Many American students of the Russian language take part in study abroad programs in such Russian-speaking countries such as Moldova, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Latvia, and Lithuania, to name a few. Kinginger (2009, p. 11) defines study abroad as “a temporary sojourn of pre-defined duration, undertaken for educational purposes.” After entering a new country and culture, these individuals must then negotiate their identity as non-native speakers of the language they are studying. Benson et al. (2013, p. 17) maintain that second language (or L2) identity refers to any aspect of a person’s identity that is related to their knowledge and use of a second language. Studying abroad is typically an experience in which existing identities are shifted, while imagined identities are challenged by the need for them to be recognized in an unfamiliar setting. Although such a challenge to identity may be characteristic of all study abroad sojourns, when the study abroad experience involves a second language, it is heightened by the need to do identity work in the second language. Consequently, this poses particular challenges to students’ second language identities. The emergence of foreign-language mediated identities requires that individuals craft a “third space” (Kinginger, 2013, p. 342), which results in their reassessment and restructuring of how they perceive the world and past identities that they have created for themselves. Thus, because of its disruptive effects, studying abroad most certainly can act as a catalyst for the reexamination of psychological identity.
Benson et al. (2012) suggest that a sojourn abroad can, in fact, lead to identity development on a relatively significant scale. Specifically, they assert that the potential for development is most likely to occur in three domains: 1) identity-related proficiency or pragmatic competence; 2) linguistic self-concept, which can include such attributes as self-esteem or confidence; and 3) L2 development or the ability to get things done (e.g., successfully navigate a service encounter). Aronson (1995) makes a connection between students’ self-esteem and language learning. In particular, he claims that individuals who think they are poor language learners may act as poor language learners and thus reject opportunities to improve their L2 skills. However, learners who perceive themselves in a positive light and believe that in social interactions they are presenting a positive self-image that is close to their ideal will be more likely to act in ways consistent with good language learners and seek out opportunities for feedback (Aronson, 1995, pp. 157-158). Thus, the identity that students create for themselves in the L2 country and culture is greatly influenced both by how they see themselves as learners and users of a second language, and the feelings they have about what they see.
In order to examine the identity of intermediate- and advanced-level American students who completed a study abroad sojourn in Russia and/or a Russian-speaking country, I sought to answer the following research questions:
- Did these students negotiate an “American identity” within the context of their study abroad experience? If so, how did they do so?
- Did these individuals negotiate a “Russian identity” (or “Kazakh,” “Kyrgyz,” “Latvian” or “Lithuanian identity,” if they were in one of those respective countries) on their overseas sojourn? If so, how did they do so as L2 Russian speakers?
- Do different proficiency levels (i.e., intermediate and advanced) affect students’ attempt to create a Russian identity (or Kazakh, Kyrgyz, Latvian or Lithuanian identity) for themselves, assimilate into the L2 culture, and/or re-assimilate into their first language (or L1) culture? If so, what are the differences between these two groups?
Data and Methods
The participants in this study were 10 intermediate- and 10 advanced-level students of Russian who were enrolled at universities on the East Coast of the US during the 2020-2021 academic year. Sixteen of these individuals studied abroad in Russia (i.e., Moscow, St. Petersburg, and Nizhny Novgorod), two studied in Almaty, Kazakhstan, one studied abroad in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, and one studied in both Riga, Latvia, and Vilnius, Lithuania. They studied abroad between 2015 and 2019 for a summer, a semester or an academic year. Several study participants had gone abroad to Russia and/or Russian-speaking countries on multiple occasions. I classified them as either “intermediate” or “advanced” based on the level of Russian class they were placed into upon beginning their studies in Russia or a Russian-speaking country.
I conducted qualitative research with my participants to answer the following questions:
- Did you make a conscious effort to assert your American identity while studying in Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Latvia or Lithuania? If yes, how?
- Did you try to create a Russian (or Kazakh, Kyrgyz, Latvian or Lithuanian) identity for yourself on your study abroad sojourn? If yes, why? If not, why not?
- If you did indeed create a Russian (or Kazakh, etc.) identity for yourself, how did you manage to successfully do so as an intermediate- or advanced-level non-native Russian speaker?
- Did you feel that as you negotiated a Russian (or Kazakh, etc.) identity for yourself your American identity changed (i.e., became stronger or weaker)?
- How would you rate your feelings about having assimilated into Russian (or Kazakh, etc.) culture while on your sojourn?
- How did your knowledge of Russian (either as an intermediate- or advanced-level speaker) help or hinder your attempt to create a Russian (or Kazakh, etc.) identity for yourself (if you did indeed do so)?
