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Review of  The Impact of Study Abroad on the Acquisition of Sociopragmatic Variation Patterns

Reviewer: Melissa Whatley
Book Title: The Impact of Study Abroad on the Acquisition of Sociopragmatic Variation Patterns
Book Author: Anne Marie Devlin
Publisher: Peter Lang AG
Linguistic Field(s): Applied Linguistics
Discourse Analysis
Language Acquisition
Subject Language(s): English
Issue Number: 26.3041

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Review's Editors: Malgorzata Cavar, Sara Couture, and Anna White


“The Impact of Study Abroad on the Acquisition of Sociopragmatic Variation Patterns: The Case of Non-Native Speaker English Teachers” by Anne Marie Devlin consists of eight chapters detailing a study of the variable sociopragmatic competence of highly advanced language learners. The author’s goal is to examine the impact of contact with three loci of learning (defined below) on the development of sociopragmatic variation patterns in the speech act of asking for advice among non-native speaking English language instructors. Learner identity, viewed from a post-structuralist perspective, is seen as central to the acquisition of sociopragmatic variation.

Chapter one introduces key concepts and expands on how the current study relates to previous research on language acquisition in the study abroad setting. In this chapter, study abroad is defined as a context in which “an instructed foreign language learner […] spends a period of time within the target language country with the aim of having access to non-instructed language learning opportunities (5)”. Three language contact contexts (loci of learning) are employed to measure learners’ contact with the target language. The first is the institutional locus of learning, which exhibits characteristics of professional and institutional identity and necessitates a fixed degree of formality and social distance. The conversational locus of learning displays fluid identity and formality roles, dynamic turn-taking, and variable social distances. This locus of learning is interactional and co-constructed by participants. The third locus of learning is media-based. Media-based communication is intended for a large, native-speaker audience and is spread through cultural artifacts such as songs and newspapers.

Chapter two provides an overview of general pragmatic concepts, pragmatics in second language (L2) acquisition, and the acquisition of sociolinguistic competence. Pragmatics is defined as “the study of linguistic practices used to convey and interpret messages within a sociocultural context taking into account the bidirectional bond between producer intent and receiver interpretation” (32). The author divides research on L2 pragmatics into two categories: pragmatics in use and developmental pragmatics (i.e. the acquisition of pragmatics). Sociopragmatic competence, defined as the knowledge underlying a person’s ability to use language appropriately, is emphasized, and the author argues that without adequate sociopragmatic competence, learners lack an essential ingredient for developing relationships with native speakers (NSs). The last sections of this chapter connect the acquisition of sociopragmatic competence, conceptualized as the acquisition of different ways of representing one’s identity, with learning context and emphasize the importance of study abroad in this process. The general trend found in previous literature is that gains in sociopragmatic competence are generally commensurate with amount of time spent abroad. Conflicting sociopragmatic demands of the L2 and the native language may result in conflicting identities that learners must balance.

Chapter three examines the role of identity in L2 development. The author takes a poststructuralist view of identity, meaning that identity is regarded not as a fixed construct but rather as fluid and ever-changing. Learners are viewed as agents of their own identity and have many identities available to them for performance. However, factors such as proficiency level and social situation place some identities out of learners’ reach. As such, the individual agency of the learner provides the capability to be any sort of identity, while external demands interact with the learner’s agency to constrain the identities he/she may adopt. Devlin points out that much research in L2 acquisition ignores the role of a learner’s identity in language acquisition, but that several recent variationist investigations have taken into account aspects of identity, especially gender. While these studies provide quantitative evidence that learners pattern like NSs concerning gender, an ethnographic approach is better able to explain how these patterns come about. Researchers have explored learners’ repositioning of gender identities within their L2 context and emphasize how this repositioning influences learners’ access to loci of learning. Devlin calls for additional research that combines a quantitative approach to L2 acquisition with an ethnographic approach in order to understand how interactions between identity and learning environment influence acquisition. While the quantitative approach can show the linguistic trajectory of acquisition, the ethnographic approach explains why and how acquisition occurs. A combination of these approaches is necessary to gain a fuller understanding of L2 acquisition.

Chapter four outlines the method of the study, which took place during a two-week-long teacher training course in Cork, Ireland. In total, twenty non-NS English teachers representing a variety of first-language backgrounds participated in the study. All participants were considered to be advanced/proficient English users based on the Common European Framework. Participants represent a variety of previous abroad experience and are placed into three distinct groups based on total time spent abroad. Group 1 consists of primarily non-contextual language learners (average 31.83 days abroad), group 2 consists of low-intensity cross-contextual learners (average 228.5 days abroad), and group 3 consists of high-intensity cross-contextual learners (average 729.375 days abroad). Two data collection instruments, a language contact profile questionnaire (Freed et al., 2004) and a role-play task, were employed. Participants completed the language contact profile questionnaire on the first day of their course while they completed the role-play task near the end. The language contact profile questionnaire collected primarily quantitative data involving learners’ contact with loci of learning (institutional, conversational, and media-based). This data was used to analyze correlations between accumulated experience abroad and intensity and diversity of contact with loci of learning. The role-play task consisted of two situations in which participants asked for advice. The first role-play was an institutional role-play and consisted of a formal situation in which the learner was the lower-status participant in a socially distant situation (e.g. asking a teacher for advice on improving his/her child’s language skills). The second role-play was informal and involved close social distance between the interlocutors in a situation in which they were on equal status levels (e.g. asking a friend for advice on a relationship problem).

