language learning

Ethnographic Projects for Study Abroad


Photo by Joaquín on Unsplash

In my very first post on this blog, I discussed how despite popular belief, language and intercultural learning are not automatic outcomes of study abroad.  I also mentioned three key components of study abroad programs necessary to promote these outcomes: language and intercultural contact, reflection upon this contact, and connecting the pre, during, and post sojourn experiences.  In this post, I want to focus on one of my favorite interventions for study abroad, that of ethnographic projects for study abroad.  

What is an ethnographic project for study abroad?

Ethnography is a research method where the researcher(s) spend a lengthy period of time (usually years) within a community, with the purpose of describing the culture of that community from an inside perspective, traditionally through the production of an ethnography.  The tools ethnographers use include participant observations, informal conversations, interviews, photographs, videos, and other visual data.  They then analyze this data to describe the particular culture or cultural practice as it is viewed by members of the community (as opposed to outsiders).  

Ethnographic projects for study abroad use the same tools and methods of analysis, but differ from traditional ethnographies in key ways.  First and foremost, students do not have the training of professional ethnographers, nor do they spend an adequate time in the field.  Secondly, the primary goal is developing students language and intercultural skills, not producing a research project.  The basic sequence is for students to complete training in ethnographic methods at home (the home ethnography) then collect their data while abroad, and then write up their project upon their return home (the abroad ethnography).  

The two main examples of ethnographic projects for study abroad in the research literature I am familiar with are the Language and Residence Abroad (LARA) Project described by Celia Roberts and her associates and the Special English Stream (SES) analyzed by Jane Jackson.  The LARA Project focuses on students from England studying abroad in Germany and Spain and the SES Project on students from Hong Kong studying in England.  More recently, there is the Ethnographic Encounters Project from the University of Southhampton.  I’ve also written about my experience designing an ethnographic project for study abroad (and the challenges therein) in my chapter in this book. I would highly recommend reading the literature on these projects as a basis for creating your own.  

Why are ethnographic projects an appealing intervention? 

I find ethnographic projects for study abroad particularly appealing because they incorporate all of the elements research shows is necessary to promote language and intercultural learning during study abroad: language and intercultural contact, reflection upon this contact, and connecting the pre, during, and post sojourn experiences.  They can also encourage critical approaches to language and intercultural learning, which is something that I think is frequently ignored in language classes, and yet has so much potential for social change if we only made it a focus.  

1) Creating language and intercultural contact:  By forcing students to engage in observations, informal conversations, and interviews, students have to find opportunities for language and intercultural contact.  Even if the possibility of conversing or interviewing in students’ own language exists, the fact that this is part of their language class may make them more likely to incorporate the target language as well, or even better develop an understanding of the social connotations of  different linguistic behaviors.  Second, they have to sustain this contact in order to develop their project—it’s not enough to have one conversation or observation.  

2) Reflecting upon this contact: Due to the emphasis on interpreting data from an insider perspective, students also have to reflect upon multiple ways of interpreting their data, and how their own interpretations may differ from those of community members.  This includes not only their interpretation of what particular conversations or practice mean, but also understanding how their own views are encoded in their data collection (for example if they describe a cafe patron as “attractive”).  This ability to understand situations from multiple perspectives is key to the development of intercultural competence.  

3) Connecting the pre, during, and post sojourn experiences: Students receive training at home, collect data while abroad, and create their final project after their return, which allows for a natural connection between these periods as well as continual focus on language and intercultural competence.  While this can be difficult to orchestrate bureaucratically, research demonstrates that it is essential to create these connections.  

4) Encouraging critical approaches: The potential of critical approaches in the language classroom is probably worthy of an entire post in itself, but for now I’ll focus on a few ways I think ethnographic projects for study abroad can play a key role.  First, a focus on interpreting linguistic and cultural practices can be an introduction to sociolinguistics, particularly how we use language in our construction and interpretation of social identities, and how these identities connect to larger structures of power.  Although all of us do this daily, and learn these identities and power structures in new languages and communities, language students rarely have the opportunity to reflect upon how this works, especially in lower level classes that focus on “neutral” or “standard” varieties.  This takes me to my next point, which is really perhaps the most important one: learning how to critically analyze relationships between language and power in “new” communities can give us new insights to these relationships in familiar ones, because our “new” insights now open up cracks in our previous worldviews, and allow us to see problems in our cultural practices we were previously unaware of, or aware of but unable to describe.  

