Academic Exchange Quarterly      Fall   2007    ISSN 1096-1453    Volume  11, Issue  3

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Against Study Abroad: US Mexican Immersion


Oscar Barrau, Indiana University South Bend IN

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). [1]   


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. [2] 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 Latin America. Also, international books are considerably more difficult to order through university bookstores, and cannot usually be returned. Thirdly, activities involving the study of material culture such as visits to museums, and local Hispanic centers and businesses can be difficult to coordinate, especially among students with tight schedules and personal obligations. Often, the gains earned from these authentic experiences will not seem worth the trouble, especially since US publishers offer ready-to-study pre-packed "culture" in textbooks similar to the ones used in first and second level language instruction.


Study Abroad

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 US faculty-guided travel abroad programs. One problem is that once abroad, students and faculty inevitably enter the domain of tourism. Tourism turns the visited culture into a commodity: the set of monetary relationships between visitors and visited are contrary to equitable cultural exchange. This is particularly the case in those cultural spaces where the visited is in a clear monetary disadvantage to the visitor. Another concern is pedagogical. While the impulse to go abroad is guided by a naïve positive belief in cultural authenticity, it is unlikely that students trained with non-authentic texts will study authentic ones while abroad. Untrained students will find themselves dis-functioning abroad much like the common tourist, hooked to a bilingual dictionary. Student tourists are consumers of the pre-fabricated culture they expect to encounter. In good faith, faculty members adapt the textbook-dependent, US-like instruction, to study abroad in order to spare unnecessary distress among students. This is a practical solution that makes students comfortably unaware of their cultural surroundings. Such absence of academic immersion can be barely compensated by guided visits to local sites, or by sharing (hopefully) authentic meals with host families, with whom students should practice their language skills.


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" [3] 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 US in order to study in Latin America. As Idelber Avelar pointed out in 1999, Cultural Studies has an important ally in Latina/o Studies in its potential reformulation of cultural territorialities. It is pointless to consider Spanish a foreign language in the US: Latin American Studies is now in the position of "formulating a new map of Latin America that does not simply accept the Río Bravo as natural, God-given border" (Avelar 56). The alternative to study abroad that I have been using for the past three years involves not leaving our institution's urban location, South Bend, Indiana, where some eighteen thousand Hispanics--for the most part Mexicans who moved from nearby East Chicago--live in the west part of town. The objective is to experience first-and second- generation "mexicanity" by acknowledging its presence in the students' own community. I have found important advantages in this approach. One is the dissolution of the touristic expectation among students. By studying Mexican culture in their own hometown, students have the opportunity of approaching their object of study not as casual one-time visitors, but as long-term members of their community. Instead of the unavoidable touristic dependencies that exist between the student visitor and the local visited in travel abroad, students can experience local exchanges with other community members who use the same currency.


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 soledad (1950), an authentic source that introduces students to high forms of Mexican culture, I include an approach to Amerindia by the study of material culture through questionnaire-guided visits to the Mesoamerican collection at the Snite museum at the University of Notre Dame. Some of the sources for the study of contemporary popular culture include visits to Hispanic businesses (taquería-type groceries and gift stores), and community centers ("Casa de la amistad"). The use of film in the classroom is guided to encourage connections between high and low forms of culture.


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 soledad at the intermediate level in an undergraduate Spanish program requires some adaptations, one of which is lowering the level of expectations considerably. However, Paz’s book can be a very effective academic tool to encourage the intellectual growth of students in the target language, in a very short time. Reading techniques include searching for general ideas while excluding unknown vocabulary and what may seem like obscure passages to students, and underlining what may require special attention or semantic clarification. Content-based instruction finds an excellent ally in the systematic use of a monolingual dictionary. The use a monolingual dictionary invites reflection in Spanish as the assigned reading pages unfold. It allows the student to function conceptually, by word definition, instead of mechanically, by the use of the bilingual dictionary. [4]


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 Valdez functions as a complementary counterpart to Octavio Paz's sober and alienating depiction of the same 1940s Pachuco culture. By charting three initial standpoints--the student's, Luis Valdez's, and Octavio Paz's-- students are invited to consider the role that mainstream conceptualizations of Mexicanity (often associated by extremes: social submission or rebellious violence) play in any intellectual approach to Mexican culture. This awareness should develop as students put their studies into context in the light of contemporary topics such as today's gang violence in LA, or the impact of the post-NAFTA Mexican migratory phenomenon on US and Mexican societies. The goal is to approach the study of Mexican culture by acknowledging one's point of departure in association with US national mexicanity. After the second day of class, Paz’s work serves as chronological survey of Mexican culture, from pre-Hispanic Mesoamerica to post-revolutionary Mexico.


Final Remarks

The historical reasons for the "low (intellectual) capital" of Spanish as an academic discipline in the US are outside the scope of this paper. It is worth stating, however, that an early and systematic introduction of solid academic content in the Spanish classroom could bring important results in the long run. A vast majority of Spanish textbooks doesn’t present solid academic content. One's hope would be to raise the academic bar at the introductory level without compromising the popularity of Spanish among students. Once improved, the academic value and image of Spanish as a degree would have positive repercussions carried over into higher levels. The distinctiveness of Spanish has much to do with the fact that it has traditionally attracted a large number of native speakers who can complete the degree easily, practically unchallenged intellectually. Spanish heritage speakers follow as a second category of advantaged students in basic language acquisition. The smallest group is that of English speakers whose only serious challenge is communicative proficiency. [5] A number of Spanish graduates populate the schools of secondary education, where the demand for teachers continues. An important number of Spanish graduates also go on to MA programs, many of which exist almost entirely to absorb the demand for college introductory level language instructors. This situation reflects a quantitative, non-qualitative demand for basic instruction that only perpetuates (and will accentuate) the low intellectual capital of Spanish. [6]


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 US for years, I have concluded that rigorous content instruction was compromised by vacation-like expectations in programs abroad. In my experience students approached Mexico intellectually better in the US than in Mexico, a paradox I have been trying to turn to our advantage in our local-community based classroom.





[1] Verdesio (2003; 24) states that some professors “see the [Cultural Studies] paradigm as little more than addition of audiovisual enhancements to traditional classroom practice.”


[2] “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).


[3] "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).


[4] 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.


[5] 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).


[6] 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).





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Kramsch, Claire. 2000. Context and Culture in Language Teaching. Oxford: OUP.

----. 1991. Culture in Language Learning: A View from the States. Foreign Language   

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    Issues in Classroom Practice. Cultural Studies in the Curriculum: Teaching Latin America. 

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