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«Host Language Proficiency, Intercultural Sensitivity, and Study Abroad Jane Jackson The Chinese University of Hong Kong Introduction The number of ...»

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Frontiers: The Interdisciplinary Journal of Study Abroad

Host Language Proficiency, Intercultural

Sensitivity, and Study Abroad

Jane Jackson

The Chinese University of Hong Kong


The number of foreign language students who join study abroad programs

continues to increase annually, especially those who take part in short-

term sojourns lasting eight weeks or less (Donnelly-Smith, 2009; Institute

of International Education 2009; Spencer and Tuma, 2008). What can be

accomplished in such a short stay in the host culture? Is it possible for sojourners to enhance their proficiency in the host language and simultaneously develop their ability to communicate appropriately in intercultural encounters in the host culture? Does the developmental sequence of intercultural competence parallel that of linguistic competence, as suggested by Bennett, Bennett & Allen (2003)? What steps can be taken to maximize the language and cultural learning of short-term sojourners?

This paper focuses on a case study of advanced foreign language students who took part in a short-term study abroad program. By examining their journeys, from their home environment to the host culture and back again, we gain a deeper understanding of the development of their intercultural communicative competence. In the process, the linkage between linguistic and intercultural development is problematized. While the participants were Hong Kong university students who sojourned in England, elements of their stories should reach across ethnic, linguistic, and geographic lines and resonate with foreign language learners in other parts of the world.

Developmental Model of Intercultural Sensitivity (DMIS) The Developmental Model of Intercultural Sensitivity (DMIS), which was developed by Bennett (1993) to explain the acquisition of intercultural competence, provided the conceptual framework for the study. Based on the observed and reported experiences of people in intercultural encounters, it centers on the constructs of ethnocentricism and ethnorelativism (Bennett 1993, 1997; Bennett & Bennett, 2004; Landis, Bennett & Bennett, 2004).

167 Jane Jackson In the former, “the worldview of one’s own culture is central to all reality” (Bennett, 1993: 30), whereas the latter is linked to “being comfortable with many standards and customs and to having an ability to adapt behavior and judgments to a variety of interpersonal settings” (p. 26). In the DMIS, intercultural sensitivity is thought to involve personal and cognitive growth and the emergence of “a mindset capable of understanding from within and from without both one’s own culture and other cultures” (Bennett et al., 2003: 252). Further, consistent with contemporary critical, poststructuralist perspectives (e.g., Guilherme, 2002; Jackson, 2008; Pavlenko & Lantolf, 2000), in this model, identity is viewed as relational and dynamic, rather than static and unitary.

More specifically, the DMIS theorizes that individuals move from ethnocentric stages (Denial, Defense, and Minimization), through ethnorelative stages of development (Acceptance, Adaptation, and Integration) as they acquire intercultural competence. People, however, do not necessarily follow a linear progression (e.g., advancing to the next stage in sequence). Due to unpleasant intercultural experiences or acute culture shock, for example, they may retreat to a lower level of sensitivity.

The DMIS is based on the premise that ethnorelative worldviews are more effective in fostering the attitudes, knowledge, and behavior that facilitate successful intercultural communication and adjustment in unfamiliar cultural settings (Kim, 2001, 2005). This intercultural competence is defined by Bennett and Bennett (2004) as “the ability to communicate effectively in cross-cultural situations and to relate appropriately in a variety of cultural contexts” (p. 149). While the DMIS offers study abroad researchers a theorybased explanation of sojourner competence in intercultural encounters, it does not specifically address host language proficiency.

More recently, efforts have been made to extend the DMIS to link foreign/second language learning with intercultural development. Bennett et al. (2003) speculate that there is a “typical fit between language proficiency levels and developmental levels of intercultural sensitivity” (p. 255). They speculate that learners who have an advanced level of proficiency in the target language are apt to be in an ethnorelative stage of cultural development (e.g., adaptation/ integration), whereas those who are less proficient are likely to possess an ethnocentric mindset (e.g., denial/ defense). These hypotheses were scrutinized in my study of advanced foreign language sojourners.

Empirical research on intercultural competence and study abroad The DMIS has served as the theoretical basis for the investigation of

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intercultural competence in such diverse populations as second or foreign language learners, pre-service or in-service teachers, teacher educators, student sojourners, healthcare professionals, missionaries, and international aid workers. In the following studies the Intercultural Development Inventory (IDI) (Hammer and Bennett, 2002) was used to determine the relative intercultural sensitivity of student sojourners, as defined by the DMIS.

Using a mixed-method approach, Medina (2008) assessed the intercultural sensitivity of 28 American university students who participated in one of two study abroad language programs: 18 attended a 7-week program in Taxco, Mexico and 10 took part in a 16-week sojourn in Mexico City. By the end of their stay, the longer-term sojourners demonstrated a more sophisticated understanding and awareness of nuances in the host culture (e.g., discourse, politics), than those with less time abroad. Interestingly, the IDI revealed that the participants had inflated opinions about their degree of intercultural sensitivity, rating it at least one stage higher than their actual level.

In France, Engle and Engle (2004) investigated the French language learning and intercultural sensitivity of American sojourners who were participating in either a semester or full-year-abroad program. The longerterm sojourners made significantly more progress in cultural understanding and intercultural communicative competence, with the greatest advances in their IDI scores occurring in the second half of their stay. The IDI was also used by Anderson, Lawton, Rexeisen, and Hubbard (2006) to measure the impact of a short-term study abroad program on the intercultural awareness and sensitivity of 23 American business students in Europe. As a group, the sojourners lessened their ethnocentric tendencies and became more willing to accept and adapt to cultural differences. The researchers concluded that welldesigned short-term programs have the potential to foster the development of intercultural competence in student sojourners.