Designing ethnographic projects for study abroad

Now that I have hopefully convinced you that ethnographic projects for study abroad are a key research-based intervention, the question is how to design them? I’ve designed two of these projects so far, one an independent study for a student abroad for an academic year, and one part of a faculty-led study abroad that included an 8 week at home component and two weeks abroad.  I’ll be revising this latter one when I do this program again later this year.  Based on my experience, I’d say the main considerations are as follows:

1) Timing—how many course hours are available for the project and how long do things actually take? In my academic year project, fitting in extra independent study hours was a major challenge for both the student and myself.  In the faculty-led study abroad, the short time frame meant that I couldn’t simply use materials made for a semester long course as there weren’t as many hours, but then it took me much longer than I anticipated to adapt those materials for a shorter time frame.  Understanding the timing is of course something that gets better with time (and time-tracking!), but it’s definitely worth thinking about from the outset.  

2) Materials—what materials will you use to teach the course? In the academic year project, I used an undergraduate ethnography textbook by Murchison, and in the faculty-led study abroad I modified the LARA project materials.  While I do think it’s easier to start with materials already made for undergraduates, it’s also almost certain that these will need to be modified to fit your context.  For example, some of the LARA project materials had references specific to England (like pub culture) and I had to think about how this might be more relevant to my students.  Alternatively, there might be things you want to include that aren’t in the materials you are using (in my case, critical approaches, which are usually thought of as “advanced”, but I disagree and would like to use them from the beginning).  

3) Activities—what activities will students do and how will they encourage language contact and reflection upon that contact? In both projects I’ve done, I’ve followed a pretty traditional sequence of moving from observations, to informal conversations, to interviews.  While this has worked well, it’s also key to think about how your feedback will fit into the sequence such that you can encourage reflection in subsequent assignments—this is something that was a challenge for these projects as I fell behind upon grading or students fell behind upon completing the activities.  

4) Final project—what will the final project look like? In the two projects I’ve done, I’ve had students write a final paper and also turn in their data collection and analysis, since using these methods for language and intercultural development is more of a focus than the final paper itself.  In my next iteration of this project, I may consider expanding the options to a video and/or recorded presentations to give students more options for expressing themselves, since producing a written ethnography is not actually a key outcome of this type of project.  

5) Post-project reflection—I think this is important for all projects, but especially research-based interventions in language learning.  Both of the projects I’ve done have helped students develop their language and intercultural competence (e.g. making them speak to more people, or use more Arabic, or giving them tools to consider alternative interpretations of situations in subsequent study abroad).  However, neither of them when exactly as I envisioned them going after reading the research literature.  This is party contextual differences, but I think also stems from the fact that we are encouraged to gloss over the challenges of implementing these types of projects in the classroom when we write research articles (as I was when I wrote about these projects in my book chapter, I had to actually argue with the reviewer comments to keep my discussion of the challenges in!).  However, reflecting on what worked and what didn’t, and how much time things actually take, and what materials were more or less accessible to students, and what they need more training on is key to further development of these projects.  

Have you tried these ethnographic projects for study abroad to promote language and intercultural learning? How did it work out? Would you try them in your own program? 

Ideologies of Language and the Beginning Language Class: Part 2


Photo by Kimberly Farmer on Unsplash

Last week, I discussed several popular methods of organizing beginning language classes under the overarching critique of focusing on either decontextualized sets of language or prioritizing transactions over social relationships.  This week, I’m focusing on what I am interested in implementing in my classroom, drawing from both functional theories of language and translanguaging pedagogy.  Language teaching contexts and preferred ideologies vary, so I want to be clear that I don't think there is a one size fits all for the beginning language classroom.  However, I do think that too often we don’t even think about what ideologies are informing our practice, and if these are ideologies we even agree with!  So, here are some things that my colleagues and I are working on or plan to implement in our classes:

1) Sequencing according to Can-Do Tasks: This is something we have been working on this year in our second year class, choosing a particular language function and topic, such as expressing an opinion by writing a letter explaining the importance of language education, or by participating in a discussion of appropriate use of social media for different age groups.  While this is certainly an improvement over following the textbook, it does present challenges, particularly in terms of finding example texts to analyze for what students need to be able to do.  

