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Review of  Language Learning and Study Abroad


Reviewer: Aurora Salvador Sanchis
Book Title: Language Learning and Study Abroad
Book Author: Celeste Kinginger
Publisher: Palgrave Macmillan
Linguistic Field(s): Applied Linguistics
Sociolinguistics
Issue Number: 27.1483

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Review:
Reviews Editor: Robert Arthur Cote

SUMMARY

In this monograph, Language Learning and Study Abroad: A Critical Reading of Research, Celeste Kinginger provides an extensive overview and evaluation of the research carried out in the field of Second Language Acquisition (SLA) within the context of study abroad experiences. The author provides a historical exploration of the prior research in this area, which began at the end of the 20th century, to raise a critical awareness among language educators, study abroad program organizers, and policy makers of the strong relationship between study abroad and language learning. The book is divided into six chapters, guiding the reader from the early stages of research on language learning in the study abroad context to the most contemporary trends in the field.

Chapter 1, “Situating Language Learning in Study Abroad,” introduces and establishes the concept of study abroad that is adopted in the succeeding chapters of the book. Kinginger defines study abroad as “a temporary sojourn of pre-defined duration, undertaken for educational purposes” (page 11). This definition includes those sojourns where students pursue a foreign degree or qualification or when study abroad fulfills or enriches a home-based degree. However, as Kinginger points out, the target groups embraced for the majority of research studies are European exchange students, Asian students learning English abroad, and English-speaking students, mainly from the United States, Canada and Australia, who go abroad to study a language or other subjects.

In chapter two, “Measuring Language Acquisition,” Kinginger surveys early research on study abroad, which is linked to the rise of SLA as an independent field of study. Researchers sought to determine the effectiveness of study abroad through a utilitarian point of view in which learners were treated as concrete products. The author explains how proficiency tests, such as the Oral Proficiency Interview (OPI) and the Cloze Test, were implemented in order to holistically measure students’ success in SLA. Additionally, these assessments served to justify for program administrators and policy makers that study abroad was a worthwhile investment. However, researchers did not come to a general agreement about the validity of these qualitative approaches in accurately evaluating the linguistic benefits of study abroad. Tests like the OPI and Cloze could not successfully measure the natural use of language and the subtle changes in the communicative repertoires of language learners abroad. This motivated researchers to redefine the concept of proficiency by investigating individual domains.

Chapter 3, “Domains of Communicative Competence,” examines a new model of language learning, communicative competence, that was established in the 70s and 80s in response to the previous SLA perspective of language proficiency that was deemed inadequate for sufficiently gauging student language proficiency in are areas that students in a study abroad context commonly show improvement. Instead of analyzing a final and general product, researchers began to observe specific aspects of language ability separately. Kinginger differentiates four domains of communicative competence: (i) linguistic competence, (ii) actional competence, (iii) sociocultural competence, and (iv) strategic competence. Linguistic competence refers to the ability to manipulate the formal features of the language: grammar, vocabulary and phonology. Traditional studies of SLA, focused on general linguistic gains during study abroad, have produced mixed results. However, when scholars have analyzed specific components of linguistic competence, they found a significant long-term contribution to the language learning process. In contrast to linguistic competence, actional competence consists of more contextual and meaningful knowledge. Actional competence and within it, discourse competence, is related to speech acts (the speaker’s interpretation and production of the language) and with the selection and sequencing of that language. With respect to this domain, the study abroad context provides students with a significant advantage over students with only experience in a traditional classroom setting. Kinginger explains that students, during their sojourn abroad, observe and participate in a wide variety of authentic linguistic actions, to which they would not have access in a regular language classroom. However, actional competence is difficult to assess since students do not necessarily desire to model native-like behaviors that they have observed, which therefore makes measuring their success in terms of acquired speech acts very challenging. In this sense, there is an element of choice for language users regarding speech acts, through which they can build their own identities. As for discourse competence, different methods have been used to study cohesion, deixis, and conversational structure. Conclusions from these studies described the study abroad experience as a valuable environment for developing overall discourse competence.

