Sociolinguistics and Language Learning in a Study Abroad Context

Vera Regan

University College Dublin

This article will focus on the acquisition of sociolinguistic competence by second language learners during a period of study abroad. Various aspects of sociolinguistic competence will be discussed and some of the principal factors which affect it will be described. Factors which affect sociolinguistic competence emerging from research in the area of study abroad include some which are central to the acquisition of second languages in general: context of acquisition, level of proficiency, degree of contact with native speakers, role of input, individual differences and the issue of native speaker norms. The research described will outline what we know about the sociolinguistic and sociocultural aspects of study abroad. The literature which exists to date on this aspect of second language acquisition (SLA) will be reviewed, including both quantitative and qualitative studies. Finally, we will address the question of the benefits (if any) of studying abroad for the acquisition of sociolinguistic and sociocultural competence. Where possible, an attempt will be made to see how this experience compares with that of learners who have not been abroad. Some of the studies to be discussed in this article were carried out with the explicit intention of focusing on the sociolinguistic area (Marriott 1995; Regan 1995; and Siegal 1995). There are also other year abroad studies which, although not focusing specifically on the sociolinguistic aspects of the process, nevertheless reveal further information about what happens during a study abroad period, for example, Lafford (1995) and Lapkin, Hart and Swain (1995). Various aspects of the acquisition of sociolinguistic competence are addressed in these articles.

The investigation of the learning environment as one of the causal variables in second language (L2) acquisition has built up an important literature in the past twenty years. This is obviously crucial to the area of study abroad and SLA. Likewise, research seems to indicate that second language acquisition is characterised by a drive towards approximating native speaker behaviour and accommodation to native speech norms. Many learners with a desire to integrate into the second language community need to understand what it is to sound like a native and so are motivated to master native speech norms. Those who go abroad for a period to live in the native speech community are thus motivated to find what it is linguistically which makes them “fit in.” Another area related to sociolinguistic competence is knowledge of native speech variation. Ferguson (1991) says, “Every human language shows variation in linguistic structure depending on the occasions of its use.” He points out that variation is “a fundamental characteristic of human language, and it has not received the attention it deserves in linguistics or in the study of second language acquisition.” Variation in the native speech community is a feature of what the learner must grasp. As much research shows, the learner in a study abroad situation becomes sensitive to the choices the native speaker makes in relation to possible variants of variables in the L2.

Sociolinguistic competence is an aspect of SLA which has received increasing attention in the past twenty years. Whereas in the 60’s and 70’s syntax and morphology received most attention from researchers, it has been felt increasingly that second language learning research could not be confined simply to a limited number of these areas, despite the important work done on these and despite the fact that these were indeed crucial to an understanding of the process of language acquisition. Increasingly, interesting work has been carried out in the areas of sociolinguistics, pragmatics and discourse.

Sociolinguistics and Second Language Acquisition

The connection between sociolinguistics and language learning has been seen in a variety of ways, and very different definitions of sociolinguistic knowledge have informed research in second language acquisition. The definitions have been more or less tightly characterised and can have a wide range of meanings. At one end of this continuum of meaning there is the question of variation in language. Issues arise such as the acquisition of sociolinguistic norms of the target language community as understood by Labov. Labov sees the use of alternative forms by the speaker as systematic and non-random. The native speaker makes a choice in relation to the variants of the variables available; whether, for instance, the speaker chooses in certain circumstances to use the velar in ‘walking’ [g] or the apical in ‘walkin’ [n]. This choice will be conditioned by a host of linguistic and extra-linguistic factors. Here the interest is in the acquisition of the detail of the grammar of the native speaker, including sociolinguistic variation (Adamson 1988; Bayley and Preston 1996; Bayley 1994; Regan 1996; Young 1991, among others). Sociolinguistics also looks at the wider social-psychological aspects of language. Sociolinguistic competence can also be spoken of in terms of a more general knowledge of appropriate linguistic and non-linguistic behaviour in a particular context; for instance, see Kramsch (1991).

One of the problems with the area of sociolinguistics in relation to second language acquisition is the notion of “culture,” which is often present, either implicitly or explicitly, in discussions of the general area of “sociolinguistic competence.” Culture has been understood in many different ways, but is often summarized as the set of beliefs and values held, in common, by a social group. Terms such as the acquisition of “culture” or “cultural competence” or “cultural knowledge” are sometimes used as if they were interchangeable. There has been an assumption that language and “culture” are co-terminous and that there is some simple correspondence between learning a language and learning a “culture.” And “cultural experience” is invoked as if there were some sort of monolithic culture one should acquire when one is learning another language. Ethnographers and anthropologists in the past have been satisified to entertain notions of culture, usually in relation to non-Western societies, where it could indeed be argued that there was some sort of integrated set of beliefs and values understood by members of a particular community, who all shared the same language. However, in many late twentieth century societies, and particularly Western ones, the notion of culture is much more problematic. Now, culture, if spoken of at all, is perceived as much more fragmented, certainly in industrial societies, and probably even in non-indus-trial societies (for recent discussions, see Archer 1988, Fox 1991, Hannerz 1992). In industrial societies, social scientists talk of urban culture versus rural culture, middle-class culture, organisational culture, and so on. These are not subsets of a larger culture, as they intersect and overlap with each other, and individuals seem to mix and match different “cultures.” Is French “culture” the same in Rabat or Quebec or Lyon? What should the learner be acquiring precisely in relation to these areas? It is clearly problematic for the second language researcher to talk about the acquisition of one culture (see Dittmar, Spolsky, and Walters, 1998 for discussion of a model for sociolinguistic/sociocultural analysis).