The studies described above investigated the intercultural sensitivity development of American students on sojourns ranging from 7 weeks to a year. Would an investigation of Hong Kong sojourners in England yield similar findings? Is a 5-week stay in the host culture sufficient to enhance the intercultural communication skills, understanding, and sensitivity of advanced foreign language sojourners? In the following case study, I consider the extent to which the DMIS accounts for their intercultural learning. In the process, I explore the accuracy of Bennett et al.’s (2003) hypothesized linkage between second language proficiency and intercultural sensitivity.

169Jane Jackson

The Special English Stream: A short-term study abroad program for English majors In 2001, in line with the Chinese University’s internationalization aims, the English Department established the Special English Stream (SES), a study abroad program designed to enhance the English language proficiency, intercultural sensitivity, literary awareness, and intercultural communicative competence of English majors. In particular, it aimed to foster their sociopragmatic awareness, which Thomas (1984) defines as knowledge of how language is affected by social and cultural features in a particular context.

The program encourages the participants to become more confident when communicating in English in a variety of contexts, including informal, social situations.

The SES consists of pre-sojourn seminars in applied linguistics (ethnographic research), intercultural communication (culture-general/ culture-specific elements) and English literature; a 5-week sojourn in England;

post-sojourn debriefing sessions; and an undergraduate dissertation related to the experience abroad. The sojourn includes a homestay component, literary and cultural studies at a university in central England, excursions (e.g., to the theatre, museums), and small-scale ethnographic projects (Jackson, 2006). A unique feature of the SES is that all elements are credit-bearing and integrated into the Bachelor of Arts program of studies. For most cohorts, the sojourn component has been subsidized by a University grant.

The Study Research design and aims To better understand the language and cultural development of the cohort that is the focus of this article, I adopted a mixed-method case study approach.

For more than a year, I had the opportunity to spend time with the students in both informal and formal situations; this afforded me the opportunity to observe their language and intercultural development. This study differed from earlier ethnographic investigations of SES groups (Jackson, 2008), in that I also employed a quantitative instrument (the IDI) to provide an objective measure of the participants’ cultural sensitivity at strategic intervals.

The group profile The SES cohort under study was comprised of thirteen (12 females and 1 male) full-time English majors in the second year of a three-year BA program.

On entry into the SES, the students had an average age of 20.2 years and a grade point average of 3.3. All of them grew up in Hong Kong and spoke

170 Frontiers: The Interdisciplinary Journal of Study Abroad

Cantonese as their first language. Seven also spoke Putonghua (Mandarin) as an additional language; 2 were familiar with a Mainland Chinese dialect (the mother tongue of one of their parents); and 3 spoke basic French. All of the students had an advanced level of proficiency in English with an average of ‘B’ on the ‘Use of English’ A-level exam at the end of their secondary schooling.

Before the sojourn, one female student (S5), who spoke Cantonese, Putonghua, French, and English, had participated in two study abroad programs: a yearlong exchange program at an English-medium university in Canada and a short-term French immersion program in France. Another female student (S6) had joined secondary school classmates on a 3-week tour of Australia. The travel experiences of the remainder of the group had largely consisted of short family trips to Mainland China or organized tours to other Asian countries.

Before becoming a member of the SES, none of the participants had ever taken a course in intercultural or cross-cultural communication, anti-racist education, or multiculturalism. Further, except for the student who had spent a year in Canada, their use of English had largely been restricted to academic settings in Hong Kong. Most had had very limited exposure to informal, social English before traveling to England. Only a few had personal relationships with culturally (or ethnically) dissimilar others.

All of the participants signed a consent form as part of the home institution’s research ethics review procedures. The students were assured that their participation (or non-participation) would not affect their grades.

Although free to withdraw at any time, none did.

Instrumentation Qualitative measures Pre-sojourn qualitative data included: an application letter to join the SES, a language and cultural identity narrative, an intercultural reflections journal, open-ended surveys, and an interview that prompted the participants to reflect on: their cultural background, language use, identity, previous travels/ study abroad experiences, intercultural contact, and aspirations/ concerns about the impending trip to England. During this phase I kept detailed field notes.

As well as my field notes, qualitative data collected during the sojourn included

a diary and weekly open-ended surveys designed to draw out student views about:

their intercultural adjustment, their awareness and reactions to cultural differences, their use of English in daily life, their identities, their perception of their intercultural communication skills and sensitivity; and their investigations of a cultural scene.

Data about the students’ intercultural adjustment and behavior was also gathered from their instructors/ homestay co-coordinator at the host institution.

171Jane Jackson

Post-sojourn qualitative data included: an open-ended survey, an interview with the participants about their sojourn and re-entry experiences. In particular, the interviewees were encouraged to reflect on the impact of study abroad on: their intercultural awareness and sensitivity, self-conception, and intercultural communication skills. During a 3-month period, I supervised the development of the ethnographic dissertation of those who chose this option.

This afforded me the opportunity to have further informal conversations with them about their sojourn and re-entry experiences. I continued to keep field notes during this phase of the study.

Quantitative data I employed the Intercultural Development Inventory (IDI) (Hammer, 2009; Hammer & Bennett, 2002; Hammer, Bennett & Wiseman, 2003) to measure the participants’ intercultural sensitivity/ worldview orientation to cultural difference as conceptualized in the DMIS. This psychometric instrument has demonstrated construct validity and reliability (Hammer, 2009; Hammer et al., 2003; Paige, Jacobs-Cassuto, Yershova & DeJaeghere,

2003) and, as was noted in the literature review, is widely used in study abroad research.

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