A Comparative Analysis of Phonetic Awareness and Development in Learners of French in At Home and Study Abroad Contexts

Abstract: 

This essay examines a limited number of developmental differences among learners of French in at-home (AH) and study-abroad (SA) learning environments. This project compared 11 students who studied in the AH context versus 11 students who studied abroad in France. The students participated in listening and reading exercises. Both exercises were constructed to evaluate the awareness of the phonemes /u/ and /y/. A comparison was made to determine the positive or negative changes in recognition and production of these phonemes by the AH and SA groups. Although both groups showed improvement overall, the results indicate that a larger sample size should be used in future research in order to determine if these findings are generalizable to the populations.

Table of Contents: 

    Introduction

    In today’s society, it is not good enough to know one language. It is becoming more and more vital to have additional language skills and experiences. As a French major, I have a great interest in the acquisition of a second language. In my research, I will address the following question: Do different learning environments, specifically at home (AH) and study abroad (SA) programs, produce different results in terms of students learning a second language? The current project involves a comparative analysis of phonetic awareness and development among learners of French both in SA and AH contexts.

    Literature Review

    There are three very different theories of language acquisition among researchers in this field. The three perspectives on language learning have different implications for teaching language. The three approaches are structural, cognitive, and sociocognitive theoretical frameworks.

    The structural perspective has been strongly influenced by behavioral psychologists such as B. F. Skinner and John Watson. Language is perceived as an autonomous structural system that focuses on the spoken word rather than written language. Language was said to develop through internalization and memorization of structures and habits through reiteration of corrective feedback. Imitation of a regulatory model was the primary technique used for teaching students a new language using this perspective (Kern & Warschauer, 2000).

    Researchers using the cognitive perspective, on the other hand, argue that language competence could not be explained solely by behavioral reinforcement. Through the writings of the theoretical linguist Noam Chomsky and Stephen Krashen, language is viewed as a mentally constructed system. Chomsky has spent the last few decades developing theoretical linguistics as its own discipline and has gained great prominence. Unlike his predecessors who believed that the brain worked together in different areas, Chomsky posited that there was only one part of the brain that controlled language learning, and that the other parts of the brain were not involved. Language is said to grow, and is not learned. According to Chomsky, people have an innate capacity for language built into their brains. He had no interest in the study of second language (L2) performance and development, but rather focused his research solely on first language (L1) linguistic competence. His research focused on his aspiration to find the underlying word order in the language acquisition device of the human mind (e.g., subject-verb-object; subject-object-verb; verb-subject-object; etc.). Universal Grammar is a popular term coined by Chomsky referring to the notion that there is indeed one underlying structure or representation of linguistic elements in the human mind. The Chomskyan view became mainstream, specifically in the teachings of L2 reading and writing (see Kinginger, 2001; van Lier, 2004), in spite of the fact that Chomsky’s theories and views of language never addressed L2 teaching, learning, or performance.

    Although Chomsky created a widely received theory of language acquisition, a variety of other approaches has begun to influence L2 and foreign language (FL) teaching and learning. According to the theories of Lev Vygotsky, a Russian developmental psychologist in the early 1900s, Dell Hymes, an American sociolinguist, and M. A. K. Halliday, a British linguist (Kern & Warschauer, 2000), language is both a social and a cognitive phenomenon rather than merely a private entity or series of operational sequences that occurs solely in the head. Vygotsky was the first to elaborate sociocultural theory, although it was not discovered in North America and Western Europe until the mid-1980s. 
    Halliday proposed three main functions of language: ideational, interpersonal, and textual. Ideational language is used to express content, interpersonal is used to conserve social interactions, and textual implies the creation of situationally appropriate communication. Through these propositions came the recognition that ideational language was the most popular form and the rest were being ignored. Task-based learning and collaborative interaction (e.g., solving problems and learning in environments that offer opportunities for assisted performance) became means of fostering sociocognitive development. Sociocognitive theories are based on the belief that the brain works together with social (i.e., exterior) influences as a whole rather than there only being one part of the mind used for language. It is through the use of social interaction and “social appropriateness of language” (a phrase attributed to Hymes) that this idea of a sociocognitive perspective developed.

