From the Foreign Language Classroom
into the Target Culture:
Analyzing the Shift in Language-Learning Activity
Heather Willis Allen
University of Miami
Department of Modern Languages & Literatures
Why research study abroad experiences?
• Recognizing current trends among U.S. students (Institute for
International Education, 2006)
• Investigating the benefits (Allen & Herron, 2003; Dewey,
2004; Freed, 1995; Isabelli, 2004)
• Exploring unfounded assumptions (Levin, 2001, Magnan &
Back, 2007, Wilkinson, 1998, 2002)
• Acknowledging the prevalence of short-term experiences and
implications (Cushner & Karim, 2004; Day, 1987; Gmelch,
1997; Institute for International Education, 2006; Yager, 1998)
Study purpose, methodology, & rationale
• Understanding the totality of a short-term SA learning experience and its
relation to learners’ larger experiences with L2 learning from an activity
theory perspective (Engeström, 1987, 1999)
• Multiple sources of date: language-learning histories, digital learning
diaries, and interviews (Gillette, 1994; Laubscher, 1994; Pavlenko &
Lantolf, 2000)
• Objectification of learner consciousness through language (Gillette,
1994; Kramsch, 1993; Pavlenko & Lantolf, 2000)
Research questions
• 1) Why are the participants engaging in L2 learning & what types of goals
did they express for the 6-week SA experience?
• 2) Through what means did learners attempt to realize their personal goals
during SA?
• 3) Which goals did participants feel were & were not realized?
• 4) What conditions afforded or constrained the realization of goals during
• 5) What was the role of community in the realization of learners’ goals and
what roles did learners assume in relation to other students in the group?
• 6) How did participation in SA change the nature of L2 learning activity for
Framework for inquiry: Activity theory
Engeström (1999)
Data sources
Pre SA Survey
April 2006
Demographic data, L2 learning history,
Goals for SA, L2 literacy/ contact,
ranking factors in choice of program
Pre SA Interview
Late April 2006
Motive for L2 study, goals for SA /
relation to L2 study, thoughts on
homestay, projected challenges, choice
of program factors
Learning Blogs (11)
May & June 2006
Short-term goals, reflections, homestay,
group, culture, outcomes
Post SA Interview
Late June 2006
Description of experience,
accomplishments, unrealized goals, selfevaluation current L2 capabilities
Post SA Reflections
(N=21, 13)
September 2006,
March 2007
Current L2 use/coursework, current L2
capabilities, future use of L2
Participant profile
18-22, average age: 20 years 3 months
19 women, 7 men
25 American, 1 Liberian/Russian
Acad. Year
2 Seniors, 12 Juniors,
10 Sophomores, 2 Freshmen
Field of Study
2 French, 8 French double majors, 14 French
minors, 2 undeclared
Previous SA
2 with previous SA programs, 2 previous
summer living abroad, 1 various living
experiences abroad
Foreign Language
Two semesters - 8
Four semesters - 5
Five or more semesters-13
•Six-week summer SA program in Nantes, France
•University-affiliated customized program
•Academic coursework and setting
•Homestay families
•Professors and staff
•Co-curriculum and excursions
•Rules of the game-use of L2
Question 1. Motive for FL study
• Knowledge of French / FL useful for future career (11)
• Need to use French in future career such as embassy/State
Dept., language teaching (6)
• Pleasure, fun, communication (6)
• Minor / International Certificate an advantage (5)
• Need to read French for related field of graduate study
(philosophy, history of art and architecture) (2)
• Need to understand my L1 more for career (1)
• Family members from France (1)
Question 1.