The difficulty of definition, however, does not mean that the issue is not an important one in relation to the acquisition of a second language. We may not be sure what culture the learner acquires, but it is certainly different from the learner’s own culture and this difference is an important part of the learning experience. Researchers are aware that acquisition is a multidimensional phenomenon and entails linguistic, pragmatic, sociolinguistic and sociocultural aspects (Dittmar et al. 1998). We know that the learner acquires more than simply “linguistic” knowledge narrowly defined. And the context of this acquisition must certainly affect what is acquired, especially on the sociolinguistic level. In relation to language learning abroad specifically, context is a crucial aspect of acquisition: “The post structuralist revolution in the language sciences has given ever more importance to the notion of context and variability in language acquisition and use” (Kramsch 1991). We know context of acquisition is an important causal variable. The learner plunged into a new social and linguistic environment is obliged to communicate and yet may not have all the necessary means at his disposal to do so. He is forced inevitably to use some sociolinguistic strategies. The learner thus must learn and communicate simultaneously. In this sense, we can say that sociolinguistic strategies promote acquisition. One of the tasks for the researcher is to explore the relationship between exposure, intake and use, but we need to develop some way of charting and measuring it. Freed (1993) rightly points out in relation to study abroad in general: “studies tell us little about actual language use. We need a range of linguistic variables (phonological, syntactic, semantic, sociolinguistic and discourse features).” Until recently there was little data in relation to specifically sociolinguistic features. The field of SLA and study abroad was enlarged in 1995 with the appearance of a cross-linguistic and cross-cultural volume (Freed, 1995) which focused on research on SLA in a study abroad context.

Kramsch (1991) points to the question asked by administrators in the US: “Is a foreign culture learned best in a domestic instructional setting or by living and studying abroad?” Administrators in Britain funding year abroad programmes such as ERASMUS and SOCRATES ask similar questions (Coleman 1995). Kramsch says “there is to date no conclusive evidence to show that study abroad per se leads to cross-cultural understanding, or to the development of the cross-cultural personality.” It is clear we need to investigate further what it is exactly students learn when they go abroad in relation to sociolinguistic and sociocultural issues as much as we need to investigate other aspects of acquisition. There appears to be a general feeling in the year abroad literature that “cultural aspects” are important (cf. Parker and Rouxville 1995). The qualitative data — reports, surveys and so on — provide a general picture of what the experience abroad is like. On the linguistic gains alone, Freed (1995) provides the best evidence to date. And, whereas there is growth in research in the sociolinguistic area of SLA in general, there is so far very little empirical data on the sociolinguistic aspects of acquisition in relation to year abroad learning specifically. If, as Freed points out, evidence is scarce in relation to SLA and the study abroad issue in general, it is especially scarce in relation to sociolinguistic language use.

The acquisition of sociolinguistic knowledge in relation to the study abroad experience can be affected by many things. These include the kind of stay abroad involved. It could be an interprovincial exchange in Canada for Canadians or a Junior Year Abroad in Europe for Americans, or a stay in a Japanese host family for Australians. The culture of the host country can significantly affect the acquisition of sociolinguistic knowledge. The purpose and motivation of the learner can equally affect the kind of sociolinguistic knowledge acquired. The level of proficiency may affect gains in this area.

I will now discuss what seem to be the principal issues in relation to the acquisition of sociolinguistic competence in a study abroad context:

  • context of acquisition
  • degree of contact with native speakers
  • level of proficiency
  • role of input
  • native speaker sociolinguistic norms
  • individual differences

While these can be seen as separate issues, they are frequently found to be interacting with each other. Given the multifactorial nature of language acquisition, it is important for research in this area to take into account the interdependence of factors in order to provide the best explanation and description of the process.

Context of acquisition, degree of contact with natives and the study abroad experience

The learning environment is one of the causal variables in L2 acquisition. In the US and Europe, classroom research has yielded an increasingly complete picture of how learning happens. Naturalistic learning has been investigated in detail by European researchers who have sought to describe as fully as possible the interaction of learner internal and external variables in acquisition. This European-based research focuses on SLA through everyday contacts with the social environment. It ranges from the Zisa (Zweitspracherwerb Italienischer, Spanischer und Portugiesischer Arbeiter) Project in the seventies to the Gral (Groupe de Recherche en acquisition des Langues) in Paris and Aix-en-Provence, the Heidelberg project, a very strong tradition in Holland, and the European Science Foundation project. All of these projects focused on immigrant workers. All were interested in SLA in social context. Now in the 80’s the European Science Foundation — coordinated by the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics in Nijmegen — is pursuing a further and deeper investigation of acquisition in context in relation to specific aspects of the grammar, with the particular aim of shifting interest from product to process. Ultimately it is an understanding of the interaction of internal and external variables which will give us the most complete picture of acquisition, and especially of the area of the year abroad experience.

Many studies show that the context of acquisition and the degree of contact with natives is important. Freed (1990) shows that 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. Dewaele (1992) finds that amount of contact with native speakers while on holiday in France, as well as frequency of reading, listening to radio and watching TV, determined variation in the omission of “ne.” In relation to the sociolinguistic aspects of acquisition, Marriott (1995), Siegal (1995), Lapkin, Hart and Swain (1995), Regan (1995), and Lafford (1995), all find, to varying degrees, that the amount of contact with native speakers is an important factor in the acquisition of sociolinguistic and sociocultural knowledge. This is particularly noteworthy in the light of the fact that these studies involve very different linguistic and cultural groups. The second languages involved are as different as Japanese and French.

