed the risk of entrenching rather than dispensing with stereotypes), its growing exclusion from the classroom has further reinforced tendencies towards a kind of language work that perceives language primarily as an instrument – one to which engagement with literature cannot make any fundamental contribution. These tendencies also characterize the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR) that were published in 2001; significantly, the CEFR takes virtually no advantage of the aesthetic uses of language (see its brief section of the same name, 4.3.5).

Literature only appears national at first glance; in actual fact there is no such thing as “patriotic art”: it belongs “like all good things to the whole world” (Goethe). Literature only appears national at first glance; in actual fact there is no such thing as “patriotic art”: it belongs “like all good things to the whole world” (Goethe). | photo: © Thielking – plainpicture On the other hand, a countermovement has been emerging for some time, one that acknowledges once more that literature should enjoy a higher profile in foreign language teaching – and not despite but because of its aesthetic dimension. This does not constitute a call for a return to the attitudes that prevailed before the switch to communicative teaching. Rather it is an appeal for such teaching to be further developed so as to foster a symbolic competence that reflects upon language and culture (Claire Kramsch). Although needing to be further concretized, this concept takes into account the fact that the world and the associated communicative requirements have become more confusing and complex, the headwords in this context being globalization and the Internet, multiculturalism and multilingualism. At the same time, the concept forms part of a changed theoretical landscape that encompasses terms such as linguistic and cultural turn, post-colonialism and a non-essentialist notion of culture. One fundamental aspect is the insight that language plays a central role in the construction of reality and its arrangements, of a sense of belonging and of marginalization, of significance and meaning; and the realization that people, although they may use language as a tool, have only a partial command and partial control of it. It is precisely its degree of literariness that enables literature to make visible the processes by which meaning is created – processes which underlie these constructions – and thus to have a culturally reflective effect: by revealing essentializations – such as “German” being a supposedly homogeneous language – and culturalizations, that is to say the identification of positions and viewpoints with “cultures”; by uprooting what seem to be fixed meanings; by questioning seemly immovable norms and by trying out new perspectives – in short, opening up space for reflection.

One nice example of this is a text by Elke Erb entitled Bewegung und Stillstand (i.e. Movement and Standstill) that appears in the textbook studio d A2. By carefully arranging words and cleverly using key terms, it allows learners literally to experience, feel and see that movement in our – modern – world can also be synonymous with standstill and vice versa, and as such reveals what language is capable of if used in a literary manner: namely to express ambivalences, ambiguities and contradictions that are not so easily resolved, and that cannot be formulated in this way in non-literary spoken language. Unfortunately, its communicative orientation does not allow the textbook to take up the invitation to reflect upon language and culture that Erb’s text offers. However, the literature listed below contains numerous methodological tips as to how learners can be sensitized to this unique capability of literature, and above all how they can take advantage of this capability for themselves and for their own linguistic proficiency and ability to express themselves, regardless of their language level.
The aforementioned example is also of interest because it reveals that any reflection on culture is almost always a reflection also on language, and vice versa. Furthermore, it shows that the categorical distinction between literature and language is gradually disappearing, for literature is losing its character as something that is supposedly beyond (normal) language and that – if at all – can and should only play a role in foreign language teaching at a more advanced language level. Instead, the literary side of language becomes visible as one of its fundamental dimensions that should be incorporated into foreign language teaching from the outset because it constitutes a powerful resource for foreign language acquisition.

From literature in teaching to literary teaching

If these considerations are applied to GFL teaching, we move from literature in GFL teaching to a kind of literary GFL teaching that is characterized by its aesthetic perspective on language. This means that it is no longer seen in terms of a normative ‘right or wrong’ opposition, but as an aesthetic ‘successful or not successful’ opposition. As such, any deviations from rules and conventions should – like in literary texts – be assessed for functionality. They may fail, in the sense that they express a lack of proficiency, or they can succeed, in the sense that they open up new possibilities for expression and reflection. Perhaps it is enough simply to bear the idea of literary GFL teaching in mind in order to pave the way for learners to approach the German language in a more reflected and ironical manner, and at the same time in a more relaxed, easy-going and ultimately freer and more creative way.



Dobstadt, Michael/Riedner, Renate (Ed.) (2011): Fremdsprache Literatur (= Fremdsprache Deutsch; Issue 44). Ismaning: Hueber.
Euba, Nikolaus/Warner, Chantelle (i. Dr.): Literarische Lesewerkstatt DaF & DaZ. Literatur Lesen Lernen B1/B2. Herausgegeben von Michael Dobstadt und Renate Riedner Stuttgart: Klett.
Kramsch, Claire (2006): From Communicative Competence to Symbolic Competence. In: The Modern Language Journal Volume 90, Issue 2, p. 249-252.
McRae, John (2008): What Is Language and What Is Literature? Are They the Same Question? An introduction to literature with a small ‘l‘ and five skills English. In: Fremdsprachen Lehren und Lernen (FluL), Volume 37, p. 63-80.  
Schweiger, Hannes (2013): Kulturbezogenes Lernen mit Literatur. In: ÖDaF-Mitteilungen, Volume 29, Issue 2, p. 61-77.
Schweiger, Hannes (2015): Kulturelles Lernen mit Literatur – von Anfang an. In: Fremdsprache Deutsch Issue 52, p. 22-27.