2) Choosing topics according to student interest: So far, our topics have more or less followed the text book, which we basically just use as a source for texts now.  However, some of these texts (like describing the history of an Egyptian newspaper) are just not that interesting to our students.  If the language function is explaining your opinion, what is it our students want to explain their opinions on? This year, we asked them for examples at the end of the semester that hopefully we can incorporate into our tasks next year.  Asking them for topics also reveals interesting information about their own language ideologies, which brings me to my next point. 

3) Meta-linguistic activities: Just as teachers need to think about how their language ideologies inform classroom practices, so do students! In fact, I would argue that many of the topics I’ve been discussing on this blog (social practices, native speaker norms, folk linguistic theories) are also relevant for students, who come to language classes with their own ideologies of how languages work and their implications for learning.  These are rarely explicitly addressed in the classroom (in my experience) but if we want students to make intentional sociolinguistic choices, or even understand why these choices are important, addressing what we think language is and the relationships between social and linguistic practices is important. 

Note: By meta-linguistic activities, I don’t mean vocabulary and grammar drills, but rather a focus on sociolinguistics, pragmatics, and language ideologies.  This is something I hope to work on this summer, to try implementing in the fall.  Wish me luck! (or give me ideas . . . )

4) Intercultural Reflection: As I mention in my post on nation-state ideologies of language, I think there is too often a focus in language classes on cultural products and practices of a “target culture” that is then imagined as distinct from the “home culture”.  Following on translanguaging pedagogy’s notion of performative competence, I would rather focus on how culture is performed and negotiated in intercultural encounters rather than what is “authentic” in an imagined “target culture”.  While it is necessary to be aware of different cultural practices, it is also the case that cultures change over time, learners are not necessarily expected to follow certain cultural practices, and members of a particular culture may also be interested in intercultural interactions to try new practices.  Furthermore, developing a greater understanding of how culture is negotiated can help students in new intercultural situations, give them new insights on intercultural situations within national borders, and also help them see the potential to change cultural practices in their own culture that they dislike.  So far, we have focused on culture assignments that help students see diversity in “Arab culture” rather than imagine it as monolithic and separate from U.S. culture, and start with a “What is culture?” assignment.  However, it is clear that like language, students come to class with ideologies of what culture is, and I think we could be more explicit in our development of their critical intercultural reflection abilities.  Another summer project, ideas for implementation welcome! 

But what language? With regards to points three and four, a common concern in beginning classes is the time “taken away” from the target language if these are done in English, or the impossibility of doing these in the target language.  Yet I would argue that following translanguaging pedagogy, this is not a binary choice—there can be examples in the target language and reflection in English, or in mixed language, and this mix can change over time and according to context and student identities.  So the question is not what language we're doing these activities in, but how we're using all of our linguistic resources to develop new language and intercultural skills.      

Overall the challenge is of course in the details of implementing these practices, but I think that is also what makes it interesting.  If you’re a language teacher, have you implemented any of these practices? How or what advice do you have?

Ideologies of Language and the Beginning Language Class: Part 1


Photo by Celia Ortega on Unsplash

Last week, I talked about how the language of social relationships is often overlooked in beginning language classes, and I think this is one reason students use English.   As language teachers, I think we tend to view beginning language classes as the start of a language learning journey, or a step to more advanced classes or study abroad (despite the fact that it’s actually also the end for many students, especially with the way language requirements and offerings are being eliminated these days in the U.S.).  Yet choices about what is taught in beginning language classes are also excellent insights into ideologies of language, that again we rarely think about as teachers.  Here are some examples:

1) Vocabulary sets: colors, numbers, days of the week, etc.  In my experience, this is more popular in elementary and secondary setting than in higher ed, but you never know.  This fits in well with folklinguistic theories where vocabulary is seen as a discrete building block for learning further language.  The issue with this approach, for me, is that we rarely use things in sets.  It’s true that I could tell you what I do every day of the week (although this requires more than just the days of the week), but normally I’d talk about meeting on a particular day, or the cost or color of a particular object, that probably doesn’t require all the numbers or colors to describe.  Yet if you expand to describing multiple things, then you need more vocabulary beyond these sets, so they become insufficient.  