Marriott (1995) and Siegal (1995) both studied the acquisition of Japanese L2, and particularly the acquisition of politeness forms. Marriott’s study was quantitative and Siegal’s qualitative. Marriott studied Australian secondary students who participated in exchange programs in Japan. Politeness forms constitute a crucial area of sociolinguistic competence in Japanese. This includes a knowledge of the honorific system and involves both linguistic and non-linguistic knowledge. Knowledge of this area is also crucial in the perception of learners by native speakers. Marriott, in relation to the acquisition of norms of politeness, asked the following research questions:

which aspects of politeness do the learners acquire?
how does previous level of proficiency affect the acquisition of politeness?
which factors contribute to the acquisition of politeness?

The subjects lived in an immersion situation: that is, they lived with Japanese host families and attended regular school with native Japanese students. They received a minimal amount of individualised instruction in the L2 at the school. The speakers had maximum opportunity for exposure to Japanese, with lots of contact with native speakers.

Similarly, Siegal studied two Western women in their everyday interactional encounters while abroad, both of whom had equally large amounts of exposure to native speaker input. Lapkin, Hart and Swain studied over a hundred English-speaking adolescents from three Canadian provinces who spent three months in Quebec as participants in a federal-ly-sponsored bilingual exchange program. They stayed in the homes of francophone “twins” whom they had hosted the previous autumn, also for three months. The exchange students were integrated into the target culture by living in their twins’ homes and attending their secondary schools, where, however, no special programming was provided for them. In relation to context of acquisition the learners in this study were similar to those in Marriott’s study. These students were placed in a similar immersion situation. These learners, like those in the Marriott study, were also adolescents. Like the students of Japanese, no special instruction for foreigners was provided. The fact that they lived in an integrated way in the host community meant that, unlike many older learners in a study abroad situation, they had no difficulty interacting with native speakers. Students in a study abroad program frequently have difficulty accessing native speakers due to the fact that the learners have to live in university residences or in homes where there are other non-native speakers. The only opportunity for interaction may be at mealtimes. Like Marriott’s learners of Japanese, the Canadian interprovincial exchange students had one-on-one contact with native speakers and generally a relatively intense contact with the host community. The data analysed were both quantitative and qualitative (test results and questionnaire findings) as in the Marriott study.

Regan (1995, 1996) studied anglophone learners of French in France. The variable chosen was the deletion of “ne” in the expression of negation. “Ne” deletion appears to be a highly sensitive sociolinguistic variable and a powerful indicator of formality, issues of power and solidarity, style and register. It was therefore felt to be an appropriate variable for the exploration of the acquisition of sociolinguistic norms in French as a second language. The question was how usage of this variable is affected by their stay abroad. The data for the study consists of controlled sociolinguistic interviews of between 45 minutes and an hour, on average. The first interviews were carried out just before the students left for France and the second set took place just after they returned. These interviews were based on modules developed by Labov and cover topics thought to elicit spontaneous speech. They were adapted to the lives and situations of the speakers who spent a year abroad. They covered areas such as relations between anglophone and francophone speakers, life in the cité universitaire (the university “dorms”), crime in the streets in France, comparative French and Irish male-female relations and the classic Labov “danger of death” module. The interviews were then transcribed in full and each token of “ne” was coded.

The subjects of the study were six university students who participated in a programme (ERASMUS), funded by the European Union, which helps university students to spend an academic year in another European country. Five of the six were in universities in France, and one was in Brussels. During this year the students attended the regular courses at the university and got credit for these. They generally lived in university residences. There was a system in place in which the students were assigned a host French family which invited them on occasion to spend time in their home. This was taken up by the students with varying regularity. In general, the amount of contact with native speakers in interactive situations varied with the individual. Although there was no quantitative data on the effect of native contact on language acquisition, the study would suggest that amount of contact did indeed result in better performance in relation to the variable studied. All of these studies attribute the relative success in the acquisition of the L2 partly to the fact that the learners are living in the native speech community and partly to the amount of contact with native speakers.

The Role of Input

Research in the past decade has focused increasingly on the central role of input. In particular, the importance of negotiated input and learning through interaction has been noted in Day (1986); Doughty (1991); Gass and Varonis (1994); Pica (1992), among others. Interaction is central to the social processes of SLA and is closely related to context of learning. Clearly, the type and amount of input available is conditioned by the environment and interaction with interlocuters. In relation to the study abroad environment, the role of input is related to where the learner is learning and how much contact and feedback he is getting from native speakers in the speech community in which he is living temporarily.

