Ideologies of Study Abroad: Language Immersion

In the Spring, I started a new blog series on ideologies of study abroad with a post on study abroad as tourism.  It’s time for the second post, and this time I’ll be focusing on one of the most prevalent and pernicious ideologies of study abroad as it relates to language teaching, that of study abroad as language immersion.  

While the vast majority of U.S. study abroad is not focused on language learning (an issue for another post), when language learning is a focus of study abroad, the terms “study abroad” and “immersion” are frequently used interchangeably.  The assumption is that because study abroad students will travel to a country where the national language is their language of study, they will be automatically immersed in this language in their everyday lives.  So, travel to Germany, you’ll be immersed in German, travel to Egypt, you’ll be immersed in Arabic, and so on.  Rather than have your language learning limited to a classroom, you’ll be able to use it in the streets, in your everyday life, make friends, live the language!  

Despite these pervasive beliefs about immersion, research on language use during study abroad demonstrates that study abroad is always a multilingual experience, rather than one of monolingual immersion.  U.S. study abroad students may hang out only with other study abroad students, using primarily English (but always a few local words!).  Or they may only use the target language for service encounters, but English with friends (a classic dilemma that comes up frequently in research).  Others take extreme measures to ensure immersion, deliberately avoiding other study abroad students, or enrolling in programs bound by language pledges to avoid English.  While these latter examples are usually heralded as exemplary programs in terms of language learning, which attract “serious” students, the lengths they have to go to to ensure “immersion” (including changing the way local hosts and teachers actually speak) demonstrate the mythical nature of this belief in study abroad as language immersion.  

But, you might be thinking, even if study abroad isn’t “immersion”, surely it provides more opportunities for language use than at home? Yes and no.  Yes, in the sense that living in a target language community means that there is the possibility of using this language.  No, in the sense that target language communities don’t correspond to national or even physical borders, so there are also opportunities at home, not to mention the digital world.  In this way, focusing on study abroad (specifically crossing national borders) as the ultimate language learning experience reinforces monolingual language ideologies.  

To be clear, I am not against study abroad, nor do I think it is without value–after all, I’ve spent my career researching language learning in study abroad and could not even have this career without my own study abroad experiences in Egypt.  In my ideal world, everyone who desired to study abroad would be able to.  However, this research and experience also leads me to be highly critical of the way our beliefs about study abroad inform the practice of study abroad.  

Specifically, I think the failure to reckon with the ideology of study abroad as language immersion leads to at least the following issues:

  1. Devaluing and underfunding of language classes at home (because they’re not as good as “real” immersion)
  2. Imagining study abroad as the pinnacle of at home language learning and gearing lessons towards “when you’re abroad” (despite the fact that many learners may not be able to study abroad for legal, financial, logistical, and cultural reasons)
  3. Erasing the existence of target language communities at home (these communities are unlikely to be monolingual, but remember neither is study abroad. These communities are likely to be racially or ethnically  marginalized, and erasing them linguistically perpetuates this marginalization)
  4. Failing to prepare students to learn in multilingual settings (whether its disappointment at not being “forced” to be monolingual, or taking extreme measures to ensure monolingualism, this overlooks multilingual strategies for language learning as I’ve written about before).  

For those of us in language teaching or study abroad fields, when we recognize that study abroad isn’t monolingual immersion, our first impulse is often to think “how can I make it more like monolingual immersion?”  I’d argue for reframing this question to “how can I help students learn languages across a variety of multilingual settings, including (but not limited to!) study abroad?


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