Study Abroad and Its Effect on the Pragmatic Performance of English Requests by Hong Kong English Language Students
This thesis investigates the study abroad experience and its effect on the pragmatic development of second language learners. The research first describes affective and environmental dimensions of the study abroad experience as undertaken by a group of Hong Kong learners over a nine-month period of study at an Australian university. Second, it investigates changes in the way these learners performed requests in English over the duration of the study abroad experience. This data provides insights into their pragmatic development in English. Comparisons of request devices were made with a matched group of learners who continued their studies in Hong Kong and with a group of Australian native speakers. Finally the research examines the relationship between affective and environmental dimensions of the study abroad experience and changes in the performance of requests across the nine month study abroad period by the learners. This research takes a quantitative and qualitative approach to data analysis. A quantitative approach, using inferential statistics (ANOVA) was used to analyse learner self-report data gathered before and during the study abroad period using the Language Contact Profile. This data included information on time spent interacting or listening in English, attitudes and reasons for learning English, perceptions of the target language community, perceptions of Australia, self-rated proficiency and self-rated confidence scores. Similarly, inferential statistics (ANOVA and chi-square tests) were used to analyse and compare request performances obtained through oral Enhanced Discourse Completion Tests (EDCTs) and role-plays by three groups: the study abroad learners; an equivalent group of students in Hong Kong; and by a group of Australian native speakers. Finally, Spearman’s rho correlation was used to analyse the relationship between study abroad learners’ pragmatic performance and the affective and environmental dimensions of their experience. Qualitative data in the form of interview data and student entries in introspective diaries was collected to provide in-depth explanations for responses to the oral EDCTs and role-plays. Three main findings emerged from this study. The first finding relates to the environmental and affective dimensions of learners’ study abroad experience. Analyses revealed that, unsurprisingly, there was an overall increase in the number of hours study abroad learners listened and interacted face-to-face in English. Nevertheless, this increase plateaued after the first four months of learners’ sojourn in Australia and their interactions were mostly with other English learners who were their classmates, flat mates or friends through the Hong Kong Association at the university. These findings suggest learners established their network of friends in the first months of their sojourn in Australia, and it was unlikely learners went beyond this circle of friends during their stay in Australia. Thus, learners’ contact with fluent/native English speakers was limited. Additionally, and contrary to the common belief that there is a ‘homestay advantage’, learners living with a host family did not necessarily have more face-to-face interaction with fluent/native English speakers than those living in a student dormitory. Interaction between the host and the learner depended heavily on the individual learner’s attitude towards the host family. Furthermore, learners’ English input and face-to-face interaction correlated significantly with the increase in learners’ self-perceived confidence in speaking, communication and grammar, but not self-perceived proficiency. The second main finding concerns the pragmatic performance of English requests by at-home and study abroad learners, focusing specifically on three features of requests: request heads, softeners and external modifications. Results showed no change in the occurrence of these three features in requests made by the at-home learners at the beginning of the data collection period and again four months later. Similarly there was no change in the type of request heads and softeners used by the study abroad learners by the end of ninth months study in Australia. However, they had begun to use some of the request external modifiers that were frequently employed by native speakers of Australian English and used significantly more request external modifiers. These results lend support to the Complexification Hypothesis (Trosborg 1995) because learners first used the more routinised features before developing proficiency in the non-formulaic features of request external modifiers. More importantly, this study offered further support for the Bulge Theory (Wolfson 1986). The results in this study indicated that after nine months of being in Australia, the learners used a less familiar structure ‘conventional indirect request’ in close distance situations, such as with friends. However, in maximum social distance interactions between higher and lower status interlocutors, the learners employed direct requests to reduce cognitive burden to free more processing capacity for using external modifiers to express politeness. The third main finding relates to the effect of environmental and affective factors on the study abroad learners’ performance of English request devices. This study showed the number of request external modifiers study abroad learners used significantly increased with time. Furthermore, the results showed that by the end of the nine months, the number of request external modifiers study abroad learners used correlated significantly with a number of environmental and affective factors: learners’ overall English input, learners’ face-to-face interaction with English speakers in the living environment, as well as learners’ self-perceived proficiency and self-perceived confidence in speaking and communication, but not with their self-perceived proficiency in grammar. Overall, the research shows that learners can improve their pragmatic performance through exposure to English in the target language community in ways that are not seen in the language development of learners learning in an English as a foreign language setting. However, the results also show that study abroad learners may have quite limited opportunities to interact with English speakers during their sojourn abroad.