The studies of the acquisition of sociolinguistic competence show that the type and amount of input is an important factor. Marriott’s subjects were eight students who were aged 15 to 18 years. The speakers were interviewed by native speakers before they left for Japan. They were also interviewed on their return to Australia. All interviews were videotaped. Native speakers judged the acceptability of the politeness patterns. The speakers had maximum opportunity for exposure to Japanese, with lots of contact with native speakers. Marriott studied the use of native speaker variation rules. Variation rules apply to the use of Standard and Common Japanese, politeness styles, formality, written and spoken language and code switching. Politeness styles involve addressee and reference honorifics which communicate distance between speakers. The students’ ability to manage variation rules was analysed in the pre- and post-exchange interviews. Four variables were examined in the study: honorific style, requesting behaviour, openings and closings and personal reference forms. Before the stay in Japan, the students all used the polite honorific style, and almost never used the plain form. After the exchange, all increased their use of the plain style. However, the non-native use of styles was not according to native speakers’ norms. Their mixing of plain and polite forms was largely haphazard. Marriott concludes that they did not acquire the ability to switch according to native norms. In relation to requesting behaviour, all of the students managed to transmit adequately the request and employed a range of polite patterns, even if grammatical deviations occurred. In relation to personal reference forms, the students learned to use a diverse range of third person reference forms for family referents. However, the speakers after the stay in Japan showed a number of deviant forms in politeness. The two beginners had successfully learned the rules for the use of appropriate forms.

Marriott concluded that, of the four major variables examined, the learners became very competent in handling polite formulaic expressions after their year abroad. This was seen in their native-like management of appropriate formulae in the opening and closing sequences of the interview, and also in the opening and closing segments of the role play in which they took part. They were not able to do this before the stay abroad. They had most trouble with the selection of style, tending to use a mixture of plain and polite styles which was not the Japanese norm. Marriott proposes primarily an input explanation for the lack of complete mastery of sociolinguistic competence in this area: the non-reciprocal nature of variation. The learners in this case did not get the polite form in the speech of older native speakers to them. As well as the input problem, Marriott suggests interference from the first language, English, which lacks such explicit stylistic variation rules, and also the complexity of the Japanese system.

Marriott’s study shows the importance of input in relation to the acquisition of sociolinguistic competence as regards politeness forms. Because the learners did not get any negative feedback from natives, they concluded that they were acting appropriately. In addition, this area got limited attention in instruction. Marriott suggests in relation to future strategies for classroom instruction in Japanese that exchange students cannot acquire addressee honorifics unless they receive and utilize corrective feedback, whether this comes from interlocutors or as part of some form of instruction. She suggests there is also need for practice, that is, output. This was not available in Japan, and so deviations persisted. She proposes the need to look at the use of these forms by the learners when they get back to Australia, and ultimately to provide explicit instruction. She refers to a longitudinal case study by Hashimoto (1993), who found that the speaker on her return to Australia (who had used only the plain form in Japan), had switched back to the polite form as a result of negative feedback from her teacher.

Siegal (1995) also carried out a study of the acquisition of sociolinguistic competence by English L1 learners of Japanese. As in the Marriott study, the very important politeness forms in Japanese were studied. Siegal focused on individual differences in relation to the acquisition of sociolinguistic competence. She studied two individual women learners and their everyday encounters during their stay abroad in Japan. The two speakers studied were Western upper-middle-class women, older than the adolescent speakers in the Marriott study, and they were advanced learners, as opposed to the low-proficiency learners of the Marriott study. Seven types of data were collected and a discourse analysis approach was used in the analysis of the speakers’ interaction with natives in Japan.

The research questions posed were:

what was it like for these women to use honorific language?
what choices the speakers made on what kind of language depending on how they saw their presentation of themselves.

Siegal points out that the representation of self is complicated for language-learning adults speaking a language in which they are not completely proficient. The learners want to maintain or construct a “face” while presenting themselves in Japanese. They want to present an image to their Japanese interlocutors, and this with limited linguistic means.

The question for these speakers was how to create a face while following the guidelines for appropriate behaviour. Their difficulties resided in the fact that: (a) they were not proficient enough in Japanese, and (b) they found it difficult to accept certain Japanese societal rules concerning the conduct of everyday behaviour. Siegal comments on the conflicting needs of the learner in relation to sociolinguistic competence:

the need to speak pragmatically correct Japanese, the need to get things

done, the need to maintain face and the value that is placed on non

native speaker pragmatic competence within the larger society.

As in the Marriott study, the role of input is a crucial one in the acquisition of sociolinguistic competence. The performance of Speaker 1 in this study was directly related to input. She had a difficulty often experienced by learners in a study abroad situation. They are confronted with different kinds of conversational forms which do not appear in the input they have had in the classroom, are not aware of the different meanings these forms have in the speech community, and therefore have pragmatic difficulties in interaction with natives.

Regan (1995) finds that in relation to the deletion of “ne” in French L2, the learners who have been living in France and have had contact with young native speakers tend to overgeneralise the use of non-prestige forms. Given contact with the native speech community they apply the native speaker behaviour which uses the prestige form in monitored more than casual style. But they also, after the stay in France, delete more “ne” in monitored style. This seems to be a case of “covert” prestige described by Trudgill (1974) for native speech. Adamson and Regan (1991) reported a case of second language learners using high rates of non-prestige forms in monitored style in order to accommodate to a covertly prestigious native-speaker form. A possible explanation may be due to input. These young speakers, whose general behaviour values non-traditional mores, develop a resistance to the prestige norm during contact with native French speakers of their own age and values, precisely those speakers who have the highest deletion rates in the native community. Therefore the non-natives do not use the prestige variant. They adopt the non-prestige form and reject the prestige one. A likely possibility (although difficult to quantify due to lack of precise data on this issue) is the issue of contact with native speakers. The students may not have come into contact with as many speakers of the prestige norm. They would have had minimal contact with university lecturers but much more with French students of their own age. A second point to be made about these learners is that several of them actively sought contact with native speakers. Gardner (1979), in explaining accommodation for integrative purposes by minority groups to majority languages, says that these speakers will actively seek out contact with natives. These speakers wish for further integration into the French-speaking community. Many professed a strong desire to live and work in France ultimately, at least for an extended period of several years.

