Academic journal article Foreign Language Annals

Identity and Language Learning in Study Abroad

Academic journal article Foreign Language Annals

Identity and Language Learning in Study Abroad

Article excerpt

Abstract: Identity, and related conflict, can influence both qualities of language learning experiences in study abroad settings and learners of choices of language to appropriate or reject. The article offers an overview of research examining the role of identity in student sojourns abroad. This research includes (1) holistic, qualitative studies of the ways in which identities shape language learning opportunities, and (2) studies examining the development of specific, identity-related pragmatic abilities. After defining identity and study abroad, the researcher organizes this article in terms of salient demographic categories represented in the literature: nationality/"foreigner" status, gender, linguistic inheritance, age status, and ethnicity. Where possible, examples of both holistic and pragmatics-oriented research are included for each category. The conclusion suggests implications for language education and the design of study abroad programs along with some avenues toward greater ecological validity in research of both kinds.

Key words: conflict, identity, pragmatics, qualitative research, study abroad


As a 22-year-old American study abroad participant in France, "Bill" (Kinginger, 2008) enrolled in courses at a local university in Dijon, anticipating no doubt that the social organization of a classroom in a classical French university would resemble that of the academic institutions he had frequented in the past. To his astonishment, the norms for interaction in this new environment were quite disorienting:

B: I don't get it. people talk during class, they don't pay attention to the professors, [c] it blew blew my mind. it still does.

I: what else have you noticed? since you're in class with French students.

B: they always talk. like they don't pay.they don't pay attention to professors, the professor doesn't really engage the class. he kinda just presents material, um and he says what he has to say, he needs to fit it all in, whether or not his students learn it. um it's up to.

I: = it's up to them to learn it right? =

B: = yeah he just presents the material and that's it. [...] the biggest thing is like just talking and not paying attention to the teacher. like blatantly. like having a normal conversation, and the teacher not even caring, like you you could tell where the international students are like especially the Germans and the Americans. they're in the front row, cause you can't sit in the back cause you won't hear anything, and especially if it's in French. (Kinginger, unpublished interview data; emphasis in original)

Like many of the other students in his cohort, Bill observed an apparent display of disrespect for university professors as the students in the class pursued their private conversations during the lecture. Meanwhile, the professor's failure to engage the students and to monitor their comprehension of the material also struck Bill as evidence of that professor's indifference to the well-being of the class. Bill's dramatic representation ("it blew my mind") attested to the depth of his emotions as he recalled this scene.

Patron's (2007) case study of a cohort of French students sojourning for a year in Australia recounted similar unpredicted and initially inexplicable academic practices. These students were shocked to find classmates and professors socializing on a firstname basis. An invitation to tea from a male professor prompted one female student to question the nature of the professor's motives. In the classroom, the students' dress and demeanor could only be interpreted as blatant lack of respect. According to "Brigitte,"

En classe [en France] on va être très formels ... on va essayer de s'habiller formellement, on va pas venir en short à l'université. On se tient droit, on s'asseoit bien dans sa chaise, pas avec les pieds sur la table, allongés sur la table, en savattes et avec des trous partout. C'est dégueulasse! …

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