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).
- 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. System, 39(2), 133-143.
Yang, J. S. (2016). The effectiveness of study-abroad on second language learning: A meta-analysis. Canadian Modern Language Review, 72(1), 66-94.