Encouraging Students to Engage With Native Speakers During Study Abroad

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    Marc Cadd (PhD, University of Illinois-Urbana/Champaign) is Associate Professor of German and Director of the World Languages and Cultures program at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa.

    Encouraging Students to Engage With Native Speakers During Study Abroad

    Marc CaddDrake University

    Abstract: Students, their parents, and educators trust that a study-abroad experience is the best way to increase linguistic pro ciency. The professional literature, however, shows a much more complex picture. Gains in linguistic pro ciency appear to depend on variables such as whether the students experience a homestay or dormitory, the length of time studying abroad, their previous knowledge of the language, etc. Interaction with native speakers also seems to vary widely. The present article examines whether requir-ing students abroad to interact with native speakers improves students self-assessed self-con dence in using the language, their willingness to use the language, and their perceived gains in speaking ability.

    Key words: cultural understanding, curriculum, linguistic pro ciency, self-assessment, study abroad

    IntroductionThe past two decades have witnessed an increasingly signi cant number of college and university students making time in their busy lives for a study-abroad experi-ence. Although their motivation and rationale for doing so vary greatly, many of them engage in study abroad because they are either majoring or minoring in a world language, or they hope to use the language in their career. Regardless of motivation, students anticipate new experiences, a broad range of linguistic inter-actions, challenging and rewarding cultural experiences, and self-ful lling personal and academic growth.

    Conventional wisdom assures students, their parents, and instructors that they will return to their home institution with a signi cant increase in their linguis-tic pro ciency and cultural understanding. Academic and study-abroad advisors inform students how much they can improve their rsum by highlighting their study-abroad experience and their linguistic and cultural skills. Others encourage students to take advantage of the opportunity because of the potentially life-altering interactions; all involved assume the opportunities to improve language- and culture-related skills will be numerous and productive. The expectation that

    Foreign Language Annals, Vol. xx, Iss. xx, pp. 117. 2012 by American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages. DOI: 10.111/j.1944-9720.2012.01188.x.

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    to produce the target language necessary to complete the 12 tasks discussed below (see Appendix A) and to examine the culture in which they plan to study in terms of demo-graphics, employment, educational system, etc. The post-study-abroad course requires students to write a target language thesis that incorporates aspects of their personal study-abroad experiences, globalization, and their major(s). The ef cacy of these two courses has not been assessed to date. The present article also examines students self-assessment of their self-con dence in using the language, their willingness to use the language, and perceived gains (or losses) in speaking ability after having completed the 12 tasks associated with the second course. The limitations of self-assessment are dis-cussed below.

    Review of LiteratureThe extent to which students bene t from their study-abroad experience is dependent on a large number of variables. These vari-ables may be personal, academic, linguistic, and/or cultural. Such factors as whether students reside in a dormitory or have a homestay experience, students personal-ity, their reaction to the new environment and their ability to adjust to it, the types of courses in which they enroll, the length of their stay, and their previous knowledge of the culture all potentially play a role in determining the degree to which students demonstrate an increase in oral pro ciency and cultural understanding.

    Positive Results in Study AbroadAn examination of the literature reveals a complex view of study abroad and its effects on students. Both quantitative and qualita-tive studies have demonstrated very mixed results.

    Segalowitz and Freed (2004), for exam-ple, noted that learners of Spanish studying abroad for one semester made greater gains in terms of temporal or hesitation phenom-ena than students studying at home. These phenomena were de ned in terms of four

    one will become uent in the language being studied is an often-heard inducement for students to undertake the experience. Students and educators alike assume this increased uency can be achieved through greater access to native speakers of the lan-guage. As DeKeyser (2007) noted, For some students, parents, teachers, adminis-trators, and prospective employers, study abroad is not only the best form of practice, sometimes it is the only form they consider to be useful (p. 208). However, immer-sion in another culture cannot guarantee linguistic and cultural gains. Research into this topic reveals quite a complex picture. For example, Rohrlichs study (1993) deter-mined that only 3% of approximately 500 survey respondents had learning the target language as their primary reason for study-ing abroad (p. 4). Such a nding may alarm and puzzle language educators and study-abroad advisors. The respondents had more positive reactions to questions about sam-pling the target cuisine, dealing with home-sickness, and making adjustments to the new culture.

