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The Tensions of Globalization in the Contact Zone: The Case of Two Intermediate University-level Spanish Language and Culture Classrooms on the U.S./Mexico Border

  • Author(s): Vinall, Kimberly
  • Advisor(s): Kramsch, Claire
  • et al.

This dissertation centrally explores understandings of foreign/second language and culture learning and its potential to prepare learners to participate in a globalized world. Much research has already been conducted on how globalization has influenced understandings of what it means to learn languages and cultures, how they are taught, and what their ultimate goals are in terms of learning (Blommaert, Leppänen, Pahta, & Räisänen, 2012; Heller & Duchêne, 2012; Kramsch, 2014). This dissertation study adds to this research by responding to Scarino’s (2014) call to expand theoretical understandings of language, culture, and learning in relationship to processes of both globalization and neoliberalism. More specifically, this study explores the potential of a dynamic or complexity orientation (Wesely, 2012) to understand how beliefs, attitudes, and perceptions towards language and culture learning are constructed and negotiated in the relationship between learners and instructors, as complex social beings, and the learning site, as “contestatory discursive site” (Mckay & Wong, 1996)

The site of this ethnographic study can be understood as interconnected contact zones, as defined by Pratt (2008), or social spaces “where disparate cultures meet, clash, and grapple with each other, often in highly asymmetrical relations of domination and subordination-like colonialism, slavery, or their aftermaths as they are lived out across the globe today" (p. 7). These contact zones are two Spanish language and Latino cultures classrooms situated at a university in San Diego on the border between the United States and Mexico. Primary participants include two third-semester university level Spanish instructors, Yesenia and Vicente, and their respective students.

I collected data in two learning spaces: the language learning classrooms and the sites where students from Yesenia’s class completed community-service learning (CSL) projects; all of these latter CSL sites involved the students’ engagement with local immigrant populations. In both spaces, I employed qualitative methodology with an ethnographic focus, which involved participant observation, extensive field notes, audio- and video-recordings of classes, and collecting class-related textual artifacts and pedagogical materials. I applied discourse analysis to explore classroom interactions, teaching materials, and interviews with a focal group of students from each class, the instructors, the department chair, and personnel related to the CSL program, including staff, site coordinators, community leaders, and community participants.

My analysis suggests that the two language and culture classrooms not only reflect the larger tensions of globalization, but also produce new tensions. The instructors and the learners have differing perceptions of language and culture and the importance of their learning. These understandings are constructed in relationship to their positionings within the classroom, the university, the community, and the local context. The two instructors struggle with their conflicted positioning within the power structure of the university and in the broader relationship between the United States and Latin America, particularly as they are both Mexican immigrants. They also grapple with the instrumental approach that is imposed through the textbook in which learners accumulate grammatical forms and vocabulary while culture is consumed through superficial representations of “Otherness,” presented as imagined tourists visits and the accumulation of geographical and historical information (Thurlow & Jaworski, 2010; Kramsch & Vinall, 2015).

In the first classroom, Yesenia accepts the instrumental approach, encouraging the accumulation of largely decontextualized language forms, and she participates in the construction of what I call a tourist gaze on Latin America (Sheller, 2003; Merrill, 2009, Urry, 2002), believing that it will facilitate learners’ appreciation of her cultural heritage. In the second classroom, Vicente rejects the instrumental approach: he wants to facilitate language and culture learning through critically understanding, reflecting on, and proposing alternatives to the social, economic, and political realities of the contact zone. In both classrooms, however, learners resent these pedagogical choices, their resistance revealing tensions in their own understandings and goals. Learners express a desire to develop cultural awareness so that they can care about the realities of Latin America yet doing so uncomfortably implicates them in larger global relationships in which they must confront their privileged positionings. This process was particularly evident in their CSL experiences in which “putting a face on it” reproduced problematic binaries, such as that of “us” and “them” and “server” and “served,” and in the process reinforced larger power structures and reproduced privilege. Even though the learners want to engage in more than superficial communication they also recognize the limited role of their language and culture learning in their current lives, namely to successfully complete the language requirement, to engage in tourism, and to compete in the global marketplace.

The findings of this study suggest ever increasing tensions between understandings of learning language and culture in the classroom in contrast to the potentiality of this learning as applied outside of the classroom. In both classrooms, the learners and the instructors demonstrate an awareness of the conflicting attitudes, beliefs, and perceptions that they bring to the classroom and how these interact with the teaching materials as well as the local context, yet they do not engage in critical reflection on these understandings. Doing so would require engaging with the central question of power, and how their language and culture learning experiences (re)produce social structures both in and outside of the classroom. In this regard, one of the central limitations of the dynamic or complexity orientation (Wesely, 2012) that I have employed is that it does not centrally interrogate this question of power.

This study points to the need for future research in field of second language acquisition that considers how institutional structures influence understandings of language and language learning, the pedagogical choices that are made in the classroom, and the possibilities for agency on the part of both instructors and learners to explore their own understandings of language in relationship to pedagogical choices and learning. In the end, if one of the primary consequences of globalization and neoliberalism is the exacerbation of asymmetrical power relations and social structures, in order to understand how they have influenced language and culture learning and how to prepare learners to participate in a globalized world would require additional theorizations of how this power is operating.

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