The third component of competence is sociocultural competence, and within this area, communicative competence, which can be described as the speaker´s knowledge of the rules and expectations that govern the social contexts of speech. The research on sociocultural competence suggests that there are certain aspects of language that are not accessible in a classroom setting; therefore, study abroad offers a unique opportunity to develop students’ linguistic repertoires and to raise their awareness of the possible repertoires they can utilize to navigate within their new language and culture. Finally, Kinginger addresses strategic competence, which refers to the skills that learners have to resolve communication difficulties. Researchers have tried to create varied taxonomies of communication strategies that are consciously used by learners to compensate imperfect knowledge of the linguistic rules. However, these studies do not show consistent results, so further studies are needed to better understand how students conceive strategic language while they are abroad. Taken together, research on each of the competencies demonstrates that study abroad has a positive impact on general communicative competence. At the conclusion of the chapter, Kinginger calls for the need for future studies to start acknowledging the value of student’s individual views. Students might choose to appropriate or not their communicative resources with the standards in the local community and to adopt or reject local meanings within their own repertoires. Either option would impact their learning abroad.

In Chapter 4, “Communicative Settings for Language Learning Abroad,” Kinginger examines three major settings in study abroad where students are supposed to have greater language- mediated time, which should result in increased proficiency. Educational institutions provide general and/or language instruction during the study abroad period, and the academic success of their students has been found to depend on more than just the students’ own intentions or desires to learn. Two critical external factors that affect SLA are the way in which the students are received by the institutions abroad and whether or not they learn how to interpret and adapt to the academic practices of these institutions. Moreover, Kinginger points out that it is also important that educators inform students in advance about the cultural differences that they will encounter in order for them to be prepared and make the most of their stay.

When students study abroad, there is a range of options for living accommodations, including a homestay, student dorms of the hosting institution, and independently secured apartments, among others. Of these, the homestay is the place of residence where most studies have turned their attention. In general, research supports the fact that it is advantageous for the student to have a homestay as a part of the study abroad sojourn over other possible accommodations. However, many factors can hinder this experience from being a positive one that contributes to the SLA process. The variables that can affect a student’s homestay experience —for instance, the reception that a student receives by the family, the options to engage with the family in their lives, and the quality of the linguistic and cultural input received— can all determine whether or not a homestay residence is a conducive environment for optimum language learning. Finally, in this chapter, Kinginger explores how study abroad promotes interaction with native speakers in informal contexts. While this interaction is deemed positive, assessing learner gains in these settings is inherently challenging due the casual nature of these encounters and research to support these claims has mainly measured the time-on-task based on student reports and diaries. Kinginger reveals that the diversity of the results obtained has led researchers to conclude that they need to look deeper into the aspects and details of the experiences abroad in order to find out not only what students learn but also how they use their experience for learning.

Chapter 5, “Language Socialization and Identity,” reviews studies that focus on identity formation in study abroad settings during socializing encounters. Kinginger first presents a variety of second-language socialization studies that indicate the quality of students’ encounters abroad and the attitudes that they adopt in relation to their host communities, based on recordings of dinnertime conversations. Although this research shows the significant value of such encounters for learning language and sociocultural meanings, sometimes the scope of learning can be limited. Host families might adopt specific varieties of the language or choose to use what is referred in the literature as ‘foreigner talk’, restricting the authenticity of the learning contexts. Kinginger then presents other studies that analyze the position that students adopt, with respect to the communities abroad, when they encounter conflicts related to gender and race stereotypes. The way that students negotiate the differences between cultures will influence their level of engagement in the community and, therefore, their language learning.

