Recommended Reading: Language study abroad

  • 2024-02-26

The Professional Lives of Language Study Abroad Alumni

Celeste Kinginger and Jingyaun Zhuan

This book results from a major survey study of the long-term effects on the lives of students from US universities who study abroad in a non-English-language program or setting, funded by the US Department of Education.

The research project chose a "mixed-methods" approach which began with a large-scale survey effort (some 4900 completed surveys) enhanced by detailed qualitative interviews of a sample of the respondents. All respondents studied abroad in the host language and range in age from recent graduates to retirees, adding valuable longitudinal perspective.

The stories shared and summarized in the book make for fascinating reading, adding surprising information and impressions to the quantitative results which, themselves, dispel a number of conventional assumptions about the use and value of language learning and study abroad.

Overall, the study is founded upon and at the same time further corroborates two notions:

  1. Language-learning and study abroad are mutually reinforcing. Students whose language acquisition process includes study abroad in the language being learned (“language study abroad”) are more likely to acquire a greater competence in the language and to use that language well beyond their college years. Inversely, stories in the study suggest that intercultural skills are stronger for students who sojourned in another language.

  2. The effects on personal and professional lives are – as seen in these narratives -- intertwined, with outcomes reported as being long-lasting, enabling and enhancing a career, and affecting the whole person.

Strasbourg students during an internship workshop (in French)


A few specifics on the effects of language study abroad:

Chapter 1, "Using languages at Work"  – The study finds that a surprising 65% of respondents use additional languages for professional reasons. On a scale of 1 to 10 describing how influential study abroad had been on their ability to use additional languages for study or work (10 = "to a great extent"), the average response was around 8.

Chapter 2, "Discovering a Calling"  – The study asked language study abroad alumni to evaluate the impact of study abroad on career direction in various possible ways, such as job field selected, type of employer selected, skills acquired that helped land a job... On a scale of 1 to 10 (10 = "to a great extent"), the average response to all points was nearly 7, including the 35% of respondents who do not use additional languages professionally.

Chapter 3. "Quests for Identity"  – The quantitative segment of the survey queried students about their reasons for studying a language and reasons to study abroad: Why study a language?; why study abroad? Most commonly cited motivating factors were similar across the two responses. To understand another culture; for enjoyment; to live and study in another language, and similar. As the authors note, utilitarian concerns are minimal, while "whole-person" motivations predominate.

The findings are broadly conclusive. Language study abroad is not pursued frivolously nor are its benefits -- foreseen and unforeseen, professional and personal -- frivolous or insignificant. Language study abroad alumni profiled in this book are able to work well in diverse teams, communicate well with non-native English speakers (i.e. they are fluent in ELF – English as a Lingua Franca), navigate cross-cultural complexities, demonstrate empathy, learn and use additional languages and other reported skills. They are pleased even years later with the decision to learn another language and with the paths that such study has led them to take.

The qualitative results – in addition to useful and eye-opening – are a fun read!