    Kinginger (2001) confirms the differences regarding a cognitive aspect of learning versus a sociocognitive one. She begins by differentiating the crux of the input hypothesis (i + 1) from a construct central to Vygotsky's sociocultural theory, namely the Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD). More often than not, these two metaphorical constructs are conflated in the second language acquisition (SLA) literature. Kinginger (2001) explains that the input hypothesis arose from the thoughts of Stephen Krashen in the tradition of a Chomskyan mainstream view of language. Krashen focuses on the progress learners make in language learning when presented with an almost unreachable level of information that they cannot possibly comprehend, regardless of the input they may be given. The goal of input processing is competence with an emphasis on sentence grammar, which comes from Chomsky’s Universal Grammar, in which he refers to language as a type of ‘organ’ that controls language development.

    Krashen (1985)posited, based on an extension of Chomsky’s theories, that language is developed because of mere exposure and is not something that is learned—it is innate. Krashen does however propose a dichotomy between acquisition (a vaguely defined concept involving innate and nontaught gaining of knowledge) and learning (formally learned knowledge and items) in order to perpetuate and extend Chomsky's dichotomy of competence (potential, abstract knowledge, and ability) versus performance (real, actual, applied knowledge, and use of the language). The use of such dichotomies appears at the outset to be very convenient. However, these contrasts and oppositions leave no room for overlap, symbiosis, or mutual inclusion. They are exclusionary and cannot thus account for interdependency, collaboration, or the influence of one sphere or type of knowledge-gaining on the other and vice versa.

    Sociocultural theory, unlike the input hypothesis, has its roots in the writings of Vygotsky, a cognitive psychologist. Vygotsky’s theory is one of cognitive development, which includes the mind and the brain instead of posting only one part of the brain as a language acquisition device. Vygotsky proposed a central construct known as the Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD). This is “the distance between the actual developmental level as determined by independent problem solving and the level of potential development as determined through problem solving under adult guidance or in collaboration with more capable peers” (Vygotsky, 1978, p. 86). The ZPD represents, on a metaphorical level, the notion that development occurs in the mind as it is influenced by society and vice versa in a symbiotic, non-dichotomous relationship. Sociocultural theory is not one of language acquisition. It focuses on the importance of internalization and the development of mental processes. Learners are not independent, but they are unified: “Thinking, remembering, and attending are social phenomena, activities that individuals do and learn to do only through interacting with other people” (Kinginger, 2001, p. 420). Kinginger clarifies that although many researchers and educators associate i + 1 with ZPD interchangeably, they are not from the same theoretical tradition.

    Different theoretical traditions necessarily determine the direction, perspective, and explanatory power of the philosophical underpinning of any linguistic analysis. Most current writing in second language acquisition (SLA) uses a mainstream cognitive approach to language learning (Collentine, 2004; Freed, Segalowitz, & Dewey, 2004; Herschensohn, 2003) or seeks to explain and clarify theoretical constructs that are central to understanding the professional SLA literature (e.g., Firth & Wagner, 1997; Kinginger, 2001; Lantolf, 2000; van Lier, 2004). In the current study, a sociocognitive framework provides a perspective for considering possible analyses and directions for further research. However, given the limited amount of data available to analyze each student's interactions, study sessions, class periods, out-of-class contact with and exposure to French, the current research seeks only to determine how the results could inform and guide future studies that compare SA and AH contexts.

    The professional literature on foreign language learning in SA contexts is relatively small, but increasing. The prohibitive costs and enormous amounts of time required for doing on-site pre- and posttest studies are reasons that it is difficult to study language acquisition. The perceived notion that studying abroad is naturally always a good thing can be controversial because there are not many studies that have evaluated what was being learned or not learned.

    The four main types of second language learning are the following: a formal classroom at-home context, an intensive immersion program, study abroad, and distance learning. Results from these varied learning styles produce a wide range of outcomes.

