Dr Tripp Strawbridge’s Talk: "If they jumped off a bridge...": The influence of social networks on language learning in study
Interviewing Dr Tripp Strawbridge
Tripp Strawbridge holds a Ph.D. in Hispanic Linguistics (University of Minnesota, 2020), with an emphasis in second language acquisition. His work examines how university students acquire Spanish as a second language in study abroad, and how this language learning is influenced by the nature of students’ social relationships. Prof. Strawbridge’s research also analyzes the way that university students learn Spanish through the use of technology (computer-mediated communication), particularly in video-based language partner exchanges. Prof. Strawbridge also works as Assistant Editor at the Journal of Spanish Language Teaching and is a certified tester for the ACTFL Spanish Oral Proficiency Interview (OPI).
1. What inspired you to pursue a PhD in Hispanic Linguistics with an emphasis in second language acquisition?
I was a Spanish major during my undergraduate studies, and I loved the process of learning a language and putting it into practice while living in Spain after college as an English language teaching assistant (through the Auxiliares program). I also had a general interest in international education, though I wasn’t sure exactly how to combine everything (though it seems fairly obvious now, in hindsight). After finishing my undergraduate work at the University of Miami, I kept in touch with my advisor and linguistics professor, Andrew Lynch, who encouraged me to apply to graduate programs. That was that!
2. Your work focuses on the acquisition of Spanish as a second language in study abroad programs and how this process is influenced by the social networks established between participants. What are some of the key findings of your research?
A couple things stood out from the results. First, the vast majority (24 of 27 participants, or 89%) of participants formed social networks that were quite dense (most people knew each other, sharing mutual contacts), and which were made up almost entirely of program peers (fellow U.S. students from the same study abroad program). But, these students’ language learning development varied a lot; students who spoke Spanish with their study abroad program peers improved their Spanish proficiency over two times as much as those who mostly spoke English with these peers. Also, the three students whose social networks were more fully integrated into the local community (and who improved their Spanish the most of all) were enrolled exclusively in larger study abroad programs, where they took more of their coursework at local universities (and not, for example, in private study centers). Smaller, “island” study abroad programs appeared not to encourage the development of this “integrated” type of social network.
3. The project you described draws from social theory, and more concretely from “Social Network Analysis”. Could you briefly describe what this theory consists of? Also, your research is of interdisciplinary nature. What are the challenges and opportunities that you have encountered doing work at the intersection of different disciplines?
The central tenet of social network analysis is that, in order to understand – or predict – people’s behavior, you need to understand the nature of the web of personal relationships surrounding them. This type of analysis has been applied to a variety of fields. For example, one study found that an individual’s chances of quitting smoking were significantly affected by whether or not the people in their social network were active smokers, up to three degrees of separation away. So, if you are a smoker, and you have a friend of a friend of a friend who quits smoking, you are significantly more likely to quit smoking yourself.
Doing interdisciplinary work has been necessary in order to research some of the more interesting questions concerning language learning in study abroad. As far as challenges go, the biggest thing is that it has required me to learn to perform types of analyses that were not covered in my training during grad school. Sometimes, this is difficult; however, the truth is that you will always have to learn new things when diving into the more specific areas that you want to pursue as a researcher, so I don’t think that, overall, things are made more difficult as a result of being interdisciplinary. One big benefit has been the opportunity to talk to people across different disciplines about this research.
4. How would you describe your academic journey?
What advice would you give to students interested in pursuing a career in academia? My academic journey has felt a bit meandering. I started with a general interest in researching language learning in study abroad, and then gradually narrowed it down from there. My advice for students pursuing a career in academia is to focus on the questions that are most interesting to you, whether or not those questions appear to “represent a significant gap in the literature.” Whatever you research, it needs to be something that you find energizing, interesting, and useful.