IT IS a popular belief that a semester overseas can bring about a spectacular increase in foreign language skills. Classroom instruction is often equated with an emphasis on grammar and vocabulary drills, whereas residents in a foreign country are supposed to master the language through communication, with little conscious attention paid to structure. Many students, teachers, and program administrators echo these beliefs, whether or not they themselves have had such experience abroad. In other words, Stephen Krashen's ideas about the relative futility of much classroom learning, as opposed to the dramatic effects of large amounts of comprehensible input in a stimulating and nonthreatening environment, seem to have a lot of intuitive appeal, even to those who have never read about his controversial dichotomy ( Principles; Hypothesis ). As a result, mastery of a modern language has traditionally been perceived as the most direct educational benefit of study abroad, even though, of course, it is only one of many arguments invoked to justify educational programs overseas (Goodwin and Nacht 16).
While this issue has practical relevance for many thousands of students each year, research on foreign language teaching and learning has rarely focused on the ways that students abroad draw on their previous classroom work at home. Most research in applied linguistics has concerned itself either only with academic learning and classroom achievement or only with acquisition in a native-speaking environment, usually by immigrants or foreign workers.
One can, of course, easily find a few dozen articles about the advantages of study abroad, but most of them are entirely speculative studies or mere descriptions of the administrative setup or essays on personal growth or affective variables, such as attitudes toward the foreign country or motivation for further study of the language. Here, however, I deal exclusively with language development.
To my knowledge, the only large-scale study of the contribution of overseas experience to foreign language skills-one that can be said to have involved control groups, even though it was not experimental- is John Carroll's survey of 2,782 college seniors majoring in French, German, Italian, Russian, or Spanish at 203 institutions. The two variables that were the strongest predictors of listening scores were (1) the amount of time students spent abroad and (2) the age at which they began studying the language. A fairly consistent pattern emerged from the data: a year of overseas study brought students, on the average, from around level 2 on the FSI speaking scale (limited working proficiency) to around level 3 (minimum professional proficiency). Taking a summer course abroad, or even just touring around the foreign country, produced about half that improvement. Carroll does not report in detail on skills other than listening but he claims that they were affected in much the same way.
Two German researchers, Dorothea Moehle and Manfred Raupach, have done a number of case studies documenting the speech of German college students of French and French college students of German. Moehle finds, for example, that spending several months in France did not noticeably change the frequency of the German students' grammatical mistakes in French or the length and syntactic complexity of their French sentences. What changed was the speech rate (an increase in the number of syllables per second), the number of pauses (decrease), and the length of the stretches of speech between pauses (increase). For French learners of German, however, there was little change in these quantitative characteristics of speech after a stay in Germany, but their grammar improved enormous[ly], especially in inflections (Moehle 42). It is not clear whether this difference between the two types of learners was due to the French students' lower proficiency at the beginning of the study or to the highly inflected character of German.
Raupach shows that a German learner became more fluent in French after a stay in France largely because of her use of formulas, that is, standardized fillers, modifiers, and organizers ( bon, vraiment, c'est ), which freed her from having to resort to subsidiary hesitation strategies such as drawls and filled or unfilled pauses (Formulae). He has argued at length that the quantitative differences between the learner's performance before and after the stay in France can be attributed to automatization resulting from this practice ( Procedural Learning ). His use of the data is illustrative rather than systematic, however.
To investigate the influence of overseas experience on how learners put their second-language knowledge to use during communication and how learners compensate for gaps in their knowledge, I designed a comparative study of two groups (DeKeyser, Foreign Language). The first group, seven American students participating in a six-month overseas program in Spain, were observed during the fall quarter of 198485. They had all satisfied the two-year basic course requirement at their home university, but some of them had skipped the first quarters because they had had the equivalent in high school. Their proficiency level was intermediate. The second group, five students at the same university who were planning to study in Spain or Latin America in 198586, were observed in their second-year, second-quarter Spanish classes in the United States during the winter of 198485. These students had taken the four preceding quarters of the course sequence (but most of the students had skipped the first quarter because they had had the equivalent in high school).
All subjects were volunteers. None of them had spent any substantial time in a Spanish-speaking country before. While these convenience samples were small and somewhat heterogeneous, there was an advantage in having two groups with considerable shared classroom experience, one group having the overseas experience in addition.