    The formal classroom in an AH context of learning is probably the most prevalent means of studying a foreign/second language. In a study by Freed and colleagues (2004), 28 students of French participated in research investigating the benefits and disadvantages of learning in various contexts. Students were exposed to 12 weeks of 2 to 4 hours a week French classes in literature, theater, history, and civilization. Freed’s curriculum emphasized a communicative approach that would provide students with the tools to interact in the world of French speakers. Through recorded interviews and out-of-class contact, Freed analyzed her students by giving them pretests and posttests to accurately measure their performance: “There did not seem to be a strong trend toward either improved or worse performance over time” (Freed, 2004, p. 288). This type of study appears to be similar to the one I conducted.

    Using a similar design, Herschensohn (2003) studied two young women studying French at the same level. One student, Chloe, studied abroad in France for 6 months. The other student, Emma, remained in the United States and continued to take French classes at the same academic level as Chloe. Herschensohn concludes that although Emma spoke slower and was not as fluent as Chloe, she was more grammatically accurate. These findings demonstrate the gains in fluency that SA students seem to acquire compared to AH students. SA students tend to have better lexical or vocabulary growth and retain more native-like organization of discourse.

    An SA context produces different results in language ability than does an AH context. Students who study abroad are immersed in the language and therefore often spend a majority of their time conversing in the foreign language. For example, a student who studies at home in a classroom environment is only exposed to 5 hours of that foreign language per week, while a student studying abroad for 6 months is exposed to only 5 hours of English per week and the rest of her time is spent conversing in French (Herschensohn, 2003). Because of this potential difference in language immersion, an SA student will often have a more enhanced rate of fluency. But does fluency necessarily suggest accuracy?

    There is a discrepancy regarding the definition of the term fluency. It has many definitions, one being “ready or facile in speech, effortlessly smooth and rapid” ((Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, 1998). Student definitions of fluency differ greatly from the definition given by a native speaker of that language. Terms such as “communicative competence” and “language proficiency” are other definitions (Freed, Segalowitz, & Dewey, 2004). Fluency also refers to efficiency in getting meaning across, while accuracy measures the amount of errors produced. One of the most important aspects about fluency is that it is not equivalent to accuracy. SA students who have become fluent tend to make more grammatical mistakes than a student who studied at home in a classroom (Herschensohn, 2003).

    Methods

    Because this study aims to evaluate development of students at comparable levels in French to see how able they were to differentiate among the phonemes /u/ and /y/, students who had approximately the same amount of formal learning experience were recruited to participate. This specific comparison was chosen because it gives many students problems. The phoneme /u/ is a sound that we have in the North American variety of the English language (and, certainly, in other varieties as well), while the phoneme /y/ is only found in the French language. Therefore, the /u/ sound is more easily produced than the /y/ sound. For example, the phoneme /u/ is used in the word couvre. The vowels ou together make a sound similar to the /u/ we have in the word pool (although the English vowel sound is quite a bit longer). The phoneme /y/, as mentioned earlier, does not exist in English. It can be produced by pronouncing the English letter e and then, while holding the sound out, sliding from the e sound to the English u sound. The /y/ is somewhere in the middle of the two sounds.

    The participant population was composed of 22 undergraduate students: 6 males and 17 females. Eleven of these students, 2 males and 9 females, remained on campus and studied at the University of North Texas, while the other 11 students, 3 males and 8 females, went abroad to study in Caen, France. The students were at the same general level of proficiency in French, as determined by the class level in the UNT group and the placement level with the study abroad group.

    Before administering the surveys, the students completed a brief consent form and questionnaire. The consent forms informed the students of the benefits and risks of participating in the research, as well as the purpose of the research. Students were also given assurances that participation in the research was voluntary and that their responses would be confidential. The consent form required the signature of each participant. The questionnaire was used to obtain background information and current standing of each participant in the French language. The questionnaire only took 5 to 10 minutes for each student to complete both forms.

