Academic journal article Foreign Language Annals

The Impact of Short-Term Study Abroad Programs on L2 Listening Comprehension Skills

Academic journal article Foreign Language Annals

The Impact of Short-Term Study Abroad Programs on L2 Listening Comprehension Skills

Article excerpt


This study investigates the impact of a five-week intermediate Spanish course on the listening comprehension ability of 48 participants in short-term study abroad programs, and compares these groups with 92 peers enrolled in a similar course on the home campus. While both on-campus and study abroad groups experienced similar gains in listening comprehension, there were significant differences in the way learners approached listening tasks: The study abroad group applied primarily top-down and social listening strategies, while the on-campus students favored bottom-up processing. Higher-proficiency students in the study abroad groups had significantly higher comprehension gains, and the study abroad groups achieved higher levels of confidence and self-perceived ability after the treatment. Results outline some of the benefits and limitations of short-term foreign sojourns for beginner and low-intermediate language learners.

Key words: learning strategies, listening comprehension, short-term foreign sojourns, strategy training, study abroad

Language: Spanish, relevant to all languages


There is no question that American undergraduates are becoming more and more interested in foreign study. According to the Institute for International Education's (IIE) annual Open Doors report (Institute for International Education, 2006), the number of U.S. students studying abroad has more than doubled in the past decade. Indeed, from the academic year 2003-2004 to 2004-2005 (the last year for which data are available), the number increased by nearly 8%. And although the United Kingdom continues to be the leading destination for U.S. students, attracting nearly 16% of the total, approximately three quarters of sojourners seek out a destination where English is not the primary language, and where they will therefore face linguistic challenges, whether inside or outside the classroom. Traditional wisdom among educators and administrators has supported the idea that such a study abroad experience must be beneficial to language learners because it affords them a unique opportunity that is not available at home, namely some level of immersion among native speakers.

As a response to this powerful assumption about the benefits of foreign sojourns, over the past 30 years a growing body of research has developed on the impact of study abroad programs on second language proficiency (Cubillos & Robbins, 2004). Thanks to those investigations, we have learned that study abroad participants tend to achieve higher levels of oral proficiency, native-like sociolinguistic skills, and enhanced metacognitive awareness (Freed, 1998). These studies also have informed us of the significance of environmental factors (such as living arrangements and degree of interaction with the target language community) in determining the effectiveness of study abroad programs (Guntermann, 1995; St. Martin, 1980; Wilkinson, 1998), as well as the substantial role played by personal variables such as initial proficiency level and personality traits (Brecht & Robinson, 1995; Lapkin, Hart, & Swain, 1995). While there is increasing evidence about the global benefits of study abroad programs, there is still a dearth of data on how the foreign immersion setting might affect specific aspects of language learning (Segalowitz et al., 2004).

As background for this investigation into the impact of a short-term study abroad program1 on second language (L2) listening comprehension skills, we outline below the data available on the role of individual differences in the determination of study abroad gains, and the impact of study abroad on specific linguistic skills and self-confidence.

As previously indicated, the potential benefits of study abroad are considerable, but its effects do not appear to be uniform across individuals (DeKeyser, 1991; Segalowitz et al., 2004). Research findings suggest that these programs may benefit students with a more solid "grammar and reading base (Brecht, Davidson, & Ginsberg, 1995), and those with initially lower language proficiency (Freed, 1995). …

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