Study Abroad and Language Learning: A large-scale study

The Professional Lives of Language Study Abroad Alumni, by Celeste Kinginger and Jingyaun Zhuan, finds that language-based study abroad experiences open doors, of all kinds.


New knowledge and old myths about language learning and study abroad

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. The study was funded by the US Department of Education presumably as a way to measure the impact and usefulness of international learning experiences and language-learning.

The research project chose a "mixed-methods" approach which begins with a large-scale survey effort (some 4900 completed surveys) and then identifies a statistically representative sample of respondents (54 total subjects) who were willing to participate in detailed qualitative interviews to add deeper insight to the data collected. Respondents range in age from recent graduates to retirees, adding valuable longitudinal perspective.

The present volume is intended as an initial, non-exhaustive overview of knowledge and insights to be gained from the results. 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 are more likely to use that language well beyond their college years. Inversely, the stories in the study show that intercultural skill acquisition was generally greater for the students' having sojourned in another language.

  2. Similarly, 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.


IFE's observations over a number of years mirror these findings

The experiences of IFE alumni reflect many of the same themes found in the narratives presented in this study. In addition, IFE program operations are a privileged vantage point for observing how program design – beyond just housing arrangements – can facilitate the outcomes that constitute the impacts felt (long) afterwards. A rapid survey of the book's several chapters, in illustration of this point:

1. "Using languages at Work"   The study finds that a surprising 65% of respondents use additional languages for professional reasons. On a scale of 1-10 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.

IFE's alumni not uncommonly find work using -- and thanks to -- their additional language competence, especially since they can show professional language use during their sojourn of study abroad. Professional knowledge gained in a chosen area, in a host language, opens doors for IFE alumni.

2. "Discovering a Calling"    The study asked language study abroad alumni to evaluate the impact of study abroad on career direction, specifically:

  • selecting field of employment
  • selecting type or employer
  • sparking interest in working overseas
  • acquiring skills that helped land a job
  • acquiring skills that influenced career choice

Using a scale of 1-10 (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. For example, the impact on skills that helped land a job received an overall rating of 7.3.

At IFE, examples abound of students who find their calling through an IFE program; Observation and personal testimony combine to suggest that the freedom and change in accustomed routines of being abroad reinforces the impact of exposure to real-world work, pushing student-interns to self-discovery including vocation discovery. A math major who became passionate about bio-statistics thanks to an IFE placement is now an established teacher/researcher in environmental epidemiology. A student of anthropology and languages whose internship in a French public school assisting a class of immigrant allophone children led to Teach for America followed by a doctorate in education focusing on diversity, culture and language. A religion and conflict studies major whose internship in a neighborhood social and cultural center in Strasbourg sparked an interest in Moroccan culture, then a Fulbright Scholarship in Morocco, a US State Department Pickering Fellowship for graduate study and ultimately appointment as a Foreign Service Officer with the State Department.

3. "Quests for Identity"   The quantitative segment of the survey queried students about their reasons for studying a language and reasons to study abroad. Most commonly cited motivations were similar for the two questions. Why study a language?: to understand another culture; for enjoyment; as an essential skill in global environment... Why study abroad?: to live in another country; to improve language skills; to study and learn in another language. In these findings, as the authors note, utilitarian concerns are minimal, while "whole-person" motivations predominate. In write-in answers, as well as the in-depth interviews, study abroad alumni cannot say enough about how this experience changed them.

IFE alumni testimony echos these sentiments. Development of the self is a frequent topic of discussion with former students, with increased confidence rivaling a broadened view of their world and future as the most commonly cited development.

4. "Study Abroad Program Features"   Survey respondents represent the entire gamut of program types and duration, and probably as a result the discussion of program features focuses mainly on housing, with stories of family life in another culture as the chief means of acquiring inter-cultural knowledge and skills, whether or not the student's living situation was positive or not.

IFE's experience can add breadth to this discussion, as the main features of its programs -- besides housing with locals -- have repeatedly been cited by its alumni as directly contributing to their success after IFE. Close mentoring and followup throughout a challenging experience; preparation and guidance needed to produce a significant research paper tied to concrete topics via the workplace; training and followup to succeed in a professional setting in another language and culture; individualized  semester for each student; these are some of the program features cited.  The work thereby accomplished through this strong form of experiential education is what IFE alumni say earned their applications (jobs, grants, schooling) a serious look.

Conclusions    The study's results are conclusive on a number of points including educational policy. Concerning the value of individual decisions to learn a language and study abroad using that language, respondents make it clear that language study abroad is not pursued frivolously nor are its benefits -- foreseen and unforeseen -- frivolous or insignificant. These benefits are seen in professional and personal terms. Language study abroad alumni are able to work well in diverse teams, communicate well with non-native English speakers (in ELF, or English as a Lingua Franca), navigate cross-cultural complexities, demonstrate empathy, learn and use additional languages, and report other skills and self-development. Respondents are overall very pleased even years later with the decision to learn another language and with the paths that such study has led them to take.

IFE alumni certainly agree!

Reference: Kinginger, C. and Zhuang, J. (2023). The Professional Lives of Language Study Abroad Alumni: A mixed methods investigation. Multilingual Matters