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).

The earliest publications concerned with study abroad appeared between the World Wars and immediately after the Second World War, aiming to encourage more participation in programs abroad based on perceived benefits such as better professional prospect and increased linguistic competency.

Thus the 1960s saw a growing interest in theories of cross-culture adaptation which fitted their understanding of the processes individuals experienced abroad. The W-curve hypothesis (Gullahorn & Gullahorn, 1963, an extension to Lysgaard 1955 U-curve hypothesis) for example described the stages of adaptation abroad: honeymoon, culture shock, initial adjustment, mental isolation and acceptance and integration. Such theories contributed to later works in educational contexts (Cormack, 1968; Selby & Woods, 1966) and in professional ones (Arnold, 1967).

Despite evident progress made in SA research in the 1950s and 1960s, Spencer and Awe (1970), in their very comprehensive review of the research up to that point, called for greater consistency in research, based on issues they identified. These included few common variables in existing research, lack of research on students' objectives, lack of definitions and inadequate methodologies, a lack of drawing on more general literature when addressing questions of cross-cultural problems, an untested emphasis on language proficiency as the outcome of study abroad and the lack of experimental program designs for research purposes (p.1). It would be fair to say that the authors' call was not answered.

Indeed, research became quite experimental during the following decades, adding to the variety of research in study abroad but doing little for confirming previous findings. Thus researchers aimed to improve the quality of programs based on data collected (Bicknese, 1974), focused increasingly on individual experiences and the participants' own perception of their stay abroad (Adler, 1974; James, 1976), questioned notions like knowledge (Flack, 1976), or made autobiographical reports on language learning in a variety of locations (Schumann & Schumann, 1977).

While other papers' novelty laid in their methodology or their perspective, Schumann and Schumann's (1977) 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. The authors kept in-depth diaries of their experiences and feelings of learning Arabic in North Africa, Persian at UCLA and Persian again in Iran. They related affective variables with progress in their language learning endeavours. Three behaviours of each author's language learning experience are related in the paper, giving account of the hopes, expectations and reactions to the learning contexts and teaching methodologies. The authors stressed the importance of personal variable factors as influencing their success in language learning. Using the pinball machine (can you get more 1970s?) as an analogy to language learning, the language learner, just like the ball in the machine, takes a path that no other ball would, despite given the exact same context. The personal variables the authors listed included motivation and anxiety as well as idiosyncratic behaviours such as nesting patterns and eavesdropping as a language leaning preference.

In addition to the above mentioned studies conducted by U.S. scholars, Willis and associates' (Willis, Doble, Sankaryya and Smithers, 1977, cited in Coleman, 1998, pp. 184–185) work investigated linguistic (speaking, listening comprehension) sociocultural knowledge and affective (attitude and anxiety) pre and post SA changes in 88 university undergraduates in either study or work placements in France and Germany during the academic years 1973/1974 and 1974/1975. The study found greater changes in those students who had been on work placement than those on study placements in conscientiousness, open-mindedness, and sense of adventure. In general, French and German hosts were seen in a more positive light, as well as English people. In terms of linguistic progress, despite students highlighting feeling that they had not been prepared enough in that respect for their placement abroad, most progressed. Only small increases were noticed in sociocultural knowledge. Correlations were found between positive attitudes and linguistic gains.

Despite frequent statements that study abroad improves language skills and in spite of the Schumanns and Willlis and colleagues work, SA researchers did not take up the agenda of developing connections between a sojourn abroad and language learning in any systematic manner. Instead, until the 1980s, it has been said that there existed only two broad research agenda to the field of study abroad and international education: “those of a sociopsychological character, exemplified by studies pertaining to the cross-cultural consequences of studying abroad, and those dealing with how best to help international students to adapt and to succeed in an alien institution and cultural environment”(Cordaro & Lulat, 1984, p. 300).

1980s-1990s: Second language acquisition in SA – correlations

While the real impact of SLA on SA research began in the 1980s, Carroll's (1967) paper is frequently referenced to as seminal in providing a starting point for researchers, especially those comparing at home and abroad students' linguistic progress. Carroll's study reports on the results of foreign language proficiency tests administered to 2,782 students of French, German, Italian, Russian and Spanish in a variety of learning contexts. It showed, using statistical analysis, that “even a brief time spent abroad had a potent effect on a student's language skills” (p.131). Carroll's paper had a profound impact on SA research because it validated the importance of study abroad. Whereas previously samples had been too small and too homogeneous to allow generalisation of the benefits identified of studying abroad, Carroll's work demonstrated the efficiency of study abroad on language learning. Carroll's work unfortunately remained fairly unique in that Study Abroad research continued to explore questions related to changes in attitude and personal growth.

