NYU Steinhardt News

Doctoral Research Spotlight: Van Booven Examines Variation in Language Learning Contexts in the Dominican Republic

Christopher D. Van Booven is a PhD candidate in the Bilingual Education program at NYU Steinhardt. His dissertation research applies a comparative conversation analytic approach in an attempt to better specify how two language learning contexts—the study abroad homestay and the language classroom—uniquely contribute to the development of the ability to interact competently in a second language. Van Booven describes his research below.


What are your anticipated research outcomes?
When it comes to learning a new language, the conventional wisdom is that studying abroad with a host family that speaks the target language is a kind of gold-standard learning arrangement. But what kinds of interactions actually take place between learners and their host families? And just how different are these interactions—if at all—from those that take place in a language classroom? My dissertation research attempts to address these questions by: a) analyzing video and audio recordings of real-time, unscripted interactions between language learners and their host families and b) systematically comparing these interactions with recordings of second language use in the context of the classroom. My hope is that this work will provide researchers, teachers, students, and study abroad program developers with a more precise, data-driven understanding of how the homestay and the language classroom each uniquely contributes to the process of second language development.

How did your own study abroad experience inform your dissertation?
My dissertation research would not have been possible without NYU Steinhardt’s Culture and Language Learning in Real Time program in the DR. When program director and Multilingual Multicultural Studies faculty member, Dr. Shondel Nero, first invited me to accompany her as program assistant back in January 2014, I was naturally thrilled. Who wouldn’t want to spend three of the coldest weeks of the year in the Caribbean?! But I could never have predicted just how pivotal this experience would prove for my doctoral studies. Dr. Nero’s program opened my eyes to the rich cultural and linguistic landscape of the Dominican Republic, and my daily conversations with our students about their homestay and language classroom experiences in the program were what ultimately inspired the conceptualization of my dissertation research.

What challenges have you encountered in conducting research internationally?
A number of interesting logistical challenges emerged throughout the recruitment and data collection processes. First, because I was proposing to conduct research at and with the assistance of the local host university, I had to learn how to navigate the procedures for securing all necessary permissions at an international institution. Second, because I was collecting video and audio data, I had to travel with quite a bit of research equipment. So prior to departure I had to make sure that every piece of equipment—chargers, wireless microphones, etc.—would be compatible with the local infrastructure. Finally, because I had limited time in-country to collect data—usually only 5 to 8 days at a time—I had to make sure to have very reliable ground transportation to get me and all of my equipment to my data collection appointments on time. So when my first taxi company was either unavailable or running late, I had to be prepared with second and sometimes third options to avoid missing valuable data collection sessions.

Have you developed any academic connections with individuals or groups in DR?
I’ve made wonderful connections with folks in the DR, particularly at the host institution. Simply put, I owe the success of my data collection to the tireless support of the Office of International Students, the Department of Applied Linguistics, and the Department of Spanish, to name only a few.

What advice do you have for students considering study abroad?
Make it a priority and take advantage of every moment to make meaningful connections during your program – you never know when a critical door of opportunity may open for you!

What motivates your research?
The qualitative features of real-time, naturally occurring second language interaction with a host family have been scarcely documented and never subjected to rigorous comparative analysis with classroom-based second language use. In view of recent surges of participation in this form of international educational experience, this study offers a timely confrontation with unchecked anecdotes and historically mixed outcomes reported across study abroad programs within a pre-test/post-test quantitative paradigm. This study attempts to foreground the influence of the social context on oral language development by adopting an analytic framework—conversation analysis—that focuses on the verbal and nonverbal techniques—or interactional practices—that enable speakers to meaningfully co-participate in social interaction.