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Cristina Sanz
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Cristina Sanz

Professor and Director, Intensive & SFS Spanish Program and Barcelona Summer Program
Department of Spanish and Portuguese
Georgetown University

SLA in Study Abroad Contexts: A Researcher-practitioner’s Perspective


Classic SLA proposals by Krashen (Input Hypothesis, 1985), Swain (Output Hypothesis, 1995), and Long (Interaction Hypothesis, 1996) suggest that studying abroad provides the optimal context for language development, as that context is abundant in meaningful, rich input while providing plenty of opportunities for interaction, and pushing the learner to produce language to communicate. More recent neurocognitive approaches to SLA further show that immersion-like conditions lead to electrophysiological signatures (measurements of electrical activity of neurons; a kind of data associated with event-related potentials used in language processing) typical of native speakers. Likewise, practitioners, and of course students and parents have always assumed that study abroad offers the best conditions for language development: A stay abroad accelerates fluency, and there are aspects of language, such as pragmatics, that can only be learned while living in the country where the language is spoken. Intuitively appealing and often based on anecdotal observation, these are common beliefs. Contrary to all these expectations, however, study abroad research too often shows minimal or no effects of immersion experiences in language development. In another surprising contrast, while Schmidt's (1990) seminal work on attention reminds us of observations he compiled in a diary while living in Brazil, the lay person links the effectiveness of immersion with a view of learning as an automatic reflex associated with implicit learning and use. As I will show, immersion in general and immersion abroad specifically present a unique testing ground for the study of the effects of frequency and quality of interaction, of the role of attention, and of the interaction between internal and external factors on multilingual development. The evidence produced by this research has the potential to assist practitioners in making informed decisions on program designs and the best fit for each individual student.

Cristina Sanz is Professor and Director of the Intensive and School of Foreign Service Spanish Programs and the Barcelona Summer Program in the Department of Spanish & Portuguese at Georgetown University. At Georgetown, she teaches graduate and undergraduate courses on bilingualism and cognition, instructed second language acquisition and teaching methods. Sanz holds degrees in Spanish Philology from the Universitat de Barcelona and an Advanced Certificate in Second Language Acquisition and Teacher Education (SLATE) and a PhD in Spanish Linguistics, both from the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana. An expert on multilingual development and education, she is interested in the interaction between context, including study abroad and computer-assisted learning, and individual differences, especially the role of prior experience and socio-cognitive variables. She is also interested in research methods with an emphasis on the use of technology. Within the last two years, her work has appeared in Bilingualism: Language & Cognition, Neuropsychologia, The Modern Language Journal, Language Learning, Applied Linguistics, and The Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience. These articles, often co-authored with Georgetown colleagues and graduate students, are reports of empirical studies with key terms like input, working memory capacity, cross-linguistic influence, explicit instruction, bilingualism, and age(ing). Sanz’s volume Mind and Context in Adult Second Language Acquisition (GU Press) received the 2006 Modern Language Association’s Mildenberger Prize. Sanz has educated Spanish teachers in the US, Spain, and the Philippines, and has worked as consultant for private and public institutions, including the United Nations and the Instituto Cervantes. Sanz is the recipient of Georgetown’s Vicennial Medal and the 2015 Dean’s Award for Excellence in Teaching. She is currently writing, in Spanish, a handbook for teachers of Spanish and planning a volume on the development of language and of identity in study/stay abroad contexts.
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