Academic Exchange Quarterly Fall 2007 ISSN 1096-1453 Volume 11, Issue 3
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Against Study Abroad: US Mexican Immersion
Barrau, PhD., is Assistant Professor of Spanish
The accelerated nature of a college SL/ C (Second Language/ Culture) immersion course contributes more to the acquisition of academic knowledge than whether the experience is conducted abroad. My model rejects textbooks and uses genuine textual, audiovisual and material resources that facilitate connections between low and high culture.
The singular and often misguided inclusion of Cultural Studies agendas in Spanish language programs coincided with the explosive demand for Spanish instruction in institutions of higher education. In the minds of many introductory-level students, Spanish is not only easier than other languages, but more practical for US nationals. However, the intellectual status of Spanish remains marginal. In "comparative as well as theoretical circles," there is a paradoxical "contradiction between the language's high social and experimental capital among the students and its low capital among literature specialists" (Avelar 49). This paradox disappears if it is in fact such low capital in “specialists” that makes Spanish popular among students. Students major in Spanish not only because it is more marketable, but also because Spanish is viewed as less intellectually intimidating than other languages, including English. Whether or not students discover the fallacy of this assumption depends on their personal experience after a few semesters of instruction. In this regard, the differences between novice and intermediate to advanced level classrooms define two distinct teaching cultures. While instructors of introductory courses feed grammatical structures into their students with bits and pieces of popular culture, professors in advanced levels claim the domains of high culture and critical thinking. It appears, however, that neither low-language, low-culture level instructors nor higher-level, high-culture professors necessarily acknowledge what it entails to incorporate Cultural Studies into the Spanish curriculum. Teaching scholars have already stated this suspicion (Verdesio 24). 
The problem begins with basic language instruction. During the past two decades, we have witnessed a post-communicative production of profusely visual textbooks invading the market. The basic claim in these new books is functional language learning, or facilitating "how to function" in the target language in real-life-like contexts that are entertaining and culturally imbedded. This turn brought new life and clear advantages to second language instruction, but it has not addressed a more serious problem for second language departments: integrating language into the larger milieu of higher education learning. The products of such an industry present a culture of their own, detached from other disciplines in that they lack serious academic content, employ a considerable amount of cheap language-instruction labor, and represent an enormous number of first and second year students who provide an important source of revenue for campuses. Armed with audiovisual materials and technologic props, many of these expensive and eye-catching packages bring high profits to publishers and very limited academic capital to language departments. Textbooks reduce culture to the “four Fs: foods, fairs, folklore, and statistical facts” (Kramsch 1991; 218 in Warford 2006; 49). High visibility, attractive formats, and high sales on the one hand, and low academic content and standards on the other, are perfectly compatible in this consumption-oriented setup.
Intermediate and advanced level culture instruction often
inherits and exacerbates the problems found in the previous language
instruction years. One is the heavy reliance on conventional textbooks and the
timid and late introduction of authentic materials and culturally significant
experiences.  This situation has to do partially with logistical problems.
It goes without saying that US-made textbooks are user-friendlier to US
students than authentic books imported from
One would normally agree that studying abroad is the most
privileged of all possible authentic experiences for senior students, because
it provides true meaning to all the previous years of language training.
However, there should be serious concerns about the academic value of some
Many small programs abroad have open enrollment policies in order to support themselves financially. Not all students who enroll are equally committed to academic work while traveling. While tourism and academic work are not entirely incompatible, given a close struggle between the two, the first can easily overcome the second, turning the experience abroad into little more than a fun vacation with Spanish credits as a bonus. Despite the problems described above, the positive energy created in US faculty guided study abroad programs can be channeled toward more academically rigorous studies in later courses. The problem posed by the pedagogic legacy of the so-called "touristic approach"  textbooks to the study of culture is that their introductory mission is carried into higher levels of instruction. In the common Spanish curriculum, only literary studies remain reasonably rigorous in comparison: other forms of high and low (popular) culture lack serious academic status in intermediate and advanced level classrooms. A more productive study abroad model is one where students contact the host institution (a public university) directly and travel on their own. Students taking such initiative are typically more motivated, stronger learners with a clearer idea about how to make their experience worthwhile, both academically and financially. A good preparatory course for such a true-immersion experience would reject the touristic-like faculty-guided program described earlier.