To assess whether the two groups were comparable on a series of variables known to affect foreign language learning in general and monitoring in particular, the subjects were given the Modern Language Aptitude Test (Carroll and Sapon) and two questionnaires: one concerning attitude, motivation, and risk taking (adapted from Ely) and one about attitude toward correctness (adapted from Abraham). The differences between the two groups regarding the control variables were quite small, and none of the t-tests for these five variables (language-learning aptitude, attitude, motivation, risk taking, attitude toward correctness) was statistically significant.
At the beginning of the quarter the students took a Spanish grammar test dealing with the most important points of second-year grammar (the copula, the subjunctive, conditional clauses, relative clauses). The purpose of this test was to assess the learners' baseline grammar knowledge in a situation conducive to monitoring. The students in both groups were interviewed three times during the quarter, approximately at three-week intervals, and at about the same time each also participated in the experiment of describing a picture to a native speaker, who had to draw it on the basis of the learner's description. I regularly visited the students' classrooms in both the United States and Spain, took field notes about the students' interactions with the teacher, and, in addition, observed the group in Spain in a variety of informal situations.
Because specific grammatical structures often occurred too infrequently in the interviews and picture descriptions to permit valid comparisons with the learners' use of those structures on the grammar test, the comparison had to be limited to one of the four problems on the test: the use of the copula ser or estar.
The results on the grammar test were often far from perfect, for the copula as well as for the other structures-an indication that some students simply did not have the knowledge to be monitored during oral performance (for details, see DeKeyser, Monitoring). For those students, however, who gave consistently correct answers for the ser-estar problem on the grammar test, the results for the oral tests were quite consistent as well. Those students in Spain who made consistently correct judgments about the use of ser before a predicate noun always used it correctly in oral communicative tasks, and those who made consistently correct judgments about estar before an expression of location used it correctly in the vast majority of cases (62 times out of 75). The students in the United States with consistently correct judgments for ser before a predicate noun almost always used it correctly (61 times out of 63). Students in both groups appeared to monitor their knowledge about ser and estar efficiently during oral communication, at least those students whose knowledge appeared to be solid on the grammar test.
The students' inconsistent judgments on other parts of the grammar tests were reflected, in the oral tests, in their choice of the default option where that was possible (i.e., choosing que as relative pronoun or choosing the indicative after affirmative verbs of opinion) or in avoidance strategies and a variety of mistakes, where there was no clear default option (i.e., in conditional sentences).
When students overseas were asked about differences in their learning or speaking since they had come to Spain, they never mentioned anything like the difference between consciously learning grammar in the United States and picking it up automatically in Spain. When explicitly asked whether they agreed that language development abroad was largely automatic, they all rejected this idea. No evidence was found, then, to suggest that foreign language development in the native-speaking environment involves less monitoring than does classroom learning.
What do learners do, at home and abroad, to supplement their insufficient knowledge of the foreign language during communication? To answer this question, we analyzed the data on the use of communication strategies in both groups, presented in table 1.
A two-way analysis of variance revealed no significant interaction between group and type of communication strategy. While this lack of statistical significance may have been due to the small number of subjects (7 for the Spanish group and 5 for the United States group), there is a second argument against the hypothesis of difference between the two groups: the biggest between-group differences in table 1 are not the same for both tasks. In the picture descriptions the most conspicuous differences are between the frequency of circumlocution (higher in Spain) and that of appeal and indirect appeal (higher in the United States), whereas in the interviews the frequencies that stand out are those for L1-based strategies (higher in the United States) and restructuring (higher in Spain). Only the category Other is more frequent in the United States for both tasks (mainly because of the frequency of incorporation of the interlocutor's words for the United States group).
At any rate, if there is a (not statistically significant) tendency for certain strategies to have a different relative frequency in the Spanish group than in the United States group, it may be attributed to the particular characteristics of the tasks and the interlocutors rather than to a developmental process in Spain. It is certainly true that communication strategies did not drastically change during the students' stay in Spain.
The next section will provide a closer look at individual differences in the use of strategies to show (1) that the instruments and analyses used were adequate to point out meaningful differences where they did exist and (2) how important individual differences in the use of strategies were in determining the communicative efficiency of otherwise comparable students when they interacted with native speakers abroad.
