QUEST Analysis of a Journal Article:
Acculturation in relation to the acquisition of a second language. Journal of Multilingual and Multicultural Development
Mei Jiang , Raymond J. Green , Tracy B. Henley & William G. Masten
Date submitted: 22/03/2012
In this article from the Journal of Multilingual and Multicultural Development, ‘Acculturation in relation to acquisition of a second language’ (Jiang, Green, Henley, & Masten, 2009), the authors explore the connection between acculturation and second language (L2) acquisition in a naturalistic environment on late learners of English, in this case Chinese university students who arrived in the United States within five years of the study and were attending a large Texas university. Specifically, the authors look for a link between the degree of participants’ integration with the host society in order to “see whether the acculturation process towards US society was associated with higher speaking proficiency levels and more native-like pronunciation of English language” (p. 481). The focus of this study on late learners is particularly relevant as there is much debate whether L2 learners can acquire native-like English proficiency after a certain age, known as the critical period hypothesis (CPH) (Lenneberg, 1967). There is much empirical evidence to suggest that older learners rarely achieve the native-like fluency in L2 that younger learners display (Krashen, Long, & Scarcella, 1979). Knowing this, what hope can the social context bring for the late L2 learner?
Age and learning
Citing the ‘critical period’ of language acquisition hypothesis popularised by Lenneberg (Lenneberg, 1967), which suggests that language acquisition ability is biologically linked to age, the authors give an overview of the research supporting the idea that learners who begin to acquire L2 after puberty are at a distinct disadvantage. (Krashen et al., 1979) wrote “Acquirers who begin natural exposure to second languages during childhood generally achieve higher second language proficiency than those beginning as adults.” (p. 573) According to (Singleton & Lengyel, 1995), older learners may have an opportunity “…in situations of ‘naturalistic’ exposure, … older beginners tend to outperform their juniors – at least in some respects – in the initial stages of learning…” however, they go on to say: “…in terms of long-term outcomes, generally speaking, the earlier exposure to the target language begins the better.”
Acculturation can be described as cultural and psychological change that comes from the meeting of two cultures. Different to assimilation, which is when the individual rejects their original culture in favour of the host culture, acculturation is considered as the level of integration with the host culture (Sam & Berry, 2010). In this study, the greater the degrees of acculturation, the more favourable language learning results were in both males and females.
Gender: sociolinguistic variation
While it has been shown that females may hold advantages over males on verbal tasks (Tittle, 1986), there has been no agreement on whether there is a language learning difference owing to gender (Pavlenko, 2001) rather, differences have been attributed to the effect of social activities and practices of particular speech communities (Ehrlich, 1997). Although gender was not a primary focus of this study, the results did find that more native-like L2 pronunciation favoured females. Some research has shown that women use more standard forms in speaking (Holmes, 1992).
In addition to being well written in clear terms, the authors were well read and provided relevant references to numerous prior studies and current thinking on the issues surrounding L2 learning, age, gender and acculturation. However, the real strength of this journal lies in the quality of the research. The authors were extremely thorough in the gathering of data, the training of the data collectors, and the analysis of the results:
• A personal data questionnaire was used to capture demographic information on participants’ gender, current major, length of residence in the USA, length of education in the USA, TOEFL score, marital status, and birthplace information (Mainland China or Taiwan). • Questionnaires were provided in both Chinese and English to ensure accurate comprehension of the questions used for determining level of acculturation. • The sample population was 49 which is a sufficient number to approximate a normal distribution for statistics purposes. • Participants had no self-reported learning or hearing disabilities.
Measuring level of acculturation: SMAS
The Stephenson Multigroup Acculturation Scale (SMAS) gives a very thorough analysis of participants attitudes and behaviours related to language, social interaction, food and the media with relation to the their own cultures, the test of Ethnic Society Immersion (ESI%), and that of the L2 host culture, the test of Dominant Society Immersion (DSI%). The SMAS questions are answered on a four point Likert scale in response to questions such as “I speak English/my native language at home,” “I regularly read an American newspaper/my ethnic group’s magazines (Kang, 2006). The study results showed that all participants were still closely aligned with their ethnic heritage with high ESI scores (74 to 100%), however the DSI scores varied considerably (33 to 75%) between participants demonstrating much variability in levels of acculturation to US society.
