Monday, January 26, 2015

My grad school research study on the impact of a study abroad program

Mixed Methods Study of Student Perceptions
of a Study Abroad’s Impact on Their
 L2 Oral Proficiency and Interculturalism
Angela Arbogast
University of Nebraska

Despite the political and social unrest of our global society, and the ever-present threats of terrorism, recent studies (detailed within this paper) have shown that students are bravely leaving the comforts and “security” of home and are studying abroad in ever-increasing numbers. In consideration of this significant trend and the fact that there is still much to learn about the nuances of these cross-cultural sojourns, this mixed methods paper serves as a humble addition to the growing body of research analyzing the efficacy of study abroad experiences in the quest for interculturalism and second language oral proficiency (referred to here as L2-OP). More particularly, it also examines the question of whether or not a homestay (HS) is a crucial part of the package. To this end, the author has conducted a December 2014 study of 15 alumni of an organization called the Latin American Studies Program (LASP), through which each former student spent one semester in Costa Rica within the past 25 years studying the Spanish language and Latin American culture, politics, and social issues. Future studies should continue exploring the plethora of variables which affect study abroad programs and seek to provide further constructive recommendations for program directors, educators, host country coordinators, host family supervisors, etc.

I have nothing but good things to say about LASP [Latin American Studies Program].  Its greatest strength was the was not a tourist study abroad.  It was academically and spiritually vigorous.  It was at times hard but worth it.  Cultural immersion, academic readings and discussions, and various home stays were all excellent. [LASP] broadened my worldview, deepened my perspective of myself and my faith, and developed my Spanish and cultural competency. (Quote from participant)

