PhD defence: Studying abroad and learning a language

Date of news: 7 October 2021

Studying abroad is often seen as the best way to learn a new language, as it allows students to fully immerse themselves in the second language. For her dissertation, linguist Xiaoru Yu investigated the effect of studying abroad on the learning and comprehension of spoken English by Chinese learners of English. Yu will defend her thesis on 11 October.

studying abroad

The general opinion is that people who study abroad learn the language of that country faster than those who try to master the new language from their home country. But what exactly can be expected from short-term study experiences abroad? Xiaoru Yu - a second language learner herself - experiences great difficulty in second language listening comprehension. ‘I think this is vividly illustrated in a quotation by Gary Buck. “If we think of language as a window through which we look at what the speaker is saying, in the case of first-language listening, the glass is very clean and we see through it without even noticing it is there; but in the case of second-language listening, the glass is dirty: we can see clearly through some parts, other parts are smudged, and yet other parts are so dirty we cannot see through them at all. We are very aware of the glass because it gets in the way". Assuming the transparency of this dirty glass is associated with second language proficiency, I wondered whether and to what extend studying abroad could help alleviate this dirty glass problem.’

Empirical research

For her research, Yu studied listening comprehension among Chinese learners of English through empirical research. For the study, three groups of Chinese master's students - non-English and English majors studying in China and non-English majors studying in the UK - underwent listening tests, after which they were compared to a control group of native English speakers. The listening tests measured, among other things, auditory vocabulary knowledge and listening processing efficiency. After about a year of study, the students took part in the same tests again, in order to measure their development.

Yu found that Chinese students learned to process spoken English faster during their one-year study in the UK than those who remained in China. However, the progress made by the Chinese students in the UK in the area of vocabulary was small and not greater than that of their peers who remained in China. ‘One possible reason is that the learners who were studying abroad may have faced problems with social integration, leading to a low degree of immersion’, explains Yu. ‘The supposedly rich input, output, and interaction abroad may turn out to be shallow due to integration problems, which may make learning advanced vocabulary difficult.’

Thus, studying abroad can be an effective method for improving - especially - the speed at which a second language is processed, but not necessarily for vocabulary acquisition.

Individual differences

The way in which a person learns a second language depends not only on the language context in which that person finds himself, but also on factors on the individual level, such as language aptitude, working memory, mental well-being, language exposure and social interaction. Yu therefore also investigated how these individual-difference variables may relate to second language learning in different learning contexts by having the same participants take individual differences tests and complete questionnaires.

This showed, among other things, that aptitude is not only related to language knowledge, as indicated by vocabulary size, but also to the efficiency with which the second language is processed. In contrast, more social interaction does not seem to lead to higher listening comprehension, although Yu notes that it may have been difficult for the students to report their estimated speaking time with others. Surprisingly, Yu found that there was no qualitative difference in the way individual-difference variables relate to second language outcomes in different learning contexts. Yu: ‘This implies that adult second language learning is fundamentally similar across study-abroad and at-home learning contexts.’

Literature review

In addition to empirical research, Yu also conducted a literature review of previous research on the effect of studying abroad on language learning. In total, she reviewed twenty studies that evaluated the effectiveness of study-abroad programmes. Yu found that previous research shows that long-term stays abroad are more effective for second language development than short-term programmes. Moreover, students studying abroad showed greater progress on general proficiency and processing-related measures than on knowledge measures, compared to students at home.

Linguistic benefits and limits

The empirical studies and the literature review suggest that studying abroad is beneficial for facilitating the development of second language processing (an aspect that students in home learning contexts often struggle with), but not necessarily for that of vocabulary acquisition. ‘The finding reflects the linguistic benefits and limits of studying-abroad at the same time’, says Yu. ‘On the one hand, it is promising to have found that studying abroad is effective in facilitating L2 processing, an aspect that learners in at-home learning contexts often stumble on. On the other hand, study-abroad learners should be aware that studying abroad may not be particularly helpful for accumulating knowledge of a target language. Study-abroad learners may therefore need to make conscious efforts if they wish to gain maximal benefits from their study-abroad experiences.’

Based on Yu's research, future studies can further explore how learning contexts can be optimised, for example through online teaching interventions, to overcome language learning difficulties associated with these existing learning contexts.

Xiaoru Yu’s defence will be on 11 October in the Aula.