Training and analysis:
For speaking proficiency tests, formal guidelines were used to produce a rubric providing 10 levels from ‘novice low’ to ‘superior’. Interviews were also carefully constructed and recorded for later scoring. Two native English speakers, the scorers, selected eight training samples out of the data pool for each level which were then used to train four other scorers. Each audio sample was rated by two individual scorers to ensure that samples were fairly judged. The careful examination of results including regression testing and statistical analysis demonstrated a very thorough approach to this study.
During the data collection stage of this study, there was considerable risk of ‘colouring’ the results by the interviewers – the observer’s paradox (Labov, 1966). Steve Mann refers to ‘co-construction’ and ‘interactional content’ as being two potential issues when performing qualitative interviews such as was used to gather this research data. Additionally, memberships, roles and relationships or social distance of the speakers can affect the way a talk develops; who the interviewer is can lead the interviewee to produce a certain type of talk (Mann, 2010). There is the danger that participants could have been more or less accommodating if the interviewer was of Chinese or Caucasian descent. Males could potentially be unconsciously or even deliberately unaccommodating and diverge in pronunciation while females may have converged upwards in response to the perceived higher status of the interviewers resulting in more favourable speaking performance and pronunciation results (Holmes, 1992). If the interviewers had been of Chinese descent, of a similar age group and social background, the results may have been more reflective of the participants’ real life English proficiency. While the research was very thorough, it took a very narrow focus by being confined only to Chinese students, presumably of middle class or better economic standing, attending one university, in one state, and in one country and cultural setting. While the conclusions drawn from this study were promising they cannot be used to make broad generalisations about acculturation and L2 learning for learners of different cultures, socio-economic backgrounds, and further studies in different environments would be required to corroborate the author’s findings.
There is plenty to get excited about in this reading from an ESL teaching and sociolinguistics point of view. There was a positive correlation between integration with the local culture and L2 performance despite still being closely aligned with ethnic heritage. This shows that getting closer to the dominant society is not necessarily achieved by separating from one’s ethnic society; L2 learners don’t have to abandon their culture in order to make positive L2 progress which agrees with John Berry’s findings “…even in societies that tend towards assimilation policies, there was evidence that immigrants and ethno cultural group members generally prefer integration, and when they do, they tend to make more positive adaptations.” (Berry, 2008) Additionally, the assumption has long been that L2 study in a foreign country was better for L2 acquisition. However, in the conclusion of this study the authors also give a lot of good advice for L2 learners and teachers alike. Specifically, L2 learners should try to get immersed within the L2 culture such as learning customs, history, and by socialising with people outside their L1 community or workplace. For teachers, the authors recommend immersion activities such as cultural events, real life related activities to better expose learners to the L2 culture.
While this study was thorough it had a narrow focus, raising many questions and leaving the field wide open for further research: • How would the results from this study have been different if we attempted this study outside the university environment with participants from different communities or lower-socio economic backgrounds such as: refugees and asylum seekers; immigrants and expatriates? • What is the effect of studying abroad on the motivation to learn and improve L2 proficiency? How do the participants’ long-term goals affect their acculturation score? What if they had no interest in staying in the United States for any length of time beyond graduation and therefore less motivation to integrate? • With the results demonstrating that acculturation has a positive effect on L2 learning, how can we be more immersed in the culture of L2 when we are living outside of the L2 country? Could teachers replicate positive language learning effects of acculturation by immersive teaching environments such as English villages popular in South Korea? • Regarding gender differences in learning, could it be possible that females, on average, were more immersed in the US culture and therefore displayed evidence of better pronunciation? Unfortunately the study doesn’t draw a distinction between level of integration and gender. It would be interesting to learn whether women are better integrators than men.
With less than five years exposure to American culture, the results of this study showed that the participants were more deeply immersed in their original, Chinese cultures. However, this was not found to hinder L2 acquisition, rather it was higher levels of immersion in American society that corresponded with higher levels of speaking proficiency. Additionally, although gender was not a primary focus of this study it was found to favour females, particularly with regards to pronunciation. The results of this study suggest that there is a link between greater degrees of acculturation and L2 learning: “the more psychologically integrated into the target language group, the more likely the learner is able to succeed in L2 acquisition.” (Jiang et al., 2009). The authors therefore recommend that late learners of English and potentially any L2 learners should get more immersed with the society and local culture by learning about local history, customs, and socialising with native people outside the school or workplace. Additionally for classroom instruction, real life-related activities and cultural events could be introduced to better expose learners to the L2 culture. Overall, this was an interesting, thorough and well researched study on acculturation and language learning that resulted in practical advice for learners and educators alike.
Word Count: 1791
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