According to the Open Doors report published last month on Nov. 17, 2014, by the Institute of International Education, Inc., study abroad by American students has more than doubled in the past 15 years, from about 130,000 students in 1998/99” to “289,408 American students [who] studied abroad for academic credit…in the 2012/13 academic year” (Witherell, S. & Clayton, E., 2014, para. 1). The natural academic response to this growth has been a proportionate increase in research studies exploring every conceivable facet of studying abroad. Experiments are being conducted, for example, to attempt to determine the importance of the length of the sojourn (e.g. summer vs. semester vs. year-long), the living arrangements (e.g. host family vs. dorm room), the amount of classroom time, the amount of interaction with locals, the specifics of second language acquisition (L2), the support level of program directors, the amount of orientation and debriefing, and the contrast between student expectations and actual outcomes.
 Yet, the consensus of each of these studies seems to be that they have only just begun to scratch the surface of the exploration needed in order to truly effect positives changes for maximum output.  This seems prudent, considering the amount of time and money invested in these travels, both corporately and individually. The idea is that if we are going to send off thousands of students to face the unknown and not be available to this country as the valuable collective resource that they are, then every attempt should be made to maximize those opportunities, both for their sake and for the sake of the country as a whole.
Some of the long-held beliefs regarding the study abroad (SA) learning environment would seem to be unquestionable—such as the linguistic benefits of interacting with native speakers of the target language. Giving credence to that conclusion, Regan (1998) provided a sizable overview of the early literature, citing several studies which reported that for SA students, two important factors for attaining sociolinguistic competence are the learning context and the amount and quality of contact and feedback from native speakers (p. 69 & 74). “Issues of fluency, of native speaker norms, dialects, context and style shifting, knowledge of variation in the target language and use of formulaic phrases may all be among the aspects which appear to form part of what is perceived as the improvement after the stay abroad. These are important issues in the perception of non-natives by natives” (p. 77). That is to say, when students are more accepted by “natives” due to these communicative strategies, the result is more L2 input & acquisition.
Yet, as Regan (1998) reported from the results of an even earlier study, the degree of linguistic benefit might not homogenous across all levels of L2 learners, as “activities and interaction of a social or oral nature seem to benefit students at the lower level of proficiency, while students at upper levels appear to profit from involvement with a variety of media that provides extended discourse in reading and listening” (p. 66). This is an important finding which should be further explored, as it would serve to inform the pedagogical strategies of World Language teachers. Likewise, a more current researcher by the name of Victor Savicki (2011) deduced some teaching strategies from his quantitative assessment of the L2 proficiency of 32 American university students studying Spanish in Argentina for three months. He found that higher proficiency enabled students to talk about themselves more but was positively related to having a more difficult time understanding local politics and seeing the local point of view. Savicki felt this suggested a need for greater focus on cultural understanding in US high school L2 courses.
Then, other studies focus their attention directly on teachers themselves. One recent study by Allen (2010) examined “the impact of study abroad on the professional lives of World Language teachers” (p. 1). Employing a qualitative survey, she analyzed the L2 proficiency gains of 30 American teachers of French after a 3-week SA in France. The sample included 26 females and 4 males from 18 different states and a variety of different ages and ethnic backgrounds. Participants lived with French families, studied at a local college under local professors, and engaged in field trips to enhance their cultural exposure—all while speaking nothing but French, according to a pledge that they signed before embarking on their SA. Four months post-SA, 87% of the participants answered a follow up survey via email. All four of the perceptions of the teachers that Allen was hoping to examine revealed themselves in the data. She found that the teachers did, in fact, perceive that the study abroad experience had improved their language proficiency, increased their cultural knowledge, enhanced their instruction of their students (especially by providing a veritable arsenal of cultural artifacts and anecdotes), and had further developed their professional lives outside of the classroom. (p. 98-102).
Likewise, Lupi and Turner (2013) studied the “sustainability of pedagogical skills and personal growth” (p. 46) in University of North Florida alumni in the five years following a year-long teaching experience in the U.K. The research team administered a survey to 28 participants anywhere from a year to five years after their graduation. The interns had each written a “reflection paper” two weeks after their teaching abroad experience. In this mixed methods study, quantitative analyses were extracted from these papers, measuring their levels of “cultural awareness shifts, pedagogy and growth in global and international awareness” (p. 49). These data were tabulated and integrated with the responses to 4 open-ended questions in order to derive the findings.
Of the 28 participants, only one indicated that her professional practices as a teacher had not been very much impacted by the teaching abroad experience. For the rest, the consensus was that the experience had profoundly impacted them as teachers. One participant effused that teaching abroad is “an amazing and transformational learning experience that can only be achieved by being immersed in a foreign environment and gaining experience through working in a diverse environment out of one’s comfort zone” (Lupi & Turner, 2013, p. 51). As their own cultural sensitivity and global awareness increased, the teachers were better prepared to teach in a multicultural classroom. Furthermore, the data showed that the longer the participants had been out of school, the more they valued their internship in England (p. 51).
While these and other similar studies focus on SA sojourns for teachers, some of the literature focuses on the virtues of study abroad (SA) vs. homeland immersion programs (IM), such as the Middlebury Language School in Vermont. For example, by analyzing the differences in vocabulary gains of 56 English speakers studying Japanese in 3 different L2 learning contexts, Dewey (2007-2008) found SA and IM to be comparable to each other and consistently superior to the standard academic year (AY) setting in American college classrooms. Of the 56 students (evenly split between genders), 20 studied in Tokyo for 11 weeks, 14 studied at Middlebury for 9 weeks (abiding by a strictly-nothing-but-Japanese language pledge), and 22 studied in various American colleges for 13 weeks. Three different vocabulary growth measures were used and three different ANCOVAs were conducted. Writing showed the greatest positive correlation to vocabulary gains, followed by conversation time—with greater gains from talking with friends vs. the host family in the SA context (an important point for the purposes of this study). The greatest inverse correlation in vocabulary gains was in the category of Internet usage, which seems to further highlight the importance of social interaction. Dewey recommended that program administrators work to facilitate relationships in the SA context. Dewey also suggested a future study that would “compare the linguistic impact of AY learning in terms of number of classroom hours rather than length of study to assess the value of massed versus distributed learning (p. 139).