From these results, it may be that input on the form of contact with native speakers and interaction with them is a crucial factor in the usage of these L2 learners, in relation to “ne” deletion. Those who had never been to France previously deleted not at all, and contact with natives during the year in France, increased their deletion rate substantially. On the other hand, the speaker who had had contact with natives previous to the year abroad, and who did not have much contact with natives during the academic year, actually decreased.

All of these studies, then, show the importance of the role of input in the acquisition of sociolinguistic competence. Marriott’s study points clearly to an input explanation for lack of mastery in one area of sociolinguistic competence. Regan’s shows that contact with native speakers and the consequent nature of the input had an important effect on the acquisition of sociolinguistic native speech norms. It seems also from all of these studies that the input may have to be modified or negotiated for best effect.

Level of proficiency

An important factor in relation to the acquisition of language in a study abroad situation is level of proficiency. In general, the research in this area seems to find that lower proficiency learners seem to make the most obvious advances (Brecht et al. 1990; De Keyser, 1991; Freed, 1995; Marriot, 1995; Hart, Lapkin and Swain, 1994, 1995; Ginsberg, 1992.). All of these studies found that lower proficiency learners made the greater gains initially. What is not yet clear is whether this finding holds true for the acquisition of sociolinguistic and sociocultural competence. Kasper (1986) says: “it may be that advanced learners are better able to grasp the sociolinguistic aspects of an L2.” She feels that the advanced learner is better equipped to learn the subtle registers in pragmatics — politeness registers, for example — than the beginner (Kasper 1996). Many studies suggest the importance of the level of proficiency as a variable in acquisition during a stay abroad. De Keyser has noted that there is a differential effect of experience abroad as a function of the students’ level of achievement before the period abroad. This may be related also to ability profiles and personality traits. Möhle (1984), in relation to French learners’ improvement of their grammar in German during a stay in Germany, suggested that this could be due as much to the lower proficiency of the French students at the beginning as to the highly inflected character of German.

Another factor which may well interact with level of proficiency and play a role in the acquisition of sociolinguistic competence is the degree of contact with natives. Freed (1995), for instance, points out that advanced learners sought more contact with native speakers. Bialystok, (1990), Dewaele, (1992) and Regan (1995) are among the studies which find amount of contact with natives to play an important role in acquisition in general.

The studies of sociolinguistic competence and the study abroad situation appear to bear out the results of previous research. In Marriott’s study, most of the speakers had studied Japanese at secondary school — some for about five years and some for three years. They were classed as low-level proficiency speakers. Two had not studied at school but had participated in a Rotary International exchange program, and these were treated as beginners. Marriott’s low proficiency learners all learned to use appropriate native speaker politeness forms (although not quite like native speaker use). The two beginners showed a performance similar to the other learners on politeness forms. On requesting behaviour they scored slightly lower, but this was due to the fact that the amount of speech was less overall. In terms of accuracy, one of the beginners performed better than the other. There was not conspicuous variation in the expression of politeness between the two beginners and the students who had previously studied Japanese.

Level of proficiency was a central focus for the study carried out by Hart, Lapkin and Swain on the acquisition of French by anglophone Canadian speakers. Their principal research question was whether the greatest linguistic gains are made by the least proficient learners. This issue was explored by examining three main areas:

what gains in French language proficiency are made during the three-month stay in Quebec?
do gains differ by skill area? (speaking, listening, reading, writing)
do gains differ by proficiency level prior to the exchange?

These secondary school students in grades 10-12 had a background in either core French or immersion. Core French means a “traditional” program in second language instruction with 40 minutes of instruction in French as a second language daily. French immersion programs fall into two categories: early immersion begins at kindergarten and involves instruction only in French (later some English is introduced); late immersion begins at grade 8 and up to 80% of the day is devoted to instruction in French. This continues until the start of secondary school where both early and late immersion students may take two to four school subjects through the medium of French each year. The students’ use of language while in Quebec was analysed. One issue looked at was the role of out-of-class or informal contact with the target language in the development of proficiency, which seems to be an important issue in the study abroad experience (Regan 1995, Dewaele 1995, Marriott 1995, Freed 1995).

Students were asked halfway through the stay about how frequently they engaged in speaking and writing activities. Immersion students reported a far higher frequency of extended speech activity during a typical day than did core students. However, by the end of the stay, the initial gap between immersion and core students had narrowed considerably, with the core group reporting a far greater increase in more extended speech patterns. The students reported that “with friends” was the context most frequently used followed by “with the twin’s family.” The francophone classroom did not provide many opportunities for interaction.

In relation to general French language skills, improvements were reported by almost all of the students. Only a tiny minority reported no improvement. Substantial majorities in all groups felt that their oral skills and confidence in speaking had improved a great deal. Specifically in relation to gains in sociolinguistic skills, the students’ perceptions were solicited. There were five questions dealing with matters of style on both pre-test and post-test questionnaires. The first item was meant to gauge the relative importance students attached to command of formal aspects of language in general. The students were asked to agree or disagree with the following statement: “The important thing is to say what you want to say not how you say it.” On the pre-test questionnaire, students were split on the question. Just over half of the core French students and almost half of immersion students agreed. On the post-visit questionnaire the students are less divided: a majority in all groups agreed with the statement.