2) A grammar sequence: noun-adjective agreement, present tense, past tense, etc.  This approach basically sequences the curriculum according to grammatical elements, usually with the sense of starting with basic ones and increasing the complexity.  This also matches folklinguistic theories, where learned vocabulary is slotted into the grammar focus, and students are expected to be able to use the grammar in spontaneous activities, such as speaking, after understanding it conceptually.  The issue with this approach is that this expectation is based on an ideology of language that isn’t supported by any actual research on language learning—being able to describe grammar is the field of linguistics, not using language.  Certainly people can do both, but this is not a sequential process.  

3) Transactions abroad: this approach includes things like the dialogue in the airport, at the hotel, at the store, at the museum, etc., basically imagining students as tourists in a country where the target language is spoken.  If the focus is on the function, this corresponds well to functional theories of linguistics, although I do find that many times these dialogues are just broken down into vocabulary and grammar in a way that corresponds more to formal or folklinguistic theories of linguistics.  What bothers me about this approach is that it completely ignores the realities of Global English and tourism—a touristic space that doesn’t cater to English speakers is probably not going to last that long! Sure, it might be nice to order coffee in Arabic, but it’s rarely necessary.  This isn’t to say that I don’t think knowing the local language is useful when you’re traveling (it is!) but I think it is useful for establishing closer relationships, not for basic tourist transactions, so why focus on this? A second issue is that it assumes students will only use the language abroad, which ignores all the potential opportunities for interacting with speakers of that language within the borders of the United States.  It also assumes that students have the financial means and life flexibility to travel abroad, which may also not be the case.  

4) Communicative activities: this is classic communicative teaching, where students complete tasks that require them to share information and negotiate meaning, such as planning what they will need on a deserted island, or figuring out what items to take to a birthday party, or telling a story, or any other such activity.  This fits well with formal theories of language, in the sense that acquisition is seen as something that happens after processing a lot of language in context.  Oftentimes, linguistic elements are broken out to lead up to this task as well, such as learning particular vocabulary items or grammatical elements.  This could also fit with functional theories, depending on the task.  The issue I have with this approach is that while these activities are usually fun and engaging, the classroom is still the primary context—where will students plan for a deserted island trip outside of the classroom? They might plan a birthday party or tell a story, but there will need to be some sort of context leading up to this task, like making friends to throw a birthday party for, or getting into a situation where they want to tell a story to other people.  So while these tasks are certainly more contextualized than something like filling in the blanks on a verb conjugation worksheet, there is still a larger context missing, unless the classroom itself is seen as a complete context.  

5) Can-Do Statements: Can-Do statements are popular in the U.S. these days, and you can find examples from the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages here (this approach has also existed in Europe for years).  Can-do statements tend to focus on a particular social function, which connects them to functional theories of language.  Focusing on a particular social function also tends to give a broader context than some of the communicative activities referenced above.  At the same time, these connections may not necessarily be clear—a Can-Do statement like “I can describe my family” assumes that you are in some sort of situation where you need to describe your family, and when is this, exactly? Can-Do statements can also run the risk of limiting themselves to transactions abroad, if only ones like “I can order food in a restaurant” are chosen for the curriculum.  In terms of the ones supplied by ACTFL, which I draw on for my own language classes, I again feel as though there is a focus on transactions and learning or sharing information, but little on developing the social relationships in which you would engage in these activities.  I suppose it’s partly true that you develop the relationships through the activities, but I feel that a lot of the social language tied up in pragmatics and sociolinguistics isn’t captured in this particular set of Can-Do Statements.  To a large degree, this may be because of the strong influence of formal linguistics on the fields of second language acquisition and language teaching in the United States, which as I mentioned in my post on this topic, ignores this type of language in its focus on acquisition.  This influence is seen in Can-Do statements that such as “I can deliver presentations on some concrete academic, social and professional topics of interest, using paragraphs across major time frames”, a sort of thinly veiled reference to different verb tenses.  

Now that I’ve critiqued several common ways of setting up beginning language classes, you might wonder what I do that is so much better . . . The short answer is that I’m currently using the Can-Do Statements approach, but looking to improve it, or at least address my own critiques, especially concerning social relationships.  Look out for what I think would be ideal (at least at this moment in time . . . ) next week!