While other studies similarly show this type of across-the-board superiority of SA over AY contexts, some are not as unilateral. Segalowitz, Freed, Collentine, Lafford, Lazar and Diaz-Campos (2004) studied 46 English speakers (36 female, 10 male) who had taken at least two semesters of Spanish classes and did not speak Spanish in the home. The SA group consisted of 26 students, mostly from the University of Colorado, studying for one semester at the Universidad de Alicante in Spain, with Spanish classes for 17 hours/week; the remaining 20 students studied Spanish at an American university.
Using the Language Contact Profile, the Oral Proficiency Interview (OPI), a pronunciation test, an evaluation of oral fluency, an evaluation of communicative strategies, the SAT II Spanish Test, a computer-based word recognition test, and a computer-based attention-focusing test, Segalowitz et al. found that the oral proficiency, oral fluency, and narrative discourse of the SA students improved much more than that of the AY students. They also could use more “lexically dense” words and maintain a conversation better than the AY group. However, their pronunciation did not prove to be superior to that of the AH students, and the AH students actually outperformed them in several grammatical skills (p. 13-14).
            Furthermore, for the SA group, Segalowitz et al. (2004) were surprised to find that “gains in speed of attention control...correlated negatively with the reported amount of contact with the home stay family,” which the research team suggested could possibly mean that “conversations in the home stay context tended to be brief and formulaic (restricted to greetings, simple chitchat, etc.)” (p. 14). Again, this question—the efficacy of the home stay—is one that will be further explored in this study. They also emphasized the need for qualitative studies to explore whether learning contexts other than the SA would better suit the needs of some learners (p. 15)—an idea which will be briefly entertained here as well.
If this growing body of research were represented by a pie chart, the current study would be a mere sliver. Yet, each small contribution will gradually shed greater light on the topic at hand. Thus, the purpose of this particular study is to provide some additional voices in the form of personal reflections submitted by 15 alumni of a study abroad organization called the Latin American Studies Program (LASP). One controversial issue which arose from the literature was the question of the benefits vs. the drawbacks of a “home stay” (or “homestay”), in which the SA student lives with a local host family in the foreign country rather than in a dorm with other Americans. By eliciting reactions from the participants via questionnaire, as well as through additional interactions with the author, this study endeavors to further explore the desirability of a home stay, not only in terms of linguistic output but also from a cultural and even emotional standpoint. 
            Not surprisingly, the conventional wisdom through the years has suggested that a homestay (HS) is the “optimal context to foster language gains due to the opportunities for target language input it affords” (Di Silvio, Donovan & Malone, 2014, p. 168)—an idea which was challenged by that research team. They conducted a quantitative study from 2011-2012 involving 152 students who participated in homestays during their semester abroad to learn either Spanish, Chinese, or Russian. What they discovered was that the degree of language acquisition was positively correlated to the student’s perception of and relationship with the host family and that this factor varied widely from one cultural setting to another. For example,
Only a single learner of Spanish disagreed that the host family helped improve his or her language skills, while 12% of learners of Mandarin and 8% of learners of Russian disagreed or strongly disagreed with this statement….However, despite varying feeling toward their host families, nearly all students would recommend living with a host family to other students studying abroad. (p. 174-175)
In harmony with the long history of glowing reports regarding home stays, Diao, Freed and Smith (2011) found in their mixed methods assessment of 70 American students studying in France for one semester that HS placements were positively correlated with linguistic acquisition and cultural awareness. However, their study showed that, if the host family failed to interact with the student on a regular basis and left the student feeling like an outsider, he or she was far less likely to meet L2 acquisition goals or develop a healthy cultural awareness (p. 127-128).
Wilkinson (1998) focused more on the nature of the immersion context rather than on student outcomes in her qualitative study of seven SA students in France (plus a more in-depth case study of two of them) and found that SA quality is affected by amount of time abroad, quality of SA administration, support network, pre-SA orientation, housing situation, & amount of difference between host culture and student culture. L2 acquisition is affected by gender, age, personality, pre-SA language proficiency, and knowledge of other foreign languages. However, she found that students were most significantly affected by their own perceptions of the SA compared to their expectations.
This scenario of met and unmet expectations affecting L2 acquisition was quite apparent in Wilkinson’s two case study subjects—two female American undergraduate students. The participant whose home stay paralleled her expectations decided to change her major to French and returned to France for a full school year. The one who was disillusioned with her HS decided to shorten her SA from eight weeks to four weeks and talked about dropping her French minor. The satisfied student began the SA already an ethnorelativist and improved her French significantly, while the disillusioned student remained ethnocentric and did not gain much L2 proficiency.
Likewise, in a qualitative analysis of 19 Japanese high school students’ perceptions of their school-year SA in Canada, Crealock, Derwing and Gibson (1999) determined that an insufficient amount of student orientation, a lack of monitoring of the students’ progress and well-being, and an overall lack of evaluation of the programs were three of the most serious problems which affected the SA experience. Perhaps some of these pitfalls could be avoided by heeding the advice of Jackson (2011), who suggested that, in preparation for home stays, pre-trip orientations should “stimulate discussion on the roles and responsibilities of hosts and ‘guests’, as well as creative and constructive ways to enhance host-sojourner communication” (p. 183).
In light of these suggestions, the study at hand looks at the retrospective perceptions of 15 SA students from across the years in hopes of providing some constructive feedback to the staff of their particular SA program, and also with the ultimate goal of serving to inspire the staff and administration of many other similar programs as they work tirelessly to facilitate amazing, life-changing experiences for the young adults of our nation.

