This post is a reaction to a literature review I just read to update and refresh my understanding of socio-cultural adaptation theories. You can access it by clicking on the link below:
Bierwiaczonek, K. & Waldzus, S. (2016). Socio-cultural factors as antecedents of cross-cultural adaptation in expatriates, international students, and migrants: A review. Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology, 47(6), 767-817.
The following figure is the best way to summarize the review. I will do my best to explain the figure and relate it to the field of English language teaching.
Who’s adapting to what culture(s)?
Let’s take a look at the labels for each column first. The first two columns refer to expatriates and their families. The second column is the most relevant to the subject of this blog as expatriates include sojourning ELTs. According to the literature review, most of the studies investigated expatriates from the West traveling to work in highly developed non-Western countries, such as Japan and China. Does this follow the trend of sojourning ELTs? I mean, do the majority of them travel to highly developed non-Western countries? The assumption is that those countries pay their ELTs more. Although the destination may be similar, the average age may be different. The average age of expatriates in the literature review is 41. I believe the majority of sojourning ELTs are younger than this, but my observations are anecdotal and perhaps outdated. I was surprised to find many older non-Japanese ELTs at last year’s JALT conference.
The third column refers to migrants, more specifically first-generation migrant workers. In the United States, English language teachers would most encounter this population as students in community colleges, I assume. I am somewhat certain that most ELTs would not consider themselves first-generation migrant workers, but I’m thinking of my own context as a privileged white American male. Perhaps there are some ELTs who get into the profession for better opportunities abroad in the long-term.
The fourth and final column refers to international students, who are our students if we (ELTs) are teaching in a country or a school where English is the dominant or official language. In our field, these labels can be tricky. For example, I taught one summer at the International University of Japan with many students from different parts of Asia. In this case, only a part of my class was made up of international students as opposed to another context I’ve taught, intensive English programs in the US, where all of my students were international. Most of the studies in the literature review investigated students mainly from non-Western countries, especially from Asia, who traveled to study in Western countries, especially the United States. In this case, my international students in Japan would be outliers. Would this be a fair representation of international students around the world?
How are we observing, measuring, and/or evaluating their adaptation?
The rows refer to the different variables from different theoretical models to help identify how the intercultural travelers adapt to their host country. The top two rows refer to adaptation outcomes that can be measured through scales proposed in Black, Mendenhall, and Oddou’s (1991) study. These rows have the largest circles in the figure above, but they also show that the psychological factors of expatriates’ adjustment and the socio-cultural factors of migrants’ adjustment have not been studied as much. The reviewers believe that the psychological factors of expatriates were not studied as much because of the practical nature of the studies. Employers felt that the psychological factors offered little to no practical solutions, whereas they could act upon the socio-cultural factors. The reverse applies to migrants. The reviewers believe researchers assume that migrants move abroad with a higher level of efficacy.
These assumptions help me to reflect on the field of English language teaching. To what extent are employers concerned about their teachers’ psychological adaptation to the new working environments? I think this is important in all areas of education, but more strikingly in areas in which the teacher comes from a different culture. I find parallels here between English language teaching and issues of inclusion and diversity in American public schools. I am not sure of how to apply the assumption of migrants’ efficacy to English language education because, as a teacher, I don’t assume they are more or less efficacious than my other students. Do school leaders think differently? I need an expert in this area to help clarify this issue for me.
The next two rows look at two aspects of culture learning, which is the underlying theory of my studies of sojourning ELTs and this blog. The two types of culture learning are cultural distance, in which travelers report on how similar or different the host culture is from their home culture, and social interaction, in which travelers report on the quantity and quality of their interactions with members of the host culture. These are the least used theories in the literature review, which helps me understand why it is difficult to find similar studies out there. My dissertation helped me learn that the quality of social interaction was a key factor in adjustment, but that area is understudied for expats. It is looked at more with international students because their hosts, the universities and colleges, are interested in recruiting and retaining more students who can adjust well. I believe it is safe to say that schools abroad are comparatively less concerned about the recruitment and retention of their English language teachers, especially when there seems to be a larger supply of them now.
The fifth and sixth rows are underlying factors to intercultural travelers’ stress and coping of living overseas. Resources refer to the support available to help the traveler’s cope with their new situation, whereas stressors refer to factors like language barriers and social status that make living overseas more difficult. I encountered these indirectly in my dissertation, and that somewhat reflects the results in the figure, which shows that these variables were not as closely studied in expatriate groups as they were for migrant and international students. Of the two variables, resources were investigator more than stressors, which was the reverse of my preliminary findings. This is one reason I am researching online and collaborative professional development as a resource to cope with living and teaching overseas. In some contexts, I’m not sure if the new living conditions are more stressful than the demands of the job itself.
The last row concerns family and this is the least surprising finding to me perhaps because I lived and taught abroad with my wife. The literature found that a spouse’s “maladjustment” to living overseas resulted in a premature departure from the host country. Yes, speaking from direct observation, the spouse needs as many if not more resources to cope with living in a new environment. However, thinking about others, I find that many married ELTs have spouses from a different culture. That can make adaptation easier if the spouse is living in his or her host country, but it can make it worst if it’s the opposite case. And I’m unsure how it plays out when each partner is from a different culture and they are living in a country with a culture different from both of them.
My Biggest Takeaways
I was especially drawn to the implications for research because that section provides the wind for my sails on my proverbial ship of ELT research. The ones most relevant to me are as follows:
- More systematic examination of expatriate psychological adaptation and the stress and coping processes behind it
- Include non-work factors identified in studies on different populations
- Research Designs
- More longitudinal designs
- More control groups
- A more systematic comparison of the various contexts of intercultural transitions
Although I’m quite skeptical, I need to look more closely at these self-reported quantitative measures more closely. Additionally, I have been keeping track of some sojourning ELTs via social media, but this observational approach is too loose for a longitudinal study. I should get more serious about starting this after nearly seven years of following sojourning ELTs bloggers and Twitter users.
I am quite happy though to see that my current research projects on professional learning fit in nicely with the findings and recommendations here. I look forward to investigating other resources for sojourning ELTs to help them cope. That’s assuming that some ELTs don’t see professional development as a stressor.
Black, J. S., Mendenhall, M., & Oddou, G. (1991). Toward a comprehensive model of international adjustment: An integration of multiple perspectives. Academy of Management Review, 16, 291-317.