In the United States, “internationalization” is a higher education buzzword, and typically refers to increasing the number of international students studying in the U.S. as well as the number of U.S. Students studying abroad. Based on the Open Doors data freely available from the U.S. State Department, these numbers are increasing dramatically in the 21st century. However, a concern for study abroad researchers like myself is whether the quality of the study abroad experience in terms of language and intercultural learning is increasing along with the quantity of students studying abroad. Although language and intercultural learning are typically assumed to be automatic outcomes of study abroad, research, including my own on Arabic learners, paints a picture of extensive individual variation.
My interest in study abroad stems in part from my own experiences learning Arabic in Egypt—although this was an “amazing” and “transformative” experience as study abroad is expected to be, and I learned a lot more Arabic, I also felt it could be a lot better. I wanted to know how, and that started my inquiry into study abroad for my dissertation research.
My initial questions focused on what students actually did abroad, specifically who they hung out with and what languages they used. In a 2013 article, I focused on the challenges students reported facing hanging out with Egyptians and using Arabic, in contrast to their expectations for an “immersion” experience. In another 2013 article, I examined how the communities students were able to participate in abroad helped (or didn’t help) them align with their stated goals for language and intercultural learning. Throughout my research, identity played a salient role in discussions of access and language use, and I specifically examined the roles of gender identity and heritage identity in two papers published in 2015. Throughout this work, it was clear that what mattered was not so much what a particular student’s identity was (male or female, heritage or non-heritage), but how they negotiated their various identities, as there were ways for all identities to be negotiated in ways that did (or did not) help students achieve their language and intercultural goals abroad.
Recently, I’ve become interested in how students’ expectations for study abroad reflect ideologies of study abroad found in U.S. media and policy documents. This has led to a joint project with my colleague Wenhao Diao, after we noticed that descriptions of study abroad to China and the Arab world were similar among U.S. students, and frequently contrasted with views of study abroad to more traditional destinations such as Europe and Australia. In a 2016 article, we use critical discourse analysis to argue that bundling these destinations together in this manner obscures differences between the destinations themselves as well as learner goals. In our 2017 article, we argue that discrepancies between the rhetoric and experiences of language and intercultural learning abroad recreate the colonial map, mask global inequalities, and create a new global elite. This concerns me, but I believe that by addressing both the ideologies and experiences of study abroad, we can disrupt this progression.
Although much of my research thus far has focused on ideology and identity negotiation, rather than measurements of language learning, I remain interested in the role of study abroad in the acquisition of sociolinguistic variation. This formed the topic of a 2017 article, where I found that while not all students made gains in fluency measures, all of them made gains in Egyptian dialect. Nevertheless, the majority of students, whether high or low gainers in Egyptian dialect, supported the teaching of dialect prior to study abroad.
In addition to researching the practices, ideologies, and outcomes of study abroad, I am particularly interested in using this research to improve study abroad at the programmatic level and summarize some of these practices in volume II of the Handbook for Arabic Teachers in the 21st Century. Ethnographic projects for study abroad are a research-based intervention that seems particularly promising to me for promoting language and intercultural learning abroad, so I incorporated them into both an independent study for a study abroad student as well as a faculty-led study abroad program to Jordan in Spring 2016. You can read about the first experience in my chapter in the Routledge Handbook of Arabic Second Language Acquisition. For the latter program, I also focused on providing access to Jordanian peers for my students, helping them learn how to negotiate their identities in ways that could help, rather than hinder their goals abroad, and using telecollaboration to extend the study abroad experience. Although incorporating research into practice is challenging, my experiences thus far demonstrate that it is also promising for maximizing language and intercultural learning during study abroad.