What is language? Functional theories

Like formal theories of language, functional theories of language come from the field of linguistics, although this type of linguistics is less commonly found in the U.S..  The type of functional linguistics I am most familiar with is Systemic Functional Linguistics, based on the work of Michael Halliday, and practiced predominantly in Australia.  While I am also far from an expert in functional linguistics, a key tenet of functional linguistics is that language cannot be separated from social function, or what humans do with language.  This means that in contrast to formal linguistics, there is not a linguistic system that can be analyzed independently of the way it is deployed.  In terms of language learning and teaching, this means that:

1) Language learning occurs through repeated performance of language functions.  In contrast to formal linguistics, there is no internal language learning mechanism, but simply repeated exposure to language in a social function.  This appears to me to be in many ways similar to usage-based approaches of language acquisition, although I’m sure there are nuances I am unfamiliar with here.   The key to learning is contextualized use of the language in social functions, rather than learning individual vocabulary items or grammatical concepts.  

2) Linguistic elements cannot be taught separately from social functions. This principle places pragmatic, sociolinguistic, and grammatical features, as well as vocabulary, all at the same level, rather than viewing pragmatic and sociolinguistic features as extra or advanced, or calling for a buildup from vocabulary, to grammar, to pragmatics and sociolinguistics.  The implication of this is that it is essential to address all linguistic features from the earliest stages of language learning, rather than focusing on vocabulary and grammar in beginning classes, and pragmatic and sociolinguistic features in advanced ones.  

3) The social function, rather than specific linguistic features, are the primary goal of language learning.  Similar to the point above, the goal of a lesson, curriculum, or unit is the ability to perform certain functions in the language, something that fits in well with the “Can-Do Statements” developed by organizations such as the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages, and the Common European Framework of Reference.   It is worth noting that depending on the context, certain language functions do not require complete grammatical accuracy.  If I want to rent an apartment, and ask for a شقة كبير instead of a شقة كبيرة ,missing the gender agreement, I will probably still get the apartment.  On the other hand, if I’m presenting at an academic conference, failing to perform gender agreement could make the audience take my message less seriously.  In both situations, the emphasis is on what is necessary to do the social function, rather than the linguistic elements themselves.  

In my experience, despite the introduction of Can-Do Statements by ACTFL in 2013, functional theories of language are rarely the basis of language pedagogy in the United States, it is much more common to see formal or folk linguistic theories of language informing pedagogy.  One exception is work on genre-based approaches to pedagogy, which I personally find quite appealing, and this is why I am working to use them our curriculum.  Yet again, I think the most important thing is to be aware of what our theories of language are, and if these are the theories and ideologies we want to perpetuate.  Once we decide this, we can examine the extent to which our classroom practice reflects and perpetuates various ideologies, and decide what changes we need to make.  

What is language? Formal theories

The term formal theories of language usually refers to linguistic theories that stem from the work of Noam Chomsky on Universal Grammar, or the idea that there is an innate language mechanism in humans that allows us to learn and use language.  These theories are are also referred to as generative grammar, and are prominent in linguistic research in the United States.  As a results, they have informed a great deal of research on second language acquisition, as well as theories of teaching.  When the folk linguistic theories of language learning I discussed previously are contrasted with linguistic theories, these linguistic theories are most often formal theories.  From my perspective, there are three main implications for taking an approach to language learning and teaching informed by formal theories of language, and I discuss these below. 

1) Language learning occurs through the innate language learning mechanism (generative grammar).  Essentially, formal theories say that when we are exposed to language, it is processed by this mechanism, and if there is enough exposure, we will acquire it.  The implications for language teaching are that explicit instruction in grammar or other linguistic features does not lead to acquisition of these features.  Rather, the only way they can be acquired is through extensive exposure.  While some adherents of formal theories would conclude that this means there is no role for the language classroom or instruction, I think it is more common to focus on how the classroom can maximize exposure to the language to enable processing by the language learning mechanism.  This is the source of methods such as comprehensible input, based on the work of Stephen Krashen.  This is also the reasoning behind claims that adult language acquisition is not that different from child language acquisition.  

2) Language as an object of study can be separated from examples of humans using language.  This aspect of formal theories is primarily what distinguishes them from functional theories of language, which I’ll discuss in a future post.  The implication of this is that language has meaning outside of a particular social context, and for this reason an awareness of sociolinguistic or pragmatic features of language is considered additional to an awareness of sounds or grammatical features.  The implication for language teaching is that sociolinguistic or pragmatic awareness is considered an “advanced”, or “extra” skill, while the knowledge of sounds, vocabulary, or grammar is considered to be more basic.  

