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Review of  Social and Cultural Aspects of Language Learning in Study Abroad

Reviewer: Maria P Gomez Laich
Book Title: Social and Cultural Aspects of Language Learning in Study Abroad
Book Author: Celeste Kinginger
Publisher: John Benjamins
Linguistic Field(s): Applied Linguistics
Discourse Analysis
Issue Number: 25.1379

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Celeste Kinginger’s Social and Cultural Aspects of Language Learning in Study Abroad offers a rich collection of empirical studies that portray the diversity of contemporary, socially-oriented research on study abroad in a variety of languages and countries. The volume is divided into three parts. Part I consists of a topical orientation in which the main aim of the book is stated. In the introductory chapter “Social and cultural aspects of language learning in study abroad,” Celeste Kinginger offers a brief summary of recent research on language learning in the study or residence abroad environment and argues for the “need to frame language learning as a dialogic, situated affair that unfolds in intercultural contexts and includes significant subjective dimensions” (p.5). The author also states that a primary aim of the volume is to expand the range of student populations, languages, and methodologies for research on language and culture learning in study abroad contexts.

In chapter two, titled “Researching whole people and whole lives,” James A. Coleman argues that SLA study abroad research should see subjects not just as language learners, but as “rounded people with complex and fluid identities and relationships which frame the way they live the study abroad experience” (p.17). He claims that the sociolinguistic networks that students develop during study abroad — with fellow-nationals, with other outsiders, and with locals—, their degree of immersion and engagement with the target language community, the pattern of their contacts with home (Coleman & Chafer, 2010), their learning objectives, their individual differences (such as motivation, attitudes, and goals), and aspects of learners’ identities (such as religion, gender, or social class) all influence the outcomes of the sojourn. Coleman also presents data from a recent long-term research project involving U.K. students in Senegal. The study highlights the significance of valuing the agency of the individual to have a better understanding of the study abroad experience.

Part II features six qualitative case studies adopting a variety of theoretical research paradigms, such as poststructuralist, activity theoretical, sociocultural, and language socialization. In chapter three, titled “Self-regulatory strategies of foreign language learners: From the classroom to study abroad and beyond,” Heather Willis Allen takes a sociocultural and activity theory perspective to trace the development of motivational self-regulation strategies, including motivation maintenance, goal-setting, and language learning strategies (Dörnyei, 2001) of three U.S college students of French during and after a six-week study abroad experience in France. Data were collected through blogs, semi-structured interviews, and questionnaires over a four-year period (before SA, during SA’s final week, and three years after SA). The study shows how learners use motivational self-regulation strategies and suggests that the college-level foreign language curriculum should assist learners in developing these strategies.

In chapter four, “‘Opening up the world’?: Developing interculturality in an international field experience for ESL teachers,” Elizabeth Smolcic employs assumptions from sociocultural theory and activity system analysis to explore the development of intercultural awareness of U.S ESL teachers during a seven-month long program that included an international field teaching and culture/language learning experience in Ecuador. The data included semi-structured interviews, journal entries, written reflective papers, researcher field notes, and were collected at three different phases of the program: before departure for Ecuador, during the experience abroad in Ecuador, and up to three months after the end of the program. The author presents data from one participant in the program and shows how the cultural and linguistic immersion experience led to the participant’s identity re-configuration, intercultural growth and sensitivity to learners’ needs. She also highlights the importance of reflective practices and the need for teacher education to move teacher-learners towards interculturality.

Fred Dervin´s contribution “Politics of identification in the use of lingua francas in student mobility to Finland and France” tackles the theme of identity and language use by exploring the use of English and French as Lingua Francas (ELF and FLF hereafter) by mobile European students in Finland and France. The chapter reports on two studies: a macro level study of the politics of identification in relation to ELF based on data from a questionnaire distributed to Erasmus students in Finland, and a case study of a Finnish university student of French who studied in France for a period of six months. On the whole, students´ representations of ELF in the macro level study appear to be quite negative and there is an indication that “ELF modifies the way students identify with others – and thus their self-images” (p. 120). As far as the case study is concerned, the Finnish student´s representations of FLF were positive; the student can be “herself” with FLF users and she can project a desired self-image.