20 September, 3:30 p.m. The newly arrived American students sit down for a drink on one of the many terraces on the Plaza Mayor. The waiter comes to take the order. Paul asks what kind of Spanish beer they carry, and while the waiter recites a list of beer brands, Paul suddenly says yes, meaning That's the kind I want. As soon as the waiter leaves, Tim asks Paul: Did you know that beer? and Paul has to admit he did not. For fear of losing face, he faked native-like competence in his choice of beer, even though that meant that he did not know what kind of brew to expect. And Tim was stunned. (field notes)
Hindsight shows this little incident to have been a presage of Tim's and Paul's extremely different approaches to communicating in the foreign language. Throughout the quarter, Paul made every possible attempt to appear like a native speaker, whereas Tim almost purposely projected himself as a learner. In the following pages, we will see how these opposite attitudes pervaded many facets of these learners' communicative behavior, and how they can be explained by the more general aspects of their personalities.
Tim's speech was characterized by precision and meticulousness at the four traditional levels of linguistic description. At the phonological level, the most important features were a careful, sound-by-sound pronunciation, the somewhat superfluous effort to make the Castilian distinction between the interdental and the alveolar [s], the exaggerated pronunciation of the single r (flap) as a double r (apical trill), a slow tempo, and an unnaturally rising and falling intonation, especially within word groups, which sometimes gave rise to comical effects, for example, in a classroom conversation on 12 November: El esposo de Ferraro era un hombre-muy simpático. Tim's intonation and his pause after hombre made some students laugh, because it sounded like the sentence was finished (Ferraro's husband was a man ). At the morphological level, Tim often hesitated about verb conjugation, and he made no effort to hide this. Instances such as sal, salo, sale, sali were not uncommon. At the syntactic level, Tim's speech clearly stood out by his spontaneous use of more complex constructions (conditional sentences, relative clauses, comparative constructions) in a variety of situations, in contrast to the other students, who usually avoided them, even when the researcher tried to elicit such constructions in the interviews.
But it was at the lexical level that Tim's speech was most conspicuous. He had an extraordinary vocabulary that he used spontaneously on all occasions. Sometimes he would use a series of synonyms, for example, plenamen, claramente, obviamente (25 Oct.) as if he were reading them from a dictionary. Some of the explanations of word meaning that he gave in answer to the teacher's questions sounded dictionary-like. And indeed, for the first eight weeks or so, Tim always carried a heavy dictionary around, wherever he went. Later on he said he did not need it so much anymore. Furthermore, he did not let one occasion go by to ask the teachers in class for the meaning or the spelling of a word they had used, even to the point that teachers and fellow students became irritated.
Paul's speech was, in many ways, the opposite of Tim's. He spoke very fast and often articulated very indistinctly. Unstressed vowels were reduced frequently, and final -n was hard to perceive. The intonation was very flat and the rhythm very irregular. While the researcher was working on a transcription of Paul's interviews, and taking notes on the irregular rhythm, Paul came into his room to give him another tape recording, and said that, while listening to his tape, he had noticed he spoke in blurts (28 Nov.). There were very few long, cumbersome hesitations in Paul's speech, but an extraordinary number of short pauses, often within word groups, even between articles and nouns. Paul never drew attention to conjugation or other grammar problems in the way Tim did. Self-corrections were done very quickly and inconspicuously, as for a slip of the tongue in the native language, and Paul's indistinct articulation often made it difficult to hear whether he made the correct subject-verb or adjective-noun agreement.
One reason why Paul seemed to get stuck less often than Tim was probably his more frequent use of restructuring. Table 2 shows 39 instances of restructuring for Paul in both the interviews and picture descriptions and only 10 for Tim. Paul also seemed more prone to solving a communication problem by meaning replacement or overgeneralizing a word (10 instances versus 3 for Tim) than by directly or indirectly appealing to the interlocutor (3 instances versus 8 for Tim). And many of Paul's relatively infrequent confirmation requests were more nativelike than the rising intonation on a doubtful word that was frequently used by most learners. He regularly asked questions such as Sabes el tipo? Do you know the kind? Because of these frequent comprehension checks, Paul did not have to show he had doubts about particular words, but could give the interlocutor the responsibility of signaling any problems he may have had.
These few aspects of Tim's and Paul's performance in Spanish fit into a more general frame of language behavior. Tim adopted a playful approach to the language and treated it as an object, almost as a toy. He loved puns and was amazingly good at them in a language that, after all, he had not yet mastered. So big was the disparity between his limited proficiency in the language and his creative play on words that native speakers often did not get the joke, assuming that Tim was simply confused.
Besides making puns, Tim generally liked to play with words. On the second day in Spain, he was dancing down the stairs while singing a made-up song in Spanish: Con mucho gusto me introduzco I'm pleased to introduce myself (21 Sept.). In the same vein, during a trip through southern Spain, Tim responded to the Beatles' song Yellow Submarine being played on the bus by improvising Spanish lyrics (1 Jan.). Later the researcher was told by one of Tim's relatives that he had written poetry in high school that had made it into a prestigious journal.
