Friday, October 7, 2011

Stopping the study-abroad fail train

The Associated Press is reporting about a trend in studying abroad away from "so-called 'island' programs, where Americans live, study and often party together" (via irishpolyglot). The results of these programs, as you might imagine, is that students learn little of the local language.

My study-abroad program in Shanghai was very much an "island" program. Our dorms and classrooms were a bunch of apartments in a fenced complex with a pool. Each apartment had four English-speaking students, English television channels and our classes were in English (except for our Chinese classes). It took me about two months to make my escape to a host family a few blocks away, but I was glad I did as my learning speed picked up immediately.

Although I've seen Americans get stuck in such an island on every single study abroad program I've ever been involved with, it's hardly limited to Americans and other English speakers. It's likely to be a problem for any group of native speakers studying abroad in sufficient numbers, with Japanese and Korean students coming to mind as well. One of the most extreme examples I've run into is a Japanese guy who had gotten a four-year college degree from the States and, a few years after graduating, when I asked him something like "Oh, so your English is pretty good then, right?" in English, he had no idea what I was saying. None. Turned out that he had bubbled himself up in Japanese so much that he never really got his listening and speaking skills to improve very much and had passed all his classes through reading alone. Yikes.

Getting back to our U.S. study abroad programs, the trend seems to be taking steps to put an end to this kind of thing. Let's run through the ways noted in the article that they're going about this, after the jump.

  • Less free time. As students tend to either hang out with other students during free time or hop on the net (both activities done mostly in English), the main goal here is to prevent that. This could work as long as they're actually using the target language where they would have had free time before. I personally would have hated this because I was much more likely to be exposed only to the target language during my free time versus during time scheduled by any of the study-abroad programs I participated in, but I can see how it might be a net gain overall.

  • Limiting access to the internet. Pretty much the same as above, but targeting only the net aspect. I think I was even guilty of this (using the net mainly for reading U.S. news (usually in English) or chatting or emailing friends back home (again, usually in English)). That said, cutting people off from all the language-learning resources available on the net would be the big negative of doing this.

  • Mandatory local internships. Local internships are questionable: if the students don't speak the target language, what can they do at an internship besides something in their native language? I wouldn't put my money on that being a net gain for target language exposure for newer learners, but it's possible.

  • Signed promises not to speak English. Meh. Without some kind of stick (fines, restriction of privileges, etc.), I'm pretty sure this'll be interpreted to have "when a teacher's around" appended to it.

  • Activities that force one-off interactions with locals. Two examples given are "'Amazing Race'-style solo scavenger hunts — like one where wide-eyed Nebraska students were dropped off their first morning in China in a distant corner of their new city with $5 and instructions to find their way back home alone" and "ice-breaker assignments — getting their picture taken with a monk, or taking a note card with an unknown Chinese word around town until they can figure out from locals what it means". If designed correctly (mainly by making sure everyone is doing it solo and not using English with the locals), these can be useful, but they'll never represent a large amount of exposure to the language.

  • Activities that force ongoing interactions with locals. The example of this noted in the article is "[being] assigned to become a regular at some local spot, — a park, a restaurant, a corner shop — returning there repeatedly to get to know the neighborhood and people there". I think this is actually pretty clever, as it will force repeated interaction and quite possibly lead to more lasting relationships (and thus exposure) than a one-off interaction would. It would need to be set up right (no two U.S. students at the same spot, etc.), but this is the kind of assignment I could get behind.

  • Making students live with local roommates. If done right, this is probably the biggest winning move on this list. The main criteria would be that the roommate actually speaks the target language with the student. If the roommate is a student (likely), then the roommate will have likely volunteered to live with a study-abroad student in order to boost the roommate's own foreign-language ability.
The one thing not mentioned in the article that should be number one in any study-abroad program's toolkit is the homestay. I've found there to be no more effective way to immerse yourself in a language. Homestays tend to be much better than student roommates for two main reasons. First, there will generally be several people in your host family, each on a different schedule, meaning you'll be more likely to have someone at home to interact with at any given time. My Shanghai host family, for instance, consisted of a mother, a father, their adult son and his wife. There was almost always someone at home to talk with. Second, it's unlikely that they'll all be English speakers. While the son and daughter-in-law in my host family were able to speak a little bit of English (although I stubbornly never let them), the parents didn't speak a lick, so it was all Chinese, all the time, for me.

I'd take it a step further even and make all efforts to keep the U.S. students away from each other. First, don't let students know who the other students are on the program. Then, when they get to the country, have them go straight to their host family's house without any group meetings or the like. Rather than group language classes, arrange for individual tutoring by native speakers, or, if group classes are unavoidable, make them all be via remote classes taken from the comfort of their host families' homes. Rather than big tourist-like events, give them a checklist of things they have to see and do and make them figure out how to do it all on their own. In the end, the ideal would be for each student's interaction to be solely with native speakers (and program administrators, as needed). That would probably be a challenge administratively, and I imagine there'd be a good number of students who wouldn't be up for the challenge, but I'm pretty sure you'd be getting better results with all the exposure students in such a program would be getting.

The study-abroad program that hemmed closest to that ideal was my year as a high-school student in Japan. While the study-abroad students came together for program-related events and to hang out from time to time, we were spread out disparately all over Tokyo at different schools and different host families, so it took more effort to remove the separation than to maintain it. And I'd be pretty confident in saying that Japanese levels rose more in that setting than they did during my college year in Japan at Waseda University, which thankfully did have host families for all but also made it easy for students to congregate in their free time (without Japanese), which many did.

That all said, it's good to see study-abroad programs focused on a problem that seems to have been ignored for quite some time, and they seem to be headed in the right direction.


  1. Great Post!  I hope it gets read by the thousands going overseas every year in these programs.  And perhaps more importantly by those running the programs.  

    >> Aaron

  2. First time reader here (aarongmyers's tweet got me here!), and I really enjoy this post. 

    As someone who studied abroad in China, I ran into similar problems which hindered my ability to effectively learn the language.   The structure of my study abroad program and also my Chinese university's own attempts to separate foreign and Chinese students (don't need any free-thinking polluting their sensitive minds)

    I would have loved a homestay, but I wasn't even allowed to live outside the dorm.

    Thanks for the post!  Subscribed.


  3. Many thanks!

    In both my Shanghai and Beijing study-abroad programs for U.S. students, I was the only one to move out of (Shanghai) and never move into (Beijing) the dorms. Although what I was doing was novel for those programs (although not so novel for certain other non-U.S. programs), both actually helped me pull it off. Did you actually face opposition when you tried to move out?

  4. Lucky man.  I did face opposition from my American university because I was paying them tuition and they, in turn, paid my Chinese university.  As a result, I had no choice but to pay for the dorms and I wasn't about to pay twice the amount of money for a different place to live.  They would not let me handle my own living arrangements.