            Of the 20-30 LASP alumni who had seen a notice posted by the author on the LASP Facebook page two months before the study was conducted and had clicked “Like” to express a possible interest in participating, only 18 received the personal message with the questionnaire attached in December. (Since these students are not “Facebook friends” of the author, all messages to them are automatically sent to the “Other messages” inbox, which does not generate notifications. Therefore, many of them did not see the message in time.) However, 15 of those 18 former students who did receive the message were able to complete the questionnaire in a timely manner. Therefore, the study could be considered to have an 83% participation rate.
            There were 14 female respondents and only 1 male respondent, which may seem skewed. However, out of the author’s Spring 1991 LASP class of 24 students, only 4 were male. Thus, it is possible that these numbers are not as unevenly distributed as one might assume. The author was unable to obtain the demographic information from the past 30 years of study abroad classes from the LASP headquarters, but it is certain that substantially more females enroll than males.
            Eight of the 15 participants are currently in their twenties, three are in their thirties, and 4 are in their forties. Four of the study abroad semesters represented in the questionnaire were in the past 5 years (2 in Fall 2010), four were from 6-10 years ago (2 in Fall 2008), three were from 11-15 years ago, zero were from 16-20 years ago, and four were from 21-25 years ago. Six of the 15 alumni are currently working in the field of education and six of them are using their Spanish skills in their career to this day.
Each of the students spent four months studying abroad, during either the fall or spring semester, with three of those months spent in Costa Rica, two weeks in Nicaragua, and two weeks in either Guatemala or Panama. Each student also participated in a two-week service project in Costa Rica (e.g. for this author, the project involved working at an orphanage in the Caribbean coastal village of Limón). Each class also has had the opportunity to meet with influential people from those Central American countries, including Presidents, Supreme Court justices, former dictators, etc.
            This study utilizes a mixed methods research design, as defined and clarified by Creswell (2014):
As a method, [mixed methods research] focuses on collecting, analyzing, and mixing both quantitative and qualitative data in a single study or series of studies. Its central premise is that the use of quantitative and qualitative approaches in combination provides a better understanding of research problems than either approach alone. (Creswell, 2014, p. 5)
To put it simply, this method could be considered ‘the best of both [research] worlds.’ It combines the strengths of both methods, which eliminates the weaknesses inherent to either one. In the case of this study, the absence of quantitative data would have had what we shall call the “Abominable Snowman” effect – it would have been left toothless. Yet, without the richness of the qualitative data gathered in the form of additional open-ended answers to the final survey question, the study would not have resonated with the reader, as it hopefully will with its mixed methods design. For those familiar with mixed methods research (or for those who would refer to Creswell (2014), Ch. 3, the following information lists the specifics of this study’s design:
1.      The design is fixed, rather than emergent (i.e. both the quantitative and qualitative methods were predetermined at the same time and implemented at the same time).
2.      The level of interaction between the quantitative and qualitative methods is independent (i.e. each strand can stand alone).
3.      The priority level of the two strands is equal.
4.      The timing is concurrent (i.e. both sets of data were obtained in a single phase).
5.      The point of interface between the strands (i.e. when the two strands are “mixed” is during the interpretation phase).
6.      The design is embedded, with the qualitative strand being embedded within the quantitative strand.
7.      The design is convergent, with qualitative data illustrating the quantitative data.
8.      The design variant is the data-validation variant, with both closed- and open-ended questions included on the same questionnaire. “Because the qualitative items are an add-on to a quantitative instrument, the items generally do not result in a complete context-based qualitative data set. However, they provide the researcher with emergent themes and interesting quotes that can be used to validate and embellish the quantitative survey findings” (Creswell, 2014, p. 81).
Instrumentation and Procedures
            The instrument used to the collect the data for this study was a questionnaire (found in Appendix B) with eight questions that were set up on a modified Likert-type scale and a ninth question with several sub-categories to collect demographic and qualitative responses. The questionnaire was delivered to the LASP alumni via email or Facebook messenger, depending on their preference, and the responses were submitted in the same way. An additional three qualitative questions were asked of three of the participants who had volunteered an above-average amount of qualitative data in answering Question #9. The quantitative data of the first eight questions were then put through a Pearson’s correlation matrix and were also calculated for standard deviation (SD).
Data Analysis and Results
The range of participant Likert score totals calculated from the 8 quantitative questions was 18 –36, with a mean of 29 and a standard deviation (SD) of 5, yielding a normal bell curve. According to student self-reported data, only 20% (n=6) of the sample could converse well, albeit slowly, in Spanish at the beginning of the semester. Yet, all but 1 of the 15 students, or 93%, reported having at least that level of oral proficiency at the end of the semester, and 21% of those students said that they spoke with native-like fluency by then. Currently, 67% still converse well (a "4" or a "5" on the questionnaire). Comparing pre- and post-SA self-reported fluency: six are not as fluent now as they were then, four are at the same level, and five reported that they are even more fluent now. Regarding alumni impressions of the LASP program: 60% felt that the program was perfect "as is" and 40% reported that LASP influenced them to pursue a career which is still utilizing their Spanish skills to this day.
While these results were comparable to what was anticipated, the Pearson correlations were of even greater interest to the author. (See Table B1 and Table B2). The findings of the data in the chart below support a number of the findings described in the literature. First of all, there was a large positive correlation (p = 0.4) between the students’ pre-study abroad Spanish oral proficiency and their home stay. This suggests that a student who entered the host family home already able to converse in Spanish was more likely to have a positive experience with the host family, since a deeper level of communication was achievable.
Next, there was an extremely large positive correlation (p = 0.7) between the students’ pre-SA Spanish oral proficiency and their current impression of the LASP program. This could be indicative of what Segalowitz et al. (2004) called the “feedback effect” or “reciprocal causation”—that is, that those who came to Costa Rica able to communicate were given far more opportunities to do so, and therefore gleaned far more benefits from the program (in ways that go beyond the mere acquisition of a second language, as detailed in the open-ended answers of Appendix A). This phenomenon understandably then influenced their abiding impression of LASP. A similar explanation can be applied to the large positive correlation (p = 0.4) between language usage with “Ticos” (Costa Ricans) during the SA and the students’ current impression of LASP.
The results of the data analyses also showed a large positive correlation (p = 0.6) between the quantity and quality of interactions that students had with Ticos and their L2 oral proficiency today. Again, this probably demonstrates that the better the level of interaction they had with local Spanish-speakers (facilitated by an initially more advanced level of oral proficiency), the better they were able to improve their oral proficiency. It is also likely that their pre-SA oral proficiency gave those students the ability to develop a deeper understanding of the Latino culture and a greater desire to further that knowledge and those relationships. The next correlation seems just as logical. There was a very large positive correlation (p = 0.7) between the students’ current L2 oral proficiency and their current (or past) condition of living among or being married to Latinos. This should be self-explanatory.
However, in the final significant correlation to be discussed here, there was a medium negative correlation (p = -0.4) between the quality of communication in the home stay and the students’ self-reported level of Spanish oral proficiency at the end of the semester abroad. While this does not suggest that a good home stay will lead to lesser language acquisition (an illogical conclusion), it does seem to answer the very question which precipitated this study. At least based on the findings of this very small-scale study, the quality of a student’s home stay cannot necessarily predict the level of language acquisition that will be achieved. It is at this juncture that some qualitative data should serve us well by providing deeper insight into this issue, both in the Discussion section below, and in Appendix A which follows it.