The Stay-Home Alternative
Students don't need to leave the
The act of visiting the students' own "cultural backyard" is, nonetheless, still impregnated with connotative social elements that mediate neighborhood interrelations within the urban ethnic hierarchical system. Also, the dynamics of social status created by the educational gap between the college student-visitor and the barrio-resident still play a role in these interactions. Indiana University South Bend has, on the other hand, certain advantages of the proximity of socio economic status in these interactions over other local institutions such as Notre Dame or Saint Mary's in that it is public and greatly populated by blue-collar, first- generation and non-traditional college students. Despite the fact that a majority of the IU South Bend student population is of Euro Caucasian origin, Caucasians and Hispanic heritage speakers equally represent Spanish majors in our campus. When our S303 class "The Hispanic World" visits the Mexican part of town as a Spanish-speaking group, the immediate reality is that of a dozen college students entering a working-class Mexican neighborhood. The diverse racial composition of the group presents multifaceted realities. Hispanic students do not necessarily assume a cultural guiding role for Anglo students in the group visits. It is usually an Anglo student with personal ties to the Mexican community who will assume this role, guiding both Anglo and Hispanic students.
I find at least two pedagogical advantages in the local
two-week intensive immersion-like course at the intermediate level I have
taught the past three summers. First, unlike conventional travel abroad
programs of similar duration, S303 does not rely on a textbook. Second, instead
of presenting a touristic destination with multiple distractions to potentially
unfocused students, S303's physical setting is the students' campus and its
urban surroundings. Spatial and time constrictions are highly productive
pedagogically. The two-week time frame forces the daily attention on one
subject, a benefit absent in regular academic semesters. Combined with academic
rigor in the target language, time intensity fosters accelerated immersion. The
two-week intensive format enables students to disconnect from other
obligations, including their jobs, to meet in class four hours daily, to study
on their own another four, and to conduct some "field work" twice a
week. In addition to Octavio Paz's El laberinto de la
The model proposed in this essay includes the use of
authentic materials and a monolingual dictionary, and an approach to the study
of culture after a reflection on cultural points of enunciation. Using a
canonical essay such as Paz's El laberinto de la
An initial reflection on
cultural and historical enunciation sets the tone of the class. Between the
first two meetings, students read the first chapter of Octavio
Paz's work, "El Pachuco y otros
extremos" as we study Luis Valdez' film Zoot Suit (1981), a theatrical musical piece
that narrates the prosecution of Chicano gang members in Los Angeles in 1942.
The stylized portrayal by
The historical reasons for the "low (intellectual)
capital" of Spanish as an academic discipline in the
The odds for a generalized trend toward content-based
instruction in Spanish departments seem low today, as a majority of instructors
teaching introductory level Spanish still lack the training in the humanities
required to incorporate true academic content in their classrooms. In addition,
language instructors often work under disadvantageous conditions. Unmotivated,
often overwhelmed, many Spanish language instructors focus at best on the
students' ability to communicate trivial information in the target language.
One's hope is that some of the multidisciplinary curricula developments in some
universities may eventually also bring the introductory level courses into the
field of the humanities. After having taught two-to-four-week intensive
immersion courses both in and out of the
 Verdesio (2003; 24) states that some professors “see the [Cultural Studies] paradigm as little more than addition of audiovisual enhancements to traditional classroom practice.”
 “The term ‘authentic’ has been used as a reaction against the prefabricated artificial language of textbooks and instructional dialogues…Little and Singleton (1988) point out that ‘an authentic text is a text that was created to fulfill some social purpose in the language community in which it was produced.’” (Kramsch 2000; 177).
 "Instructors who are forced to use audiovisual and cybernetic props in their classes must follow…the dictates of Spanish programs that mostly advocate what can be called a touristic approach--teaching the Spanish language in an entertaining way that…promotes the target culture" (Verdesio 2003; 23; italics mine).
 The reliance on the bilingual dictionary at the intermediate level is a set-back in the process of language learning. By reinforcing the point of cultural enunciation of the student, the bilingual dictionary views the target language as unnatural, in need of clarification, translation. As it provides a quick fix to the problem of understanding isolated words, the bilingual dictionary gives the false impression of learning, while avoiding understanding words in their natural context.
 Spanish undergraduate degrees remain largely language/ grammar-based degrees. ACTFL based language proficiency assessment tools do not target culture-content assessment. See Mark K. Warford's article on assessment and cultural literacy (2006).
 Carlos Alonso indicates that the large enrolments at the introductory level have not had a significant impact on enrolment in the advanced-level courses. He suggests that academic dialogues with other departments may help solve this problem (2006; 19-20).
Alonso, Carlos J. 2006. Spanish: The Foreign National Language. ADFL Bulletin. New
Anderson, Danny J. and Kuhnheim, Jill S. 2003. Cultural Studies in the Curriculum:
Avelar, Idelber. 1999. The Clandestine Ménage a Trois of Cultural Studies, Spanish, and
Critical Theory. Profession.
Kramsch, Claire. 2000. Context and Culture in Language
----. 1991. Culture in Language Learning: A View from the States. Foreign Language
Research on Cross-Cultural Perspective.
Verdesio, Gustavo. 2003. Colonial Studies as Cultural Studies: Theoretical and Pedagogical
Issues in Classroom Practice. Cultural
Studies in the Curriculum: Teaching
Wardford, Mark K. 2006. Assessing Target Cultural Literacy: