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Review of  The Acquisition of Sociolinguistic Competence in a Study Abroad Context

Reviewer: Rémi A van Compernolle
Book Title: The Acquisition of Sociolinguistic Competence in a Study Abroad Context
Book Author: Vera Regan Martin Howard Isabelle R. Ra
Publisher: Multilingual Matters
Linguistic Field(s): Sociolinguistics
Language Acquisition
Subject Language(s): French
Issue Number: 21.1747

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AUTHORS: Regan, Vera; Howard, Martin; Lemée, Isabelle
TITLE: The Acquisition of Sociolinguistic Competence in a Study Abroad Context
SERIES TITLE: Second Language Acquisition
PUBLISHER: Multilingual Matters
YEAR: 2009

Rémi A. van Compernolle, Department of Applied Linguistics, The Pennsylvania
State University


Regan, Howard, and Lemée investigate the use of variable features of discourse
among Irish learners of French who have participated in a study abroad program
in France or Belgium, reporting on a number of studies they have conducted since
the 1990s. The volume serves as one of the few book-length works in this area.
As such, it represents a welcome addition to the body of work on second language
(L2) learners' ''sociolinguistic competence'' as well as to research on L2
learning during study abroad.

The first four chapters of the book outline the authors' rationale, aims, and
theoretical and methodological orientation for the investigation, which I will
only briefly summarize here. In Chapter 1, the authors introduce the reader to
some basic concepts and the empirical background underpinning their
investigation, most notably, context of acquisition, the role of input in second
language acquisition (SLA), variationist theory as extended to SLA research, and
the acquisition of native speaker (NS) patterns of language variation in an L2.
Chapter 2 provides an overview of research on the linguistic outcomes of study
abroad. The authors report on a wide range of research in this area, including
L2 acquisition, development, sociolinguistic competence, sociopragmatic
competence, the acquisition of lexis and grammar, and effect of study abroad on
L2 fluency. Chapter 3 briefly describes extralinguistic factors that have been
found to affect L2 development during study abroad, such as pre-study abroad
proficiency level, contact with NSs during study abroad, and motivation. Chapter
4 serves primarily as a methodology chapter, providing background information
about the research program, participants, and analytic procedures.

Taken together, chapters 1-4 form the foundation upon which the analysis
(presented in chapters 5-9) is based. Most notably, the study is squarely
situated within an approach to SLA that seeks to explore the potential role of
L1 input during study abroad in interlanguage development, resulting in the
increased use of informal linguistic variants (i.e., native-like patterns of
variation). In each of the analytic chapters, the authors provide thorough
reviews of research on the phenomenon of interest, including previous L1
sociolinguistic research and studies of L2 users/learners in a variety of contexts.

Chapter 5 explores the variation in presence versus absence of the negative
morpheme 'ne' (the proclitic marker of verbal negation). The authors report
that, in line with previous research, 'ne' is absent significantly more often
following a year abroad relative to pre-study abroad data. Interestingly, they
also found that ''the least proficient [learners made] the most striking increase
in deletion'' (p. 71). At the same time, the VARBRUL results suggest that these
learners are beginning to emulate NS patterns of variation according to several
internal linguistic factors (e.g., subject type, clause type). However, Regan et
al. report that learners do not differentiate between formal and informal
styles, presumably because they have over-generalized about 'ne' deletion as a
NS-like trait.

Chapter 6 investigates the variable use of the pronouns 'nous' and 'on' for
first-person plural reference ('nous' is typically the more formal variant,
while 'on' can be an indefinite third-person singular pronoun or the informal
first-person plural variant). They report increases in the use of 'on' at the
expense of 'nous' following a study abroad sojourn. However, like their results
for 'ne' deletion, Regan et al. note that, although patterns of variation
roughly align with those of NSs, overall rates of formal 'nous' use remain
relatively high. Interestingly, the authors suggest that learners may, for
whatever reason(s), have more difficulty acquiring the newer 'on' variant in
comparison to the well established 'ne'-absent variant for verbal negation.

Chapter 7 provides an analysis of variable /l/ realization in clitic pronouns.
As in the case of the two previous chapters, rates of /l/ deletion (i.e., the
NS-like pattern) increase following a year abroad, although these rates do not
match those of NSs. Interestingly, gender emerged as a more significant factor
than formality.

Chapter 8 covers the use of future reference (i.e., the inflected future [IF]
vs. the periphrastic future [PF] vs. the present tense with future reference
[P]). The authors report that learners do not increase their use of the PF (the
NS-like form), but instead use the more prescriptive IF. Nonetheless, Regan et
al. found some effects of study abroad regarding gender and formality, and thus
conclude that ''the Year Abroad experience has been positive'' (p. 115).