Many factors influence the advancement of L2 proficiency levels and interculturalism, including one’s personality, innate language-learning potential, motivation level, and emotional health during the time abroad. For example, homesickness and culture shock can be significant obstacles to language learning abroad, especially if the L2 learner has regular access to L1 friends. This seems to be a key factor. Falling back on the L1 crutch is perhaps the greatest inhibitor to L2 acquisition. As expressed by one of the students surveyed in the “Hindsight is 20/20” article by Mendelson (2004), “It’s difficult because there are many things I want to talk about, things that are on my mind, and I can’t yet really express them in Spanish and it creates a great feeling of loneliness, which is why, I believe, so many students turn to their American friends to express themselves (in English)...” (p. 58).
The literature shows that home stay experiences can potentially—but not necessarily—provide the best context for L2 proficiency gains. In the case of the Salamanca students (Mendelson, 2004), “those who lived with host families showed a mean of contact hours 40% greater than that of the students who lived in the dorms” (p. 52).  However, only if a mutual friendship is developed between the student and the host family will this context enhance the student’s language learning. In that case, a home stay can be a phenomenal experience and can contribute significantly to L2 fluency. Conversely, if personality and cultural differences drive a wedge between the student and host family members, then extended meaningful discourse will be avoided and the potential benefits of the home stay will be forfeited.
I have personally experienced both of these possible outcomes (from both sides of the equation). During my freshman year of high school, my family hosted a 19-year-old Mexican high school graduate (who repeated her senior year as a student in our local high school). Alma Rosa became like the sister I had never had. We developed a very tight bond, spending untold hundreds of hours talking together.
When she came to us, Alma had studied English all throughout high school, but she had never really used her English skills in a natural context. She was also an introvert, so homesickness and culture shock were significant problems for her. We worked very hard to “pull her out of her shell,” so to speak. And, little by little, her prior knowledge of English came into play. In the first month, Alma kept a Spanish-English dictionary with her at all times. Her level of oral fluency was next to nothing, even though she had some book knowledge. However, by the end of the school year, Alma could speak as fast as we could! Her language acquisition was tremendous.
On the other hand, during my semester abroad in Costa Rica, there were a number of students in my class who came speaking very little Spanish and left still speaking very little Spanish. These were the students who did not enjoy spending time with their host families and who did not find a niche elsewhere. Hindered by their initial incompetence in the target language, these students failed to take risks and embark on adventures without the constant crutch of an interpreter by their side. Instead, they spent all their free time getting together with each other. Basically, they brought America to Costa Rica.
Or, perhaps in some cases, students found America in Costa Rica, in their Tican homes. I do not remember whether or not this was the case for any of my classmates. However, taking into consideration the findings of Diao et al. (2011), if this is not already the case, I recommend that an official commitment statement should be required for all host family members to pledge to spend a prescribed number of minutes/day or hours/week speaking in the target language with the student and pledging not to speak in the student’s native language (if they have that ability) for anything short of an emergency.
Again, though, interpersonal conflicts can make such a commitment quite difficult to adhere to. In my case, I liked my host family in Costa Rica to a certain degree, but not enough to be strongly motivated to spend many hours talking with them, as Alma had done with me. Frankly, I confess that the squeaky voice of the teenage girl in the family grated on my nerves so much that I avoided conversations with her. And the others were just so incredibly busy with their own lives that there wasn’t an abundance of time for in-depth conversations.
This is where I believe that SA program personnel need to be vigilant. They should be regularly checking with each student, asking about the home stay. And, in cases where significant communication is unlikely, the staff members should be earnestly trying to facilitate friendships between that student and other locals. Thankfully, in my situation (without intervention), I found plenty of opportunities outside the home to have extended conversations with “Ticos” (Costa Ricans). Armed with a “sink or swim” mentality, I explored the city on my own and made friends with many nationals throughout San José. Moreover, during the final month of my semester in Costa Rica, I found myself living the ultimate language acquisition dream: spending every free moment with my Tican boyfriend who could not speak English. Understandably, this is not always feasible (and in some cases, would not even be advisable), but in my case, being in a romantic relationship was a key factor in advancing my fluency to a higher level.    
To this day, when I think about my semester in Costa Rica, part of my remembrance is mixed with great frustration. I went there with two main goals:  to clinch my fluency and to get to know Costa Ricans and their culture. Yet, being part of a class of 24 Americans, those goals were constantly hindered. Just when I would start dreaming in Spanish over the weekend, I would have to go back to class on Monday and hear English all day. Then, in the evenings, when I would have liked to have had more time to spend with the nationals, I was instead cooped up in my tiny bedroom, reading endless stacks of articles that were assigned to us -- many of which were in English and were additional obstacles to my goals. I honestly had more to read during those 4 months than I had in all 2 years of grad school. I believe this was counterproductive and that, to a certain degree, the reading assignments should have been required during the semester before and/or after the study abroad.
Despite these criticisms, though, I would still echo each of the students who participated in this study, in full agreement that my semester with LASP was one of the most life-changing times I have ever experienced. Though 25 years have passed and many memories through those years have faded, my memories of Spring 1991 are just as fresh today as they were while I lived them. I have reflected on those mental snapshots and videos more times than I could count, and I have shared them with others many times over. Perhaps that is one of the greatest benefits of a study abroad experience. Not only does it change the student, but it also has an ongoing impact on the friends and family, coworkers and acquaintances, of that student for a lifetime. This is because, since that student can no longer see the world through the same eyes, he or she can no longer stick with the status quo when intercultural social issues are brought up in the lunchroom or at family reunions.
With all that in mind, it is still my opinion that there is nothing that can quite take the place of a study abroad experience when it comes to deriving all the benefits thereof. However, as I mentioned at the outset of this study, there is another option for those who cannot or will not study abroad. Immersion is possible, at least for the purposes of L2 acquisition, either by enrolling in a school like Middlebury (if you have thousands of dollars), or by attempting the following suggestion. For an English-speaking student in the United States, a near-immersion experience could still be possible if the student were to move in with a strictly Spanish-speaking family in a predominantly Spanish-speaking community, if that student were committed to avoiding English exposure as far as possible.
For example, students (or foreign language teachers) who want to improve their fluency and intercultural awareness Stateside could spend a summer working in a U.S. Latino community, devoting their free time to interacting with their newfound friends, watching movies in Spanish with them, going to “fiestas” and dances with them, etc. I have a distinct memory of my own from the spring of 1993 when I spent a day in a Salvadoran section of Washington, D.C.  During that time, I was in an apartment complex, in a shopping center, and in a restaurant, and I never saw a single “Anglo” other than myself in that entire time.
I also know that many such neighborhoods exist across the southern states of our country, from Florida (with its large Cuban population) to Texas and California (with their high numbers of Mexicans), as well as substantial pockets of Puerto Ricans in New York & New Jersey, among others. Perhaps such an experience would not do much to advance one’s grammatical proficiency, but it would certain provide the opportunities for an increase in oral fluency, especially since nearly 100% of the student’s time would be spent interacting with Spanish-speakers, unlike with typical study abroad experiences.
            In conclusion, while the benefits vary as we look at studying abroad versus attempting L2 immersion within one’s own country, there is one thing that is clear:  Every student should have the opportunity to experience life through another’s eyes. That should be the ultimate goal of second language acquisition, whether it is attained at home or abroad.


