Study abroad programs are a mainstay of university language departments all over the world—and for good reason, too. Studying abroad—even for a relatively short period of time—can allow students to significantly improve their fluency and vocabulary, according to a new study published in Applied Linguistics that investigates the ways in which language learners can build their speaking abilities through study abroad programs.
In this study, the researchers focus on four measures of linguistic development: complexity, accuracy, fluency, and lexis. Previous research has shown that students who study abroad tend to improve their fluency (i.e., the speed and fluidity with which a learner speaks) and lexis (i.e., the vocabulary used), but show less improvement in terms of complexity and accuracy. However, much of this previous research done on studying abroad and its effects on a student’s linguistic skills has largely focused on short-term programs with beginner learners; the current study aimed to look at whether or not similar trends could be found in more advanced learners. The study focused on data from third-year university students majoring in French and Spanish who studied abroad in France, Spain, and Mexico for a full academic year. Researchers collected data before, during, and after the study abroad program to get a thorough overview of how the students’ L2 skills improved during their time abroad. They also collected data on the students’ abilities after the study abroad period had ended, to assess how the return to classroom learning might affect their skills.
The study’s findings on fluency and lexis development largely fall in line with previous findings—however, because the researchers collected large amounts of spoken data during the study abroad program, the current study was able to get a more fine-tuned look at how quickly this improvement occurs. Fluency and lexis improved quite rapidly—within the first couple of months of the program, the students’ scores in these measures improved significantly, and this improvement was maintained throughout and after the duration of the program.
“The informal interactions typically afforded during study abroad are largely, though not exclusively, communicatively driven and meaning-focused, indicating that this context likely prioritizes fluent over accurate and complex production,” the paper reads.
Researchers also found that learners’ complexity and accuracy improved more after returning to classroom instruction—they attribute this to the fact that accurate production is more heavily emphasized in classrooms than it is in the casual, conversational setting used in more spontaneous speech. “A further lesson is the importance of supporting study abroad participants upon their return, so that the linguistic gains made while time abroad can be retained or further developed with instruction and opportunities for informal language practice,” the paper reads. The researchers stress the fact that advanced learners may benefit more from studying abroad than beginners due to the fact that they already have a large body of linguistic knowledge to draw upon and automatize while practicing with native speakers.