NOTE: The article below is mirrored from the JALT Study Abroad SIG website.
Ryūgaku: Explorations in Study Abroad Vol. 11 No. 2 December 2018. (pp. 43-46)
Developing Interactional Competence
in a Japanese Study Abroad Context
by Naoko Taguchi (2015)
Bristol, UK: Multilingual Matters (2015) ISBN-13 (Paper): 978-1783093717
What is interactional competence? How does it develop? Why do some study abroad participants seem to make significant gains in their interactional competence while others seem to merely fossilize and exhibit little evidence of communicative gain? This book explores these questions, offering insights about some of the ways that the verbal interactions of 18 intermediate-level JSL students studying abroad in Japan changed over a three-month period.
The first concept this book attempts to examine is interactional competence. The author acknowledges the insights of Hymes (1972), Hall (1993, 1995), and Young (2002, 2008) in developing her theoretical framework, but unfortunately she does not offer a precise definition of “interactional competence.” Those seeking to know how this term differs from related terms such as communicative competence, pragmatic competence, or strategic competence might prefer to consult either Young (2000) or Sun (2014). One noteworthy distinction made by Taguchi is that interactional competence regards linguistic performance as dependent on social context rather than as a supposed fixed personality trait. In other words, language is considered as a co-constructed product that varies with each given social context. As Young (2000) suggests, this makes it challenging to measure any reputed changes in interactional competence that might occur as a result of a study abroad experience.
Although interactional competence is a far-reaching concept, this book measures it narrowly in terms of speech styles (plain vs. polite) and the use of incomplete sentences (elided morpho-syntatic
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markers). What the author found is that over the course of 15 weeks many of the students in Japan started using colloquial Japanese more frequently when interacting with peers. Their use of incomplete sentences in casual contexts also increased. Taguchi notes how many JSL students first learn the formal -desu and -masu forms instead of casual Japanese expressions. However, overuse of -desu and -masu forms can create social distance and a sense of needless formality. During their study abroad experiences, the book mentions how four in-depth informants in this study learned—to varying degrees of success—how to use varied social registers more appropriately. Taguchi remarks:
Japanese speakers strategically shift between speech styles in order to negotiate and co-construct interpersonal relations, affect, and interpersonal distance, as well as to
index different social identities or mark discourse boundaries. Because this indexical use of speech styles in not salient in naturalistic, face-to-face interactions, learners often face challenge in understanding the mappings among speech forms, meanings,
and contexts. Modelling and feedback from local members may facilitate socialization into the appropriate use of speech styles. A study abroad context that offers opportunities to interact in a variety of social settings can be an optimal environment for the acquisition of speech styles. (p. 24)
Although this book offers little practical advice about study abroad, it does provide some useful theoretical information about conditions thought to foster linguistic gain. In short, the author stresses the need for more peer interactions and/or interactions with host family members in diverse social settings to acquire a richer repertoire of L2 speech styles. She also notes how learners’ subjectivities and identities influence speech styles. Finally, Taguchi mentions that perceptions towards the target language community can also significantly shape language learning outcomes. Those organizing study abroad programs need to consider how to optimize each of these factors to enhance potential linguistic and personal gains.
Strengths and Weaknesses
This book has four strong points. First, it provides some useful theoretical information about conditions thought to foster linguistic gain. For example, the author stresses the need for more peer interactions and/or interactions with host family members in diverse social settings to acquire a richer variety of L2 speech styles. Second, Taguchi highlights how perceptions towards the target language community can significantly influence language learning outcomes. For example, international students in Japan who immerse themselves deeply in Japanese cultural traditions are likely to have more success with the language. A third nice feature of this text is that it highlights how language can be used in diverse ways. For example, it challenges the myth that in business contexts, polite language is always used. Citing a study by Fukushima (2007), Taguchi suggests style-shifting frequently occurs in business negotiations. Indeed, in tune with interactionist thought, she maintains that “speech forms are not bound to fixed contextual features” (p. 23) and that ample variation exists within each language. A final merit of this book is that it requires no detailed knowledge of Japanese.
On the other hand, in our view this book has three shortcomings. First, it uses a pre-test/post-test design with a very short time frame. Although a 15-week snapshot of how the conversational styles of some Japanese language learners change is offered, no hint of long-term outcomes is provided. Were the conversational gains that most participants made at the end of the study abroad gradually lost after the
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informants returned home? What degree of language attrition occurred? Such questions point to the need for a more longitudinal study.
Second, the task prompt used in this research undoubtedly influenced the response outcomes. Although all of the participants spoke English, they were told to use Japanese exclusively and avoid code-switching during the recorded conversation sessions. Participants were prompted to “use a variety of conversation strategies, for example: stating opinions, soliciting opinions, asking and responding to questions, [or] commenting on your partner’s responses...” (p.160). These instructions likely influenced how the participants spoke. This problem is common to many interactional competence studies: Constructs such as “language proficiency” cannot be divorced from each specific assessment context.
A third concern we had about this study is that it fails to distinguish between the many levels of politeness existing in Japanese: -desu/-masu forms are lumped together with the more highly formalized “super-polite” keigo/kensongo that are used in some contexts.
The Bottom Line
This book may be useful for those studying pragmatics and interactional competence. It also has some value for those exploring the interface between social identity and linguistics. For those looking for advice about how to optimize study abroad programs (either as participants or as administrators), our recommendation is lukewarm. Japanese readers seeking more practically-oriented advice would likely benefit from texts such as Fumiko Ito’s Kōkō Ryūgaku Adobaisu
[Study Abroad Advice for High School Students] or Toshi Sugita's Seichō Shitakereba, Jibun yori Atama no ī Hito to Tsukiai Nasai
[If you want to grow, learn with someone smarter than yourself]. The former text, though intended for secondary school students also contains lots of material relevant to university students as well. The latter text is not solely a “study abroad text” per se, but it does offer many useful hints about communicating in more globalized contexts.
– Reviewed by Tim Newfields and Ivan Botev
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Gallant, M. (2002). Getting the Most from Study Abroad.
New York, NY: Natavi Guides.
Hall, J.K. (1995). Aw, man, where you going?: Classroom interaction and the development of L2
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Itō, F. (2010). Kōkō Ryūgaku Adobaisu
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grow, hang out with smart people better than yourself]. Tokyo: Kōdansha.
Sun, D. (2014). From communicative competence to interactional competence: A new outlook to the
teaching of spoken English. Journal of Language Teaching and Research, 5
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London, UK: Routledge.
Young, R. (2002). Discourse approaches to oral language assessment. Annual Review of Applied
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Young, R. (2000, March 11). Interactional competence: Challenges for validity. Paper presented at the
American Association for Applied Linguistics Annual Conference. Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. Retrieved from https://dept.english.wisc.edu/rfyoung/IC_C4V.Paper.PDF