An article on sociolinguistic competence (Dewaele, 2007) introduced me to research on language learners’ ideological beliefs and conflicts with the target culture that can hinder language acquisition. Dewaele provides two examples from Kinginger (2004) and Kinginger & Farrell’s (2005) research on Americans studying abroad in France which illustrate the importance of intercultural understanding and adaptation to the target culture in language learning.
One student was annoyed that her French friend would not let her NOT have an opinion on politics and openly criticized the American government. She didn’t care much for politics and did not want to talk about it because she did not feel that it was an appropriate topic for discussion. Yet her friend would not let her change the subject. She consciously chose not to adapt to the French concept of “you must have an opinion” and decided to say nothing on the topic which created tension with her friend.
Another student purposely resisted French gender patterns because she found it “ridiculous” that French women were “obsessed” with their looks. She expressed frustration at the sexism and harassment of women she saw on a daily basis which made her “hate to go outside.” She refused to conform to what she believed to be stereotypical French standards of what it means to be woman (i.e. overly concerned about appearance) and thought it perfectly acceptable to attend class in sweatpants or pajamas, as she often saw at her university in the US. Because of this, she made little effort to spend time with French speakers and spent most of her time abroad speaking English with other students or friends and family in the US via the internet.
There have been many studies on the perception of sexism by American learners in study abroad contexts, especially in countries such as Russia or Japan. But the perceptions and ideologies of the learner needs to be understood in the context of how they help or hinder language acquisition for that individual. It is not enough to be motivated to learn a language – one must also be motivated to learn and experience the culture associated with the language. However, if cultural practices are considered undesirable by the learner, opportunities to use the language with native speakers will diminish as the learner resists or even rejects the target culture.
This is perhaps why the rate of language acquisition for students doing study abroad varies so widely. In fact, Kinginger & Farrell maintain that “systematic research has yet to demonstrate universal effectiveness of study abroad for language learning.” Living in a country where the language is spoken is not enough. There are many, many factors to consider including gender, personality, level of language competence before study abroad, time spent using the native language, etc.
de Nooy and Hanna (2003) also point out that “mere contact with other cultures may simply reinforce stereotypes and encourage hostility rather than fostering comprehension and mutual respect.” Spending time abroad in the target culture could (and unfortunately, does) cause learners to lose motivation and interest in learning the language if there are too many conflicts between the native and target cultures. Obviously, there will always be conflicts and differences between native and target cultures, but intercultural comprehension allows learners to occupy a third place between the native and target cultures with understanding and tolerance for both. Instead of judging the target culture based on how different (or better or worse) it is from the native culture, learners avoid falling back on their native culture to interpret the target culture and understand the value systems underlying the cultural differences between them.
de Nooy, J., & Hanna, B. E. (2003). Cultural Information Gathering by Australian Students in France. Language and Intercultural Communication, 3(1), 64-80.
Dewaele, J.-M. (2007). Diachronic and/or synchronic variation? The acquisition of sociolinguistic competence in L2 French. In D. Ayoun (Ed.), Handbook of French Applied Linguistics (Vol. Language Learning & Language Teaching 16, pp. 208-236). Amsterdam: John Benjamins.
Kinginger, C. 2004. “Alice doesn’t live here anymore: Foreign language learning and identity reconstruction”. In Negotiation of Identities in Multilingual Contexts, A. Pavlenko and A. Blackledge (eds.), 219–42. Clevedon: Multilingual Matters.
Kinginger, C. and Farrell Whitworth, K. 2005. “Gender and emotional investment in language learning during study abroad”. CALPER Working Papers Series 2, 1-12. The Pennsylvania State University, Center for Advanced Language Proficiency Education and Research.