Document Type


Date of Degree

Spring 2015

Degree Name

PhD (Doctor of Philosophy)

Degree In

Second Language Acquisition

First Advisor

Shea, Christine

Second Advisor

Liskin-Gasparro, Judith

First Committee Member

Plakans, Lia M

Second Committee Member

Maxey, James

Third Committee Member

Farmer, Thomas A


This study explores the development of second language (L2) fluency during a semester abroad and its relationship to the development of grammar, vocabulary, and language processing speed. It also considers the influence of individual participants' first language (L1) and pre-study abroad (SA) L2 fluency on the development of fluency during study abroad. Additionally, the study examines issues in the measurement of fluency, focusing on questions related to measuring pauses in L2 speech.

Thirty-nine undergraduate students (L1 English) studying in Buenos Aires, Argentina, completed a pretest consisting of speaking tasks in English and Spanish, Spanish grammar and vocabulary tests, a picture-naming task, and a measure of sentence processing speed. Approximately three months later, near the end of their time abroad, they completed a posttest consisting of the same tasks, with the exception of the speaking tasks in English. Participants also filled out a questionnaire every other week during the semester in which they estimated the amount of time that they had spent interacting with native speakers of Spanish.

Results show that participants experienced significant gains on most measures of fluency during study abroad. This finding was especially true for participants who began their time abroad with low L2 fluency. Nevertheless, students who began the semester abroad with high L2 fluency still had significantly higher fluency at the end of the semester than students who began with low L2 fluency.

Looking at the relationship between L2 fluency and L2 linguistic knowledge (vocabulary and grammar scores) and language processing speed (picture-naming and sentence-matching scores), the study found a moderate relationship between pretest measures of L2 fluency and pretest measures of linguistic knowledge and processing speed. However, the results show no relationship between pre-SA linguistic knowledge and processing speed and gains in L2 fluency, and little relationship between gains in linguistic knowledge and processing speed and gains in L2 fluency. The best predictor of gains in L2 fluency was pre-SA L2 fluency. These results suggest that although there is a relationship between L2 linguistic knowledge and L2 fluency, having more advanced L2 linguistic knowledge prior to study abroad does not necessarily give students an advantage in the area of fluency development during study abroad.

Regarding the measurement of fluency, the data show that learners with low and high levels of lexical-grammatical competence significantly differed from one another on all measures of rates of pauses (short and long pauses, filled and unfilled pauses, and mid-clause and end-of-clause pauses) as well as in the percent of pauses occurring in the middle of a clause. However, they did not significantly differ from one another in the percent of filled pauses. The findings suggest that measuring all of these pauses may be useful in examining L2 fluency. However, there is perhaps little or nothing to be gained from counting filled and unfilled pauses separately, as speakers' tendency to use more of one or the other appears to be more closely related to personal speaking style than to L2 ability.

Public Abstract

Because study abroad programs continue to grow in popularity, it is valuable to examine the outcomes of these programs. This study looks at changes in college students’ speaking fluency in a second language during a semester abroad. Thirty-nine English-speaking students learning Spanish in Argentina participated in the study. Near the beginning and end of the semester, they were audio recorded while speaking in Spanish about a list of topics. They also completed tests measuring their knowledge of Spanish grammar and vocabulary as well as computerized tasks measuring how quickly they processed language. Students experienced significant gains in fluency in Spanish during the semester. Those who began with lower levels of fluency tended to have larger gains than those who began with higher levels of fluency. However, many students who began with higher levels of fluency also improved, and they were still significantly more fluent at the end of the semester than students who began with lower levels of fluency. This finding suggests that study abroad provides a good opportunity for students to improve their fluency, but students should also be encouraged to take advantage of other ongoing opportunities to improve their fluency and not view study abroad as the magic key to fluency.

The study found no relationship between students’ knowledge of grammar and vocabulary at the beginning of the semester and their gains in fluency, which suggests that students can benefit from study abroad at both earlier and later points in the process of learning a language.


publicabstract, education, fluency, second language, Spanish, study abroad


xii, 181 pages


Includes bibliographical references (pages 171-181).


Copyright 2015 Karen Ruth Leonard