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Appendix A
Open-ended Qualitative Alumni Responses
The most gratifying aspect of conducting this study was having the opportunity to read the more in-depth open-ended answers from fellow LASP alumni. I believe they shed light on this subject in ways that quantitative data do not always achieve. The following are insights from alumni of both the recent and distant past, and everything in between. Every last one of them raved about the LASP program, with only a couple of slight criticisms mixed in (which I collected at the end).
From a political science professor (with an emphasis on Latin American politics):
[Studying in Costa Rica with LASP] confirmed my desire to study the region further….Overall, I’m very thankful I went and continue to send students there, in particular, those who are already well read in the region so that they can garner the most from the experience.  From our semester – I’m amazed that we met President Serrano, Dictator Montt, John Stam, among others. It was a rich experience. And I had a great homestay and enjoyed making new friends with similar interests.

From a bilingual psychotherapist: 
My semester abroad served to solidify my love for Latinos. I plan to always work in the Hispanic community here or abroad at some capacity.

From a communciation staff member at a nonprofit: 
It changed how I view people. We grow up singing, ‘Jesus Loves the Little Children,’ but in my hometown there were no red, yellow or black children - just white (and everyone speaks English and is from a northern European heritage). So, to be able to go from that to Costa Rica, Panama and Nicaragua—to live with families who are so different from my own and what I know, to be loved and cared for by these lovely, patient souls—that was amazing. It's like having cousins you've never met. You know that they are family. They are blood, but there is no relationship. And then you get to meet one. Then the relationship is real, and makes you realize that you there are all these other amazing cousins in the world just waiting to be met.
So in a way, LASP helped me develop a "kinship" with humanity. It introduced me to a wonderful world of people from different cultures, languages and economic backgrounds. Now, differences are no longer a huge scary obstacle when meeting someone. Those differences are just part of their story—a story I hope to hear.”

From a social worker dealing with homeless children & families:
I have nothing but good things to say about LASP.  Its greatest strength was the was not a tourist study abroad.  It was academically and spiritually vigorous.  It was at times hard but worth it.  Cultural immersion, academic readings and discussions, and various home stays were all excellent. [LASP] broadened my worldview, deepened my perspective of myself and my faith, and developed my Spanish and cultural competency. Plus, my LASP study abroad experience made me change my career plans from children's pastor to social worker.  I have been doing social work for 5 years now and it prepared me in many ways for the joys and difficulties of social work.

From a Spanish teacher:
[My LASP semester caused me to] appreciate the Latino culture in a whole new way. My host family became my family. I've been back two summers to hang out with them. I feel like I understand life from their perspective. My best friend to this day is another student who lived in the same community in CR with me! In general, living in CR really taught me to work through differences to find things in common.
From another teacher: 
I stayed in Costa Rica for 2 more years and taught school.  My Spanish also improved enough that when I went back to the States I was able to get a job using my Spanish.  20 years later I moved back to Costa Rica with my daughter.  Although my Spanish is a bit rusty, it was nice to be able to move back with the ability to speak.

