Empowering students to become successful, life-long language learners.
In 2010, BYU faculty members, including Kirk Belnap (Asian and Near Eastern Languages), Jennifer Bown (German and Russian), Dan Dewey (Linguistics), and Patrick Steffen (Psychology), launched a project aimed at empowering students to become successful, life-long language learners. They called this endeavor Project Perseverance, and, true to its name, this project has both persevered through the past decade and driven students to persevere in their language programs despite enormous difficulties.
The foundations for this project first began in 2002, when the U.S. Department of Education announced that BYU would become the headquarters for the National Middle East Language Resource Center (NMELRC). Funding for this project began as a congressional response to the events of September 11, 2001. Twenty other institutions of higher learning partnered with the NMELRC, all determined to increase national language capacity in Middle Eastern languages, including Arabic, Modern Hebrew, Turkish, and Persian. With the help of experts like Madeline Ehrman, a clinical psychologist retired from directing research at the Foreign Service Institute School for Language Studies, and Andrew Cohen, former director of the Center for Advanced Research on Language Acquisition, Project Perseverance formed as a way to help students become more effective language-learners, especially when in intensive study abroad settings.
Project Perseverance (PP) is an integral part of BYU’s intensive Arabic study abroad program in Amman, Jordan. Here, the project has focused on helping students acquire advanced-level proficiency, improve social networks, increase the quality of speaking opportunities, develop self-efficacy, and learn to self-regulate. The PP team found that even students who had succeeded in learning challenging languages before and “done so in stressful circumstances, were not necessarily well-prepared to take advantage of their study abroad opportunities in Jordan. They leave Provo fully intending to immerse themselves in Arabic and in Arab culture, but almost all struggle to do so,” commented Kirk Belnap, one of BYU’s directors of the project. “Self-regulation is what it’s all about, if you can’t keep yourself emotionally in the game, then it’s all over. . . . What most students fail to appreciate as they prepare to travel, even if they have previously done so, is that highly-
prized growth is typically the result of overcoming significant challenges.”
The challenges students have faced on international study abroad and internship programs range from frustration with the language and culture shock to racism and sexism. Living in a new environment and learning a new language are far from easy or relaxing situations. Dr. Belnap explained the crux of stress experienced in intensive language programs as follows: “Expressing your identity in another language takes time. This is one of the biggest struggles people have, that they’re unable to express themselves in the language. Their sense of identity can be shaken by that. They find themselves unable to be the funny or witty person that they are in English and that process of being reduced to [the language abilities of] a child and only communicating the basics to survive proves an emotional and psychological challenge to work through. It takes a lot of time and patience to be able to express your personality and beliefs and to understand others and connect with them on a deeper level. . . . You can be a cracker-jack language learner and still find yourself struggling to stay in the game. It’s a matter of the long game.”
In response to the need for coaching students to stay in the long-game emotionally, the PP team researched how to handle stress in language-learning environments. To do this, the team studied cortisol levels in hair samples from BYU students in Jordan; they have also studied students’ blood pressure to track the stress levels of students at times of language performance, such as in an oral proficiency test.1
Dan Dewey, another member of the PP team at BYU, remarked that “the hair cortisol levels of students on intensive language study abroad programs were similar to cortisol levels of people going through divorce. . . . Learning a language can clearly be a very stressful experience, but it’s not impossible if you are motivated.” Dr. Dewey added that he studied German in high school with a very rigid, strict teacher. “It was very stressful, and I did poorly,” he said. “When I got a mission call to Japan, I thought ‘If I can’t learn German, how can I learn Japanese?’ I learned it because I had strong motivation; I loved the people and wanted to share the gospel with them. I met people and couldn’t say to them what I wanted to say, so I decided to change that. . . . The best motivation is intrinsic and [students] have to find it themselves.”
Intertwined with motivation, Dewey found that social interaction is one of the most important factors in learning a language well. While it is undoubtedly stressful for most students to talk to people in a different language and in a different country, Dewey claimed that “those who were most effective took personal time when they needed it, but didn’t ignore their tasks either—they went out and tried things and talked to people. The best things you can do on a study abroad are meet lots of people, open your mouth, talk to everyone, find your golden contact, and don’t lose track of your purpose.”
So, what else does the PP team recommend to handle stress and anxiety associated with language learning? According to their project description, their research efforts are currently focusing on the effectiveness of a combination of (1) student self-awareness of strengths and weaknesses, (2) coaching in order to help students recognize and deal with anxiety from culture shock, and (3) “biofeedback and the mindful use of breathing to deal with anxiety.”2 Belnap explained, “We have solid evidence that if you don’t keep your anxiety in check then your chances of learning the language well are pretty low. We learned that interventions that keep stress down make a big difference. . . . For example, a student who employed breathing as a relaxation technique was able to engage and make progress far beyond what his aptitude scores predicted.”
Dewey added that “Can Do” statements are effective in helping students realize their strengths and establish “next-step” goals linguistically. If students have these goals to focus on, they know what they can control in a stressful situation. “It’s essential to make a plan of what you can and will do in stressful situations, then students need to anticipate internal emotional obstacles and plan for them,” Dewey said. “Plan for the obstacle, envision your goals, and use those to drive you and help you get over the stress. Most importantly, be patient with yourself and put in the time . . . understand that it will work out.”
To help motivate current and upcoming language learners, the PP team is putting together a website called “You Can Do It” with case studies and short articles on principles of successful language learning. Belnap commented, “We have some amazing underdog stories. You never could have predicted how far these people would go; they’re great stories for a growth mindset . . . and we would love to get more stories.”
After reading of all the stress and struggles that go into learning a foreign language, one might ask: Is it worth it? According to Dr. Belnap and the PP team, the answer is a resounding “yes.” They found that students come out of these intensive experiences having developed character, resilience, and perspectives that will help carry them toward success in whatever field they enter. “For centuries, language-learning was foundational to a classical education and was supposed to help one to think logically,” Belnap reflected, “but the more I'm around it, the more I see it as all about personal growth. . . . When I ask students what they have learned, other than the language, they inevitably answer, ‘I learned that I can do hard things.’”
Cristiana Farnsworth is a student majoring in European studies and Russian and plans to graduate in 2021. For more about Project Perseverance, visit youcandoit.byu.edu
This article appeared in the Fall 2020 issue of Humanities alumni magazine
1. Dewey, D. P., Belnap, R. K., & Steffen, P. (2018). “Anxiety: Stress, Foreign Language Classroom Anxiety, and Enjoyment During Study Abroad in Amman, Jordan.” Annual Review of Applied Linguistics, 38, (pp. 140–161). doi.org/10.1017/S0267190518000107
2. Belnap, R.K., Bown, J., Dewey, D.P., Belnap, L.P., & Steffen, P.R. (2016). “Project perseverance: Helping students become self-regulating learners.” In P.D. MacIntyre, T. Gregersen, & S. Mercer (Eds). Positive Psychology in SLA (pp. 282–300). Bristol, UK: Multilingual Matters.