What really happens during study abroad? : an in-depth analysis of learners’ interactions during a short-term sojourn in Spain
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We often hear assumptions about students who study abroad: Students learn a foreign language faster, students interact more with native speakers, students are immersed in the target language, and host families provide endless target-language practice. Universities and private companies in the United States promote this scenario as the best way to learn a language, and this preference is reflected in the growing number of U.S. students studying abroad, with over 60 percent taking part in programs that last for eight or fewer weeks. The goal of this study is to investigate these assumptions by examining the interactional practices of study-abroad students using the target language. We posed three research questions: (1) What types of interactions do students have outside of the classroom?, (2) How do learners interact with the host families?, and (3) How does technology and social media affect students’ immersion experience? The results show that short-term study-abroad programs, as viable language-learning contexts, are in jeopardy. Students in this program had few meaningful interactions with people in the target community. Conversations with host families proved to be deficient in many areas (e.g., students’ erroneous utterances were not corrected). The output of students during mealtime conversations proved to be linguistically poor, as students used few communication strategies. Furthermore, students used their electronic devices to communicate with friends and family, and to keep up with television shows and music from the U.S. They did not use social media websites and mobile applications to communicate with people in the target community nor did they use them to interact with the target language. Based on the results of this study, we call for a revamping of study-abroad promotion. If 100 percent immersion no longer exists, study-abroad promoters should change the way in which short-term programs are marketed. Additionally, if we want short-term study abroad to actively foster language learning, foreign language acquisition researchers, study abroad-program designers, and language instructors need to design programs centered on meaningful student-native speaker interactions. Study abroad is a tool that, if used correctly, can be the catalyst that changes the trajectory of students’ language-learning lives.