Study Abroad….what is it good for? #researchbites

Once, while talking about students’ travel experiences, I learned that one of my students had spent a semester studying English at a university in North Dakota. My thought was, “North Dakota – Why?” Apparently, this university in the college town of Aberdeen was attracting a lot of Korean students; I later learned a number had studied there. However, it was not this strange choice of study locale that I recall as clearly as what the student said about studying abroad and, in particular, living in America: “It doesn’t really help your English.” My knee jerk reaction, based mostly on what I had learned about immersion, kicked in and I thought that there could be a number of reasons she didn’t feel her English had grown, but studying abroad and immersion must have a profound affect on language learning. But, then I stopped. I thought about my own situation. At that time, 4 years in Korea left me with meager abilities to do all but the most mundane things in Korean. Hadn’t immersion failed me? Maybe she was on to something. Does simply living in a foreign language ensure learning?

This blog post, part of the Research Bites Blog Carnival, will explore some research related to the relationship between study abroad (SA) and language learning.

A chapter in the book Language Acquisition in Study Abroad and Formal Instruction Contexts, DeKeyser (2014) does a good job examining the book’s previous chapters as a means to consider what these various findings represent and what trends are apparent in both the data and the methodology.

It turns out there is a great variety of findings, many of which seem contradictory. A number of studies have shown no significant difference between learning a language abroad when compared to learning a language in an intensive or immersion program at home (DeKeyser, 2010; Serrano, Llanes, Tragent, 2011). Where language learning in an SA context did have a significant impact, it was often on fluency as opposed to accuracy or complexity. Even research on motivation and cultural sensitivity did not show any significant findings. Interestingly, however, the chapters in this particular book found positive effects of SA on language learning, in various areas: accuracy, fluency, pronunciation, writing, listening, and motivation. Again, there is a lot of variation in the results.

How can you account for such variation? DeKeyser argues there are likely a number of mediating factors that are under-researched and may play quite the role in success in language learning. These include:

  • Initial proficiency – Serrano, Llanes, and Targent (2011), paraphrasing DeKeyser, explain why higher some proficiency (some argue higher proficiency) is better: “mere communicative practice in real-life situations without appropriate previous command of the L2 is not a guarantee for successful L2 learning abroad, which could be one of the reasons why the SA context has not been found to be systematically more beneficial
    than the AH context” (p.141).
  • Motivation
  • Preparation (as in language preparation, see initial proficiency above)
  • Living arrangements – DeKeyser hypothesizes that homestays may benefit shier students while dorms may benefit those more extroverted
  • Individual cognitive differences (e.g. working memory capacity)
  • Length of stay – A meta analysis by Yang (2016) found that short-term study abroad (11-13 weeks) had a greater-effect on language learning. Here, again, there are certain factors that are not or cannot be taken into account. In fact, one important factor DeKeyser in relation to length of stay is initial proficiency. Someone of lower proficiency is likely to make more gains in the short-term than someone who is already at a higher proficiency. One way DeKeyser explains this is with skill acquisition:

It may very well be that automatizing a limited number of highly frequent elements leads to more gains in the short run, while students with a much larger number of elements to automatize only outpace the less advanced ones in the long run, after a stay of six months or more. (p. 317)

Over and over again, I’ve seen a pattern of contradictory findings and claims that there are a number of factors that need to be considered. Here’s what seems clear:

  • You need to have some training before going abroad – the more intensive, the better
  • You need to have some training while abroad – the more intensive, the better
  • Staying motivated to use and learn in the language is important, and studying abroad does not guarantee increased motivation
  • Living arrangements are important, so seeking ones that will maximize communicative opportunities is key
  • Gains can be made, in the short-term, especially if you begin at a lower proficiency
  • If you are advanced, don’t be surprised if there are no noticeable gains
  • Most gains will be in fluency, though accuracy can improve through intensive study
  • Intensive/immersion study in at-home contexts are likely just as effective as study abroad gains in terms of accuracy

So, if there is no clear linguistic benefit to studying abroad, what’s the point? First, while there is no clear benefit other than in accuracy, there is no clear detriment, either, and, given the right circumstances, study abroad can have a positive effect (the chapters in Language Acquisition in Study Abroad and Formal Instruction Contexts show positive effects in pronunciation, fluency, listening, speaking, and writing). In addition, the research I looked at concerns only language learning. There are a whole host of reasons to study abroad: increased job prospects, increased intercultural competence, increased creativity, and more, and more.