    After the consent form and questionnaire were completed, brief texts with a variety of linguistic and discursive features were read in order to measure and evaluate pronunciation and comprehension. Students were asked to read 11 sentences at what they considered a normal conversational speed. The directions were read to the students in advance by a member of the research team. This task took approximately 5 minutes of each student’s time. In addition, students were engaged briefly in a listening activity (in French), which provided additional data for comparison with other discourse samples. Ten words were read to the students in French, and they had to choose which phonemes (/u/ versus /y/) they heard. For example, the word masculin uses the phoneme /y/ while the word couvre uses the phoneme /u/. This section took each student approximately 5 minutes as well, for a combined total of 15 to 30 minutes to complete all the sections. Students were given pretests at the beginning of the semester and posttests at the end of the semester to gauge the change in their proficiency on this task.

    Specifically, the tests focused on the pronunciation and linguistic discrimination of the French phonemes /u/ and /y/ in order to answer, at least partially, the following questions: Do learners of French improve their phonetic realization (i.e., pronunciation) of those phonemes more in the AH or SA environments? Do students need more instructional focus on these important sounds in either environment? Although the first question will be more easily answered by the current study, the second question will provide a starting point for considering directions of future research based on the results of the current study.

    Each person’s response was taped so he or she could be evaluated more thoroughly and verified by the faculty mentor. The pretest and posttest data for the UNT group were recorded with a digital voice recorder, while the data for the SA group were recorded with a laptop and an external microphone, using the freeware Audacity.

    The problem with a small study such as this one is the small sample size. There were only 11 participants in each group, or 22 total participants. Due to the huge expenditure of time and resources, it was impossible to get a very large sample size. However, this pilot project will allow me to refine the design and methodology so that a larger-scale project can be conducted in the future. The small sample size has resulted in only using descriptive statistics to show some of the developmental differences that are already obvious. In a future study, a much larger sample size will make it possible to measure for statistical significance by using the score on the pronunciation test (x number of correct pronunciations out of the total) as the dependent variable and the learning environment as the independent variable. The variables for the listening test will be parallel: the dependent variable will be the score on the identification of /u/ versus /y/, and the independent variable will be the learning environment.

    The listening exercise was a less ambiguous indicator of whether or not the student was able to hear the differences between the /u/ and /y/ phonemes because they had to make a choice between the two. After analyzing the responses of both the UNT students and those in France, it was apparent that both groups in general improved their ability to differentiate the two different sounds. It is clear that, overall, there was no decrease in ability to realize and distinguish these phonemes. There was, however, only one case in which a student did much better the first time and failed to perform at the same level or better the second time. It is quite possible that this was due to overcorrection—sometimes referred to as hypercorrection—of the /y/ phoneme (a phenomenon in foreign language education that is not limited to phonetics and phonology, but is commonly found in production and use of morphology and syntax). Because we have the /u/ sound in English, it is much easier to pronounce. Therefore, many students have the tendency to overcorrect the /y/ sound because it is harder to make and therefore takes more effort and concentration.

    Results

    Listening Exercise: Raw Scores

    The raw scores for the UNT students for the listening exercise are listed in Table 1. The NT represents those students from North Texas. Each person was assigned a code number in order to keep the records confidential. The /u/ Correct represents the number of times the phoneme /u/ was answered correctly. The /u/ Incorrect represents the amount of times the phoneme /u/ was answered incorrectly. The /y/ Correct indicates the number of times the student correctly identified the /y/ phoneme, and the /y/ Incorrect indicates the number of times the student incorrectly identified the /y/ phoneme. In total, there were eight /u/ phonemes and eight /y/ phonemes that were read in the exercise. The first row of data per student contains the results of the pretest at the beginning of the semester, while the second row of data shows the posttest scores at the end of the semester.

