Section IV: Linguistic development

Linguistic development of Spanish heritage learners in study abroad: Considerations, implications, and future directions

Chelsea Escalante, Carolina Viera, and

Melissa Patino- Vega


Study abroad (SA) and other types of immersive stays have long been hailed as an excellent way for language learners to gain proficiency and confidence in the target language (TL). Most empirical research has supported this widely held belief, demonstrating that students often - although not always - return from abroad with increased linguistic abilities in the TL, including gains in overall oral fluency, writing skills, and lexical diversity and sophistication (Foster, 2009; Jiménez-Jiménez, 2010; Tracy-Ventura, 2017).1 The majority of this research, however, relies on data from second language learners (L2Ls). Heritage language learners (HLLs), on the other hand - who have very different linguistic profiles than L2Ls and are a more heterogeneous group regarding proficiency (Montrul, 2010, 2013; Zyzik, 2016) - have been underrepresented in SA research, especially in studies that explore their linguistic development. To date, most research on Spanish HLLs (SHLLs) abroad has focused on identity, motivations, and accommodation to regional dialectal features as opposed to measuring linguistic gains (see the introduction of this volume). Furthermore, most of the existing studies on SHLLs abroad rely on students’ self-reports (Shively, 2016). The lack of empirical research has made it challenging to develop general conclusions regarding linguistic development among SHLLs within an SA context.2

This theoretical chapter seeks to address some of the gaps in our understanding of the linguistic development of SHLLs in the SA context. To that end, it has four principal sections. First, we highlight the main approaches to the study of writing and oral development for language learners of all types. We then turn to the SA context to discuss what we know about how language learners develop in writing and orality in immersive environments, relying mainly on L2L studies due to the lack of empirical work with SHLLs in SA. Third, we review previous studies on the linguistic development of SHLLs in the at-home (AH) context, highlighting the skills that they bring to an SA experience and the assessments that have been used to measure such skills. Lastly, taking into consideration these different lines of research (L2Ls in SA and HLLs in the AH context), we recommend promising areas for future research on SHLL writing and orality in SA, highlighting concepts, methodologies, and assessment tools that may be useful when exploring SHLLs in this understudied context.

Main research approaches for oral and written language development

Studies measuring linguistic development typically investigate the development of language as a whole or that of its discrete parts. Complexity, accuracy, and fluency (CAF) measures study discrete aspects of linguistic development (Ellis, 2008; Skehan, 1998). As Housen and Kuiken (2009) summarize, complexity generally refers to “the extent to which the language produced in performing a task is elaborate and varied” (Ellis, 2003, p. 340), accuracy refers to the ability to produce speech according to TL norms, and fluency refers to the ability to process language with “native-like rapidity” (Lennon, 1990, p. 390) or “the extent to which the language produced in performing a task manifests pausing, hesitation, or reformulation” (Ellis, 2003, p. 342). Complexity and accuracy are typically measured in the same way in both orality and writing - for complexity, by clausal and phrasal structures and the number of T-units or speech units, and for accuracy, by the number of morphosyntactic errors produced in a text, usually at the clausal level. However, fluency in orality may carry a slightly different meaning than fluency in writing. Fluency in orality is conceptualized as “aspects of oral performance having to do with the fluidity or ‘smoothness’ of language use” (Segalowitz & Freed, 2004, p. 175) and measured in terms of temporal aspects of production: speech rate, speech run, and hesitationbased measures such as silence and filled pauses (Mitchell, Tracy-Ventura, & McManus, 2017). Fluency in writing is typically assessed by productivity, that is, the total number of words produced in an essay or other written assessment given the same allocation of writing time for all participants (Camus & Adrada-Rafael, 2015). Most studies that have measured the total number of words have found significant differences between “better” writing, usually longer, and “weaker” writing, typically shorter (Jarvis, Grant, Bikoski, & Ferris, 2003). CAF studies have used these concepts to assess discourse-level writing and oral development for L2Ls (Michel, 2017) and SHLLs (e.g., Camus & Adrada-Rafael, 2015; Marqués-Pascual, 2011, see chapter 10, this volume).

Vocabulary has also been examined as a discrete component in linguistic development in both written and oral modes. Researchers have posited lexical richness or lexical diversity as an umbrella term that considers the number of unique words (types) that occur in a text in relation to the total number of words (tokens). It specifically measures the number of tokens that appear in a text divided by the number of types that occur in the same text (types/tokens; see Skehan, 2009, for an extended description). Different aspects of lexical richness have also been analyzed in measuring vocabulary

Linguistic development in study abroad 183 development, including lexical diversity (Foster, 2009; Serrano, Tragant, & Llanes, 2012), lexical density (Reznicek-Parrado, Patino-Vega, & Colombi, 2018), and lexical sophistication (Briggs, 2015; Dewey, 2008; Tracy-Ventura, 2017).

A second line of research is constituted by studies that have explored language as a whole. Such studies typically frame investigations with theoretical constructs such as literacy and global proficiency. In general terms, literacy “refers to reading and writing effectively in a variety of contexts” (Pilgrim & Martinez, 2013, p. 60). With respect to writing development in particular, many studies have tracked the development of academic literacy, or the skills used to create texts that are used in the context of instructional settings, such as essays, articles, research papers, and so on. Researchers interested in academic literacy measure gains through quantifying lexical and grammatical items that are features of an academic register: nominali-zations, clause types, technical language, declarative mode, and discourse connectors, among others (Colombi & Harrington, 2012; Norris & Manchon, 2012; Reznicek-Parrado et al., 2018; Schleppegrell, 2004). However, researchers agree that the development of academic literacy goes beyond reading and writing; it involves analyzing, synthesizing, interpreting, and developing general conclusions.

Studies that rely on measurements of global proficiency (Byrnes, 1987; Gatti & O'Neill, 2018; Isabelli-Garcia, Bown, Plews, & Dewey, 2018) explore the developmental stages of language using functional language descriptors that characterize each attainable level of proficiency by using language assessments and tests created with those descriptors in mind. This line of research is based on the theoretical construct of language proficiency (Byrnes, 1987) and has been influential in regards to pedagogical implementation and describing learners’ oral profiles. Proficiency guidelines offer a characterization of expected language abilities attained at different levels, including the types of topics addressed, discourse quality in terms of cohesion and coherence, and grammatical accuracy (ACTFL, 2012; Byrnes, 1987). For researchers and practitioners working within a proficiency framework, language development is sequential and predictable. Under this framework, language progresses toward the production of connected discourse and logically structured argumentation from both concrete and abstract perspectives. At the most advanced level, language is also characterized by grammatical accuracy, fluency, and pragmatic appropriateness (ACTFL, 2012). Although originally not intended for research, global proficiency assessment tools, such as the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages (ACTFL) Oral Proficiency Interview (OP1) and the Writing Proficiency Test, have been used in several studies concerned with language development for both L2Ls and HLLs (see Gatti & O'Neill, 2018; Sanz & Torres, 2018; Swender, Martin, Rivera-Martinez, & Kagan, 2014).

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