Back to my original story, I can see how I initially failed to become competent in Korean. I actually was not studying but working abroad. A big difference. In addition, I wasn’t as motivated to learn Korean in the beginning, and a lot of my non-working time was not actually spent in the language, as I sought English-speaking friends and always had my wife (an English speaker) to converse with. In addition, I had no formal language instruction at all, prior or during. In fact, I didn’t pick up a Korean language book until after year 4, and after that, many things changed. So, language learning was certainly not a benefit of me being an expat (up until about year 4). However, the other benefits of study abroad I did see, quite early on, and feel that I will continue to reap these benefits for the rest of my life.


DeKeyser, R. M. (2014). Research on language development during study abroad (pp. 313-326). In C. Pérez-Vidal (Ed.), Language acquisition in study abroad and formal instruction contexts (pp. 313-325). Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Serrano, R., Llanes, À., & Tragant, E. (2011). Analyzing the effect of context of second language learning: Domestic intensive and semi-intensive courses vs. study abroad in Europe. System39(2), 133-143.

Yang, J. S. (2016). The effectiveness of study-abroad on second language learning: A meta-analysis. Canadian Modern Language Review72(1), 66-94.

6 thoughts on “Study Abroad….what is it good for? #researchbites

  1. I have seen study abroad programmes fail to produce any meaningful changes, I have also seen individual students do an entire 3-4 year degree abroad and fail to make the kinds of improvements they had expected. One reason for this, was that at larger universities in English speaking countries, or when travelling in groups as part of a programme, the students had so many opportunities to interact with other students from their own countries that they only communicated in English in classrooms. This sounds similar to your experience with Korean, and certainly my own experience with Chinese.

    • Anthony Schmidt says:

      This speaks to the various mitigating factors I mentioned above, so I totally agree. In my experience, my Korean students, who come in groups and are outgoing, make friends out of their group and see greater improvements than my Japanese students, who come in groups but are less outgoing. Here, cultural or culturally-influenced individual characteristics can make a big difference.

  2. Interesting stuff.. The reality here in Ireland (and probably many other places) is that students can often come with massive expectations of the progress they are likely to make. How much time do you think we should spend mythbusting their preconceptions about the experience they are going to have? Do you feel that letting them in on this secret will maybe let them take some of the pressure off themselves, or would they react negatively and view it as someone trying to devalue what they have invested so heavily in?

  3. Anthony Schmidt says:

    I don’t think it can be something to mythbust because, for some, they will likely see great progress. There are a lot of factors both internal and external to the individual that go into this. However, as I said above, study abroad is not just about linguistic progress; there are a number of other benefits that they will likely receive from it, and I think that is where a lot of the real value lies.

    That being said, we should always stress ways to make study abroad more optimal for them. That includes intensive language study, seeking opportunities for learning and communication, etc.

  4. Hi Anthony,
    Thanks for summarising this. You mentioned working abroad v. studying abroad, and in my experience, in country after country and with colleague after colleague, the only ones who really make any headway in the language, regardless of how long they stay, are the ones who want to.
    I also agree with the fact that you need to have some basis in the language before you go. I’ve tended to make the fastest progress in the countries where I’m already at least B1 in the language. Through a lot of effort, I’ve managed to make progress in other languages, but it’s been much slower, because you need to have that ‘in’ to get involved in the culture. Otherwise, as an English speaker teaching English with a bunch of colleagues who speak English, it’s all too easy not to put in the effort. That’s why I make myself do at least 10 minutes of languages every day – otherwise I’d never really make any progress.

    • Anthony Schmidt says:

      Thanks for commenting, Sandy!

      Motivation is a major factor, and so I totally agree. And the “in” you mentioned, is also important. For some, who don’t know how to get that “in” – one of my problems in Korea where the bar culture was big but I’m not a drinker – definitely lag behind.

      I’m glad you enjoyed my post.

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