     

    /u/ Correct

    /u/ Incorrect

    /y/ Correct

    /y/ Incorrect

    Total

    Student

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

    NT01-Pretest

    8

    0

    8

    0

    16

    NT01-Posttest

    8

    0

    8

    0

    16

    NT02-Pretest

    8

    0

    8

    0

    16

    NT02-Posttest

    8

    0

    8

    0

    16

    NT03-Pretest

    8

    0

    8

    0

    16

    NT03-Posttest

    8

    0

    8

    0

    16

    NT04-Pretest

    2

    6

    4

    4

    16

    NT04-Posttest

    7

    1

    7

    1

    16

    NT05-Pretest

    7

    1

    8

    0

    16

    NT05-Posttest

    7

    1

    8

    0

    16

    NT06-Pretest

    5

    3

    4

    4

    16

    NT-06-Posttest

    5

    3

    5

    3

    16

    NT07-Pretest

    8

    0

    8

    0

    16

    NT07-Posttest

    8

    0

    8

    0

    16

    NT08-Pretest

    8

    0

    8

    0

    16

    Nt08-Posttest

    8

    0

    8

    0

    16

    NT09-Pretest

    7

    1

    8

    0

    16

    NT09-Posttest

    8

    0

    8

    0

    16

    NT10-Pretest

    8

    0

    8

    0

    16

    NT10-Posttest

    8

    0

    8

    0

    16

    NT11-Pretest

    8

    0

    7

    1

    16

    NT11-Posttest

    8

    0

    8

    0

    16

    Table 1. At Home Group Listening Exercise Raw Scores for Pretest and Posttest

    The raw scores from the tables were used in the figures to show the changes in students’ scores that took place. Table 2 contains the same format as Table 1. The FR designates those students that studied abroad in France, and the rest of the symbols continue to have the same meaning. Many of the students’ responses remained similar or slightly improved.

     

    /u/

    Correct

    /u/

    Incorrect

    /y/

    Correct

    /y/

    Incorrect

    Total

    Student

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

    FR01-Pretest

    7

    1

    6

    2

    16

    FR01-Posttest

    8

    0

    8

    0

    16

    FR02-Pretest

    8

    0

    8

    0

    16

    FR02-Posttest

    8

    0

    8

    0

    16

    FR03-Pretest

    8

    0

    8

    0

    16

    FR03-Posttest

    8

    0

    8

    0

    16

    FR04-Pretest

    7

    1

    7

    1

    16

    FR04-Posttest

    8

    0

    8

    0

    16

    FR05-Pretest

    6

    2

    5

    3

    16

    FR05-Posttest

    8

    0

    7

    1

    16

    FR06-Pretest

    8

    0

    8

    0

    16

    FR06-Posttest

    8

    0

    8

    0

    16

    FR07-Pretest

    8

    0

    8

    0

    16

    FR07-Posttest

    8

    0

    8

    0

    16

    FR08-Pretest

    8

    0

    8

    0

    16

    FR08-Posttest

    5

    3

    7

    1

    16

    FR09-Pretest

    4

    4

    5

    3

    16

    FR09-Posttest

    4

    4

    5

    3

    16

    FR10-Pretest

    8

    0

    8

    0

    16

    FR10-Posttest

    8

    0

    8

    0

    16

    FR11-Pretest

    8

    0

    8

    0

    16

    FR11-Posttest

    8

    0

    8

    0

    16

    Table 2. Study Abroad Group Listening Exercise Raw Scores for Pretest and Posttest

    Listening Exercise: Change Scores

    After analyzing the raw scores from the listening exercise (as shown in Tables 1 and 2), the amount of change between each individual student’s initial beginning score versus his or her ending score was determined. The number of /u/ phonemes the students identified correctly and the number of /y/ phonemes correctly identified for this particular figure, were compared (see Figures 1A, 2A).

    Figure 1A. Listening Analysis – Change for At Home Students

    Figure 1A shows that most of the students had no change from the pretest to the posttest. For student NT04, an impressive improvement was made for both the phonemes /u/ and /y/. The students NT06, NT09, and NT11 also made progress throughout the semester.