From a biology professor:
When I first arrived I had only had 2 years [of Spanish] in high school. I was in the bottom language class. My host family thought that I didn't like them because I didn't speak much. The truth was, I didn't know how to talk to them. They were always correcting my pronunciation and words. It wasn't good.
When we went to Nicaragua, the bus driver and I seemed to hit it off. He and I talked on that trip more than anyone else and he didn't correct me. That allowed me to get fast and with practice my tenses and perspectives (you, me, he, it) got better. By the time we got back to Costa Rica I was at speed and speaking correctly.  I then added words really fast after that by talking to new people.
I won't lie, it wasn't always easy. I had days I called McDonald days.  I would get frustrated with Spanish and just want to be with English speakers. I would go to McDonalds on the Plaza de la Cultura and sit and read the Tico Times. If English speakers were nearby, I would eavesdrop. One time, I ordered, in Spanish, and then went near the entrance. An ex-pat was there. He loomed at me and said, "Oh, you like to read English?" I said, yeah, I am from Ohio.  He said, "Oh, you don't look or sound like it."  He had heard me order.  It was in May I think.
After LASP, I stayed for three weeks more when my school came down. I didn't leave until July. I was the translator. My speed was up to Costa Rican speed and I was mistaken for a Tico on several occasions. The Ticos say that I have a native sounding accent. I also translated for a mission trip to Mexico in '97.  Now, today, I have lost a lot of my speed and have forgotten some words, but I can still order [food] and speak to people in Spanish. I am trying to learn Mandarin, so that has been my focus lately.

From an accounting specialist at a bank:
[LASP] definitely shaped the way I travel and want to experience the world. I’m not content to be a “tourist” anywhere I go. I want to learn about a place before I visit, understand a bit about its history* and culture, and then really dig below the surface while I’m there—talking with cab drivers, waitresses, people selling goods in the market…just meeting strangers and chatting with them about what their lives are like, and showing them that I care because I’ve taken the time to learn something about their home. I want to continually grow in my Spanish ability in order to build these kinds of relationships and interact with people on a much deeper level.
*The fact that I want to learn anything about history has also been a huge
and continual transformation for me. I hated history and politics when I was growing up and even while in college. LASP’s design and approach completely changed this for me. For example, currently, I’m reading a book on Cuba’s history and I have one on Guatemala and one on Colombia waiting on my “to read” shelf. I think the first time the relevance of history really hit me was when we studied about Nicaragua’s civil war before our trip there, and then within a few weeks, I was sitting there in my homestay community, gathered at a table with new friends, and I talked to people who had actually experienced it. The whole semester was filled with these kinds of moments where my view of history totally shifted.
              My semester at LASP also made me ask questions and seek to explore various sides of issues, as well as be able to dialogue on a deep and meaningful level with people who I disagree with. The idea of “process groups” became ingrained in me, and I still find it to be such a helpful way to approach discussing topics with others. Additionally, it helped me empathize with immigrants who are in the United States—both understanding where they come from and what drives them to migrate, as well as understanding a bit of what it’s like to struggle to learn language, culture, and customs in a new environment. What I regret most was that I didn’t challenge myself to speak only Spanish, and I also wish I could have stayed for 2 semesters.

From a marketing director for the Alpaca Owners Association:

From a nursing student:
This program provided key insights into the realities of Costa Rican culture, life, and challenges. When discussing experiences with friends who did not attend a best semester program, I am continually reminded of how invested the faculty and staff was into my personal experience and growth. I was challenged to identify the bias and foundational values I had, and open my mind. Through reflection during the last two years I have seen myself grow interpersonally with a more diverse group of people.

From a program assistant at a Study Abroad Program:
It forever changed the way I see the world and my role in it. The greatest strengths are the homestays and pushing students outside of their comfort zone with situations & readings. A weakness is a slight lack of support/room for students to discuss with staff in formal ways. Many informal opportunities abound, but it's the student’s responsibility [to approach them].

From a social worker:
The LASP program was great but there was obvious political sway toward one side. Privilege was never spoken about blatantly; the power we have as Americans, yes but not as individuals. I was the only Latin American in the group and it was a bit disheartening to see students up in arms about issues that affected Latin Americans but really had no insight into the problem which LASP really tried to address with guest speakers.  
I remember feeling really weirded out when staff would tell students that they were the minority in the country. The reality is that they could never feel like the minority because they carry around with them power and privilege even if they aren't aware of it. I remember writing it in my journal once and just feeling so pained that comparing the "minority status" to a number really didn't acknowledge the historical and current injustices that were being felt by a group of people.

Then, I directed the following three additional questions to three of the respondents:
1. Do you think that living with a host family was far more effective than living in a dorm with other Americans would have been?
Student A:  “Yes”
Student B:  “Living with a host family is absolutely vital to learning the language and understanding the culture. So, yes, living with a host family was far more effective.”
Student C:  “I do. In trying to learn Chinese, which is very different, I have made my greatest gains when we were in Taiwan living with my in-laws. Had we been in a dorm [in Costa Rica], I don't think the immersion experience would have been the same. [My home stay] wasn't great, but I think that, had I had the ‘refuge’ of an English dorm, I wouldn't have been stretched.”

2. Do you think that Americans, including those with limited Span. Proficiency, can be trusted to speak only Spanish with each other if that were a requirement of the program?
Student A:  “Yes - as well as they do on any program with this requirement.”
Student B:  “I think that if speaking only Spanish was a requirement, it would only work on official outings or during school time. It would be hard if the students met up on their own. But, maybe it could be required during school hours.”

