Female Speaking and Listening Comprehension Gain during Study Abroad: The Effects of Behavior in Homestays versus Dormstays

Sarah Ann Mathews, Bryn Mawr College

Second language acquisition specialists concerned with the achievement of a truly functional competence in a foreign language have long acknowledged the importance of an extended period of study abroad for the development of advanced levels of proficiency in the study of Russian and foreign languages in general. This advocacy of study abroad derives from the opportunity it provides both for access to formal learning in institutes and universities and for access to informal learning in communication with native speakers of Russian in a natural setting, one that cannot be effectively reproduced in classrooms in the United States. Despite an increasing opportunity to study in Russia and emphasis of the value of study abroad, however, little empirical research has been done to determine precisely what determines that value, or the conditions under which that value is enhanced.

My paper relies on results from a study I am currently conducting for my doctoral dissertation that illuminates those conditions under which students improve their speaking and listening comprehension competence in particular while in Russia. The project is rooted in the ACTR/NFLC collaborative project "Predictors of Foreign Language Gain during Study Abroad," which identified gender as one of the significant predictors of successful language learning while abroad. Specifically, this analysis showed that men were more likely than women to make greater gains in listening comprehension, and to improve in speaking ability from a pre-program oral proficiency interview (OPI) score of 1+ to a post-program score of 2 and above (Brecht, Davidson, and Ginsberg, 1993). These results indicating that men are more likely than women to improve their listening and speaking skills during study abroad necessitate some explanation, since they find no support in second language acquisition research on gender differences in learning languages. Indeed, such research suggests quite the opposite, that women tend to be better language learners than men (Burstall, 1975; Boyle, 1987; Gardner and Lambert, 1972; Spolsky, 1989; Oxford and Nyikos, 1988; Politzer, 1983).

My paper attempts to account for the controversial results on gender found in the ACTR study, focusing on those conditions under which female students make improvements in their language proficiency during study abroad. The main hypothesis of the paper is that female students in Russia are less likely than male students to find the appropriate "caretakers" of their language when they live in dormitories (the living conditions of those students the ACTR/NFLC project examined), but that this situation is improved for those women who live in Russian homes during their study-abroad experience.

My analysis relies on data that I collected from ACTR study-abroad participants living in homestays in Moscow and St. Petersburg during the 1996-97 academic year and similar data previously collected from students living in dormstays. In order to maintain consistency for comparison with the data previously collected on the behavior of the dormstay students, the methodology I used during data collection was in large part modeled on the one used in its successful on-going precedent, the ACTR/NFLC study, which employed calendar diaries as one source for data on how students spend their time while in Russia. I asked students to complete calendar diaries for between one and three weeks during their semester-long stay in Russia. Students were instructed to record in calendar diaries what they did after class, whom they encountered, where they were, what language they spoke, and the duration of the encounter. This data has been coded and entered into the statistical program SPSS in order to manage the data and perform correlation analyses between the amount of time spent in a particular type of activity and speaking and listening comprehension gain. I use ACTR's pre-program and post-program oral proficiency interviews and listening comprehension test scores routinely administered to their participants for the purposes of assessing speaking and listening proficiency gain, as well as the relevant biographical data that ACTR collects from participants, such as gender, age, major, number of years studying Russian, etc. My paper presents the results of an analysis I am currently conducting comparing the gain in speaking and listening comprehension of those female students participating in study-abroad programs in Russia who live in dormitories and in Russian homes in order to determine what types of interlocutors lead to the greatest gains in speaking and listening comprehension proficiency while abroad. First, I plan to determine the significant interlocutors that influence listening comprehension and speaking gain by examining total duration of time spent with them according to various levels of gain. I will utilize specific data on the age, gender, relationship and nationality of the people with whom students reported spending time. Then I will look at the impact of the homestays versus dormstays to determine which type of living condition provides more opportunity for interaction with the best type of interlocutor for the best possible gain.

The paper concludes with suggestions based on the results of my analysis that will aid organizations and universities conducting study-abroad programs to Russia in guiding students to engage in behavior while in Russia that leads to maximal gain. Therefore, this paper ultimately benefits students who participate in study-abroad programs to Russia that have been improved based on its results.