Toward A More Productive Study Abroad
The academic year is coming to an end and many students are thinking about studying abroad. I therefore want to take advantage of the recent publication of a landmark study to alert students, mentors, and providers to insights that could lead to a linguistically more effective experience for the students we serve:
Vande Berg, Michael, Jeffrey Connor-Linton, and R. Michael Paige. 2009. The Georgetown Consortium Project: Interventions for Student Learning Abroad. Frontiers: The Interdisciplinary Journal of Study Abroad Language Learning and Study Abroad, 18:1-75.
The authors report the results of a study of over 1,000 students who engaged in in-country study of a foreign language between 2003 and 2005. Linguistic gain was measured using the Simulated Oral Proficiency Interview (SOPI), administered at the beginning and end of their abroad experience. Intercultural learning was also measured. A number of their findings underscore the need for various types of strategic intervention in order to help students make the most of their experience. I address myself here to those engaged in mentoring students and to those who design and run language programs, but, knowing that all too many students won't have the good fortune to benefit from informed intervention, I'm hoping that such students will read this and determine how they can take advantage of strategies and resources that I'll mention in order to wisely manage their own learning.
First, longer programs are better. I would add that while there is simply no substitute for time on task and we should certainly push for longer programs (ideally, semester length and more), we can also make far better use of the nine or ten weeks we might get in a summer. Recent brain research points to impressive learning that can take place, especially in intensive settings--IF students can stay focused. That is a big "if." We all know that it's not enough just to take a language class, but this study suggests that language contact outside the formal language classroom was a more important factor in acquiring speaking proficiency than what happened in the classroom. This is as it should be, but it is a somewhat surprising result, given how common it is for students to spend time hanging out with other Americans or chatting hour on end in English with friends online.
I take this result of no significant effect of the language classroom on developing speaking ability as a warning for us all to look carefully at what is happening during formal instruction. Are we really engaging our students' minds, appropriately challenging them in a highly interactive manner? The "classroom" experience could and should contribute much, much more than it typically does! One indicator of this: students who enrolled in content courses taught in the target language (rather than taking such courses in English) made significantly greater gains. This, of course, requires that students have a good deal of language under their belts before going abroad (the authors recommend five semesters). A broader vocabulary is certainly key to being able to take full advantage of in-country study of a non-cognate language. That said, I must add that, on average, last year's beginning-level Critical Languages Scholarship students studying in Tunisia made impressive proficiency gains.
Perhaps you know all of this and feel powerless to improve the various programs your students will attend or provide the on-site mentoring that could help them make the most of their time abroad. Well, there is something you can do that could make a real difference. Vande Berg et. al. found a significant correlation between "gains in oral proficiency and pre-departure orientations that included a cultural component"--and they include recommendations for what such an orientation should include. They also noted that students who benefited from such an orientation "reported significantly higher satisfaction with their study abroad experience." Finally, the amount of prior language study proved to be a predictor of intercultural gains during study abroad.
Vande Berg et. al. stress that "students learn most effectively in environments that provide learners with a balance between challenge and support for their learning. If confronted with too great a challenge, students retreat from learning—and they become bored if they receive too much support while experiencing too little challenge." We've got a long way to go to understand how to accomplish this for learners that are anything but homogeneous, but we can and should do better, if nothing more than helping them to recognize when they need to step back and take appropriate measures to counter their own self-defeating behaviors. Recently, I spoke with a behavioral psychologist who works with immigrants dealing with the stresses of acculturation. He stressed that such stress shuts down higher brain function and leaves one with two options: fight or flight. Not a recipe for successful in-country study.
For more resources and useful discussion, please see and refer your students to our short "Making the Most of Study Abroad" document.
Wishing all of you and your students a productive summer!