3. And what do you think of the idea of coordinating with a Latino dorm to have LASP students room with Latino college students? Do you think that arrangement would facilitate more or less language acquisition than a host family?
         Student A:  “Same – or less.”
Student B:  “Having a Latino roommate would only work out well if the roommate did not speak English.”
Student C:  “Unless there is supervision they are going to revert. It is too easy and if the person you are trying to talk with isn't at your level it would get frustrating fast and they would switch back to English. And if they could stay in a dorm, they would hide away from Spanish and not learn it.”

Appendix B
Questionnaire for LASP Alumni
(1) Which of the following best describes your Spanish oral proficiency when you arrived in Costa Rica:  
            0 - No working knowledge of Spanish whatsoever
            1 - Very limited number of phrases
            2 – I could get my point across most of the time after much effort and many mistakes.
            3 – I could engage in a halting conversation, with help and some mistakes.
            4 – I could converse well at a slow speed, with few mistakes.
            5 – I could carry on a normal conversation at a native-like speed with little to no errors.
(2) Which best describes your home stay?
0 - I hated every minute there and stayed away as long as possible, exchanging very few words in the home. LASP should have done a better job screening that family.
1 - I liked the family but *they* weren't around much, so I didn't have nearly as much interaction with them as I had hoped.
2 - I liked the family but *I* wasn't around much, so I didn't have nearly as much interaction with them as I had hoped.
3 - I had a decent relationship with at least one member of the family and engaged in a number of meaningful conversations with him/her.
4 - I developed a close relationship with a least one member of the family and spoke at length with him/her most days that I was in San José.
5 - I became an "adopted member" of the family with a very close bond and abundant communication, and I am still in touch with the family to this day.
(3) Which of the following best describes your out-of-the-house interaction with Ticos?
            0 - I avoided all Ticos and huddled with other Americans or English-speakers. 
1 – I tried to interact with Ticos outside the home, but the language (or cultural) barrier interfered and my conversations never lasted very long nor went very deep.
2 – I had many interactions with Ticos outside the home, even extended conversations, but the topics never went deep enough to allow for the meaningful exchange of ideas nor the forging of deep friendships.
3 – I had a few long, meaningful discussions that went beyond surface level and helped us understand each other’s culture and worldview better.
4 – I had many heart-to-heart talks with one or more Ticos. Neither language nor culture was a barrier.
            5 – I developed either a romantic relationship or became best friends with a Tico(a).
(4) Which of the following best describes your Spanish oral proficiency at the end of your study abroad experience? 
            0 - No working knowledge of Spanish whatsoever
            1 - Very limited number of phrases
            2 – I could get my point across most of the time after much effort and many mistakes.
            3 – I could engage in a halting conversation, with help and some mistakes.
            4 – I could converse well at a slow speed, with few mistakes.
            5 – I could carry on a normal conversation at a native-like speed with little to no errors.

(5) Which of the following best describes your Spanish oral proficiency today?
            0 - No working knowledge of Spanish whatsoever
            1 - Very limited number of phrases
            2 – I can get my point across most of the time after much effort and many mistakes.
            3 – I can engage in a halting conversation, with help and some mistakes.
            4 – I can converse well at a slow speed, with few mistakes.
            5 – I can carry on a normal conversation at a native-like speed with little to no errors. 
(6) Did your semester abroad influence you to pursue a career which utilizes your Spanish-speaking skills?
            0 – Not at all. I never want to try to speak that language again!
1 – No, but I wish I had learned it well enough to use it professionally.
            2 – No, but I could have if the opportunity had arisen or if I had chosen to.
            3 – Yes, briefly.
            4 – Yes, for a substantial season.
            5 – Yes, to this very day.
(7) Did your semester abroad influence you to either marry a Latino(a) or live amongst Latinos?
            0 – No way! I’m done with those people and their crazy language!
            1 – No. It was nice for a semester but not really my thing.
            2 – No, but I wish I had.
            3 – Yes, briefly.
            4 – Yes, for a substantial season.
            5 – Yes, to this very day.
(8) Which of the following is your greatest criticism of the LASP program?
            0 – Both of these:
A. Either the interactions with classmates should have been minimized or “Spanish-only” should have been enforced amongst us (with exceptions only for conveying important information or strong emotions).
B. The lengthy reading assignments impeded meaningful language acquisition. They should have been assigned before and/or after our semester abroad so as to avoid cutting into our limited time with the people and culture there.
            1 – Two or more different issues (please specify in #10 below)
            2 - One of the above and another issue (please specify both in #10 below)
            3 – A only
            4 – B only  
5 - None of the above. LASP is a well-designed, effective program, which should continue “as is.”
(9) Please provide the following information:
(a) your gender
(b) your current age
(c) which semester you spent in Costa Rica
(d) your current profession (if employed)
(e) how your semester abroad impacted you overall
(f) any additional thoughts you might have on the greatest strengths and/or weaknesses of the LASP program
(g) any noteworthy stories you might like to share
Table B1
Correlations of Span. Oral Proficiency (L2-OP) with Other Study Abroad (SA) Factors









Table B2
Interpretation of Statistically Significant Data
Large positive correlation (PC) between pre-SA L2-OP and home stay (HS)
Extremely large PC b/w pre-SA L2-OP and current impression of LASP program
Large PC b/w quantity & quality of interaction with Ticos and L2-OP today
Large PC b/w language usage with Ticos and current impression of LASP
Very large PC b/w L2-OP & living among or being married to Latinos
Med. neg. correlation b/w quality of HS communication & post-SA L2-OP

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