Academic journal article Foreign Language Annals

Monitoring Processes in Spanish as a Second Language during a Study Abroad Program

Academic journal article Foreign Language Annals

Monitoring Processes in Spanish as a Second Language during a Study Abroad Program

Article excerpt

Abstract: In an effort to understand better how and why accuracy in speaking develops during study abroad, a group of 16 U.S. students of Spanish as a second language were followed during their 6-week program in Argentina. They were interviewed in Spanish at the beginning and the end of their stay, each time followed by a stimulated recall session. They were also given a questionnaire on their views about language learning and observed in a wide variety of social contexts. The data collected this way, along with a written proficiency test and an aptitude test, both given at the beginning of their program, along with students' comments on their classroom experiences in the United States, paint a picture of students who are motivated and eager to practice and who hope to improve their speaking proficiency dramatically, but who quickly feel that they are stalled and lose their motivation as a result. The explanation that emerges from both the quantitative and the qualitative data is that the students' shaky grammar knowledge and their virtually total lack of proceduralized knowledge made it impossible to make much progress automatizing their knowledge; even speaking accurately without trying to be fluent was largely impossible, even for rather basic structures, and even at the end of the 6 weeks abroad. It appears that the promise of study abroad remains unfulfilled without adequate preparation in the form of proceduralized or at least declarative knowledge of the second language grammar.

Key words: Spanish as a foreign language, fluency, monitoring, skill acquisition, study abroad


A strong focus of the study abroad literature has always been the documentation of growth in language proficiency during the month, semester, or year spent overseas. Research on this topic has shown that the popular concept of fast and effortless improvement in proficiency is vastly exaggerated at best, and perhaps more myth than reality.

The more nuanced picture that emerges from the literature of the past couple of decades is that accuracy tends to improve little, but fluency more. Even these modest advantages of study abroad are far from firmly established, however. Rees and Klapper argued that ''the case for strong foreign language proficiency gains during SA [study abroad] is far from proven'' (2008, p. 90), due to the methodological weaknesses inherent in this area of research, such as small group sizes, lack of adequate control groups, and poor instrumentation. Their main suggestion for improvement in this area of research was about the reliability of the proficiency measures and the statistical analysis of the data from repeated tests.

A different approach to the problem is to try to narrow the gap between the quantitative and qualitative research traditions. As Lafford (2007, p. 749) argued, research in this and other areas of second language acquisition (SLA) has failed more often than not to tie ''macrolevel phenomena'' (often of a cognitive nature, and documented quantitatively) with more ''microlevel phenomena'' (often of a more social nature, and documented qualitatively).

The research I present here falls within this second approach. I document the progressFor lack of itFof 16 learners of Spanish as a second language during a 6-week stay in Argentina in a rather traditional way, by comparing accuracy ratings for the beginning and the end of the stay abroad, and show how the myth-shattering findings can be explained through the patterns in the qualitative data, which show the students' valiant struggle in a battle for which they were ill-equipped, in spite of at least 2 years of college instruction and a high level of motivation. The better-prepared students continued on the path they started on in the classroom; less prepared students could not stand on that scaffolding and did try to learn differently, but with disappointing results. This in turn suggests that a second myth about study abroad, that students abroad go through radically different learning processes compared to classroom learners at home, is also false. …

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