In chapter six “An American in Paris: Myth, desire, and subjectivity in one student´s account of study abroad in France,” Timothy Wolcott presents a case study of an American undergraduate who spent a semester in an island program in Paris. The program was geared toward “the American-style academic study of selected aspects of French and European history, society and culture” (p.132). Although several critics suggest that such programs lead students to cocoon themselves in an isolated community that impedes full cultural immersion and negotiation of difference, the student´s testimony does not confirm these predictions. Adopting a poststructuralist orientation to identity, Wolcott shows how living in Paris triggered deeply personal and subjective reactions in the focal student.

In chapter seven “Exploring the potential of high school homestays as a context for focal engagement and negotiation of difference: Americans in China,” Dali Tan and Celeste Kinginger examine the experiences of high school sojourners in a summer study and home stay program in China. Two interesting features of the program are that it functions in loco parentis for the students and that it discourages students from gathering with their co-nationals after school. Drawing on interview data collected over a seven-year period, the authors examine the potential of high school home stay experiences for engagement both in the routine communicative practices of the host communities and in “negotiation of difference” (Block, 2007) in encounters with Chinese hosts. The results show that students conceive of the homestay as a rich learning environment. The findings also suggest that a high school study abroad experience can be quite different from that of college-aged students since high school students tend, among other things, to have more intensive engagement with their host families.

In chapter eight “The transformation of a “frog in the well”: A path to a more intercultural, global mindset,” Jane Jackson examines one Hong Kong Chinese student’s intercultural competence development before, during, and after a study abroad experience in Canada. The student showed an inflated sense of intercultural competence before he left his native country, which could have had some negative effects on his motivation to try to interact with English speakers. During the time abroad, he did not take advantage of many opportunities to practice speaking English because of his own negative attitudes towards the host country and personality attributes such as ethnocentricism. Upon return to China, the student participated in an elective course aimed at expanding and extending learning after study abroad through guided, critical reflection. The course helped him to realize more about himself as a “whole person” and why he avoided such communicative opportunities. At the end of the course, the student showed an improved level of intercultural competence. The results of this study demonstrate the importance of intensive reflection before, during, and after an abroad experience.

Part III of the volume features four chapters that illustrate a variety of methods in research on the pragmatic competence of sojourners in relation to the construction of self and identity through a second language. In Chapter nine “I joke you don´t: Second language humor and intercultural identity construction,” Maria Shardakova reports on a cross-sectional experimental study that explores the effects of proficiency and study abroad on sojourners’ identity construction through L2 humor. The study focuses on the relationship between the intended identities American learners of Russian wish to convey through L2 humor, and the identities attributed to them by native speakers as well as learners of Russian. Data were collected in two stages. During the first stage, humor samples from American learners of Russian were gathered. These learners completed discourse completion questionnaires, submitted their responses in writing (pretending to reply in the form of an email), and were asked to describe the self-portrait they intended to construct. During the second stage, new participants — Russian L1 speakers and learners of Russian— evaluated the humorous emails and indicated their reactions to the emails. The results show that the examined variables — proficiency and study abroad — did not affect learners’ self-positioning. Both variables, however, affected the perception of L2 humor by the interlocutors. Increases in proficiency, for example, resulted in learners being perceived as less rude, more polite and more humorous.

Chapter ten “Getting over the hedge: Acquisition of mitigating language in L2 Japanese,” by Noriko Iwasaki, reports on an often neglected, yet socially and interpersonally significant aspect of learners’ language — hedges. Employing pre- and post- study abroad Oral Proficiency Interview data, the study quantitatively and qualitatively examines five L2 Japanese speakers’ use of hedges. The quantitative analysis shows that the L2 learners drastically increased their use and repertoire of hedges after studying abroad. The qualitative analyses show that learners use hedges to socially package interpersonal functions more often after their study abroad experience, and that some students chose to use hedges that are often associated with young native speakers of Japanese, therefore indexing a youthful identity.