During the 1980s bibliographies relating to Study Abroad showed research focused on the regulations surrounding inter-university agreements, statistical analysis of student mobility, post exchange pathways as well as a continuation of studies interested in cross-cultural identities (Altbach, Kelly, & Lulat, 1985; Baron & Bachmann, 1987; Cordaro & Lulat, 1984). What these bibliographies show is that Study Abroad remained by and large a field for sociologists, policy maker and program coordinators (universities and study abroad organisations).

Nevertheless, a number of studies began to make connections between target language acquisition and study abroad contexts (DeKeyser, 1986; Möhle, 1984; Parr, 1988; Pica, 1983; Robertson, 1983). These papers reflected theories developed in the late 70s and early 80s about second language acquisition processes and particularly discussions around Krashen's monitor theory (see DeKeyser, 1986, pp. 3-9 for a discussion). Instruments were also created to test the theories and measure dimensions related to L2 oral production. The Oral Proficiency Interview (OPI) became a part of the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Language test kit and was subsequently applied in study abroad research (Freed, 1990; Magnan, 1986; Milleret, 1991). Research using OPI was able to show students' linguistic improvements but was found to lack the ability to show finer progress, especially those made by students who participated in short stays.

The 90s were marked by an increased interest in second language acquisition in the context of study abroad. Some papers looked into speaking, writing, listening and reading skills (Davie, 1996; Meara, 1994; Opper, Teichler, & Carlson, 1990), others focused on specific competency, particularly oral (Yager, 1998). In addition to these works, a seminal volume edited by Freed (1995) collected a number of papers focused on language acquisition in study abroad. Divided into 4 sections, the volume covered the prediction of linguistic gains, comparative studies, sociolinguistic studies and diary studies, which showed a concern for the representation of a variety of study abroad contexts and language dimensions, but also for the methodological approaches.

Special journal issues on linguistic gains in study abroad also appeared during this period. One was in the Journal of Asian Pacific Communication (1993, 4:4), which addressed questions of sociolinguistic competence (Marriot, 1993), linguistic inadequacies and self-representation (Spence-Brown, 1993), and communication in the homestay environment (Hashimoto, 1993). The newly created Frontiers The Interdisciplinary Journal of Study Abroad (1998, Volume IV), covered questions of methodology (Huebner, 1998), student perspectives (Pellegrino Aveni, 1998), sociolinguistics (Regan, 1998), literacy (Kline, 1998) and the European study abroad context (Coleman, 1998).

Towards the end of the 1990s two realisations took place: that the objective measurement of linguistic gains may not be possible, particularly if language is seen as unitary, and that trends based on statistical analysis did not represent the reality of individuals' experiences.

Scholars recognised that students underwent many changes through exposure to a different culture but had, until recently conceptualised the learning context as an independent factor influencing an objectively measurable improvement. The paradigm shift sweeping through the entire filed of applied linguistics adopted the notion that the person, the context and the learning development were connected dynamically.

The consequences were that both study abroad context and languages were further analysed into discrete components.

2000s: Dynamic contextualisations

In an effort to describe patterns of language acquisition abroad, investigations were conducted into correlating specific dimensions of the experience abroad with linguistic gains, rather than viewing the study abroad context as a single context (Devlin, 2014). These dimensions included homestay (Di Silvio, Donovan, & Malone, 2014; Iino, 2006; Junko & Viswat, 2015; Kinginger, 2013, 2015; Knight & Schmidt-Rinehart, 2002; Rivers, 1998; Schmidt-Rinehart & Knight, 2004), duration of the program (Alcón-Soler, 2015; Dwyer, 2004; Félix-Brasdefer, 2004; Lara, Mora, & Pérez-Vidal, 2015; Llanes Baro & Serrano Serrano, 2011; Sasaki, 2011; Vilar Beltran, 2014) and psychological dimensions of the learner and their experience such as acculturation (Lovitt, 2013; Spenader, 2011), homesickness (Hannigan, 2005; Hendrickson, Rosen, & Aune, 2011; Tilburg & Vingerhoets, 2005) and motivation (Allen, 2010; Hernández, 2010a, 2010b; Isabelli-Garcia, 2006).

A recent and important contribution in SLA in study abroad can be found in Pérez-Vidal's (2014) edited collection of studies on the SALA project. The project, spanning over two and a half years, looked at groups of translation undergraduate students from Spain who spent a semester or a year in England. The collection of reports by numerous authors compared study abroad and stay at home students and also length of programs for aspects of linguistic progress such as oral accuracy, L2 fluency, phonological development, listening performance, academic writing and lexico-grammatical development. Summing up findings of the SALA project and placing it against previous findings, DeKeyser offered the following advice:

Maybe it is fairly easy to see why fluency should benefit more from Study Abroad than accuracy, and vocabulary more than grammar, and therefore to predict, as long as a number of learner and context parameters do not vary much, that we should find more progress in fluency and vocabulary than in accuracy and grammar in the next study to be conducted. If, however, we are to go beyond evaluating whether stays abroad are meeting their goals or not, or in what broad areas, i.e. if we are to use Study Abroad as a privileged context to probe for psycholinguistic processes involved in the skill development that results from extensive communicative practice, we need to look at variables of an intermediate level of abstraction, i.e. not narrowly focussed on one structure or a couple of sounds, and not as broad as ‘morphosyntax' or ‘phonology', but variables that distinguish different learning problems while still maintaining a certain level of generalizability.