- Did you ever feel “very American” or “very Russian” (or “very Kazakh,” “very Kyrgyz,” “very Latvian” or “very Lithuanian”) while on your study abroad sojourn? If yes, when? What caused you to feel that way?
- If you created a Russian (or Kazakh, etc.) identity for yourself while abroad, did it affect your sense of self upon reentry to the US? If so, how?
With regard to the first research question, five intermediate-level Russian speakers said that they did make a conscious attempt to assert their American identity during their study abroad sojourn, while five individuals did not. Some students who answered “yes” stated that they had wanted to assert their American identity because they knew they looked American so, as one student explained, “Why bother to change?,” while others stated that it was both easy and familiar for them to use English to speak about everyday topics such as pop culture. Intermediate-level students who answered “no” explained that they felt comfortable abroad using Russian and they wanted to adapt to Russian culture, as well as the local culture of their host country, and learn more about them.
Two advanced-level students tried to assert their American identity, while eight did not. The two individuals who answered “yes” recounted that they had felt homesick for the US and, in the words of one student, “needed a break from the stress of using Russian all the time.” Some of the individuals who answered “no” explained that they had a strong desire to blend in while in Russia, while others reported knowing enough Russian not to need English, and still others wanted to learn more about local cultural norms and follow them.
Different study participants asserted their American identity in different ways. For example, intermediate-level students of Russian stated that they spoke English with friends, watched American movies and television programs on Netflix, and did “American-type things” (e.g., went to popular American restaurant chains in Moscow). One student claimed that no matter how hard she tried, she simply could not shed her American identity in Latvia because clerks in stores spoke English with her as soon as they saw her, and people on the street stared at her. This is curious because this student is a blond-haired, blue-eyed lady who, for all intents and purposes, one would not expect to stand out in Latvia. One cannot help wonder then, what about her made others around her identify her so easily as an American. Perhaps it was due to her style of dress, the way she carried herself or her mannerisms. On the other hand, some advanced-level students claimed to have asserted their American identity by being proud that as Americans, they were different from the Russians around them because they were native English speakers proficient in Russian and able to function with equal ease in the US and Russia.
When asked whether they had tried to create a Russian (or Kazakh, etc.) identity for themselves while abroad, six of the intermediate-level speakers stated that they had indeed done this, while four had not. Students who answered “yes” explained that they wanted to make many L1 Russian-speaking friends, blend in with the L1 Russian speakers around them and look nice, and understand Russian music and TV programs. The students who answered “no” clarified their decision not to create a Russian (or Kazakh, etc.) identity in different ways. One individual stated that since L1 Russian speakers knew she was a foreigner because of her language and appearance, she didn’t see the point in trying to fit in. Another student of Eastern European Jewish descent disclosed that he had tried to create a more Eastern European Jewish identity because he felt a strong connection to it and therefore did not want to create a Russian identity for himself in Nizhny Novgorod. Yet another study participant explained that he had not made a conscious attempt to create a Russian identity; instead, it had simply developed naturally while he was dating a Russian in St. Petersburg.
Six of the advanced-level Russian speakers reported having tried to create a Russian identity for themselves, with the overarching reason being a desire to learn more about their Russian-speaking host country in order to fit in there. Four students, however, did not try to create an L2 identity for themselves and provided the following responses: “I didn’t want to portray myself as Russian,” “I didn’t want a separate identity,” and “I just didn’t want to.” Additionally, one participant who had studied in Kyrgyzstan claimed there were just too many ethnic identities “coming at him” to develop only one new identity.
Intermediate-level respondents who had tried to negotiate a Russian (or Kazakh, etc.) identity for themselves as L2 Russian speakers did so by noticing, assimilating, using language, and visiting places in the city of their sojourn. For example, one student claimed that she had picked up on cultural cues regarding the ways that Russians in Moscow speak and respond to questions. Another student tried to “soak up” Russian culture and blend in. Several other study participants let their guard down while speaking Russian and were not afraid to make mistakes, while one person relished in the fact that she could “practice speaking Russian every day, everywhere and with everyone possible.” Lastly, several respondents tried to learn more about points of interest in their host city by visiting synagogues and/or Orthodox churches.