Chapter 9, the final analytic chapter, synthesizes the results of chapters 5-8
in relation to patterns of variation vis-à-vis gender. Overall, the learners
''have 'noticed' gender patterns in native speech and, consciously or
unconsciously, tend to reproduce them'' (p. 132). In other words, although the
learners do not wholly match NS rates of variation, the patterns--highlighted in
VARBRUL analyses--align with those of NSs, especially regarding gender pattern.
Regan et al. highlight this finding as an important one for the construction of
L2 identity.

In concluding their book (chapter 10), Regan et al. ask whether sociolinguistic
competence is acquired during a year abroad. Citing the results reported in
chapters 5-9, the authors argue that a year abroad does indeed lead to increased
sociolinguistic sensitivity, although learners do not typically match NS rates
of variation. In short, Regan et al. make the case that context (e.g., study
abroad vs. classroom) is an important factor, as are the issues of contact with
native speakers and gender.


Overall, the book is of interest to researchers, teachers, and other persons
interested in sociolinguistic competence and study abroad. The authors'
treatment of the data, and the conclusions they draw from the analyses, are for
the most part rigorous and detailed. In addition, their argument that study
abroad can be a positive experience for learners in terms of SLA is justified
and should find much support in the applied linguistics community. There are,
however, a number of shortcomings in their research, which I will outline in the
following paragraphs.

First and foremost, it is surprising that not one excerpt of learner-produced
discourse is given in the book. In the introduction, the authors state that they
''wish to provide detailed, empirical, close-up language data of negotiation and
use by individuals'' (p. 3). However, they do not seem to follow through with
this goal. To be sure, their quantitative treatment of variation is detailed,
but the lack of actual language-in-use (i.e., discourse) somewhat limits the
potential contribution their study makes to the field. As it stands, the reader
has recourse only to descriptive and inferential statistics (e.g., frequencies
and VARBRUL probabilities), not the ''close-up language data'' the authors
seemingly set out to provide.

Second, the authors repeatedly claim throughout the book that they are
interested not only in the product of SLA, but in the very process that leads to
SLA, which ''requires an explanation . . . of the sociocultural context of this
process'' (p. 5). Here, too, the authors fall short of following through with
this goal. While they do provide comparisons of pre- and post-study abroad
performance (i.e., product), they have no real ''process data.'' Instead, the
study abroad context is treated as a monolithic variable, a context in which all
learners are assumed to have access to some kind of NS input. This is certainly
not the case, as exemplified in numerous studies that include ethnographic data,
interviews with learners, journal entries, and so on (see, e.g., Kinginger,
2004, 2008; Lantolf & Pavlenko, 2001).

Third, and related to the second critique, is the authors' treatment of gender
as a causal variable. Although the evidence suggests that women and men
approximate gender patterns in their speech following the year abroad, the
authors do not seem able to explicate why this should be, other than learners
presumably ''noticing'' these patterns during their stay abroad. At the same time,
gender is treated as a monolithic fact, rather than an identity that is enacted
from moment to moment at the local level (see, e.g., Eckert & McConnell-Ginet,
2003). The question the authors are unable to answer, given the lack of suitable
qualitative data, is: Were the Irish women doing being women in France? Were the
men doing being men in France? What activities, if any, did these learners
participate in with other people that might have led to these patterns of variation?

I do not wish to be overly critical of this book; to be sure, Regan et al. do an
exemplary job in collecting, analyzing, and reporting on their data, especially
when their theoretical orientation is taken into account. They show some very
interesting trends related to sociolinguistic performance with the year abroad
as the focal variable, and their analytic rigor should be commended. My
critiques stem mostly from the fact that, at times, the authors try to ask and
answer questions that the nature of their data does not allow for. Certainly,
future research is needed, and Regan et al. point to some interesting phenomena
to be explored in greater depth in future studies.


Eckert, P., & McConnell-Ginet, S. (2003). Language and Gender. Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press.
Kinginger, C. (2004). Alice doesn't live here anymore: Foreign language learning
and identity. In A. Pavleko & A. Blackledge (Eds.), Negotiation of Identities in
Multilingual Contexts (pp. 219 – 242). Clevedon, UK: Multilingual Matters.
Kinginger, C. (2008). Language learning in study abroad: Case histories of
Americans in France. Modern Language Journal, Volume 92, Monograph. Oxford:
Lantolf, J. P., & Pavlenko, A. (2001). (S)econd (L)anguage (A)ctivity theory:
Understanding learners as people. In M. Breen (Ed.), Learner contributions to
language learning: New directions in research (pp. 141-158). London: Pearson.

Rémi A. van Compernolle is a Ph.D. candidate in Applied Linguistics at the Pennsylvania State University where he works for the Center for Language Acquisition. His research focuses primarily on sociolinguistic and sociocultural perspectives on second language learning and teaching. He is currently working on a concept-based approach to second language instruction that develops learners' sociolinguistic and pragmatic abilities.

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