DeKeyser's aim is to get to the point where a researcher can safely assume a known learning process to take place given a specific set of circumstances, and the way to achieve this is to make our linguistic foci neither too vague nor too narrow, while testing these foci by controlling factors we know affect language learning. For as long as these issues are not addressed adequately, findings in Study Abroad research are bound to remain somewhat anecdotal. DeKeyser's advice is valid not just for research on linguistic gains, but also for research interested in non-linguistic outcomes of study abroad programs.


Several months of looking into academic literature has helped me develop a sense what I need to tell my students when they are considering going abroad. Only yesterday, a year 9 student approached me at the end of a lesson and told me that her and a friend had signed up to leave for France at the end of next year. At my place of work, only 1 student in the past 10 years has participated in an exchange before year 10. I almost blurted out “But you are too young!!!” But then all the above kicked in. How could I tell her she was too young when clearly those who benefit from going abroad are those who show some autonomy? I ended up saying as calmly as I could that I was very proud of her and her friend's decision. Of course I am worried about her. I am worried about every single one of my students who goes to France for a few weeks or several months. But I need to remember that I am not their parent.

Olivier Elzingre is a PhD candidate researching motivation and identity development in study abroad contexts. He teaches high school French in Australia. Correspondence to


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• Alcón-Soler, E. (2015). Pragmatic learning and study abroad: Effects of instruction and length of stay. System, 48, 62–74.

• Allen, H. W. (2010). Language-Learning Motivation During Short-Term Study Abroad: An Activity Theory Perspective. Foreign Language Annals, 43(1), 27–49.

• Altbach, P. G., Kelly, D. H., & Lulat, Y. G.-M. (1985). Research on foreign students and international study: an overview and bibliography. New York: Praeger.

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• Baron, B., & Bachmann, P. (1987). Study Abroad in Western Europe: A Bibliography. European Journal of Education, 22(1), 101.

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• Byam, E., & Leland, M. (1930). American undergraduates in France. The French Review, 3(4), 261–269.

• Carroll, J. B. (1967). Foreign Language Proficiency Levels Attained by Language Majors Near Graduation from College. Foreign Language Annals, 1(2), 131–151.

• Churchill, R. (1958). The Student Abroad. The Antioch Review, 18(4), 447.

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• Coleman, J. A. (1998). Language learning and study abroad: The European perspective. Frontiers Journal, 4. Retrieved from

• Coleman, J. A. (2013). Researching whole people and whole lives. In C. Kinginger (Ed.), Social and cultural aspects of language learning in study abroad (pp. 17–44). Amsterdam; Philadelphia: John Benjamins Publishing Company.

• Cordaro, J., & Lulat, Y. G.-M. (1984). International Students and Study-Abroad Programs: A Select Bibliography. Comparative Education Review , 28(2), 300–339.

• Cormack, M. L. (1968). International development through educational exchange. Review of Educational Research, 38(3), 293–302.

• Davie, J. (1996). Language skills, course development and the year abroad. The Language Learning Journal, 13(1), 73–76.

• DeKeyser, R., M. (1986). From learning to acquisition? Foreign language development in a U.S. classroom and during a semester abroad (PhD Thesis). Stanford University.

• Devlin, A. M. (2014). The impact of study abroad on the acquisition of sociopragmatic variation patterns: the case of non-native speaker English teachers. Oxford; New York: Peter Lang.

• Di Silvio, F., Donovan, A., & Malone, M. E. (2014). The Effect of Study Abroad Homestay Placements: Participant Perspectives and Oral Proficiency Gains. Foreign Language Annals, 47(1), 168–188.

For a complete list of references to this article, please contact the author at

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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In this issue:
Main Contents
Letter From The Editor Letter From The Editor - No Politics
Make Your Own Language Group Make Your Own Language Group
A History of Research in Study Abroad A History of Research in Study Abroad
Parrot Time on Patreon Parrot Time on Patreon
Languages in Peril Languages in Peril - Sayonara, Ainu
At the Cinema At the Cinema - La Coppia dei Campioni
Where Are You? Where Are You?
Book Look Book Look - The Bible of the Language Learners and Polyglots
Basic Guide to Romanian Basic Guide to Romanian
At A Glance At A Glance

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