Chapter five explores participants’ responses to the language contact profile questionnaire. When considering contact with NSs and non-NSs, results indicate that interaction is strongly biased towards non-NSs for Group 1 while Groups 2 and 3 present the opposite pattern. In other words, participants with more experience abroad have more contact with NSs than with non-NSs. This result is confirmed statistically with a series of one-way ANOVA tests which find that while intensity of interaction with non-NSs does not change significantly with additional experience abroad, intensity of interaction with NSs does significantly increase. Differences among Groups 1, 2, and 3 are also observed when taking into consideration loci of learning. When comparing results for institutional and conversational loci of learning, Group 1 presents a bias towards institutional interactions. This result may indicate that learners with less than 60 days in the abroad environment have interactions that are limited to service encounters and requests for information. Given that the situations in which these learners use English are restricted, the identities they are able to construct and the language they use are restricted as well. Results for Groups 2 and 3 indicate that as participants gain experience in the target-language environment, access to and interaction with conversational and institutional loci of learning become more balanced. One-way ANOVA results indicate that increased duration of time abroad does not significantly alter the intensity of exposure to the institutional locus of learning but that statistically significant differences do emerge for the conversational locus of learning. The more time a participant spends in the target-language environment, the more intense his/her exposure to conversational situations becomes.

Finally, exposure to media-based loci of learning are explored. Results of one-way ANOVA analyses reveal minimal significant differences among the three participant groups according to most media-based activities (e.g. listening to songs, reading books, watching television). Exposure to media-based loci of learning appears to be highly-individualized in that it may depend heavily on the purpose of participants’ time abroad and the amount of free time they have. Reading newspapers presents an exception to this rule. Participants in Group 3 read the newspaper in the target language significantly more often than the other two groups.

Chapter six explores the pragmatic devices used by participants in the role-play tasks with a view to identify the impact of time abroad on variable sociopragmatic patterns. Results are presented for the institutional and conversational genres for each group in turn. For Group 1, the institutional setting is dominated by conventionalized indirectness, a pattern that renders learners’ discourse appropriate to the pragmatic situation at hand. An increase in non-conventionalized indirectness is observed in the conversational genre. The use of non-conventionalized strategies is indicative of this group’s advanced proficiency level in spite of their minimal experience abroad in that it is evidence of participants’ ability to tailor language to fit the pragmatic demands of a situation. Statistically speaking, two-tailed paired samples t-tests indicate that participants’ use of conventionalized directness is significantly different between institutional and conversational genres, but no other strategy (e.g. non-conventional indirectness) proves to differentiate the two genres. A qualitative analysis of the data reveals differences in sub-strategy use including increased variation in conventionalized indirect strategies within the conversational genre and different distributions for grounders and hints as solidary moves in the two genres.

For Group 2, the institutional genre is dominated by non-conventionalized indirectness. While indirectness is congruent with the institutional genre, the use of non-conventionalized pragmatic strategies is not. A bias towards non-conventionalized indirectness is also found for the conversational genre, where the use of these strategies is appropriate. Not surprisingly, no statistical differences between the strategies used for the institutional genre and the conversational genre were found. Qualitatively speaking, non-conventional indirectness displays a difference in sub-strategies between the two genres: both non-solidary and solidary moves were present in the institutional genre while only solidary moves were found in the conversational genre. Group 3 presents results that are similar to those for Group 2 in that both genres are dominated by non-conventionalized indirectness. Again, the use of these strategies is counter to the demands of the institutional genre, but is in line with expectations for the conversational genre. Significant differences are detected between the two genres concerning conventionalized direct strategies and conventionalized indirect strategies employed even though these strategies do not constitute the majority of the strategies employed by participants. Conventionalized directness is employed exclusively in the conversational genre, while conventionalized indirectness is employed significantly more in the institutional setting. Qualitatively speaking, grounders are employed as non-conventionalized indirect solidary moves more often in the institutional genre than in the conversational genre, while hints are employed more often in the conversational genre. Like Group 2, non-solidary moves are found almost exclusively in the institutional genre, with only two non-solidary moves employed by participants in the conversational genre.