    The present article describes a one-credit-hour course required of students who are both studying abroad and seeking the Certi cate of Competence in (Arabic, Chinese, French, German, Japanese, Rus-sian, or Spanish) Language and Culture at Drake University, a relatively small, pri-vate, Midwestern university. Nearly all the students who have taken this course to date studied abroad for one complete semester; two students studied abroad in intensive summer programs. The courses curriculum expands on suggestions found in the litera-ture that assess students oral pro ciency and cultural understanding. The assign-ments for the course are tasks that require the students to interact with native speakers. It is the second study-abroad-related course taken by students pursuing the certi cate. Students also enroll in a one-credit-hour course prior to studying abroad and a three-credit-hour capstone course taken after stu-dents return to their home institution. The pre-study-abroad course requires students


    cated that weaker students made very signi cant gains compared to the group as a whole (p. 32). Lapkin, Hart, and Swain (1995) reported that 116 Canadian learn-ers of French showed signi cant improve-ment in all four skill areas after a semester of cross-provincial study abroad in Quebec; Mizuno (1998) reported comparable results with a sample of 51 learners of Japanese. Dwyers (2004) study solidly demonstrated that the students in the study perceived an increase in self-con dence/decrease in anx-iety regardless of the length of the study-abroad program.

    Negative Results in Study AbroadWhile the above-cited studies generally described positive gains in oral pro -ciency, others provided evidence of mixed gains or no gains. For example, language educators have intuitively expected the length of study to play a signi cant role in terms of students increase in linguistic pro ciency. However, even longer study-abroad experiences have not always pro-duced the anticipated gains. Cholakian (1992) noted that the gains in linguistic pro ciency while abroad are dependent on the students pro ciency before leaving the United States, with more advanced speak-ers demonstrating larger gains. This may be due to their willingness to engage with native speakers. Engle (1995) concluded that even semester- and year-long stays frequently fail to produce the expected increases in pro ciency.

    Riedel (1989), commenting on her interviews with home-campus professors at Middlebury College, observed that the professors revealed that too many students actually regress in certain skills (p. 775). The most often-referenced modality was writing. The professors experiences showed that gains in lexical items and colloquial expressions are often forgotten shortly after the return home. This fact is additionally informative given that Middlebury students make a pledge to speak only the target lan-guage while abroad.

    measures: speech rate, mean run length containing no silent pauses or hesitations greater than 400 ms, mean run length con-taining no lled pauses (e.g., um, ah), and longest run containing no silent or lled pauses (p. 175). This conclusion was based on pre- and posttests that utilized ACTFLs Oral Pro ciency Interview (OPI). Regard-ing gains in oral pro ciency more broadly, however, they commented that the picture as a whole is complex in terms of whether study-abroad or at-home experiences are more bene cial (p. 192). Brecht, Davidson, and Ginsberg (1991) found that a semes-ter-long immersion experience resulted in signi cant gains in overall language pro -ciency for a wide range of students study-ing Russian in Moscow and Leningrad. In a case study involving one student who had completed one of two semesters in Mexico, Bacon (2008) identi ed de nite bene ts to the student: The growth in her con dence and self-esteem [while using the language] came from being able to maneuver better in both the academic and the social spheres (p. 645). In other words, linguistic pro -ciency may increase as long as the student uses the language both in and out of the classroom.

