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Language Study Research: Cultural Immersion vs. Technology-Driven Classroom Learning

As a schoolboy in Nepal, I studied English and Nepalese in the classroom, watched Hindi television programming at home, and became fluent in all three languages. Consequently, at a young age I had already developed an appreciation for language and a passion for language learning that continues today. As a student at Colby-Sawyer College, my foreign language studies have evolved to include independent research supported by the college's Wesson Honors Program. The program's Idea Fund grant provided me with the support to conduct the research that resulted in my study, “Language Study Research: Cultural Immersion vs. Technology-Driven Classroom Learning,” and allowed me to increase my own language learning while becoming a resource for others.

Taught by Professor and Chair of the Exercise and Sport Sciences Department Russell Medbery, Colby-Sawyer College's Pathway seminar “Torrents of Talent” introduced me to the roles that time, effort, interest, innate qualities and the surrounding environment play in the talent development process. Influenced by these concepts, my Idea Fund project centered on the question of how the development of a talent, in this case, written and oral communication in a foreign language, is affected by technology-driven classroom learning versus cultural exposure in a place where the language is the first tongue of the majority of the population.

For the “technology-driven” portion of the research, I enrolled in Colby-Sawyer's Independent Language Study course last spring and completed the first two levels of French language learning software by Rosetta Stone®. For the “cultural immersion” portion of the study, I arranged a homestay with a francophone family in Quebec City for five days in August. I chose Quebec City because, unlike Montreal, more than 90 percent of the city's inhabitants speak French as their first language. During my visit, I conversed only in French.

I found navigating Quebec City in English impossible. Whether asking for directions, ordering food or confirming that I was on the right bus, all communication had to be in French. All road signs were in French, which required me to abandon my English speaking mindset and concentrate en français. During my stay, I observed le festival interational de musiques militaires de Québec (the international festival of military music of Quebec) and talked to bystanders about the parade, its significance and other aspects of the celebration, all in French. This was particularly rewarding because I was talking to strangers in their language and they understood me while I understood them. In my host family's apartment, I conversed with them about my daily activities in French. Apart from mundane “How was your day?” conversations, I spent at least an hour each evening talking to them about topics ranging from how they met and married to Nepali weddings and New Hampshire tourism. They were respectful of my research and made sure that no one switched to English, even when conversation became difficult.

The most important challenge I faced during the execution of the “cultural immersion” portion of the study was the Quebecois accent. The French language courses I took at Colby-Sawyer favored the Parisian accent. In Quebec City, however, I experienced variations in pronunciation—particularly in words ending with -ent. There were also words that were distinct to the area or used for a different meaning. For example, diner, which in Parisian French means “to have one's dinner,” means “to have one's lunch” in Quebecois French. The latter uses souper for “to have one's dinner.” These small yet fundamental differences kept me on my toes and made me realize how languages evolve.

Before and after both aspects of the study, I assessed my progress with my project's faculty adviser, Delphine Hill, adjunct faculty in the Humanities Department and French instructor, as well as with my hosts in Quebec City, and through my personal reflections. While Professor Hill assessed my “technology-driven” progress, my hosts evaluated the “cultural immersion” progress based on assessment criteria defined by the Assessment and Qualifications Alliance (AQA), a UK-based organization, used for the General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSE) in England. My progress was evaluated under three criteria: oral comprehension (reading and listening), speaking, and writing/grammar. My reflections helped me compile a self-evaluation comparing my conversations with French-speaking students at Colby-Sawyer while learning with the Rosetta Stone® software and my conversations with people in Quebec City during cultural immersion.

The results have been somewhat surprising. Taking into consideration the changes in my French language skills during pre and post technology-based classroom learning and during cultural immersion, I have concluded that cultural immersion provides quicker results when it comes to “speaking” a foreign language (18 percent vs. three percent improvement in scores for speaking). If the goal is to perfect grammar and writing skills, however, then a more conventional methods of language learning, such as technology-driven classroom learning tools like Rosetta Stone® (zero percent vs. 29 percent improvement in scores for “writing/grammar”), would be a better choice. My oral comprehension results were inconclusive due to multiple limitations, including time and sample size. The reason why I say that the results were surprising is that I never thought technology-driven classroom learning would yield a higher percentage of improvement in writing/grammar than cultural immersion. This has led me to conclude that if one wants to be “street smart” in a foreign language, cultural immersion is the way to go. On the other hand, if being “book smart” is the goal, one is better off sticking with conventional technology-driven classroom learning methods.

Moving forward, I would recommend my research be restructured to eliminate the limitations of sample size, timeframe and inconsistent evaluation methods. This would allow the researcher to identify even the smallest differences seen in his/her samples' language growth. Although implementation of these recommendations would require a larger investment of time and resources, further investigation in optimal language learning would be a valuable and enriching opportunity for any interested researcher.

Learn more about my research here.

–Anurup Upadhyay '15

Anurup Upadhyay is a Business major at Colby-Sawyer College and a student writer for College Communications.

Colby-Sawyer College is a comprehensive college that integrates the liberal arts and sciences with professional preparation. Founded in 1837, Colby-Sawyer is located in the scenic Lake Sunapee Region of central New Hampshire.

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