Academic journal article Foreign Language Annals

Language Learning and Acculturation: Lessons from High School and Gap-Year Exchange Students

Academic journal article Foreign Language Annals

Language Learning and Acculturation: Lessons from High School and Gap-Year Exchange Students

Article excerpt

Abstract: This study investigates the relationship between acculturation and language learning during a year-long study abroad program at the pre-collegiate level. The researcher presents the experiences of four U.S. American sojourners to Sweden as case studies. This mixed-methods study looks specifically at students with no prior knowledge of the target language. The researcher compared descriptions of students' acculturation and a measure of their acculturative outcomes to their language development as measured by an unofficial Oral Proficiency Interview after 5 and 10 months. The results indicated that higher levels of acculturation are associated with higher levels of proficiency, while a rejection of the host culture is associated with lower levels of proficiency. The researcher presents the implications for study abroad program designs that support language learning.

Key words: Swedish, acculturation, high school, homestay, oral proficiency, study abroad


When it comes to language learning, one often assumes that studying abroad will result in the development of superior language skills. One may often view a semester or year abroad as the capstone experience in one's career as a foreign language learner. Yet great variation in language acquisition exists among participants in study abroad programs. Schumann (1986) andWard (Ward, 1996;Ward, Bochner, & Furnham, 2001) suggest that language learning may be directly or indirectly influenced by acculturative outcomes. How and to what extent an exchange student acculturates seems to be influenced by many variables, including how the program is structured (host community, family, and school), as well as the individual's personality.

To date, much research has focused on college-level programs and the ways in which they build on previous language study to enhance language learning. Yet relatively little attention has been paid to high school and gap-year program participants,1 and language educators know very little about the experiences of sojourners with no previous exposure to the target language prior to study abroad. This study asks the following questions: (1) What language gains are made by beginners who participate in a high school or gap-year program abroad? and (2) Which acculturative outcome(s) support(s) higher levels of language learning? Furthermore, this study aims to inform our understanding of the roles of program design (such as the families and communities where students are placed and student participation in mainstream classrooms) as well as how the individual personality variables such as assertiveness and sense of humor impact acculturation and language learning.

Review of Literature

Extended and continuous contact with host nationals2 puts exchange students in a position to experience changes in behavior, values, emotions, and language. The term acculturation refers to "the social and psychological integration of the learner with the target language group" (Schumann, 1986, p. 379).3 According to Schumann, "the learner will acquire the second language only to the degree that he acculturates" (1986, p. 379). Schumann's model was created to describe the immigrant experience, but the factors he identified are appealing to researchers of study abroad experiences as well.

In his model, Berry (1997) identified four outcomes that result from cross-cultural contact that describe the extent to which an individual might experience acculturation. First, assimilation occurs when an individual gives up his or her own cultural identity to wholly adopt a new culture. Separation refers to the opposite situation, in which an individual rejects the new or dominant culture and avoids contact with host nationals. Integration refers to a situation in which an individual maintains the first culture while seeking to participate in the social networks of the new culture. Finally, when an individual rejects both the new and the first culture, minimization occurs. …

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