Academic journal article Foreign Language Annals

Social Interaction and Linguistic Gain during Study Abroad

Academic journal article Foreign Language Annals

Social Interaction and Linguistic Gain during Study Abroad

Article excerpt


This study investigates the role of social interaction in language gain among study abroad students in France. Using the ACTFL Oral Proficiency interview (OPI), the Can-Do self-assessment scale (Clark, 1981), a revised version of the Language Contact Profile (LCP; Freed, Dewey, Segalowitz, & Halter, 2001), and pre- and postdeparture questionnaires, we examine gains in oral proficiency as related to language contact in the study abroad environment. This research shows that language gain is possible during a semester-long study abroad program. It does not uphold the common belief that living situation and contact with authentic media differentiate students who improve from those who do not. Looking at the background of students (age, gender, grade point average, etc.), it reveals that only prior coursework in French correlates strongly with gains in proficiency once abroad. In its most surprising finding, this study suggests that speaking French with Americans may impede proficiency development.

Key words: courseworfe, French, language contact, proficiency, residence abroad, social interaction, study abroad

Language: French


Following the 2005 Year of Languages, the U.S. Senate declared 2006 The Year of Study Abroad. This effort sought to increase the number of U.S. students abroad beyond the record number of 191,321 reported for the 2003-04 academic year (Chin, 2005). Given that 65% of these students studied in non-English-speaking countries, language educators would hope that language learning would result from these programs. That desired result may be elusive, however. An article in the New York Times describes how U.S. students abroad are often less concerned with language learning than language instructors might expect:

Whereas the typical student once immersed himself or herself in a foreign culture, often studying the language and society for years before going, today's excursions are often quick group tours that require little knowledge or appreciation of the countries on the itinerary. (Winter, 2004, p. A17)

In fact, 93.5% of study abroad programs in 2003-04 were short in duration, that is, one semester or shorter (Chin, 2005). A question that language educators, students, parents, and advisors might ask, then, is: If developing language is a goal, how should such a short time abroad best be spent?

In the present study we examine common beliefs about study abroad, focusing on whether social interaction is related to linguistic gain, as is generally assumed. We look at living situation (with French native speakers or not), amount of social contact with French native speakers and with Americans, and amount of contact with French media. The basic research question is: What type of social interaction relates to language improvement during one semester of study abroad in France?

Language Contact and Linguistic Gain

A common assumption among students, parents, advisors, and language educators is that students abroad have considerable contact with the language of the host country, which in turn leads them to develop proficiency in that language (e.g., Brecht, Davison, & Ginsberg, 1993; Isabelli, 2004; Segalowitz & Freed, 2004). This belief is supported by Isabellas (2004), Coleman's (1997), and Freed, So, and Lazar's (2003) reviews of the literature showing that study abroad students gained more proficiency than at-home students. However, as Coleman also points out, research results about language gain abroad have been decidedly mixed. Wilkinson (1998) and other researchers have recognized the complexity of the overseas experience, with some studies revealing a surprising lack of development in oral proficiency (see DeKeyser, 1991, for a review).

If study abroad should provide the ideal context for language learning, what factors in that complex environment are the most essential? Coleman (1997), Freed (1995a), Allen and Herron (2003), and Regan (2003), through their reviews of existing literature, as well as Segalowitz and Freed (2004), affirm that it is interactions with native speakers that drive acquisition. …

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