Academic journal article Foreign Language Annals

American College Students Studying Abroad in China: Language, Identity, and Self-Presentation

Academic journal article Foreign Language Annals

American College Students Studying Abroad in China: Language, Identity, and Self-Presentation

Article excerpt

Abstract: This article reports the results of qualitative analyses of data drawn from monthly informal individual interviews of 29 American college students who were spending one semester studying Mandarin Chinese abroad in a program in China. While some data confirm previous findings that some students' identification as Americans was strengthened during study abroad, data also indicate that students in this study took great pride in their Chinese proficiency, fully embraced their "foreigner identity," and used it to their advantage. Studying in China did not seem to pose serious threats to this group of students' identity negotiation and self-presentation. This research supports the call to conduct research regarding learners from a wider range of language backgrounds studying in a broader range of study abroad contexts so as to more fully understand the complexity of study abroad.

Key words: China, college students, identity, self-presentation, study abroad

As noted in Kinginger (2009,2013b), recent decades have seen an abundance of research on study abroad. Although the complex relationship between language and identity has been the focus in many of these studies (Kinginger, 2013a), the voice of American college students studying abroad in China still has not been heard.1 Drawing on interview data that were obtained from 29 students during their onesemester study abroad experiences in China, this study focused on the interaction among students' language skills, their identity, and the way in which they presented themselves to others.

Literature Review

Language, Identity, and Self-Presentation

Work on identity in social science research, including second language acquisition (SLA), has been dominated by the poststructural framework in recent years (e.g., Block, 2007; Norton, 2000; Norton &Toohey, 2002). Norton (2000) defined identity as "how a person understands his or her relationship to the world, how that relationship is constructed across time and space, and how the person understands possibilities for the future" (p. 5). An individual'sidentityisnever static; rather, it is continually "negotiated" (see Duff, 2012, for a detailed discussion of identity and SLA). In her research of five Chinese students from Hong Kong who spent five weeks studying English in England, Jackson (2008) documented and analyzed the students' identity transformation. For example, some students found that, contrary to their beliefs before studying abroad that they were both Western and Chinese due to Hong Kong's colonial history, they realized after studying in England that they were fundamentally more Chinese in their culture, customs, and beliefs. In Kinginger's (2008) study, some students felt their American identity had been strengthened in the context of anti-American sentiment in France right after the invasion of Iraq in 2003, which took place when they were studying in France. This strengthening of identification as Americans seems to be a recurring theme: After reviewing literature about American students studying abroad, Block (2007) concluded that these students often became less, not more, interested in intercultural differences as a result of study abroad, stating that "[it is] most notable how SA [study abroad] is often their first and last lengthy sojourn abroad and how encountering difference leads not to active engagement with the local but to a recoiling into a discourse of American superiority" (p. 185). The fact that the identity issue becomes especially salient in the study abroad context should not be surprising because "[I]t is only through the Other that 'we' can establish our own identity, through what we are not" (Meinhof & Galasinski, 2005, p. 8). In study abroad contexts, certain customs, practices, and beliefs that learners have taken for granted their entire lives can be questioned or even challenged.

In contrast, the construct self is more elusive to define (see Pellegrino, 2005, for a comprehensive review). …

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