3) Language as an object of study can be meaningfully broken down into component parts. The implication of this point has more to do with the assessment of learning than learning itself—as noted in point one, following formal theories of language would not support the explicit teaching of these formal parts separately.  However, based on my understanding at least, examining component parts of language, such as vocabulary or grammatical features, can be used to assess the extent to which someone has acquired these features, and thus make claims about their overall proficiency.  A secondary implication is that there is a particular standard (usually that of the monolingual native speaker stemming from the nationalist ideology) against which use of these features can be compared.  

In my experience, like folk linguistic theories or nation state ideologies, the implications of formal theories of language for language learning and teaching are commonly presented in workshops and trainings, but their connections to specific theories or ideologies of languages are rarely made explicit.  In this way, we perpetuate certain theories of language through our language teaching practices without realizing it.  Although I certainly have theories I prefer over others, the most important thing to me is being aware of the connection between our beliefs about language and the way we teach it, and aware that there are multiple theories and ideologies of language from which we can choose.  

What is language? Folklinguistic theories

Last week, I described the nation state ideology of language, and its implications for language teaching.  This week, I’m discussing folklinguistic theories of language, and their implications for language learning and teaching.  Generally, “folklinguistic” theories, or the general population’s beliefs about language, are contrasted with “linguistic” theories developed via the scientific study of language, or linguists beliefs about language.  Frequently, these are in conflict.  There are, of course, multiple linguistic theories, indicating that linguists don’t necessarily agree on what language  is either, and I’ll discuss some of those as they relate to learning and teaching languages in upcoming posts.  However, for the moment I’ll focus on folk linguistic beliefs I come across in the field of language teaching that to the best of my knowledge are not supported by scientific theories of language.  


1) We learn words, then we learn grammar, then we can put them together to talk/read/listen/write. This seems to be the way a lot of textbooks in particular are set up, with a vocabulary list, then some grammar description and exercises, then some reading or listening texts or speaking or writing activities, and probably a culture blurb thrown in somewhere.  So in a sense, if language learning is viewed as doing well in class with this type of textbook, it does make sense to take this approach.  The issue is that this approach doesn’t transfer well to language learning outside of this particular textbook/classroom context, and this conflicts with the belief of most teachers (I think) that they are preparing students to eventually do things outside of the classroom.  The basic problem is the lack of context—words, and words in grammatical sentences or phrases are always connected to something larger in the real world, and this is how linguistic theories would argue that we learn them.  


2) I taught these words in chapter two but the students don’t remember them, so we must need more vocabulary quizzes/activities. Related to the above, “chapter two” is not a meaningful context for vocabulary acquisition, although it could arguably gain some meaning in a classroom where there is a “chapter two unit” or “chapter two test”.  However, remembering that a word was in a list in this chapter isn’t that likely to transfer to other meaningful contexts, like the writing assignment in chapter six.  


3) We learned the past tense a year ago, but students are still making mistakes, so we need more grammar activities. Variations on this are things I hear A LOT.  Essentially, I think this comes down to a belief that learning how to describe a grammatical feature should be sufficient for using it in the future.  However, describing grammatical features, by for example filling out a chart of verb conjugations, is really more of a skill relevant to linguistics than actually using these features to do things with language, especially when it happens quickly.  Although linguistic theories differ in their views of what it takes to acquire grammatical features in a way that they can be used spontaneously in speech, they seem to be united in the fact that it takes a lot of exposure to these features and a lot of time.  One way I see this play out with the past tense in my classroom is that students seem to acquire the first person “ana” past tense form a lot more quickly than they do the other forms: probably because they are always talking about themselves, and most of the beginning videos in our textbook are characters talking about themselves! To remedy this (we’re working on it!) we need more videos and activities that aren’t just talking about oneself.  