Advanced-level speakers who had attempted to negotiate an L2 identity did so by noticing, assimilating, using language, visiting places in the city of their sojourn, focusing on their appearance, and letting go of inhibitions. One respondent claimed that after she noticed that Russians do not smile on the street or speak loudly in public, she acted the same way. Several other students assimilated into Russian culture by participating in Russian (and other) cultural activities, eating various types of Russian food, even if this was food they never eat in the US (e.g., meat and mayonnaise), trying to buy tickets at prices reserved for Russian citizens, and following Russian etiquette for greeting others. A few participants noted that the Russian language helped them negotiate a Russian identity. For example, one student interpreted from Russian into English for her weaker American classmates, while another person explained how, thanks to his advanced-level Russian proficiency, he felt like he belonged in Russia and could easily participate in his community. Another study participant visited museums and Orthodox churches. Still other students stressed that their appearance helped them naturally blend in. One student stated that locals in Kazakhstan mistook her for being Kazakh and thus treated her like “one of their own,” while another respondent explained that Russians in St. Petersburg thought that she was from Central Asia because she is half Chinese. Lastly, two students alleged that abandoning all of their inhibitions helped them negotiate a Russian identity. One of them, for example, kept a positive attitude and an open mind while in Russia and tried to learn from his faux pas, while the other was so open to the Orthodox religion that she became Orthodox while in Russia.
When asked whether their American identity had changed after they negotiated a Russian (or Kazakh, etc.) identity for themselves, intermediate-level participants gave the following responses: it became stronger, it became weaker, it stayed the same, it was dormant, it “moved over” to make room for a Russian identity, and it changed so that they came to feel like international citizens.
Some advanced-level respondents claimed that their American identity had gotten stronger, while others explained that it had become weaker. A third group of respondents asserted that some aspects of it had gotten stronger, while others had gotten weaker. Still other participants stated that their identity had changed in such a way that they began to see certain world events (e.g., Russia’s annexation of the Crimea) or aspects of American culture (e.g., the electoral college) from a third-party perspective.
When asked to rate their feelings of having assimilated into Russian (or Kazakh, etc.) culture on a 10-point scale with “1” being the lowest and “10” the highest, half of the intermediate-level speakers of Russian rated their assimilation level at 6, while the other half rated it at 9. Some students who chose a rating of 6 explained their reasoning as follows: “My previous semester in Russia, personality and Russian language level helped me adapt this time” and “Although everyone knew I’m American, I still felt comfortable in Russia.” Commenting on their reasons for rating their assimilation level in Russia or a Russian-speaking country at 9, students stated, “I connected easily with the Russian culture,” “I look Russian” and “My Slavic roots helped me feel connected to life in Latvia and Lithuania.”
Advanced-level speakers of Russian chose ratings that ranged from 2 to 8. The student who rated her assimilation level at 2 stated, “I don’t look Russian so all Russians knew I’m a foreigner.” Another student who chose the rating of 4 remarked, “Native Russian speakers switched into English with me.” However, the majority of participants provided ratings of 6 and their reasons for choosing this rating were the following: “People were surprised to learn I’m American and not Kazakh” and “I fit in because I observed how Russians behave in public and asked about things I didn’t understand.” Those students who rated their assimilation level in Russia or a Russian-speaking country at 8 explained their rating by stating, “I fit in well with my Russian peers,” “Having strong Russian language proficiency allowed me to take in social nuances rather than having to focus on using correct Russian grammar” and “I felt like I really fit in when I interacted with Russians.”
Among the six intermediate-level study participants who had tried to create a Russian (or Kazakh, etc.) identity for themselves while abroad, three respondents stated that their intermediate-level proficiency enabled them to successfully do this. These students provided the following comments: “I had good enough language proficiency to talk to the people I wanted to,” “I had made previous trips to Russia so I was used to speaking with Russians and could easily convey my basic ideas,” “As I got better in Russian I could achieve more and more of my personal and linguistic goals,” “My level was high enough so that I wasn’t shy about speaking with Russians and understanding them” and “I liked getting constant language practice.” The other three respondents thought that their intermediate-level proficiency had hindered their ability to create a Russian identity for themselves and explained their reasons as follows: “I didn’t have much vocabulary,” “I felt mentally trapped because of not knowing Russian well and being afraid of being judged for having a bad accent,” “Arriving in Russia without knowing Russian well was scary. People criticized my accent” and “I could follow what my [Russian] teachers were saying, but with other people in other situations it was hard without context.”
Not surprisingly, all of the advanced-level participants who had tried to negotiate a Russian identity for themselves thought that their proficiency level had helped them be able to successfully do this. Their reasons were as follows: “I could easily speak with people because I knew a lot of vocabulary and grammar. I wasn’t fearful and timid of making mistakes and L1 Russian speakers gave me a lot of positive reinforcement,” “My confidence level improved. I was a leader among my peers,” “I could express myself well. I didn’t feel isolated for being a non-native speaker. My proficiency level gave me insight into the Russian mind,” “I was proud that Russians were surprised by my strong Russian proficiency” and “I could easily interact with Russians. I didn’t have to monitor my grammar and could focus on what—not how—people said to me in Russian.” Perhaps one of the most poignant quotes came from a student in this group who stated, “Speaking Russian well helps you develop your Russian identity because the better your speaking ability, the more opportunities you have to speak with different types of Russians and argue, debate and have many other types of conversations with them, which, in turn, helps you create a sense of who you are and who you want to be as a Russian speaker.”
