The Future of Language Learning Part 5: Study Abroad

The highlight of any language learner, or a student of any discipline, should be the opportunity to study abroad. Whether it be service learning work in Latin America, or an in-depth review of French in the Loire Valley, students see the world while honing skills in their discipline and learning to be effective communicators in their chosen language, or possibly even learning a new language with native speakers in as authentic a setting as you find. Indeed, for many it is a significant life-changing experience. Ample research suggests that study abroad has the potential to enhance not only target foreign language skills, but also enhance cross-cultural awareness.

As ACTFL (The American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages) and other governing language education organizations expand their standards to include authentic language and applicability to modern learning, whether it be use in the business world, interpreting, or more, study abroad has become a focus as one of the most valuable ways to engage students in language learning; in fact, in 2006 Goucher College, a private liberal arts school in Baltimore County, Maryland, became one of the first schools to make study abroad a requirement for all undergraduate students, regardless of discipline. Other notable schools such as San Diego State University in California and Akita University in Japan have since followed suit.

And the initial statistics have shown promising prospects. A UC San Diego study shows that a study abroad experience increases likelihood of graduation by 19%; 97% of students who study abroad and graduate find jobs within 12 months. This is an enticing prospect for the 325,000 (in 2016) students who study abroad each year.

However, as the trend continues upwards, there are new challenges and considerations to the true value and intent of study abroad. Once considered an opportunity for an exclusive few, studying abroad poses many issues when extended to all.  Without a doubt the biggest challenge remains finances; while some schools such as the aforementioned Goucher College have provided financial help, in Goucher’s case $1200 per student, rising college costs  and tuition makes even an undergraduate degree seem further and further away for the average student.   Although study abroad remains an enriching and worthwhile experience, making it a requirement may dissuade otherwise qualified candidates for a college.

There is also the consideration of the long term effects of study abroad. NML spoke to Tim Newfields, a professor of English language at Toyo University in Japan, helped provide insight. As a leader of many study abroad programs at his university, he has also written a plentitude of scholarship about the subject. He believes at the moment, based on his research, there has been an effort to maintain the study abroad status quo, instead of improving the experience. While there are many short term accomplishments, the long term effects of study abroad have been inconclusive at best, and generally do not imply an effect on student success, or even language use. He provided some insight to the positives and potential shortfalls of the current study abroad model.

Beginning with the positives, he noted the role of professors and adults in the study abroad programs. “In Japan especially, student groups are usually chaperoned, and the chaperone serves the purpose of being a model of the target language, and in some cases a translator or interpreter. They also can serve as a de facto parent to help students avoid potential troubles and help resolve conflict should they occur.” It goes without saying an adult chaperone is a valuable asset to the language learner, one that cannot be replicated or easily found during solo travel, one enticing benefit to the serious language student when debating the choice to study abroad.

While this is a net positive for the student in terms of culture shock and encouragement of language use, in Mr. Newfields’s experience, other factors, such as living in international dorms with fellow speakers of their native language, can potentially become a crutch and discourage full immersion and language use. Even more concerning is upon return many students show signs of “delearning” during their study abroad experience, whether it be loss of language or no longer showing a cross-cultural awareness evident during the program. He also notes that, much like in America and other countries, Japan is facing a major crisis of wealth and class divide in study abroad. While Japan’s Ministry of Education wants 10% of university students to have studied abroad, the reality is only 2% are currently doing so, and many come from wealthy families who can afford the luxury of TEFL or similar classes as early as before high school. High schools with high rates of success continue the study of English for their students, while others drop programs or make other changes that make this gap even wider.

However, Mr. Newfields noted that there can be value in study abroad, even though it may require systematic change. In Japan, and in many other countries who are realizing the value of language learning, there have been great strides in the past few years to introduce a second language, in this case English, as early as elementary school. Not only will this help shrink the gap, it should also help students arrive in foreign countries with a more solid grasp on the language that they can then utilize without a chaperone’s help. This way, students are receiving the authentic experience the study abroad trip touts to offer, and also helps to further solidify their language skills. Further research on long-term study abroad data can also help to improve programs; while many past studies have focused on short-term gains, identifying loss and maintenance in the long term will encourage universities to review their programs and improve them.