UROP Mentor: Lorenzo García-Amaya, PhD

UROP Research Team (2020-2021)

- Mara Estrict

- Yonghuan Hu

- Renata Martell

What is your research project?

Language Learning in the Study Abroad Context

What are the goals of your research project?

The number of language learners who embark on a study-abroad experience with the hopes of becoming more proficient in a second language has increased dramatically over the last two decades. At the same time, however, many students report that although they commence these programs with great enthusiasm, week by week, they gradually decrease use of the foreign language and instead resort to their native language while they are abroad. The result is that, by the end of a study-abroad program, many students have not developed the second-language proficiency that they originally set out to obtain.

This project investigates how several dimensions of the study-abroad experience are interconnected and impact language learning. In particular, I explore how factors such as foreign-language proficiency, language use, cognitive abilities, and oral fluency relate to each other and how the study-abroad experience shapes these variables.

Why is this research important?

I am very concerned that the "language learning" component of study-abroad programs is becoming less and less relevant. We witness how study-abroad programs are increasingly becoming a business, and many of these programs are not designed to contribute to effective language-learning. Yet, many learners, instructors, and administrators still believe that the best way to improve linguistic skills is to go abroad and use the second language with more proficient users. Although this idea is very appealing and partly explains why study-abroad programs are more popular than ever, the conundrum is that learners report varying degrees of satisfaction regarding how much they improve their linguistic skills while abroad.

Right before a study-abroad experience comes to an end, we ask students how they felt about the fact that they had decreased the use of their second language while increasing the use of their native language. Although responses vary, my research shows that most students report that developing friendships with other American students was more important than using the foreign language with locals. Of course, students' responses are intertwined with other aspects, such as exploring a new culture, visiting new places, and having a good time abroad. However, by and large, students report that they have not interacted with locals to the extent that they originally intended, and thus did not improve their proficiency in ways that were agreeable with them.

Exploring these issues in greater depth is paramount to developing materials to best inform students about the practices they should develop while they are abroad. I believe that providing such materials little by little would give students the necessary time to implement the recommendations before they sojourn abroad. I further believe that students must partake in reflective exercises while they are abroad (e.g., journaling) to self-monitor their language use and consider whether their linguistic skills are benefiting from their time abroad. I believe that this kind of research should additionally enable study-abroad programs to ensuring that students meet their language-learning goals and help them in their journey towards becoming more competent language users.

What drives you to conduct this research?

What drives me to conduct research in general is my (almost) inexhaustible curiosity. I'm all in if there is a good research question that my expertise can help to answer. Additionally, I'm a member of the Romance Languages and Literatures faculty, and this project speaks to my colleagues' interests with respect to the linguistic performance of our students, all of whom are language learners. By helping them achieve their goals, I'm simply doing my job. Finally, I understand how becoming multilingual can change someone's life and open opportunities that would not be possible without it. I wish that all my students could benefit from appropriately tailored study-abroad experiences, and that they can feel happy about their experiences, and become role models for those who will come after them.

Is there a Call to Action you would like to encourage?

Of course! I encourage anyone that is reading this and wants to know more our projects, our lab and our linguist offerings to check the following:

1. Our Speech Production Lab website at http://websites.umich.edu/~speechlab/
2. Our current and upcoming linguistic course offerings in RLL at http://websites.umich.edu/~speechlab/courses.html

What resources would you recommend to learn more about your research topic?

I think that readers interested in this topic can read the content included in these two links:

1. Our Study Abroad research articles at http://websites.umich.edu/~speechlab/research.html
2. This TED-Ed talk at https://www.ted.com/talks/lorenzo_garcia_amaya_why_do_we_like_hesitate_when_we_um_speak?language=en