Speaking of culture : the tango of cultural sensitivity and language learning in a study abroad context

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Martinsen, Rob Alan

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Increasingly, government and educational institutions are turning to study abroad programs as one of the primary means of providing students with important cross-cultural and linguistic skills. However, because of constraints on time and financial resources most students participate in short term programs lasting approximately two months. Additionally, research regarding students’ linguistic and cultural growth in study abroad shows that some students gain far more from their participation than others. The purpose of this study was to examine the cultural and linguistic learning that takes place in short-term programs and discover some of the factors that predict students’ growth while abroad. This study examined the relationship between important factors such as students’ level of cultural sensitivity, students’ relationship with their host family, motivation to learn the language, the amount of time students’ spent interacting with native speakers, as well as students’ oral language skills during a seven-week study abroad program. Surveys were used to measure each of the variables except for students’ oral language skills. To measure changes in oral skills, the researcher created an innovative instrument in which native speakers rated clips of student speech in the target language from before and after their time abroad. As found in previous research, students varied greatly in the amount of progress made in oral language skills and cultural sensitivity while abroad. However, students generally demonstrated small, but significant improvements in their oral language skills, despite the brief nature of their program. Further, the instrument created to measure growth in oral language skills showed high reliability. Interestingly, students’ level of cultural sensitivity prior to going abroad predicted changes in oral language skills. These results provide support for students’ participation in short-term study abroad programs since students generally experience noticeable improvements in language skills. They also suggest that students who are more culturally sensitive may have an advantage in language learning during study abroad programs. These results could be helpful for administrators in determining who may benefit most from such programs and may suggest that helping students gain cultural sensitivity could also aid students’ language learning.



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