4) It’s best to start with a neutral, standard variety because too much variation will confuse students.  In Arabic, this is a never-ending argument, but of course all languages have what linguistics call sociolinguistic variation, or ways that people use linguistic elements to make social meaning, such as creating the formality of a situation, or indexing belong to a particular social group.  Here, the problem is that the social meaning of this “neutral, standard” variety is rarely addressed.  As I explained last week, it generally stems from the origin of the nation state, and was viewed as key to making speakers of other varieties come together into one nation.  It also typically represents the language of the most powerful social group in a society, and marking the linguistic choices of this social group as “standard” or “correct” and the linguistic choices of other social groups as “non-standard” or “incorrect” allows for discrimination theoretically based on language that is in fact based on social categories such as race or class.  There is also the case of diglossic languages like Arabic, where the “standard” variety is rarely used in many of the everyday situations targeted in beginning languages.  So, yes, it would be overwhelming to teach every variant documented in a language, but this does not absolve us from addressing the social meaning of the variants we teach.  In terms of confusion, we don’t avoid teaching verb conjugations and other grammatical features (which as per point three above can certainly be confusing!) so student confusion should not be an excuse for avoiding teaching the social meanings of language.  While I admit that I haven’t figured out a fully satisfactory way to do this yet, my hope in the end is that if we become aware of the social meanings of language in those we learn, we can also become more aware of them in our own, and do our part to end pervasive linguistic discrimination.


There are certainly more folklinguistic theories of language that effect the way we learn and teach language, but these four are some of the ones I commonly hear from students, teachers, and people that learn I teach Arabic.  In the upcoming weeks, I’ll delve into what to types of linguistic theories, formal and functional, tell us about language and the implications of that for learning and teaching languages.    

What is language? The nation state ideology

In my quest to make language and intercultural learning better, I sometimes feel that just when I start to understand one piece of the puzzle, I discover that the puzzle is in fact much larger than I thought.   Recently, I have been researching ideologies of study abroad, which led me to think about ideologies for language learning, and just how much our beliefs about what language is influence how we teach it, and what we expect our students to do or know.  Yet it is my impression that as teachers, we rarely think about what our ideologies of language are, we just take them for granted. 

One ideology that pervades language teaching in the U.S. is that of the nation-state, or the idea that national boundaries are also linguistic and cultural boundaries.  Indeed, the development of a standardized national language was key to the development of nation-states.  Although this link between national boundaries and language clearly falls apart under close examination, its implications are pervasive in language classes.  

How so? Well, the "target language" of the class is often a "neutral" variety or prestige national standard.  In the classroom, this leads to a focus on making sure linguistic elements such as pronunciation or grammar conform to this variety.  Success in language learning is getting as close as possible to the linguistic behavior of an imagined educated monolingual native speaker of the language, with "passing" as native, if only until a misplaced preposition or differently shaped vowel gives you away, leading to a sense of accomplishment.  The nation state ideology of languages also assumes that the ideal language classroom is monolingual, with only the target language used by both teachers and students.  Language pledges, where students pledge to use only the target language, are also part of this ideology. Finally, nation-states are frequently used to make cultural comparisons, equating variation in cultural practice to national boundaries.    

These assumptions should be familiar to most U.S. language teachers, in fact they are generally considered among the "best practices" of language teaching.  However, as we question the role we want nationalism and the nation-state to play in our lives, I think it is worth questioning the extent to which we want to reflect this ideology in our language classrooms.  Prestige national standards are just as imaginary as the nation-state itself, and insisting on the "correctness" of these varieties perpetuates the ideology of the nation-state--is this what we want? This model also condemns language learners to a deficit model, as short of changing their parents or birthplace, they will never be native speakers.  Do we want our vision of success in language learning to be based on the same criteria used to make judgements of citizenship? Furthermore, the language classroom is inherently a bilingual, if not multilingual environment, with the target language only one linguistic resource among many.  Decades of research in sociolinguistics show that in multilingual environments, multilingual utterances are the norm, rather than the exception.  Enforcing monolingualism, if it is even possible, doesn't prepare students to engage in multilingual settings.  Finally, the nation-state vision of culture obscures cultural variation within national boundaries, cultural similarities across these boundaries, and the fact that cultures change over time.  