In response to question #7 “Did you ever feel ‘very American’ or ‘very Russian’ (or ‘very Kazakh’ etc.) while on your study abroad sojourn? If yes, when? What caused you to feel that way?” intermediate-level speakers of Russian reported feeling “very American” on American holidays (e.g., Halloween), when L1 Russian-speaking strangers answered them in English rather than in Russian, when wearing American clothes or, conversely, when looking at how Russian women dress, and when they encountered Russian superstitions. These respondents claimed to have felt “very Russian” when they had “real” conversations with Russians, when interpreting for weaker American students, listening to Russian music, taking the tram, and walking around St. Petersburg.
Advanced-level students of Russian described having felt “very American” on the Fourth of July, Victory Day (i.e., because they couldn’t understand why Russians were so excited on this holiday), when they got yelled at by strangers for speaking English too loudly in public, when speaking with teachers in Kazakhstan about women’s rights, when discussing social issues with Russians, and when a group of soccer fans from Mexico approached one student in Moscow during the World Cup to speak with him in Spanish. On the other hand, these students reported feeling “very Russian” while spending a day with Russian friends eating baked stuffed buns, while having dinner with an ethnically diverse group of L1 Russian speakers in Kazan,’ and after having accomplished tasks such as buying train tickets for visiting relatives. One of the participants said that he felt Kazakh because locals in Almaty often mistook him for a local and therefore treated him “like one of their own,” which made him feel like he fit in.
Finally, students who had negotiated an L2 identity for themselves while in Russia or a Russian-speaking country were asked to comment on whether it affected their sense of self upon reentry to the US. If so, how? Several students with intermediate-level Russian proficiency stated that they missed not speaking Russian, while another student responded by saying that he missed having “intimate connections” in Russia and “deeper level” friendships with Russians than with Americans. Yet another respondent revealed that he missed his urban lifestyle in St. Petersburg and taking public transportation there. One student remarked that, after returning from her sojourn in Russia, she became more open-minded and she could see things more objectively and through the “lens of a foreigner.” A student with Slavic roots whose family immigrated to the US several generations ago asserted that she became more closely connected to her Russian identity after she returned to her native New Jersey.
Some of the respondents with advanced-level proficiency expressed having to get re-accustomed to Americans’ lack of hospitality and hesitation to let people into their lives, dealing with a higher noise level, noticing how Americans dress, and feeling annoyed when guests don’t take their shoes off after entering people’s homes. Still other students commented on psychological differences that made their readjustment period difficult such as feeling let down because there is no need to surmount challenges in the US as there is in Russia, having difficulty talking with Americans about a study abroad sojourn in Kazakhstan, and feeling disconnected from the US and current events. Lastly, several participants described positive changes that had resulted from their time abroad. One student became more open-minded and began to pay more attention to the way that the American press portrays Russia and its foreign policies, while another student claimed that she could not only better understand the homogenous mentality of people in her native Mississippi after having lived among a homogenous population in Russia but she also felt as though both her Iranian and Christian identity was strengthened thanks to her study abroad experience in Russia.
In response to research question #1 “Did these students negotiate an ‘American identity’ within the context of their study abroad experience? If so, how did they do so?,” the results of my study reveal that intermediate-level speakers of Russian were more likely than advanced-level speakers of Russian to try to negotiate an American identity on their overseas sojourn. In response to the second half of this question “How did these students negotiate an American identity?” intermediate-level speakers reported speaking English, watching TV programs and movies in English, and doing “American-type things.” Advanced-level speakers, however, felt proud that their “American-ness” made them unique and at times stand out among Russians around them.
With regard to my second research question “Did these individuals negotiate a ‘Russian identity’ (or ‘Kazakh,’ ‘Kyrgyz,’ ‘Latvian’ or ‘Lithuanian identity’ if they were in one of those respective countries) on their overseas sojourn? If so, how did they do so as L2 Russian speakers?,” one sees that the same number of intermediate- and advanced-level speakers tried to create a Russian identity for themselves while studying abroad as did the number of participants in both proficiency levels who did not create one. Additionally, the ways that individuals in these two proficiency groups attempted to negotiate a Russian identity were similar, with the exception being that advanced-level speakers included “focusing on one’s appearance” and “not having any inhibitions” to the list of tactics both groups had employed to become more like those around them while on their overseas sojourn.
