This study highlights the complexities associated with learning a heritage language (HL) abroad, specifically with regard to identity, expectations, and beliefs about language and language learning, by examining the ways that HL learners talk about themselves. These are important topics to study because perceptions of language learning have been shown to influence language acquisition in the study abroad context (Wilkinson, 1998). In addition, study abroad programs are becoming more popular and so are attempts to design language courses to meet the unique needs of HL learners.
The study explores the experiences of 17 HL learners who chose to study abroad in 2007 or 2008 to improve their HL proficiency. These HL learners had at least a basic ability to comprehend and communicate in the language that their parents or grandparents speak natively, and were themselves dominant in English. The participants included 5 males and 12 females who went abroad to 14 different countries to study Spanish (7), Hebrew (1), Tigrinya (1), French (1), German (1), Korean (1), Cantonese (1), or Mandarin (4). Data collected include 17 hours of interviews both before and after the sojourns, 34 email reflections written while abroad, blog entries, and a focus group. Data were analyzed using discursive psychology, which views discourse as being variable, co-constructed, purposeful, and context-dependent. By analyzing the data to find the interpretive repertoires, ideological dilemmas, and subject positions used (Reynolds & Wetherell, 2003; Edley, 2001), a deeper understanding of studying abroad as a HL learner was attained.
Findings include that the participants lack interpretive repertoires to discuss their HL and being a HL learner, used their HL as a resource to access other learning opportunities while abroad, encountered difficulties fully immersing themselves in the HL while abroad, received insufficient pre-departure support from the study abroad offices, and had backgrounds and HL learning experiences that varied considerably. The study’s findings have implications for what topics to cover in classes and study abroad advising sessions that may help HL learners make decisions about where to study abroad, as well as help students process the experiences they have learning their HL and studying abroad.