Overall, the most surprising result presented in this chapter is the preference for non-conventionalized indirectness in the institutional genre exhibited by Groups 2 and 3. The use of non-conventionalized indirect strategies is not congruent with the social and pragmatic demands of the institutional genre. Sociopragmatic variation in the strategies used in both institutional and conversational genres is detected for all three participant groups, indicating that even learners with shorter amounts of time spent abroad are capable of sociopragmatic variation.

Chapter seven connects the quantitative results presented in previous chapters with learners’ indexing of identity. This chapter begins with a micro-analysis of the ways in which each group employs modality and speaker/hearer orientation within the institutional and conversational genres. Within the institutional genre, Group 1 indexes identity primarily through the use of ‘can you…’ which the author hypothesizes is acquired as a chunk. The use of ‘can you…’ correctly maps to the institutional genre in that hearer-orientation is appropriately formal and socially distant, but the use of the modal ‘can’ is not sufficiently downgraded for the institutional genre. Like the institutional genre, the conversational genre also displays a high use of hearer-oriented ‘you’ which is incongruent with the situation. However, within the conversational genre, this group of participants employs more varied modalities and thus takes on a more collaborative position. Group 2 presents no clear pattern in modality or speaker/hearer orientation within the institutional genre. This group is more successful within the conversational genre in spite of a continued preference for ‘you’ in that these speakers conflate speaker/hearer orientation by using both ‘I’ and ‘you’ forms thus promoting collaboration. Unlike Group 2, Group 3 presents a clear pattern concerning the indexing of identity through modality and speaker/hearer orientation within the institutional genre. This group rejects a lower-status identity in that the pronoun ‘we’ dominates discourse, thus signaling solidarity among participants. In the conversational genre, participants favor the use of ‘I’, which indexes a socially close identity and employ epistemic parentheticals (e.g. “So what do you think I should do?”), thus promoting the co-construction of dialogue. Devlin hypothesizes that Group 3’s non-use of appropriate markers of low-status in the institutional genre stems from their role as authority figures in the language classroom, while Group 1’s use of overly formal markers in the conversational genre is due to their overexposure to institutional loci of learning.

The second section of this chapter outlines the solidary and non-solidary devices used by participant groups. Within the institutional genre, Group 1 employs two types of solidary moves (hints and grounders) and two types of non-solidary moves (avoidance and questioning). This use of non-solidary moves in general is incongruent with the lower-status identity required of the institutional genre. Participants fare somewhat better in the conversational genre, which consists of solidary moves including hints, grounders, and providing an alternative. Avoidance is the only non-solidary move employed by this group of participants in the conversational genre. The use of collaborative sub-strategies such as exposition and ellipsis enact the socially close, equal-status identity required by the conversational genre. Group 2 employs considerably more solidary moves in the institutional genre as compared to Group 1. These tokens fall into six categories: positive backchannels, providing alternatives, validation, overlap, hints, and imposition minimizers. The use of these solidary moves is potentially problematic for the institutional genre in that they may index an identity that is too close in status to the interlocutor. Non-solidary moves within the institutional genre include negative backchannels, problematicization, questioning, correction, providing alternatives, and interruptions. The use of non-solidary moves in the institutional genre is generally incongruous with the demands of the social situation in that they threaten the face of the higher-status interlocutor. Within the conversational genre, solidary moves dominate and include tokens of positive backchannels, concordance, repetition, overlap, problematicization, proposing alternatives, and hints. While some individual difficulties do appear, participants tend to employ solidary strategies in a manner that is congruent with the demands of the genre. In other words, they employ these devices to signal equal social status and to promote the co-construction of the conversation. The institutional genre provides very few examples of solidary moves for Group 3. These examples fall into two categories: positive backchannelling and hints. Contrary to the other two groups, this group employs many non-solidary tokens, an unexpected finding within the institutional genre. These tokens fall into five categories: rejection, negative backchannels, providing alternatives, interruptions, and questioning. Within the conversational genre, Group 3 employs only solidary moves, including positive backchannels, providing alternatives, overlap, hints, grounders, imposition minimizers, and problematicization of advice. The use of these strategies is congruent with the social demands of the conversational genre.

As with the analysis of modality, results for solidary and non-solidary moves indicate that in general, Group 1 participants accept the identity restrictions thrust upon them by the social situation while participants in Group 3 actively reject the lower-status identity demanded by the institutional genre. Group 2 presents a stage of acquisition during which expression of identity is in flux, as evidenced by examples of both solidary and non-solidary moves within the institutional genre. A progression is observed from acceptance of a lower-status identity imposed by the institutional genre (Group 1), to a stage at which the use of solidary and non-solidary moves to enact identity presents no measurable pattern (Group 2), and finally to a stage during which learners reject a lower-status identity in favor of a higher-status identity that is congruent with their professional, educator identity (Group 3).

