The Thinking of Speaking
Issue #25 January / February 2017
A History of Research in Study Abroad
by Olivier Elzingre
January / February 2017 | 

The following article was born from a personal interest in how study abroad came about and what was said about it. What follows then is the fruit of fairly extensive, although not comprehensive exploration of the academic literature on the subject of study abroad. Much of what follows, including the phases I describe, are my own impression. I have not yet found a paper that has attempted to draw up the history of study abroad research, so this first attempt is necessarily flawed and certainly inaccurate to some degree. However, I have, in the limits of the time I had available, tried to be as systematic as I could and hope that you might find this of interest.

There certainly were options open to me as to where I could send this paper, including my base university magazine. Why did I choose Parrot Time? Possibly first because I am fiercely loyal and Erik was the first editor who asked me to write anything for him. Secondly, I believe that the information contained in this article may be useful to you. Either you might be considering going abroad for studying purposes, or you may have children who are thinking about it. Thirdly, because I have been able to observe the growing interest PT is generating and I like to think of several hundred people who will actually give my article a go.


A review of Study Abroad research from its earliest origins show a general pattern of focus loosely based on the creation of the two main government controlled exchange programs (The Fulbright Program in 1946 in the US, and the Erasmus Program in 1987 in Europe) and the socio-historical contexts they were created in, reflecting the nature of potential benefits those governments aimed to gain. These programs were entirely dependent on the universities' participation, as they supplied the participants, reported on the effects of the programs on the returnees, made improvements to the programs and analysed both the short and longer term economic impacts of the partnerships created between universities.

Three broad research phases can thus be described. From the 1950s until the 1970s, cross cultural studies were mainly conducted, in an effort to answer a dual governmental objective: understanding the other and fostering a healthy sense of nationalism. The understanding was that a good understanding of foreign cultures and an appreciation for US and all it had to offer its citizens were key to sustaining the US's strengthening as a superpower and as an international mediator. In essence, the US was aiming to do their bit to preserve a very fragile world peace in the aftermath of a frankly horrible global war.

In the 1980s and 1990s, studies aiming to show a correlation between study abroad and second language acquisition appeared more systematically, backed by Europe's priority to strengthen the ties between its own member states.

The last couple of decades has seen a strong shift in research aims, particularly focused on individual experiences instead of investigating general trends of learning. This shift may reflect a reduction of government interest in the diplomatic potential of study abroad programs, or perhaps the lack of strong evidence to support claims that students will develop in any predictable manner through participation in a program abroad.

1950s-1970s: Cross-cultural studies: a shift from institutions to individuals

The earliest publications concerned with study abroad appeared between the World Wars (Byam & Leland, 1930; Holden, 1934; Kunze, 1929; Purin, 1928) and immediately after the Second World War (Doyle, 1946; Von Rohr Sauer, 1949), aiming to encourage more participation in programs abroad based on perceived benefits such as better professional prospect and increased linguistic competency. Authors in those papers frequently talked of the benefits of going abroad but few presented data which supported with any objectivity the authors' positions.

The Fulbright programme was created in 1946 and named after the senator who originated it. The intention behind the programme may have been ethically dubious (see Lebovic, 2013 for a discussion), but universities also saw an opportunity to test assumptions surrounding the effects of such programs on individuals.

While other papers' novelty laid in their methodology or their perspective, Schumann and Schumann's work was more radically different, being autobiographical, diary based and concerned with the author's affective response to learning a foreign language in three different contexts.

