Language-Learning Motivation during Short-Term Study Abroad: An Activity Theory Perspective

By Allen, Heather Willis | Foreign Language Annals, Spring 2010 | Go to article overview

Language-Learning Motivation during Short-Term Study Abroad: An Activity Theory Perspective


Allen, Heather Willis, Foreign Language Annals


Abstract: This study investigated the development of language-learning motivation during short-term study abroad (SA) for six intermediate-level students of French. Taking an activity theory perspective, findings demonstrated that one of two orientations motivated participants to study or continue studying French at the college level: linguistic motives or career-oriented motives. The choice to study abroad was seen as either a critical step to achieving fluency or a means of travel and cultural learning. Enhanced language-learning motivation emerged to varying degrees for participants with linguistically oriented motives for learning French who viewed SA as a languagelearning experience but not for participants with primarily pragmatic reasons for learning French and participating in SA. Implications of the study include the need for curricular intervention in student learning abroad.

Key words: French, activity theory, learning motivation, second language learning, self-regulation, study abroad

Introduction

From the 1960s through the mid-1990s, research on study abroad (SA) largely supported the notion that it is an ideal means of learning a foreign language. Moreover, foreign language professionals often impart this view to students, typically based on their own successful if not life-transforming experiences (Kinginger, 2008). As Davidson (2007) explained, ''[I]t has long been understood that language acquisition at the highest levels of proficiency is generally not possible without a substantial immersion experience'' (p. 277). However, current trends in American students' SA choices as well as insights from recent research revealing unsupported myths about SA may put some of the foreign language profession's assumptions about it in question.

A tempered assessment of SA emerges in light of studies shifting the focus from outcomes to a closer examination of processes at work during SA and perspectives of SA participants. Some key findings from these studies are that participants limit time spent with native speakers in favor of speaking their own language with peers (Freed, Segalowitz, & Dewey, 2004; Wilkinson, 1998, 2000) and that native speakers limit pragmatically appropriate language use so that they can be more readily understood by SA participants (Iino, 2006; Siegal, 1995). Furthermore, SA participants' access to social networks that would most enhance their foreign language learning are particularly challenging for women (Kinginger, 2004; Polanyi, 1995), who represent almost twothirds of Americans studying abroad (Institute of International Education, 2008; see http://opendoors.iienetwork.org/). Given these findings, it is more apparent why learning is not evenly distributed among SA participantsFeven those in the same programF and why learning outcomes are not as dramatic as the foreign language profession might believe (Churchill & DuFon, 2006; Kinginger, 2008).

These insights from research are even more salient given present trends in SA participation by U.S. students. Whereas SA once followed a ''Junior Year Abroad model'' largely comprising foreign language majors, this is no longer the case: The majority of students now participate in programs of less than eight weeks' duration, whereas less than 5% do so for an academic year (Institute of International Education, 2008; Kinginger, 2008; see also http://opendoors. iienetwork.org/). As to who studies abroad, foreign language majors constitute only a small percentage (7.2) of SA participants, with majors in social sciences (21%), business and management (19%), and humanities (13%) outnumbering them appreciably (Institute of International Education, 2008; see http://opendoors.iienetwork.org/).

As to benefits associated with shortterm SA, research has produced few generalizations, conceivably due to variation in instruments, variables investigated, and study settings and cohorts. Although some studies have reported significant gains in foreign language proficiency (Allen & Herron, 2003; Simões, 1996) associated with short-term SA, others have cast doubt on its ability to bring about significant linguistic gain (Davidson, 2007; Freed, 1990) or change superior to that of at-home immersion (Freed et al. …

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