Another area explored by the questionnaire was the command of different styles. The first item states that the students writing style was “pretty much the same” whether they were writing a friendly letter or a formal essay. The second and third items stated respectively that “I would-n’t know the right style to talk in formal situations such as meeting a visiting teacher from France” and “to talk to French teenagers.” Students were asked to agree or disagree with these statements. On both the pre-and post-visit questionnaires, most of the students in all groups claimed to be able to use the different styles involved in writing a friendly letter versus a school essay. Only in the case of immersion students is the post-visit majority notably larger. The question of formal and informal speaking styles, however, provided different results. On the pre-visit questionnaire, students in core groups were much less confident about mastery of formal style than the majority of immersion students. On the second item, just over half of both core French groups agreed that they didn’t know how to talk to French teenagers, and just over half of immersion students indicated that they did. Post-visit responses are dramatically different. About two-thirds of core French students and 86 % of immersion students disagreed that they would not know how to talk in formal situations. Virtually all students, regardless of program, now indicated that they know how to talk to French teenagers. Based on these studies it appears that the gains in sociolinguistic competence during the stay in Quebec were significant. So the initial hypothesis that students with initially lower French language proficiency will make great gains as a result of submersion in a French environment was supported.

Regan’s quantitative study of the acquisition of sociolinguistic native speaker norms finds also that the lowest proficiency speakers made the most progress in relation to “ne” deletion. The two speakers who had never previously been to a French-speaking country had significantly higher rates of deletion after the stay abroad and made greater advances in deletion rates than the speakers who had had previous contact with the native speech community.

In general, then, level of proficiency as a factor in relation to the acquisition of sociolinguistic competence seems to behave in the same way as it does for gains in other areas of acquisition in the study abroad situation. Marriott, Regan, Lapkin, Hart and Swain, and Siegal all find (like Freed 1990, Lapkin 1995 and Ginsberg 1992) that lower proficiency learners made the greatest gains and the lower-level learners behave in the same way as the more proficient ones after a stay abroad.

Focus on native speaker sociolinguistic norms

It seems generally true to say that second language acquisition is characterised by a drive towards approximating native speaker behaviour and accommodation to native speech norms. Many learners with an integrative motivation (the desire to identify with native speakers of the culture, as Gardner defines it) want to become like members of the linguistic community, if we take community to mean a network of relationships. How to “fit in” to the native speaker community frequently seems to be a goal for those who go abroad to live for a time in the native speech community. It seems equally clear that this accommodation involves more than structural and grammatical knowledge. It is not clear, however, what makes the speaker sound native. Defining the notion of nativeness or “sounding like a native” may be connected with sociolinguistic knowledge, and the perception of the speaker as native-like may be related at least in part to sociolinguistic competence. This competence involves linguistic as well as pragmatic and general cultural knowledge. 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.


Freed, for instance, points to the difficulties of quantifying the notion of fluency which may be part of “sounding native” (Freed 1995). She suggests that fluency involves features like rate of speech, fillers, modifiers, and use of formulae. Several studies indicate that these features seem to create a perception of nativeness and can be seen as related to sociolinguistic competence. Möhle and Raupach (1984) studied German learners of French and French students of German in a study abroad context. They found that grammar, in terms of frequency of mistakes or length and syntactic complexity of sentences, did not change in any noticeable way as a result of several months spent in France by the German students. What changed was the speech rate, the number of pauses (which decreased) and the length of stretches of speech between pauses (which increased). Raupach (1984) showed how the fluency of a German learner of French after a stay in France was largely due to her use of formulae, standardized “fillers,” “modifiers,” and “organisers” (bon, vraiment, c’est). He found that a German speaker of French L2 seemed more fluent because of her use of formulae. DeKeyser (1991) found that whereas there was not a great difference in oral skills between the abroad group and the stay at home group, there were improvements in fluency in the study abroad speakers. Also, De Keyser, in his study of the use of ser and estar by American students who spent time in Spain, examined communication strategies. In relation to two different learners who had very different communication styles, he found that one wanted to be like a native. The other wanted to be seen as a learner. The first speaker used language “as a garment that was to make him look more like the natives.” He also used lots of fillers such as pues, bueno. In a presentation of a few minutes in a history class , he used pues 3 times, u todo 6 times, bueno 6 times and es que 10 times. In response to their respective proficiency, natives were positive about the first speaker (who wanted to appear native-like) and negative about the other. The difference in style between these speakers and their preference for certain communication strategies had a considerable impact on the way the learners were perceived by native speakers and were sought out or avoided for informal contact as a result of these differing styles.

Equally in relation to fluency, Freed (1995), in a study of American students studying in France, found that these students spoke more and at a faster rate. They had fewer pauses and the students who lived abroad had less likelihood of small clusters of dysfluencies than those who had not studied abroad. In addition, their uninterrupted or fluent speech runs were longer. Laudet (1993) found that Irish students of French for Business had a substantial increase in fluency as a result of residence abroad. The native-like quality of the students’ speech was enhanced by a reduction in pauses, appropriate native sounding “drawls” for hesitations. She suggests that these are used as a strategy which allows the learner additional time for thought and language processing. Lafford (1995) found that learners of Spanish L2 who study abroad develop a broader range of communicative strategies for initiating, maintaining and terminating a communicative situation, while their speech is more rapid and contains more repairs. Towell (1995) finds evidence for the crucial importance of residence abroad to the development of fluency in the second language. Walsh (1994) finds gains in fluency in learners of German L2 during a stay abroad, and the Canadian school-level studies report improved fluency after a stay in the speech community (Clement 1978, Gardner et al. 1978). Again the evidence from the sociolinguistic studies would seem to bear out the findings on fluency in general.