Paul, by contrast, did not treat language as a toy but as a garment that was to make him look more like the natives. During numerous interactions with the researcher he always made two points: that whatever problem he experienced in Spanish was a problem he sometimes had in English and that he felt very comfortable interacting with the Spaniards, who often did not realize he was a foreigner. Paul also quickly adopted the use of fillers such as pues, bueno , and so on. In a short presentation in a history class toward the end of the quarter, he used pues three times, y todo six times, bueno six times, and es que ten times (5 Dec.).
The difference in style between Paul and Tim was not without effect on the natives' appreciation of their respective proficiency. I never asked the Spanish students what they thought about the performance of any of the learners, but they occasionally made spontaneous comments. Comments about Paul's speech were only positive, those about Tim's speech only negative. Ironically, the same day that J. L. told the researcher Paul managed well already, Paul told the researcher he found J. L. impossible to understand (J. L. had indeed the worst articulation the researcher had ever heard from a native speaker). But apparently Paul had faked comprehension quite well.
To a certain extent these two students represent extremes, and the behavior of most learners will fall somewhere in between Tim's and Paul's. It would be difficult to argue, however, that they are exceptional, given that both belonged to the same small convenience sample of learners.
This study shows that the group differences were far less important than the individual differences. While students undoubtedly gained in fluency and expanded their vocabulary in Spain, they did not drastically change their monitoring behavior or their use of communication strategies. There were clear differences, however, within the overseas group, in monitoring style and in preference for certain communication strategies. These differences had a strong impact on the way the learners were perceived by the native speakers and were consequently sought out or avoided for informal interaction.
The results of our study, then, do not suggest a strong dichotomy between learning language in the classroom and picking it up abroad or between grammar and oral proficiency. If there was any gap, it was between the students' generally inconsistent judgments on a multiple-choice test and the knowledge of grammar that may have been expected of them, taking into account that these students had successfully completed six quarters of Spanish and had dealt extensively with the problem represented on the grammar test in class. What was lacking, then, was not so much the controversial interface between what was learned and what could be used for communication, but a thoroughly learned system that would allow students to perform consistently on any kind of grammar test, not just on a test with prototypical sentences in a known format, and that could be drawn on during communication.
These findings seem to imply that, if people are to benefit maximally from a stay abroad, they need to be able to monitor grammar inconspicuously and to use communication strategies that mask their problems instead of drawing attention to them. Only then will they be able to take full advantage of the two-way informal interaction that is an essential ingredient of the overseas experience, regardless of whether one takes the view that it is the input or the practice that counts.
Section 1 presents quantitative and qualitative evidence for a strong influence of the time spent abroad on foreign language proficiency. Section 2, however, shows that a stay abroad does not necessarily entail a radical change in communicative processes. If these processes are not strongly affected, why is it then that a stay abroad can make a big difference in proficiency?
One can easily list, of course, a number of obvious reasons. First, the sheer number of hours spent in the native-speaking environment provides a huge amount of comprehensible input for all students and a sizeable amount of speaking practice for those who are willing to make an effort. Second, being in an environment where one can get many things done in the foreign language that could not be accomplished in the native language is a constant motivational boost. Third, students overseas, if they work at it, acquire at least some skill in managing truly informal interaction with multiple native speakers, an activity that is rare, if not nonexistent, in the classroom.
There may also be, however, a number of less obvious reasons for the sometimes dramatic gains in proficiency after a stay abroad. These reasons are fundamentally psycholinguistic and may, once they are better understood and documented, give indications for how the classroom itself could be made to have some of the beneficial effects of a stay abroad. I will speculate on three such reasons here.
First, a semester in the native-speaking environment, following or combined with a (high) intermediate course with some attention to the explicit teaching of grammar, provides a prolonged opportunity for an ideal mix of focus on form and focus on meaning. Contrary to the classroom learner, who receives very little input that allows the testing of hypotheses about the language, and contrary to the grammatically naive learner who does not know what aspects of the input to focus on, the learner who does not know all the rules but knows that there are problems with perfective/imperfective or indicative/subjunctive and who knows the basic principles motivating the choice between these forms can fine-tune this knowledge by selectively paying attention to the relevant parts of the input.
