Connect or Not to Connect? Interacting with People from Home During a Study Abroad

This topic is very complex. My head is spinning just thinking about all of the layers. I take my responsibility to share good advice very seriously. So there will be a lot of hedging. First, everyone is different. All I’m trying to do is share my experiences and have my reader consider various perspectives on the question.

The purpose of studying abroad and your goals for learning from it play an important role. If you’re studying abroad for an extended period of time (several months at least) and your goal is to advance your second language skills, then fully immersing yourself in the new language and culture with minimal disruptions is ideal. This will allow your brain to “switch” to the new language. The more you process the new language, the more your mind starts using it in its processing. So surround yourself with language (reading, watching TV, talking with people, studying formally). The more high-quality, authentic input you have, the better the language learning outcomes, especially fluency. Of course, here we get into questions such as what your level of language ability was in the beginning and if you’re attempting to obtain accuracy and high-level academic language proficiency. These two will require additional conditions that I’m not discussing here.

My own examples of extended study abroad include four months in Stockholm, Sweden, four months in California, and twelve months in Hamburg, Germany. All of these took place when I was in college in Finland. Now of course I also count my 21 years in the U.S. as extended study abroad since to this day I keep learning the language and culture. When I did my language practicum studying abroad in Sweden, Germany and the U.S., I was already fairly fluent in all of the languages and had formally studied them at the university so my grammatical accuracy was very high. My sole purpose for the experiences was to increase my fluency, obtain a more native-like pronunciation and acquire cultural competency of the target countries. I was very intentional about just sticking with the target language. For example, in Germany, where I was an au pair, there were regular meetings for Finnish au pairs to socialize. I never went to these gatherings. I know others who spent every free moment with their Finnish friends, while studying abroad in Germany. Again, I don’t have data on their level of language proficiency, but for me it was essential that I was only immersed in German. Of course this was before the internet, so the temptation to connect back home and into the comfort zone is higher now, but same recommendations hold true.

It’s been interesting to notice how Finnish is coming back into my brain during my current trip. My thoughts are right now in Finnish and English (at home in Minnesota, I only think in English). Even my dreams. It’s only been two weeks. But my two languages are part of my identity, so no longer is English “just a foreign language that I’m trying to acquire” so it makes sense that they get activated very quickly. Do I stay connected with my family back home? Yes yes yes. Do I worry about not learning the language or culture? No. Again, it comes down to the purpose of your experience. My goal being here is two-fold. Professionally, I wanted to connect with scholars and academics, Finnish-speakers and international scholars (including Americans). I wanted to be able to speak about my field and work comfortably in English and Finnish. I also wanted to be able to share cultural knowledge from my work and context from back home in Minnesota with Finns here. On a personal level, I wanted to hang out with my Finnish family, speak a lot of Finnish, eat Finnish food, and catch up. So again, formal language learning was not a goal for me, so I wasn’t worried about connecting back home when here. As a matter of fact, that was the ONLY reason that convinced me that I would do this extended stay that I would be able to connect with my family. How do we connect? My husband and I literally Skype for about 3-4 hours a day – yep per day. We set up our “magical window” and just hang out doing our tasks in our contexts. My kids and I snapchat everyday and send texts (we use regular text messaging, GroupMe, WhatsApp, and Slack). My kids and I talk over Skype about 3-4 times a week. I don’t have my cell connection activated, so I do all my connecting via wifi. WiFi is the BEST invention of our lifetime (one of the best at least )!

How is the situation different when someone immigrates to another country? What are the effects of native-language/native-culture connections on integration into the target culture? Bottom line, this is the business of the person immigrating and theirs alone. We can’t force integration. An immigrant moves into a country more or less permanently and the mindset of that individual is very different based on their reasons for immigrating and definitely different than someone who “does study abroad.” It’s no longer a language experiment, a story about acculturation; it’s survival, it’s about physical, social, and emotional well-being. We know from research that people integrate at different rates, using different strategies and to varying extents and degrees, depending on:

  • characteristics of the migrants themselves,
  • the groups or countries from which they originate,
  • their socioeconomic status and resources,
  • the country and local community in which they settle, and
  • their fluency in the language of the country of settlement.

(in Schwartz et al, 2013, available online: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3700543/

We also know that biculturalism (adopts the new culture and retains the heritage culture) has been deemed the most favorable for immigrants’ psychosocial outcomes. We also know that if an individual resists the target culture, they will have a very difficult time learning the language to a full extent. So, what native-speakers can do is to support individuals’ acquisition of biculturalism and thus their becoming full members of the target society, including learning the language. Here’re some strategies I brainstormed:

  • Look for opportunities for two-way cultural exchange instead of one-way assimilation
  • Advocate for multicultural individuals getting into positions of power
  • Celebrate cultures, don’t “address” or “deal with” diversity
  • Native-speakers should be both teachers and learners of other cultures
  • Create a true multicultural society (components of all)
  • Allow individuals to express their home culture and new culture
  • Resist and fight against covert and overt racism
  • Level the playing field: fair/same is not equal

I hope my today’s entry also highlights the critical connections between international education (study abroad) and domestic diversity initiatives, two areas that are treated very separately in our (U.S.) professional context, e.g., at the universities, to their detriment. Any people interested in language learning, should check out some really cool material on Pinterest: https://www.pinterest.com/inesaraujo98/different-languages/

Vive les langues!

(Image from https://pixabay.com/)