    Several studies have asked students to self-assess their linguistic pro ciency in terms of the four skills (reading, writ-ing, listening, and speaking), level of con- dence, and level of anxiety in using the language prior to and subsequent to the study-abroad event. Teichler and Maiworm (1997) found that students involved in the European Unions Erasmus Program rated themselves as improving from a 4 before studying abroad to a 2 after studying abroad on a Likert scale measuring pro ciency in speaking and other skills (7 extremely limited, 1 very good; N 3,212). Meara (1994) reported signi cant improvement in reading and listening among 586 British students studying abroad who completed self-assessments; however, the results may be less generalizable because the students were studying a variety of languages and for different lengths of time. He also indi-

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    Wilkinsons ethnographic study (1998) of students studying abroad challenged the assumption that the students will auto-matically encounter ample opportunities to interact with native speakers. One student in her study commented that, I was just so surprised that you could be in France for a month and really not speak French that often; another commented, Id hang around in town sometimes I would just sit in town and read or something, and theres people around you, but its not that easy to meet someone whos French (p. 33).

    Carlson, Burn, Useem, and Yachimowicz (1990) found that study-abroad students made moderate progress in speaking pro- ciency, moving from Intermediate to Advanced on the ACTFL scale. However, the sample of 20 was chosen from a much larger study involving more than 400 par-ticipants and limited to students who had studied a year or more abroad in France, Germany, Sweden, and the United King-dom. Interestingly, Golonka (2001) found comparable gains among 22 students of Russian who had studied only one semester abroad.

    Huebners (1995) study brought into question the linguistic bene ts of study abroad. The study noted that students studying abroad for one semester ended their stays with a score of Intermediate-High on the OPI versus Intermediate-Mid for a comparable group of students who studied for the same period of time in a traditional program at home, which is cer-tainly not as great a difference as one might have expected.

    Kinginger (2008) concluded that, while study abroad is a venue that is con-ducive to language learning, the outcomes are not the panacea for which students and educators might hope. This conclu-sion re ects the contradictory and at times confusing nature of various studies, and the reasons for this are numerous. One impor-tant factor is what the students understand the study-abroad experience to be. This understanding will determine, in part, their motivation, how they choose to spend time

    Mixed Results in Study AbroadAlso utilizing OPIs, Freed (1995) found little difference in terms of linguistic pro- ciency between a group that had studied abroad for a semester in France and a group that had studied at home. She did, however, nd that the uency rate of those studying abroad, especially in terms of rate of speech, increased signi cantly.

    Perhaps confounding the issue even more was a study by Freed, Segalowitz, and Dewey (2004). The researchers did indeed nd some improvement in various aspects of uency for students who had studied in France. However, these gains were not as signi cant as the gains made by a group in the United States that took part in an immer-sion program. The authors noted that the students who had studied abroad reported using more English than French outside of class, and this may partially explain the dif-ference in gains.

    Contrary to expectations, Rivers (2008), examining the American Council of Teach-ers of Russian Student Records Data Base from 1976 to 1996, found that students staying in dormitories demonstrated a greater gain in terms of speaking pro -ciency than homestay students. This result must be taken in context, however, because there were no homestays in the former Soviet Union. In the same study, home-stay was found not to be a signi cant pre-dictor of listening pro ciency, but it was a strong positive predictor of gains in read-ing pro ciency. In attempting to explain these somewhat perplexing ndings, Rivers noted that students might ultimately watch more television and do homework alone because communication with the home-stay family is limited to quotidian topics due to frustration over the students lack of pro ciency in using the language (p. 496). Potentially supporting Riverss nding, Brecht and Robinson (1993) indicated that the study-abroad experience is more ben-e cial linguistically to students who begin study abroad with a higher level of language pro ciency because they are more likely to engage with native speakers.


    awareness and communication (p. 12). It appears that longer periods of study abroad do, in fact, often result in gains in intercul-tural competence.

    Creating a Positive Study-Abroad ExperienceGiven the complexities and often-uncon-trollable variables made apparent by the research, instructors may be well advised to design a structured curriculum that ensures that students interact with native speak-ers,...


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