My third research question was “Do different proficiency levels (i.e., intermediate- and advanced-level) affect students’ attempt to create a Russian (or Kazakh, etc.) identity for themselves, assimilate into the L2 culture and/or re-assimilate into the L1 culture? If so, how do these ways differ between the two groups?” Study results show that speakers of both proficiency levels experienced varying levels of assimilation into the L2 culture, with intermediate-level speakers choosing ratings of 6 and 9, while advanced-level speakers experienced a range of assimilation from 2 to 9. Moreover, students of both levels reexamined different cultural and/or everyday aspects of American and/or L2 culture upon reentry to the US and in some cases even perceived one culture or the other differently than before they had begun their sojourn. However, some intermediate-level speakers thought that their low Russian language proficiency had hindered their ability to form a Russian identity due to inadequate vocabulary, a poor accent, and a lack of context to understand what Russians were saying outside of a structured classroom setting. On the other hand, all of the advanced-level speakers remarked that knowing Russian well helped them negotiate a Russian identity. Thus, it is important to remember that the specific individual learner’s language proficiency or lack thereof (as opposed to the proficiency level, e.g., intermediate or advanced) is the key element in determining whether L2 learners who choose to create a new identity in an overseas sojourn setting can indeed effectively do so. In other words, just because students have intermediate-level proficiency does not mean that they are automatically linguistically unable to negotiate a Russian identity for themselves. As research results illustrate, several intermediate-level students had indeed created a Russian identity for themselves, but this was because their language proficiency enabled them to successfully do so. Lastly, not only must non-native speakers have strong enough proficiency in the L2 to be able to create a new identity for themselves, but they must also have the desire to do so.
While conducting this research, I made several other noteworthy discoveries that are worth mentioning. First, not all students in my study felt a desire to develop a Russian (or other) identity while studying overseas because some aspect of their own identity came to the forefront. For example, one student remarked that while in Russia his Eastern European Jewish identity became stronger, while a student who is half Indian stated that in Kazakhstan her Indian identity was strengthened. Yet another student whose family immigrated to the US from the Slavic-speaking world several generations ago felt more connected to her Slavic (not just Russian) past. A fourth student identified more with her Muslim identity while in Kazakhstan. Finally, a student whose family is originally from Iran said that while in Russia her Iranian identity was reinforced.
Second, I gave my participants who had studied in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Latvia, and Lithuania the option to speak about having negotiated a Russian or Kazakh, Kyrgyz, Latvian or Lithuanian identity. However, the individuals who had lived in one of those four countries (i.e., Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Latvia, and Lithuania) and who had indeed negotiated an L2 identity had all chosen to negotiate a Russian (not Kazakh, etc.) identity. Nevertheless, because the two students who studied in Kazakhstan both have a dark complexion, locals in Almaty frequently mistook them for natives and treated them as such. Thus, an identity was given to these students simply because of their appearance, not because they deliberately negotiated a Kazakh identity for themselves while abroad. Other students, however, experienced the reverse—people on the street stared at them and Russian-speaking clerks in stores automatically spoke to them first in English because they knew that the students were foreigners. This is important because it reiterates Kinginger’s (2013) point that not only do students frame their L2 identity in terms of the host culture but identities are also imposed on students within the host community by L1 speakers, which can, in turn, affect hosts’ conscious or unconscious perception and treatment of L2 speakers living and studying abroad.
My study had a small sample size and, for that reason, it is impossible to generalize the findings on a larger scale.
Owing to the fact that identity is a deeply personal issue and made up of a multitude of various elements, is worth examining identity in terms of the fluid components that comprise it. In particular, the connection between identity and the Russian language may be studied by asking research participants how they viewed their identity in relation to the Russian language while studying abroad. Those participants who felt they had internalized the language could describe the factors that had contributed to their feelings of being accepted as L2 Russian speakers. On the other hand, those interviewees who had not internalized Russian to this same degree could share their thoughts as to why they felt more comfortable seeking out the company of other English-language speakers. Such research would shed further light on the concept that identity is always changing depending upon a myriad of both internal and external factors.
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Kinginger, C. (2013). “Identity and Language Learning in Study Abroad. Foreign Language Annals, 46 (3), 339-358.
Kinginger, C. (2009). Language Learning and Study Abroad: A critical reading of research. Houndsmills, Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave/Macmillan.
Pellegrino, V. (2005). Study Abroad and Second Language Use: Constructing the self. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Savicki, V. & Cooley, E. (2011). “American Identity in Study Abroad Students: Contrasts, changes, correlates. Journal of College Student Development, 52 (3), 339-345.