Glenn Levine on Americans studying abroad in Germany: Lingering questions of technology

Last Wednesday, UC Irvine Professor of German and German Language Program Director Glenn Levine gave the first in a series of lunchtime lectures at the CLS, raising more questions about the quality of U.S. university students’ German study abroad experiences than perhaps even he had planned.

The talk, entitled “‘Ich hab’ mein Herz in Heidelberg (nicht) verloren’: A human ecological approach to study abroad and language teaching” (link to PDF), follows in a line of recent research (see Celeste Kinginger’s work, for example, and the 2005 book by Valerie Pellegrino Aveni) critically examining the degrees and ways in which American students are (or are not) in fact becoming linguistically, interculturally, and symbolically competent in their stays abroad. Reporting on a multi-year ethnographic study with a number of American residents at a German co-educational fraternity/residence, Levine asked into the ways that six American focal participants were socializing, studying and living with German, English, and other languages, both inside and outside the classroom–and with considerable attention paid to the students’ networking and media practices online.

In essence, Levine said that his provisional findings are that German tends to be used as a classroom language, and not nearly as much of a social language, as is English. When students write and correct their essays, compose Powerpoint presentations, and read aloud in class, they use German. When they go out, interact with friends and family online, and otherwise build and maintain their social ties, they tend to use English. Here Levine invoked Kinginger’s aphorism that social media and other computer-mediated communications tools like Facebook and Twitter are akin to an “electronic umbilical cord,” keeping students abroad tethered to their home communities. On this point, he asked, does the use of such media impede the students’ formation of social networks with local German speaking peers? Or is it a practice that is necessary and even validating of their sense of self in a foreign and unknown environment?

At more than one point, Levine seemed to be answering “yes” to both questions. But he also said more than once that his data didn’t show precisely how the students’ linguistic and cultural development and the formation of social networks were related to their digital media practices. At the end of his presentation he called for a more complex and adaptive view of language and cultural learning in study abroad situations, such that formal classroom instruction be contingent upon, and responsive to, the changing social worlds inhabited by language learners abroad. He did not, however, make any hard-and-fast recommendations about the kinds of digital media that students ought to be using, the social and cultural purposes for which they should be using it, or the language(s) students abroad should use in their online communications.

To me, the tension between students’ capabilities in the German language, their developing sense of self and social ties in a study abroad context, and their digital activities and lives was palpable throughout the whole talk. Although in a complex “human ecological approach to study abroad and language teaching” it would be impossible to causally link a certain number of hours spent online or written word counts in English and German, for example, to a disposition to see German as an academic language and English as a social one, Levine’s presentation led me to wonder just how “technology” might be transforming the nature of the study abroad experience, and the kinds of selves made in study abroad.

Especially, the “ethical” question that Levine raised–that of study abroad participants wanting and perhaps needing to be seen, felt, and understood as who they are in a strange land (a point he made more than once, pointing to Pellegrino’s work)–seemed almost to speak as evidence of a powerful, insulating force of technologies of communication that are as much human and social as they are digital. For whatever reason, or combination of reasons (not least of which might be the increase among U.S. university students of 6-month or even shorter sojourns abroad in comparison with the previously standard “year abroad”), American students abroad might be less able now than before to reap the sometimes distressing and uncomfortable rewards of becoming strangers to themselves, as the philosopher Julia Kristeva described:

Being alienated from myself, as painful as that may be, provides me with that exquisite distance within which perverse pleasure begins, as well as the possibility of my imagining and thinking, the impetus of my culture” (Kristeva, 1991, Strangers to ourselves, p. 13-4)

When, where, and how, I wonder, are American students abroad today allowed to be strange, to be alienated, to be lost?

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