In chapter eleven “Identity and honorifics use in Korean study abroad,” Lucien Brown analyzes quantitative (discourse completion tests) and qualitative (recordings of natural conversations and retrospective interviews) data to chart four male second language learners’ acquisition of Korean honorifics. The students chosen for the four case studies were of different ethnic backgrounds and they were all participating in a one-year study abroad program in Korea. The findings revealed a gap between the students’ knowledge of the prescriptive native-speaker norms of how honorifics should be used to express social meanings and the way they actually used them. These results demonstrate that study abroad context is an arena in which new identities are sought and constructed and individuals will ultimately make linguistic choices that match their desired identity in a given situation. Another important finding is that the participants sometimes encountered situations in which native-like patterns of interaction were not available to them; their position as exchange students and foreigners resulted in the belief on the part of some Korean interlocutors that the norms of honorific use were not needed in interactions with them.

In the final chapter “A corpus-based study of vague language use by learners of Spanish in a study abroad context,” Julieta Fernandez uses a cross-sectional learner corpus to analyze the use of general extenders by four English L1 learners of Spanish after a year abroad in Spain. General extenders (GEs) are “typically phrase- or clause-final expressions with the basic syntactic structure, conjunction + noun phrase, which extend otherwise complete utterances” (Overstreet, 2005, p. 1847). The analysis of individual learner data revealed “wide individual differences in the frequency, types and functions of GEs” (Fernandez, p. 325). By complementing quantitative data with an analysis of learners’ narratives of their study abroad experiences, the author also gained insights about the types of activities learners were involved in while abroad and the opportunities they had to engage in communication with members of the host community. By combining these two sources of data, the author provides a rich analysis of the participants’ language development in study abroad.


In the introductory chapter, Celeste Kinginger states that the volume is intended to “showcase the value of contemporary socially-oriented approaches in research on language learning in study abroad” (p.9) and to “expand the representation of student populations and languages beyond the usual focus on American undergraduates studying French, Spanish, or German” (p. 13). The volume fulfills this need to expand the range of student populations, languages under scrutiny, and research methodologies for research on language and culture learning in study abroad contexts. Although two of the studies, namely, Heather Willis Allen´s and Tim Wolcott´s, portray the experiences of American college students of French, they do so applying novel research methodologies and theoretical frameworks. Heather Willis Allen takes a sociocultural and activity theory perspective to trace the development of motivational self-regulation strategies. Tim Wolcott, on the other hand, adopts a poststructuralist orientation to identity to show how living in Paris triggered deeply personal and subjective reactions in his focal student.

Another strength of the volume is that its rich collection of empirical studies succeeds in addressing the need to consider individual differences, localized aspects of context that influence language development during study abroad, and identity issues that develop when learners move across geographical and sociological borders. In its scope and complexity, this volume reaches out to a wide target audience, including researchers in the field of applied linguistics, and language educators and professionals involved in the design of study abroad programs as well as in the design of curricula attending to the pre- and post- phase of the study abroad experience.

One of the weaknesses of the volume is that although the author states that there is a “need to frame language learning as a dialogic, situated affair that unfolds in intercultural contexts and includes significant subjective dimensions” (p.5), the empirical studies presented in the volume do not include the voices of the hosts. Overall, however, Social and Cultural Aspects of Language Learning in Study Abroad is a reflection-provoking and stimulating volume that updates the portrayal of study abroad in the applied linguistics literature.


Block, (2007). The rise of identity in SLA research: Post Firth and Wagner. Modern Language Journal, 91, 863-876.

Coleman, J.A., & Chafer, T. (2010). Study abroad and the Internet: Physical and virtual context in an era of expanding telecommunications. Frontiers: The Interdisciplinary Journal of Study Abroad, 19, 151-167.

Dörnyei, Z. (2001). Teaching and researching motivation. Harlow, England: Longman.

Overstreet, M. (2005). And stuff und so: Investigating pragmatic expressions in English and German. Journal of Pragmatics, 37, 1845–1864.
My name is Maria Pia Gomez Laich. I am first year Ph.D student in Second Language Acquisition at Carnegie Mellon University. I am interested in how learners develop pragmatic competence in a second language, what internal and external factors (i.e. transfer from the native language, insufficient knowledge of the target language and its communicative practices, opportunities to interact with native speakers of the target language through observation and legitimate peripheral participation, attitudes towards the L2, length of stay in the target language community) affect its development, and how second and foreign language speakers sometimes deploy a repertoire of pragmatic routines that differs from the target language in order to maintain a sense of L1 self- and cultural identity.