Personally, I am not sure the nation-state and nationalism are ideologies I want to promote in my classroom, yet the pervasive nature of these ideologies in language teaching means that it is hard to change these practices.  Teaching multiple varieties is seen as confusing to students, society at large will judge them on their "nativelikeness" regardless of what I do, allowing languages other than the target language will take away from time using the target language and at worst devolve into grammar lectures about the target language, and there's hardly time to discuss all the cultural variation among speakers of the target language.  And yet, I am convinced there has to be a better way than our current, nationalistic, best practices.  Applied linguists pursuing a "multilingual turn" have started to address this issue, though primarily in immersion and dual language contexts.  I think the key is intentional thinking about what this re-envisioning looks like, and deliberately addressing these ideologies with our students.  If success isn't "passing as native", what is it? How can we use all the available linguistic resources to learn the language we're studying? What does variation look like? What is culture, if not defined by national boundaries? Thus far, my attempts to resist the nation-state ideology of language in my classroom have been mostly  limited to off-hand remarks about just saying the word in English and moving on when you get stuck, because that way you will use more Arabic in the end, or encouraging students to make cultural comparisons across generations, and not just nations.  However, as we continue to develop our curriculum, I am thinking about including more assignments that deliberately address these issues, so that it is not just me, but my students thinking about the extent to which our ideologies of language influence classroom practice.  


Does study abroad lead to intercultural learning?

For U.S. students, study abroad has never been more popular—according to the Open Doors data from the U.S. State Department, the number of students studying abroad has more than doubled since the turn of the 21st century, and about 10% of U.S. students will study abroad during their undergraduate career.  As a study abroad researcher, this is both exciting (because more students are getting this opportunity) and disheartening (because there seems to be little attention paid to what happens after students cross that national border and gain the status of a study abroad student).  

If intercultural learning is a goal of study abroad, both intercultural contact and reflection upon that contact are necessary components of the experience.  Although there are many (sometimes conflicting) views of the purpose of study abroad, one assumption in institutions of higher education in particular is that study abroad results in improved intercultural learning, due to the intercultural contact experiences students will have abroad.  Unfortunately, research on study abroad shows that neither intercultural contact nor intercultural learning is a guaranteed result of being placed in geographic proximity to other cultures.  Study abroad students may socialize primarily with co-nationals, engaging with locals only in service encounters.  Even when they are able to join local social networks, intercultural contact alone does not lead to intercultural learning—there must be reflection upon that contact for learning to occur.  

Sustained contact requires doing things together over time.  To make this happen, there generally has to be a shared interest, such as participation in a class, club, sport, job, organization, etc, or a value exchange, such as paying for accommodation, lessons, or engaging in a language exchange.  Yet finding these opportunities, particularly if students are studying abroad for a short period of time with little program support outside of the classroom, is not always easy.  

Then, there is reflection, which is a skill unto itself.  To learn from a contact experience, students must be able to think about that experience, and have the skill to interpret its events from multiple perspectives, and possibly in multiple languages.  This requires mental space that is not always available in programs packed full of classroom and extracurricular activities.  Study abroad is also a highly emotional experience, and experiencing strong emotions can also make reflection more difficult.  

Although I have heard people say that it is on the study abroad students themselves to find opportunities for contact and reflection, and that is what the “good” students do, I strongly believe that programmatic interventions are necessary if we want to make this a reality for the majority of students.  After all, 63% of U.S. students study abroad for 8 weeks or less, a time frame that allows a greater diversity of students to go abroad, but limits their opportunities to develop local connections and reflect upon these experiences.  

Of course, as is usually the case when applying research, there can be conflicts between what the research says is ideal, and the constraints of a particular context, such as student finances or the timing of an academic semester.  Although this used to frustrate me, I now believe it is an opportunity to look for creative solutions that maximize research ideals within these real world constraints.  

For example, in 2016 I developed a two-week faculty led study abroad program in Jordan, where the time frame would seem to severely limit the amount of intercultural contact students could engage in.   To extend this contact, I had the students engage in an 8-week telecollaboration with Jordanian language partners prior to the experience abroad and made activities with these partners the focus of each day abroad.  The telecollaboration built up a sense of anticipation for the trip, and allowed the students have already developed relationships with their partners prior to meeting them in person.  The activities, such as going to a movie, or cooking a meal, or visiting a historic site, allowed them to spend time together.  To encourage students to reflect upon their experiences for their partners, they were required to complete an ethnographic project for study abroad, which required them to think back upon these experiences, and find out possible interpretations of them from their partners.  Although a longer time period abroad would certainly have allowed for more learning, it would also have required a time and financial investment some of my students could not afford.   

So, does study abroad lead to intercultural learning? Sometimes. Let’s see if we can make it all the time!