Chapter eight provides a summary of findings and a detailed interpretation of what these findings may mean for the acquisition of sociopragmatic competence, particularly as it relates to the amount of time spent abroad. Firstly, the fact that situational sociopragmatic variation is found at all is counter to results of previous studies. Devlin attributes this finding to her participants’ proficiency level, professional identity, personal investment in language learning, and motivation. Although all three participant groups in this study exhibited variable sociopragmatic behavior, only Group 3 exemplified consistent, fully developed variation. Not surprisingly, this group also reported the most balanced contact with NSs as far as loci of learning are concerned. The sociopragmatic acquisitional pattern (e.g. speaker/hearer orientation, solidary moves) observable in the data appears to reflect differential patterns of contact with loci of learning reported in the language contact profile questionnaire. In general, variable patterns of Group 1 tended to conform to the needs of the institutional and conversational genres, even though the level of variation was not very high. Group 2 presented an unpredictable pattern, especially in the institutional setting with some linguistic devices in line with the sociopragmatic demands of the genre and others not. Finally, Group 3 presents a very clear variable pattern in that they employ moves that are congruent with the conversational genre but clearly reject the status of lower-status interlocutor in the institutional genre. Devlin hypothesizes that this result evidences the influence of extended periods of time abroad. The more time learners spend in the native-speaker environment, the better able they are to take agency of identities in their L2.


This study represents a much-needed analysis of data that incorporates both a quantitative and qualitative perspective of the acquisition of sociopragmatic competence. Devlin is correct in stating that while a quantitative analysis shows the trajectory of acquisition, a qualitative analysis sheds light on the “why” and “how” of this acquisition. Studies that incorporate more than one type of data analysis are essential to a deeper understanding of how languages are acquired. Devlin’s use of data from an under-studied, yet incredibly important, participant group (non-NS English teachers) is timely. A study of this group of participants is essentially a study of the input to which future English-speakers are exposed. The importance of input in the language acquisition process is undisputed, regardless of theoretical approach (e.g. Krashen, 1977; Tarone, 2000; Tarone and Liu, 1995; Trahey and White, 1993), and a similar study of the students of this participant group may prove to be a fruitful avenue for future research.

Nevertheless, it is important to consider how certain methodological decisions may have influenced the data presented in this study. Firstly, the fact that participants were abroad at the time of data collection may complicate the validity of results rather than bolster their legitimacy. Learners were asked to complete the language contact profile questionnaire task at the beginning of their course abroad, and it is unclear as to whether or not learners were completing this task based on their contact with English abroad or their contact with English in their home environment. Asking participants to report on their contact with English over the course of one specific abroad experience (e.g. at the end of their time in Ireland) may have clarified what information learners were actually reporting on this task. An additional methodological consideration that must be considered is the omission of NS results for the role-play task. While scholars in the field of L2 acquisition have recently argued convincingly for a consideration of learners’ linguistic systems in their own right (e.g. Ortega, 2013), the omission of such data complicates claims of congruence or incongruence with a certain pragmatic genre (e.g. institutional). For example, while learners in Group 3 may have presented results that were in conflict with the ideal demands of the institutional genre, it may be that these learners are simply employing more native-like behavior. Without a consideration of what the native-speaker may do in this type of role-play task, it remains unclear whether or not learners are actively rejecting a certain identity, as the author hypothesizes, or if they are, in fact, simply employing more native-like pragmatics.

In sum, this study represents a much-needed and timely approach to language acquisition, and Devlin’s use of multiple types of data analysis and data triangulation is commendable. The critiques offered in this review are minimal in comparison to the fruitful avenues of future research opened by a study such as this one. Future research in the field of L2 acquisition would be served well by undertaking such an approach.


Freed B. F., Dewey, D.P., Segalowitz, N., and Halter, R. (2004). The Language Contact Profile. Studies in Second Language Acquisition, 26, 349-356.

Krashen, S. (1977) . The monitor model for adult second language performance. Viewpoints on English as a second language. 152 – 161.

Ortega, L. (2013). SLA for the 21st century: Disciplinary progress, transdisciplinary relevance, and the bi/multilingual turn. Language Learning, 63, 1-24.

Tarone, E. (2000). Still wrestling with context in Interlanguage Theory. Annual Review of Applied Linguistics, 20, 182-198.

Tarone, E. and Liu, G.Q. (1995). Situational context, variation, and second language acquisition theory. Principle and practice in applied linguistics: Studies in honour of H.G. Widdowson. 107 – 124.

Trahey, M., and White, L. (1993). Positive evidence and preemption in the second language classroom. Studies in Second Language Acquisition, 15, 181 – 204.
Melissa Whatley is the Director of the Learning Center at Piedmont College-Athens. Her research interests include international education and language acquisition in the study abroad environment.

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