Academic journal article Foreign Language Annals

Variables Affecting L2 Gains during Study Abroad

Academic journal article Foreign Language Annals

Variables Affecting L2 Gains during Study Abroad

Article excerpt

The number of U.S. students participating in study abroad has increased steadily in recent years, nearly doubling since 2000 and exceeding 300,000 in 2012 (Institute of International Education, 2013, n.p.). Both prior to and throughout this same time period, the need for strong proficiency in a second language (L2) has become even more prevalent in business, health care, and foreign relations and across a range of other professions (O'Connell & Norwood, 2007). Thus, understanding how learners acquire an L2, particularly during study abroad, is perhaps more important than ever.

Two primary goals of many study abroad programs are typically to help stu- dents develop and improve their proficiency in an L2 and to enhance their cultural un- derstanding.1 A large number of studies have investigated the variables that facilitate or impede L2 learning in the context of study abroad, focusing on such questions as "What is the ideal amount of time to spend on study abroad?" (Llanes & Serrano, 2011); "When is the ideal time in L2 development to participate in an immer- sion program?" (Davidson, 2010); "How much L2 use is needed in order to improve in L2 learning?" (Hernández, 2010); and "Do variables such as the students' person- alities, number of friends acquired in the tar- get culture, or cultural sensitivity affect their L2 use on a study abroad program?" (Dewey, Belnap, & Hillstrom, 2013); however, many questions still remain (see Llanes, 2011, for a discussion of these issues).

Most of these studies examined only one variable or one aspect of L2 acquisition during study abroad; moreover, these stud- ies often lacked sufficiently robust numbers of participants for many conclusions to be drawn. Consequently, it is difficult to deter- mine which of the previously examined variables has the most important influence on L2 acquisition during study abroad or how all those variables interact. As King- inger (2009) has noted, "In the case of pro- ficiency ... whereas work with small groups of participants typically does not generate robust effects, large-scale studies ... have linked proficiency with study abroad throughout the history of the research" (p, 209),2 but much can still be learned about which variables influence proficiency development during study abroad. The pur- pose of this study, therefore, was to examine a larger number of participants from multi- ple programs abroad and to consider simul- taneously several variables that might influence students' linguistic development while abroad. This study also evaluated the characteristics and experiences of gain- ers (those who improved in L2 proficiency during study abroad) compared with those of non-gainers (students who did not).

Literature Review

This study addressed seven variables repre- senting three main themes: preprogram competence (preprogram proficiency and in- tercultural sensitivity), learner attributes (age, gender, personality), and social/contex- tual variables (amount of L2 use and social network development). All of these variables have been studied previously, but their rela- tive importance has not been examined. What follows is a discussion of previous research regarding each of these variables.

Preprogram Competency Variables

Preprogram Proficiency

One of the earliest findings in study abroad research was that preprogram proficiency plays an important role in whether or not participants achieve L2 gains (i.e., Brecht, Davidson, & Ginsberg, 1993). Most research has demonstrated that participants need to reach a certain level of proficiency before studying abroad in order to benefitfrom interaction with native speakers, but that level must be low enough that measurable L2 proficiency gains are attainable during the short period of time of a study abroad pro- gram.3 For example, Vande Berg, Connor- Linton, and Paige (2009) found that learners at an Advanced Low level or higher on the ACTFL Oral Proficiency Interview (OPI) appeared to benefit less linguistically than those starting at Intermediate levels. …

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