    In Figure 1B, the majority of the students had no change in number of correct responses from the pretest to the posttest. The students FR01, FR04, and FR05 improved their semester-end scores. An unexpected negative rate of change occurred in student FR08. This direction of movement is unusual, but can be easily explained. It is most likely the emphasis put on the phoneme /y/ that caused its overuse by the student.

    Figure 1B. Listening Analysis – Change for Study Abroad Students

    Figure 2A was created using the same type of configuration. First, the total of all the students’ correct responses to the /u/ phoneme and the /y/ phoneme at the pretest were added together, and then they were compared to their total on the posttest at the end of the semester. The blue bars represent the pretest data and the purple represent the posttest data. The UNT group began with a raw score of 77 correct /u/ responses, and rose to an end-total of 83 correct /u/ responses, exhibiting a 6-point increase. At the beginning of the semester, the students collectively produced 79 correct /y/ responses, and they produced a score of 84 at the end of the semester, improving by 5 points.

    Figure 2A. Listening Analysis – North Texas Group

    The SA group had scores similar to the UNT group, as seen in Figure 2B.

    Figure 2B. Listening Analysis - Study Abroad Group

    The SA group started out with a combined total that was a bit higher, with the initial /u/ correct scores totaling 80 and the final /u/ correct scores at the end of the semester totaling 81, leaving a 1-point increase from the beginning to the end. The initial /y/ correct scores were equivalent to the UNT group at 79, but their ending scores were slightly lower, totaling 83 /u/ correct responses. The students studying in France achieved a 4-point increase.

    Reading Exercise: Raw Scores

    The listening exercise was only half of the collected data. The students were also asked to read 11 sentences containing multiple /u/ and /y/ phonemes. This proved to be a much more difficult task to accomplish and analyze. It was more confusing because the letters and words were preceded by and followed by other letters and words, which could have very easily influenced or confused the participants. During the analysis of the data, it was apparent that many students had difficulty pronouncing the /u/ phoneme when they saw it written with another vowel. For example, one way the /u/ sound is made is by putting the letters “o” and “u” together, such as in the word boule. It is very possible that students were confused by the vowel pairs or clusters because this type of reading (i.e., for pronunciation) is not the type of reading (i.e., for meaning) the average person undertakes and is in the habit of doing. Therefore, it was necessary to add a section in the data for unidentifiable sounds. If the sound was neither a /u/ phoneme nor a /y/ phoneme, or if it was simply unclear as to which sound the student was trying to make, then it was placed into a category referred to as other. Tables 3 and 4 display the raw scores from the reading task for the UNT group. There were 18 /u/ phonemes and 22 /y/ phonemes within the 11 sentences, totaling 40 possible sounds.

     

    /u/ Correct

    /u/ Incorrect

    /y/ Correct

    /y/ Incorrect

    Other

    Total

    Student

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

    NT01-Pretest

    18

    0

    22

    0

    0

    40

    NT01-Posttest

    17

    1

    21

    0

    1

    40

    NT02-Pretest

    14

    2

    13

    7

    4

    40

    NT02-Posttest

    18

    0

    12

    4

    6

    40

    NT03-Pretest

    18

    0

    11

    7

    4

    40

    NT03-Posttest

    18

    0

    15

    2

    5

    40

    NT04-Pretest

    15

    2

    14

    7

    2

    40

    NT04-Posttest

    16

    2

    17

    5

    0

    40

    NT05-Pretest

    9

    9

    14

    6

    2

    40

    NT05-Posttest

    11

    7

    16

    3

    3

    40

    NT06-Pretest

    5

    11

    14

    2

    8

    40

    NT06-Posttest

    15

    3

    13

    3

    6

    40

    NT07-Pretest

    18

    0

    20

    1

    1

    40

    NT07-Posttest

    17

    0

    22

    0

    1

    40

    NT08-Pretest

    17

    1

    22

    0

    0

    40

    NT08-Posttest

    18

    0

    21

    0

    1

    40

    NT09-Pretest

    15

    1

    21

    1

    2

    40

    NT09-Posttest

    17

    0

    22

    0

    1

    40

    NT10-Pretest

    17

    0

    15

    3

    5

    40

    NT10-Posttest

    18

    0

    19

    1

    2

    40

    NT11-Pretest

    15

    2

    10

    5

    8

    40

    NT11-Posttest

    15

    3

    13

    3

    6

    40

    Table 3. At Home Group Reading Exercise Raw Scores for Pretest and Posttest

     