Variation and native speaker norms

Variation is central to language and variation in the native speech community is a feature of what the second language learner must grasp. First language literature and variation linguistics tells us that children are sensitive from a very early age to sociolinguistic speech norms (Roberts and Labov 1995). As we have seen earlier, a central tenet of a variationist approach to language is that the alternative forms of linguistic elements do not occur randomly. Their occurrence is due to the type of linguistic entity itself, style, and social factors. The position of the entity in relation to the evolution of language and language change is also important in the context of its appearance. The native speaker makes the choice between linguistic forms in a predictable way. The second language learner must ultimately move towards similar choices to those of the native speaker. A knowledge of community speech norms is important for the learner if s/he is to be accepted as a member of that community.

A related area to community speech norms is the issue of pedagogical norms (see Valdman 1998). Second language researchers are concerned with how learners relate to classroom norms. Do they do as they are taught in classrooms when they go to live in the native speech community, or do they accommodate to native speech norms? For instance, the Canadian study by Lapkin, Hart and Swain, shows that exchange students struggle to cope with a “standard” dialect different from the Parisian model they have been taught, and with regional dialects and stylistic differences of the teenage subculture. Another question which has not yet been fully considered is whether these speakers decolloquialise when they return to the classroom after a stay abroad. Other issues related to variation include the question of native speaker prestige norms and second language learners. Are they aware of these? Do they choose to use prestige variants or community vernacular norms? What influences this choice? What is the role of input in relation to this? Does it depend on those with whom they have contact? The sociolinguistic studies discussed will focus on a range of such issues, from sociolinguistic native speech norms to politeness strategies.

Regan’s study (1995) of the acquisition of sociolinguistic competence focuses on the use of native sociolinguistic speech norms. This study takes a variationist approach. This variationist perspective pays attention to areas of acquisition which are unavailable to many other research approaches in second language acquisition. Where other approaches can tell us about general directions, variation work has access to the detail of the learner’s grammar. In this instance, for this study, the learner’s grammar can be compared to the native speaker’s grammar and the relationship between the two can be explored. The use of language during the stay abroad was addressed here. The subjects were six advanced Irish learners of French L2. The study focused on one sociolinguistic variable: deletion of ne, the first particle of the negative in French. It was felt that a quantitative study would best arrive at a precise and detailed description of the changes which take place as a result of the stay in France.

An analysis of the combined data from the two interviews — before and after the stay abroad — was carried out to ascertain whether the stay in France made a difference to ne deletion rates. It showed a dramatic rise in the rate of deletion. Several factors were hypothesised to affect this variable. Among those which were shown to affect ne deletion was lexicalisation. Whether the speaker used a lexicalised phrase like Je ne sais pas or Ce n’est pas or Il ne faut pas, or, on the other hand, a non-lexicalised phrase, has a strong constraining effect on the deletion of ne. This is similar to the behaviour of native speakers. However, the non-native speakers deleted more than natives. They overgeneralised.

Style also had an effect on ne deletion, with monitored style favouring the retention of ne, and casual style deleting more. Not much change takes place from before and after the stay abroad. The native speaker pragmatic norms in relation to negation are: “when you are being formal in French, you retain ne, and alternatively in casual speech, you delete.” The non-natives seem to understand the native speaker rule. There is a slight tendency to delete more in informal style on the part of the non-natives, but style is not nearly the constraint on ne deletion that it is for the native speakers. After one academic year in France, they have not quite learned the native speaker norms, as they are overgeneralising. It could well be that after a further period in France, they would eventually nuance their frequency of ne deletion to approximate more precisely the native speaker norm.

In relation to ne deletion rates as a barometer of the acquisition of sociolinguistic speech norms, the effect of the year abroad is very striking. The rates of ne deletion more than doubles after the year abroad, which suggests that something important is happening in relation to the adoption of native speaker community speech norms. It seems as if at this stage the learner is sensitive to dialect issues in the second language. The speakers become more non-standard due to contact with natives. They are acquiring the grammar of the native speech community, so just as the “normal” French person has a variable system, we have empirical evidence of the second language learner also acquiring the details of variability, precisely in the drive toward integration into the native speech community. So the data shows that a period spent in the native speech community affects the acquisition of sociolinguistic competence in an important way. It also seems that this is affected by the amount of contact with native speakers while abroad and that individual variation plays a role.

Regan suggests the future usefulness of seeing if further time spent in the community would result in a refining of the rule which would take it closer to the native speaker norm. In any case the study suggests that contact with natives for advanced learners is necessary for the acquisition of a community dialect and sociolinguistic competence and ultimately integration into the native speech community. This confirms the results of Marriott, Siegal and Lapkin, Hart and Swain.

Formulaic language

The use of formulaic language seems to be an important phenomenon in learner language. There is evidence that both early learners and more advanced learners use this kind of routinised formulaic speech segments for a variety of reasons. Often the learner uses these almost automatic phrases to “buy” time for decisions on other areas of language use (Nattinger and De Carrico 1992, Raupach 1984). From Mc Laughlin’s (1987) perspective from cognitive psychology, acquisition is the passage from controlled processes to automatised ones. Raupach (1987) has argued that the quantitative difference between performance before and after the stay in France can be attributed to procedural learning and automatization resulting from practice.