Major goal area for study abroad
L2 learning
15 students
Oral L2 development (13)
Learning about L2 culture
9 students
Academic credit for coursework
3 students
Adaptation to different environment
1 student
Other important secondary goals shared by several participants included
travel (10), confidence with L2 use (7), developing independence from
family members (5), establishing a relation or integrating into the life of the
homestay family (6), and being capable of adaptation to a foreign
environment (4)
10 students mentioned the role of the homestay family as enabling one of
their goals (L2 learning / L2 cultural learning)
Question 1. Nature of major goals
L2 learning and definitions of fluency
F: “Honestly I don’t know. I never know when to stop. I guess I don’t know. I guess I’ll
find out.” - Abbie
F: “Like I don’t think that I could just meet any French person and be able to pick up a
conversation. Or if I hear someone speaking French on the bus, I can’t quite get
everything they’re saying. So being able to do that by the time I get back.” - Lisa
F: “Just to be able to carry on a conversation without tripping up and saying something
in English ... Just being able to understand and respond well, I guess, but not like
perfect.” - Scott
“hold a decent conversation about more abstract things” - Clay
“I just want to improve everything” -Brent
“know French better for my pleasure” - Ellie
Question 3. Realized goals, part I
L2 learning
•speaking goals
•confidence for speaking (100%)
•comprehension of native speakers (100%)
Cultural learning
•knowledge of L2 cultural practices (100%)
•knowledge of L2 cultural perspectives
•knowledge of L2 cultural products
Travel goals
Obtaining Credits toward degree/minor/certificate (100%)
Establishing relation with homestay family (67%)
Independence from family
Question 3. Unrealized goals
L2 learning
• Becoming “fluent” (100%-4)
• Grammatical development (5)
• Accent or pronunciation (7)
• Vocabulary development (5)
• Reading comprehension (2)
• Writing development (1)
note: overall absence of L2 literacy-related goals for reading or writing
Cultural learning
• Knowledge of cultural perspectives (2)
Relationship or interactions with homestay family (3)
Travel (3)
Question 3. Why these goals?
H: So why would you say that reading and writing aren’t on the list for you?
E: Because for the job that I want to go into, reading and writing in French is never probably
going to be an important aspect of my career.
H: Interesting. OK.
E: Because I want to learn ... there are five different cones of Foreign Service and the cone that I
want to work in is the Counselor where I would deal with tourists from American and local
French or local um people from whatever country who want to get visas. So I have to learn
the language, but I don’t necessarily have to write in it since I’m in U.S. territory. (Elise,
French minor)
H: Why is speaking the most important to you?
K: Because I feel like if that is the reason that I am taking the French minor in order to be able to
speak the language. Like if I decide to work in international relations, that will probably be the
thing that will be most important. (Kaitlyn, French minor)
“Well, I’ll be speaking with people more than written I guess. Also I don’t know, I guess I
have such a dismal future about my writing. I feel like I’m not amazing and I feel it’s
too late to get really good. I feel like I missed some intrinsic part of French that I
didn’t catch on to and everyone else understands it. So I guess I don’t have these lofty
goals for writing, because I feel like it is harder to improve” (Taylor, French major)
Question 5.
Role of community in realization of goals
Presence of the group of American students was cited by 10 of 26
students when asked “What were your biggest challenges during study
“At the beginning, we all spoke French. And I know it’s like obligatoire
and of course it’s going to go through or it’s not going to happen all
the time, because it’s just really hard to be real in a language you are
still learning, especially all the different levels mixed together ...But
not matter what you did, like, English was always present. And, I don’t
know, it was really hard to overcome that at first” (Abbie, FR major)
“I think that the hardest most frustrating part is just dealing with everyone’s
different goals for being here. Because I guess I am naïve, and I expect
everyone else to have the same attitude and mentality as I did. But I also think
it’s been very frustrating with the different levels here” (Amanda, FR major)
Question 5.
Role of American peer group
“Particularly when we’re on our own time and doing whatever we want to do it
seems like people feel less obligated or something to speak French. I don’t
know, I don’t always agree with them, but (laughs) I guess when you’re with a
group, it’s like pressure. Whatever the majority of the group is speaking, you
just speak what they speak ... It’s ironic, it seems like the people who are
more advanced tend to speak less French. I guess because for one reason, I’ve
heard that they don’t want to isolate the kids who don’t speak as much
French, but we actually benefit from their speaking French at a higher level”
(Chad, 3rd sem. French)
“I think the Pitt group, the group of students here I thought was a challenge.
Because I had to keep reminding myself that the student’s here ... I’m not
here for them, I’m here for me, Im here for France” (Elise, 3rd sem. French)
“Biggest challenges ... probably forcing myself to speak French was probably bad or
difficult. (And why would you say that?) Whenever one person says anything at all in
English, everyone in the conversation turns to English, but it’s powerful in French too
... we found it both ways. So we did that alot, like, ‘OK, just one person start talking in
French, and we’ll all talk in French’” (Lisa, French major)
Question 5.
Role of American peer group-L2 interaction
Question 5.