    Pretest /u/Correct

    Posttest /u/Incorrect

    Pretest /y/Correct

    Posttest /y/Incorrect

    Other

    Total

    Student

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

    FR01-Pretest

    16

    4

    10

    0

    10

    40

    FR01-Posttest

    18

    0

    19

    2

    1

    40

    FR02-Pretest

    16

    1

    20

    1

    2

    40

    FR02-Posttest

    16

    0

    18

    3

    3

    40

    FR03-Pretest

    18

    0

    21

    0

    1

    40

    FR03-Posttest

    18

    0

    22

    0

    0

    40

    FR04-Pretest

    18

    0

    18

    3

    1

    40

    FR04-Posttest

    18

    0

    20

    2

    0

    40

    FR05-Pretest

    9

    9

    20

    0

    2

    40

    FR05-Posttest

    17

    1

    19

    1

    2

    40

    FR06-Pretest

    18

    0

    17

    4

    1

    40

    FR06-Posttest

    17

    1

    18

    4

    0

    40

    FR07-Pretest

    13

    5

    21

    0

    1

    40

    FR07-Posttest

    17

    1

    21

    0

    1

    40

    FR08-Pretest

    17

    1

    16

    2

    4

    40

    FR08-Posttest

    18

    0

    18

    1

    3

    40

    FR09-Pretest

    16

    0

    19

    1

    4

    40

    FR09-Posttest

    17

    0

    16

    5

    2

    40

    FR10-Pretest

    18

    0

    15

    6

    1

    40

    FR10-Posttest

    17

    0

    21

    1

    1

    40

    FR11-Pretest

    16

    1

    17

    2

    4

    40

    FR11-Posttest

    18

    0

    20

    0

    2

    40

    Table 4. Study Abroad Group Reading Exercise Raw Scores for Pretest and Posttest

    Reading Exercise: Change Scores

    According to the raw scores of the reading exercise, as shown in Tables 3 and 4, the general rate of change between each individual student’s initial score versus his or her semester-end score was determined, which is identical to the design of the figure produced for the listening exercise. The number of /u/ phonemes correctly produced and the number of accurate /y/ phonemes for this particular figure were compared. It was not uncommon for a student to have performed better during his or her first reading versus his or her final reading. This might be due to any number of reasons. First, because it was a reading exercise, each recording was different, leaving room for error each time. This does not necessarily mean that the student’s ability decreased, but it could be that his or her sound and/or voice was unidentifiable or indiscernible by the researchers. Also, as mentioned earlier, the /y/ phoneme is not a sound that is learned, heard, or used in the phonological repertory of the English language. When students improve their ability to pronounce this phoneme, it is quite common that a student will overcorrect the /u/ phoneme by using /y/ when it is not needed. While conducting this research, I have found that a majority of the students who had difficulties with the /y/ phoneme during the semester-initial readings had almost perfected the sound at the semester-end recordings, but that there were a few who, with their new knowledge of the /y/ phoneme, used it too broadly. This is a likely cause for most of the negative change revealed by Figure 3A and Figure 3B.