In Marriott’s study of Japanese L2, all of the speakers used a wide variety of routine formulae: they had successfully acquired polite formulaic utterances. In relation to openings and closing, a comparison was made of the students’ use of formulaic routines in the opening and closing sequences of the interviews, and their ability to produce a self introduction was considered. The data showed the students’ management of formulaic routines with their use — appropriate or otherwise — in the opening and closings of the pre- and post-exchange interviews. The study demonstrated that at the end of the stay in Japan the students had successfully acquired polite routinized expressions for use in both the opening and closing sequences of the interviews. They used rapidly-spoken utterances, had achieved ease of delivery and the ability to select an appropriate level of politeness. Speaker 2 in the Siegal study makes much use of formulaic phrases, which serves as a strategy to cover up her difficulty with the complete incorporation of concepts such as the beneficial relationships between people. Regan found that formulaic phrases favoured ne deletion in the successful approximation of vernacular native speech norms.

Individual differences

Individual differences seem to play a major role in the acquisition of second languages in the context of the year abroad. Much research has found that there is a greater range of individual variation among learners who spend time abroad than those studying at home (Huebner 1995, De Keyser 1986; Freed 1995, Guntermann 1995, Regan 1995). De Keyser (1986), in his study of Americans studying abroad, found that the differences between his abroad group and the stay at home group were much less significant than were individual differences among students in the year abroad group. There were clear differences, however, within the overseas group in monitoring style and in preference for certain communication strategies. These differences had a strong impact on the way the learners were perceived by the native speakers, and were consequently sought out or avoided for informal interaction.

In relation particularly to the studies of sociolinguistic competence and the study abroad experience, individual differences also seem to be an important factor, which interact with others such as level of proficiency and amount of contact with natives. De Keyser suggests that personality differences, for instance, can influence the amount of contact with natives sought by the learner. Regan’s study of the acquisition of sociolinguistic norms found important individual variation between the speakers. This individual variation between the speakers may be due in part simply to the fact that there will always be variation in all sociolinguistic sampling, but there were also differences between the speakers’ experience which would account for some of the variation. For instance, the amount of contact with native speakers in interactive situations varied with the individual. This information was elicited both by the interviews, which contained much detail about the experience abroad, and also by a questionnaire filled in by the students after their return. Issues addressed in the questionnaire and the interviews included: number of years of study, previous trips to French-speaking countries, place of residence abroad, (university residence, with a native family, separate apartment) amount of contact with natives, attitude to native speakers. The study identifies group patterns as well as individual variation among the speakers. It demonstrates that while individual variation undoubtedly exists in relation to learners, in this instance, after the stay in France, there was less variation between individuals. They were more similar in relation to this particular variable at least, after a year abroad. Now they are all deleting ne to a noticeable extent (though, of course, variation between them still exists).

Siegal’s study focuses primarily on individual differences. In the detailed study of two speakers learning Japanese she describes the acquisition of pragmatic and stylistic competence. The factors influencing their acquisition of these areas were knowledge of how Japanese women speak, the overlap between politeness and “women’s language” and their view of Japanese women and themselves while they were in Japan. Siegal found that differences occurred because of the images the speakers wanted to present and the contexts they interacted in. She suggests that the learning abroad experience is important for learners of Japanese for elements which they do not manage to pick up in the classroom. Similarly, as we have seen earlier, Marriott’s quantitative study of the acquisition of Japanese by secondary-level Australian students shows that there was great individual variation in the acquisition of politeness norms, and also, like Siegal’s and Regan’s speakers, their performance deviates from the native speaker norm. It seems that, as with other areas of competence, individual differences play an important role in the acquisition of sociolinguistic and pragmatic competence.


In general, it seems we can draw the following conclusion from the recent research into the acquisition of sociolinguistic competence: study and living abroad has significant benefits for the acquisition of sociolinguistic competence. Input is important in this context, as is contact with native speakers. Lowest proficiency learners made the greatest initial gains. However for greatest effectiveness, it is important for the input to be modified. Stay abroad periods significantly affect the acquisition of native speaker variation, a variation ranging from low-level phonological aspects of language to issues of style and formality. Several studies showed that a period in the native speech community affects sensitivity to dialect issues. Related aspects of language use by the learner such as fluency and use of formulaic phrases are influenced by living abroad. Significantly, advances made on the acquisition of sociolinguistic skills were reported from studies which adopted very different research perspectives and methodologies. Similar evidence and results were found in studies using very different approaches. The general self-reported improvements by Canadians was confirmed by empirical data on a specific variable used by Irish speakers. Both quantitative and qualitative studies concur in finding that a period abroad affects the acquisition of sociolinguistic competence in an important way.

However, despite the very considerable improvements, stay abroad alone does not seem to produce complete native speaker competence. Several studies show that there was still a gap between even proficient L2 learners who have studied abroad and native speaker linguistic behaviour. In the light of these difficulties, some researchers point to the implications for (1) stay abroad arrangements prior to departure, and (2) classroom interventions on the return of the speakers after the time spent away.

In terms of research in the future in this area, in order to arrive at the most complete picture of this area of acquisition and its relation to living abroad, more fine-grained studies are needed. These will provide the most reliable evidence in terms of both product and process for the way sociolinguistic competence is acquired.


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