Churchill's study of 24 study abroad returnees (1958) is a good illustration of the type of research which fulfilled both government and university's goals. Churchill's work focused on the development of cross-cultural learning and development of national identity. The author found that expressions of politeness could be an excellent index of more general cross-cultural learning. In addition, she commented that returnees developed a greater sense of their national identity and finally that these students needed to be given the opportunity to talk about their experiences. She identified four factors which influenced a degree of involvement in the host culture: the participant's personality, their motives for participating in a SA program, their living arrangement in the host country and the role they assumed which overseas (traveller, student or worker). Churchill argued that “foreign study does produce changes in attitudes of students. They are more aware of themselves, of America, of other countries. But when the evidence is inspected more closely, it becomes apparent that some students have changed not at all and others have become more narrowly American and more critical of foreign values while still others have perceived Europe in clearly distorted ways” (p. 447). I was amazed at Churchill's work because many of her insights are clearly still current. For instance, she recognised the great variation in study abroad outcomes.

Another paper analysed 205 interviews and 401 questionnaires from the 1954 Fulbright participants in France who were asked about the significance and motives of their study in France (Gullahorn & Gullahorn, 1959). The study highlighted that the participants enrolled in the programs for four reasons: professional or educational advancement, understanding of French culture, improvement in language competency and adventure. Problems in adjustments were also noted, such as language limitations, lack of living comforts and differences in educational systems. However, these challenges were helped by progress made in French and friendships. Students also explained their experiences in terms of contradictions: feeling very lonely but making long lasting friendships, rudeness of bureaucrats but unexpected helpfulness of librarians.

A key aspect of this paper is that it takes into consideration the impression made by the American students on the French who came into contact with them, as the authors reported on 161 interviews conducted with French host families, local students and professors. The interview data showed that the local French students by and large did not establish strong friendships with the American visitors. Some locals blamed the visitors' lack of interest in the French and their greater financial resources, making it difficult for them to socialise. Some Amercian students talked of the hermetic French family structure, which prevented the them to connect at a level beyond casual friendships. Nevertheless, the visitors were described as friendly, without complex, young and dynamic. Host families noticed differences in social customs and observed the process of adaptation they had to go through. Professors commented on lack of work from the American students, but also understood that they had to experience less livresques (bookish, p.259) aspects of their program.

Works from the Gullahorns and from Churchill are just two examples among others that show that the 1950s provided SA with a number of dedicated researchers. Publications were based on more rigorous empirical data than in earlier decades. Other works included Lambert and Marvin's 1956 in-depth study of 16 Indian and Pakistanese students in the U.S., Scott's 1956 longitudinal study of American students in Sweden, and a report on how European Fulbrighters benefitted from their experience in Vermont, particularly in being exposed to the American academic standard, by Smith, 1959 (both cited in Schmidt, 1961).

At a time when most publications in study abroad described activities from an organisational perspective, the afore mentioned papers, which collected data from the participants themselves, laid the foundation of study abroad research for the next few decades. Gullahorn and Gullahorn (p. 369) had stated that “there is evidence that the purposes of agencies supporting educational exchange differ from those of students they sponsor.” The authors showed through a comparison of various reports that there was a misalignment between the 5 most stated reasons for international programs by institutions (international understanding, promoting American culture abroad, contribution to foreign economic, social and political development, aid in professional and educational development) and the 4 most commonly stated reasons as expressed by the participants themselves (candidate's personal and professional development, service to home community through development of knowledge and skills, international understanding and advancement of collaboration with professional colleagues in the U.S).

Following in the Gullahorns' footsteps, Cohelo (1962) further investigated the reasons why students were enrolling in international programs. The author found that international understanding, technical and specialty training, personal growth and general educational development, among which language learning, encompassed those reasons. The author also articulated the idea that “cross-cultural education involves the overseas student as a whole person in the process of his education sojourn” (p.55), heralding the theoretical perspective from the 2000s (Coleman, 2013; Kinginger, 2009).

123All pages
A History of Research in Study Abroad
Writer: Olivier Elzingre
Petey: All images used are in the Public Domain
• For a complete list of references to this article, please contact the author

All images are Copyright - CC BY-SA (Creative Commons Share Alike) by their respective owners, except for Petey, which is Public Domain (PD) or unless otherwise noted.


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