    Figure 3A. Reading Analysis – Change for At Home Students

    Figure 3B. Reading Analysis – Change for Study Abroad Students

    Figures 4A and 4B follow the same pattern as the figures used in the listening exercise. Next, the total of all the students’ correct responses to the /u/ and the /y/ phonemes in the semester-initial data were added and then compared to the semester-end responses to demonstrate the semester’s progress. Identical to the previous figures (Figures 3A and 3B), the blue bar represents the pretest data at the beginning of the semester and the purple bar represents the posttest data at the end of the semester. Figure 4B began with a raw score of 161 correct /u/ responses, and plummeted to an end-total of 144 correct /u/ responses, exhibiting a 17-point decrease. As explained before, this was most likely caused by an increase in the amount of unidentifiable sounds during the second recording versus the first recording. Another factor is the overuse of the /y/ phoneme, which takes more concentration and is a bit harder to pronounce. The students’ semester-initial /y/ responses started with a score of 176 and finished off with a score of 191, improving throughout the semester by a 15-point increase.

    Figure 4B shows similar results to 4A. The pretest data of the /u/ phoneme showed 175 correct responses that grew to 191 correct responses at the posttest, for a 16-point increase. Following a similar pattern, the semester-initial data for the /y/ phoneme included 194 correct responses, which matured to 212 correct responses in the semester-end data. This totaled an 18-point increase.

    The SA group started at a higher correct count on both phonemes during the semester-initial data than the UNT group, and they also ended with a higher percentage of correct results.

    Figure 4A. Reading Analysis – At Home Group

    Figure 4B. Reading Analysis – Study Abroad Group

    Through this pilot project, I was able to draw a limited number of conclusions about the similarities and differences of development in the language skills of students that study abroad versus those that study in an at-home context. As a recent study-abroad student myself, it is apparent that, at least regarding the distinction between and production of the phonemes investigated here, there are obvious differences in the teaching style and emphasis of material. The UNT students spend a minimum of 3 hours a week speaking French, learning generally only one subject at a time. Although accuracy of the language is encouraged and enforced, it is the specific subject of the class that is the most important. Outside of French class, the remainder of their time is spent in an English-only type of environment. The SA students, unlike the UNT students, are completely immersed in a French-only environment for the majority of their time. The curriculum is predominately focused on phonetics, pronunciation, and accuracy of competence of the language itself. I think this can explain why the SA group achieved better scores overall on the reading exercises.

    The limited amount of collected data can only give us the slightest clue as to why the results played out as they did. Qualitative research methods such as interviewing, journals, and observation are essential for analysis from a sociocognitive perspective. It is recommended that future research incorporate phenomena such as peer assistance, collaborative problem solving, and other possible influences related to linguistic, social, and cognitive development of participants.

    Conclusions

    As I continue to research the phonetic awareness and development in learners of French in the SA and AH contexts, I hope to answer the following questions: What are the comprehensive differences between the students who studied French in Texas, and those who studied French in France? What are the motivations in these environments that might cause a difference? And finally, back to my original thesis question, how do students’ learning environments at home and abroad affect the development of language skills in a second language?

    The findings from my research still pose one of the greatest challenges to deal with in this project. The decision must be made regarding whether or not to compare just the reading results between the AH and SA students, or if the listening results should be included as well. I could also look for correlations between each student’s ability to produce versus his or her ability to hear/discern. Because of this, several possible studies could be developed from this depending on which area will be analyzed.

    Now that my project is complete and a limited number of differences related to phonetic awareness and linguistic development among students learning in SA and AH contexts have been analyzed, I hope to continue my research in the area of study abroad. Because this is an expanding, innovative area of research, there are many directions to be taken to continue my studies. I am most interested in language learning and residence abroad. There are so many more variables that interfere with and promote this type of learning that it is extremely difficult to narrow the topic down to just one main question.

    As a pilot project to determine which analyses and future areas of research might provide the clearest, most convincing, and most interesting results, this study has demonstrated that even something as simple as the distinction between two phonemes can be very difficult to discern even through a relatively simple research design. Furthermore, it is important to reiterate that language competence and performance are not stable. Measuring any student's production can only allow the researcher to guess—in the best of circumstances—if the student understood a rule or principle or whether he or she simply misspoke at the particular point in time when the given linguistic item was being measured.

    I plan to continue research in this area to develop a better understanding of the bigger picture by accumulating more data, which will add to my current findings and lead in new directions.

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