Role of homestay family
“My homestay family was always there whenever I needed to talk, and I had that really
bad day and everything broke and whatever. I went home and it was really hard to
express how I felt because I didn’t even know how I felt yet. I was really angry, and it
was good to talk to my homestay family” (Abbie, French major)
“I think they played 99.9% of the role in helping mold views and opinions of the culture
and how things are done and especially in ears ... or comprehension. Cause if you don’t
know what going on the first few days I was like, ‘What is going on? This is crazy! But
you just have to pick it up or you are left in the dust ... at school before I came I was
just, I didn’t want to make a fool of myself in class ... But here you can’t be like that or
you’re not going to change. So I think my confidence has greatly improved whether or
not my grammar is correct” (Amanda, French major)
“I said this a lot in my blogs, I was so petrified about the family ... the thought of being
with a stranger but having that close relationship that I live with them was going to be
really hard for me ... I don’t know if it’s that they made the attempt to go out of their
way but I’ve definitely taken that chance, and my family means the world to me. They
help me with pronunciation, they stop and will correct me, they will give me different
words ... they take me everywhere with them ... My family and I are really, really close”
(Kristie, French major)
Question 5.
Role of homestay family
H: What role did your homestay family play in this experience and your learning?
K: Not much, I hardly ever saw them. They shut the doors to their rooms. I have no idea what they do.
And at night, I go down for dinner, and then after dinner, I can either play with the kid for a little bit
and after I’m finished playing with him, he’s like, “Bonne nuit,” and I just have to go upstairs in my
H: Was that hard?
K: I really didn’t like it, ‘cause I thought I’d have a lot more interaction, and I just didn’t. (Kaitlyn, 3rd
semester student)
“My host family was more like the cultural things, what the family does, what you eat,
what you do every day, more of that. It was kind of weird with my family. They were so
busy with themselves that I didnt get to interact with them very much. I’d be there, but
they were always talking about what happened that day and where the daughter was
going, and I got lost in the shuffle. But I still observed how they did things and got to
know that more than if I had stayed in an apartment” (Chad, 3rd semester student)
“I might have liked to have been a little closer to the family, but that was difficult,
because they weren’t there a lot. And when I was home, I was usually trying to do my
work and probably not much else ... At first I felt a little abandoned, but then I became
... I had things to do and people to go out with if I wanted to, so I didn’t just have to sit
at home like, ‘My family is not here!’” (Lisa, French major)
Question 5.
Role of homestay family
H: What role did your homestay family play in this whole thing?
S: It was really educational, but also it was kind of like they traveled a lot, like
they were gone the last three days, so it was also just a place for me to stay.
But it was definitely educational for the first two or three weeks. But once I
became accustomed to what they said and how our conversations went, it
was more just a place to eat and sleep. I guess at first it played a bigger role,
but as time went on, it was like all right, in the morning, I’ll say, “How’s it
going?” and you’ll ask me how my day was, so I tell you what I did, and then I
go to school and come, and we eat dinner. So after a while it became pretty
... the same.
(Scott, French minor)
Question 5.
Role of homestay family
Who did students live with?
3 with single woman, 3 with couple, 7 with couple + one child, 4 with couple
+ 2 children, 5 with couple + 3 children, 3 with couple +4 children, 1 with
couple + 6 children
Extremely satisfied or satisfied with interaction with host family
75% of students living with single woman
80% of students living with couple
85% of students living with couple + children
Time spent on average per day with host family members: 2 hours
Likelihood of staying in contact with host family members:
Certain 23%, Very likely 27%, Somewhat likely 27% Not likely 23%
Question 6. Outcomes-Relation of SA participation L2 learning
18 students took coursework in French during AY 07-08
1 student lived in France 07-08, one worked part-time as tutor
•14 students report enhanced L2 listening comprehension in their
current coursework
•12 students report enhanced confidence in L2 use broadly or in speaking
•5 students report enhanced L2 reading abilities
•4 students report enhanced L2 writing / note-taking skills
Emerging questions and implications
• What are the pragmatic implications of structuring SA immersion
experiences when participants do not have shared reasons for language
study and common goals for SA participation?
• How can the academic and non-academic components of SA programs be
meaningfully integrated to enable the realization of SA participants’ goals
for L2 and cultural learning?
• What should we make of participants’ focus on orality at the seeming
exclusion of goals and outcomes related to L2 literacy in reading and
• Should we continue to plan and advocate SA programs that feature an L1
community of practice? If so, why?

From the Foreign Language Classroom into the Target