Finally, in Chapter 6, “Interpreting Research on Language Learning in Study Abroad,” Kinginger provides a summary of research reviewed in the book and points out the limitations of contemporary research in the field. Language learning abroad had originally been based on the holistic construct of general proficiency but has evolved to address more communicative and specific approaches that give value to the relationship between learners’ identities and language gains. Although the interest in research on language learning abroad has increased considerably, literature on this topic still presents many limitations in scope and design. Kinginger notes that most of the studies appear to be uncoordinated and are carried out by individuals or small groups, following the general trends of SLA and applied linguistics. Additionally, the vast majority of the projects have focused on U.S.-based students and have used holistic and standard assessment tests to measure learning gains in the abroad context. Many domains of language competence are under-represented, such as language literacy, social and pragmatic dimensions, sociolinguistic variation, and different communicative settings. Kinginger concludes with an exhortation to researchers to expand the scope of participants, to adopt more representative models of language, and to describe more carefully the design chosen for the study abroad programs. The author underlines the need for improvements in these specific areas of research within this field in order to better inform policy makers and language educators of the value of study abroad for language learning.

EVALUATION

Overall, this book provides a very good and concise overview of the general trends in research of language learning during study abroad experiences, from its origins to the most recent findings. The precise and methodical writing style that the author uses makes the book very approachable and accessible for the intended audience: researchers, educators, and policy makers. Chapters 1 and 6 provide an extensive overview of seminal studies in the field but also discuss the limitations and gaps in both previous and current research of SLA during study abroad. These chapters are extremely useful for researchers aiming to conduct new studies in this discipline. Chapters 2 and 3 will be most helpful to educators and policy makers to refine their expectations in terms of language gains in the study abroad programs based on the different language competencies and to design new proficiency tests accordingly. Finally, educators designing and leading study abroad programs will find Chapters 4 and 5 extraordinarily valuable, since these chapters shed light on the advantages and disadvantages of study abroad, such as authentic social encounters, living with a host family, and cultural differences and stereotypes.

This work strongly contributes to the emerging field of language learning in study abroad contexts by providing a solid theoretical framework that can benefit future researchers. Kinginger draws together much of the research conducted in the field from a historical and critical point of view. All of the key concepts are thoroughly explained without falling into redundancies, which makes this work a useful tool, not only for experts in the field, but also for those who might be interested in learning more about this topic. However, although the book acknowledges the importance of sojourns abroad for individuals, it does not provide much information about the profile of the participants in the studies mentioned. Such information could have been very useful since the aim of the book is not only to summarize and evaluate the research done in the field, but also to provide practical information to improve and implement new study abroad programs. With the little information provided about the participants, it can be assumed that, until now, research has concentrated on monolingual learners abroad. Future research should examine the experiences of bilingual and heritage language learners in the study abroad context, populations that have been overlooked in the literature.

The division in thematic chapters makes the book very readable and the information easily accessible. Furthermore, every chapter begins either with a personal story of the author’s experiences abroad, or a short review of a book or movie related to the main theme of the chapter. These kinds of introductions draw the reader into the chapter in a more interactive way and, and at the same time, set the basis for the chapter’s topic. Then, within each chapter, shorter subsections are included to address different subtopics. These divisions of the chapters render the presentation of content organized and fluid. One critique is that the index does not show any of these chapter subsections, which makes it difficult for the reader to find them or to even know that some of the subjects in the subsections will be addressed.

To conclude, educators, researchers and policy makers can definitely take something valuable away from this book. Kinginger presents an objective source of the research done in the field of language learning abroad and evaluates its benefits and limitations, paving the way for further studies in the field. One last issue that arises is that future publications should expand the scope of the audience targeted in the research on learning in the study abroad context. A book that raises awareness of the challenges and benefits of study abroad will clearly be worth-while reading for potential sojourners, helping them make the most of their time abroad.
 
ABOUT THE REVIEWER:
Aurora Salvador Sanchís is a Ph.D. student in Iberian and Latin-American Linguistics at the University of Texas at Austin. She holds a MA in Hispanic Studies from the University of Washington and she currently works as a Spanish instructor at UT Austin. Her main research interests are second language acquisition and bilingualism in the U.S.

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