Second, the fact that so many communicative scenarios reoccur during a stay abroad creates a natural communicative drill. There is focus on meaning, of course, each time students buy fruit in the store, each time they talk with friends at the dinner table about the day's activities, each time they agree where and when to meet tennis partners, but the recurrence of these exchanges makes such conversation an ideal form of comprehensible input, what Merrill Swain describes as good comprehensible input: because it is so comprehensible, it allows for focus on form. This focus on form then immediately carries over into active communicative practice.
Third, and maybe most important, when focus on form leads to the remembering of a word or phrase heard in the native-speaking environment, that memory is integrated into the memory of an event. And as any event is to some extent a synesthetic experience, the new linguistic item becomes part of what Earl Stevick calls a well-integrated configuration in longterm memory (32). The larger the number of sensory experiences the item is associated with, the easier the item will be to retrieve. And the more salient certain elements of the event are (faces, noises, emotions), the better the recall of the other elements in the event or episode will be (Craik). Needless to say, such multiple linking with sensory experiences is rare in the classroom where every interaction takes place among the same people, between the same four walls.
Much of what has been said in the preceding pages is rather speculative, of course. Further study is clearly needed on the role of a stay abroad in foreign language development. All the studies done so far, including our own, are limited, either by their very small number of subjects or by their restriction of the criterion measure to general assessments of proficiency. Further studies should try to link data on the linguistic product with data on psycholinguistic and sociolinguistic processes. They should not be limited to a simple pre-post design with or without a control group, but they should be longitudinal, that is, they should follow the learners closely throughout their overseas experience and integrate test data with more ethnographic data, paying due attention to individual differences. Since it is extremely difficult to find large and homogeneous samples for a study on this topic, it would be wise to capitalize on the advantages of intensive case studies first and to compare the results of different studies later, rather than to try to establish statistically significant findings in separate studies.
One of the main issues to be addressed in future research will be the differential effect of experience abroad as a function of the students' level of achievement at the beginning of their trip. Ability profiles (e.g., the relative strength of memory and grammatical sensitivity) and personality traits (e.g., extraversion and sociability) will be other foci for such research. Finally, it would be highly desirable to do similar studies with more distant language pairs (such as Arabic L1/English L2 or English L1/Japanese L2), where the problems of sentence planning and strategy selection are likely to be more severe, and especially to look at language learning in native environments where attitudes toward foreign speech are known to be different (for instance, the United States versus France versus Japan). 1
The author is Assistant Professor of Linguistics at the University of Pittsburgh, Pittsburgh. This article is based on a paper presented at the 1989 annual conference of the Consortium for Language Learning and Teaching at the University of Pennsylvania. A somewhat longer version of this paper has appeared in Foreign Language Acquisition Research and the Classroom, ed. Barbara E Freed (Lexington: Heath, 1991), 10419.
1 Parts of this paper are based on my PhD dissertation submitted to Stanford University in 1986. I would like to thank my adviser, Shirley Heath, and the other members of my reading committee, Thom Huebner and Charles Ferguson, for their help, advice, and encouragement.
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|Frequency of Strategies Used (%)|
|Spain||United States||Spain||United States|
|Topic avoidance, message abandonment||41||(4.91)||57||(6.64)||22||(8.46)||8||(3.17)|
|Meaning replacement, overgeneralization||59||(7.07)||68||(7.92)||35||(13.46)||37||(14.68)|
|L1, literal translation, foreignizing||51||(6.11)||45||(5.24)||17||(6.54)||45||(17.86)|
|Appeal and indirect appeal||43||(5.15)||81||(9.43)||15||(5.77)||13||(5.16)|
|The classification of communication strategies in this table and in table 2 basically conforms to Faerch and Kasper's taxonomy (Plans). We expanded the appeal category, however, to include the occurrences of indirect appeal. The latter category consists of instances where the learner does not explicitly ask the native speaker for the word corresponding to a concept or an English word, but indirectly does so by saying I don't know the word for this in Spanish, What is this called again? etc. By confirmation request we mean eliciting an evaluative reaction from the native speaker, sometimes explicitly by asking Is that a word? but usually implicitly by placing a question intonation on the word the learner feels uncertain about.|
|Frequency of Strategies Used (%)|
|Topic avoidance, message abandonment||5||(3.94)||11||(7.14)|
|Meaning replacement, overgeneralization||3||(2.36)||10||(6.49)|
|L1, literal translation, foreignizing||9||(7.09)||6||(3.90)|
|Appeal and indirect appeal||8||(6.30)||3||(1.95)|
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