Raychel Vasseur’s research ties in the context of how students learn a language and what language and culture mean to them.
While majoring in Spanish studies at the University of Delaware, Raychel Vasseur was lucky enough to study abroad twice. The first time, she spent five weeks in Argentina. The second, she spent a semester in Mexico.
Both times, she says, she did everything wrong.
Of course, she didn't know that at the time. It wasn't until a decade later, when Vasseur began reading scholarly literature as part of her dissertation on communicating while studying abroad, that she realized her mistake.
"No one had ever really talked to me about what a person should do when they're studying abroad to really maximize the experience," said Vasseur, now an assistant professor of Spanish in Texas Tech University's Department of Classical & Modern Languages & Literatures. "In all the orientation meetings, we were told what to pack, what we should and should not eat, how we should handle host family living and all these things, but they never mentioned language learning or cultural learning or things like that.
"My goal for studying abroad was to improve my language proficiency and cultural knowledge, and I don't think I was very successful in achieving that while I was there. Now, I look back on what I was doing, and of course I wasn't successful. I spent almost all of my time with the group of Americans I was with from my university. And, you know, that's what most students who go abroad do."
Now, with her research on second language acquisition, Vasseur is examining how educators can better teach second languages, like Spanish, so students can better learn them. Within that realm, she wants to understand how the context of learning – for instance, studying abroad, sitting in a classroom or video chatting with another student – impacts the outcomes.
"I think the context is very important, so I want more of a naturalistic setting – as such, the research I do is in classrooms or during study abroad programs," Vasseur said. "Research like that happens with projects students are already doing in their classes."
Language acquisition may seem like a field in which current events have limited relevance, but not for Vasseur. The coronavirus pandemic, for instance, provided a completely naturalistic way to study the context of language learning.
Vasseur will use student projects from fall 2019 through fall 2020 to show how students' language and cultural competencies progressed in different settings: fall 2019 in a more traditional classroom setting, spring 2020 in emergency pandemic teaching and fall 2020 in an online context, using Blackboard and Zoom. Then she can compare how the context in which students learned a language impacted their improvement.
This research was supported in part by a research priorities grant she received from the American Council for the Teaching of Foreign Languages to examine the use of intercultural competence "Can Do" statements in the classroom.
An equally current and relevant area of interest for Vasseur is intercultural competence, a range of skills that leads to effective and appropriate communication between people of different cultures.
"I do a lot of work on intercultural competence and how we should teach intercultural communicative competence to our students," she said. "Just because you know the words and the grammar of a language doesn't mean you can communicate with someone and not offend them. Intercultural competence is about knowing the implications your words carry and being sensitive to other cultures."
For Vasseur, teaching cultural competence is far more important than teaching perfect grammar.
"There are many different ways to say one thing, and especially in the Spanish-speaking world, because there are so many different places where Spanish is spoken," she said. "So, it's important to explain to students that some things are said in the U.S. one way, in Mexico another way, in Nicaragua another way and in Spain another way, and it's not wrong in any of those places.
"I relate it to soft drinks. In Texas, you ask for a Coke, but in New Jersey, I would ask for soda and in Colorado, they ask for pop. So, we have this in the U.S., too, and it's important to draw those connections for students so they realize it's not this totally foreign thing that only Spanish has or only people who speak Spanish have. It also exists in English. For me, it is really important to talk about the cultural differences we have in the U.S., too."
Being culturally sensitive is important, Vasseur said, because language and culture are such vital parts of a person's identity. She knows firsthand because, when she first began learning Spanish as a young woman in New Jersey, she struggled.
"I resisted trying to have an accent that sounded like a Spanish speaker," she said. "I resisted that sort of identity because it was very strange for me to hear myself speaking Spanish. No one in my family spoke Spanish; I didn't know anyone who spoke Spanish. So to hear myself speak another language and go out of my comfort zone and try to imitate this language that wasn't my own, was sort of scary for me."
Although she now both thinks and dreams alternately in Spanish and English, she keeps that initial discomfort in mind. As a teacher, it helps her to remember that each student comes in with their own background and beliefs. It also helps her to identify with students who feel uncomfortable with the newness of a second language. She shares her story so they know she understands.
That identification, along with many of her passions, are driven by her personal philosophy: treat people as people, and be kind.
"Maya Angelou said, 'People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel,' and that's so true," Vasseur said. "That's why I study intercultural competence in addition to the grammar and vocabulary of language.
"We are at a large research university and research is very, very important, but it's more important to me that we treat people as people, and not just as numbers. In our Spanish classes, we have conversations and we know our students' names. Language learning often takes students out of their comfort zone, but we should not ask anyone to do something we're not willing to do."