Academic journal article Foreign Language Annals

Short-Term Study Abroad: Predicting Changes in Oral Skills

Academic journal article Foreign Language Annals

Short-Term Study Abroad: Predicting Changes in Oral Skills

Article excerpt

Abstract: Increasing numbers of students are opting for study abroad programs of 2 months or less while research on study abroad generally focuses on semester- or year-long programs. This study quantitatively examines changes in students' spoken Spanish after 6 weeks in Argentina using native speaker ratings of student speech. The researcher then uses self-report measures to determine which of the following variables predict improvements in speaking, pre-program motivation and intercultural sensitivity, relationship with the host family, and interaction with native speakers. Results suggest that short-term programs can benefit language skills, as the majority of students in this program demonstrated small yet highly significant improvements in spoken Spanish even though a percentage of students showed a decrease in their skills. Surprisingly, only pre-program levels of cultural sensitivity predicted students' improvements in language skills, providing further evidence of the importance of culture in language learning.

Key words: Spanish, culture and language learning, linguistic gains, motivation, oral skills, short-term study abroad

In the wake of major events such as the attacks of September 11, 2001, and the ensuing war on terror, society is increasingly turning to study abroad as a means of acquiring the important cultural and linguistic skills that are so vital in today's globalized world. Indeed, recent statistics show that study abroad participation in the United States has increased approximately 20% since the attacks of 9/11 (Institute of International Education, 2005, n.p.).

This increase in participation in study abroad seems like a very positive trend for language and culture learning. However, research on language learning during study abroad often shows that study abroad is not always as effective as the language learning and teaching community would hope. While much of the research on study abroad demonstrates that students often experience gains in oral proficiency in the target language through their participation in these programs (see Brecht, Davidson, & Ginsberg, 1993; Freed, 1995; Ginsberg, 1992; Yager, 1998), many of these same studies indicate that a large minority do not show any measurable gains in their speaking skills (Brecht et al., 1993; Ginsberg, 1992). These findings leave many empirical questions regarding the effectiveness of study abroad in helping students to make significant strides in language skills and cultural sensitivity.

The need for further research on the effectiveness of study abroad programs seems even more pressing in the case of short-term study abroad programs, defined for this study as programs lasting 2 months or less. Participants in short-term programs of less than a semester make up a staggering 52% of the total number of students who go abroad from the United States (Institute of International Education, 2009, n.p). At the same time, the majority of research involving study abroad has focused on semester- or year-long programs. If students in semester- or year-long programs do not always improve their language skills as much as hoped, one has to ask how much progress a student could reasonably expect to make in a program lasting 2 months or less.

This study, therefore, seeks to answer two basic questions: What changes in speaking skills do students in short-term study abroad programs experience, and what factors predict improvements in speaking skills during short-term programs abroad?

Literature Review

Oral Skills in Study Abroad

As mentioned previously, much of the research on study abroad for purposes of language learning shows that students who go abroad for a semester often move up one level, according to ACTFL guidelines. For example, Brecht et al. (1993) looked at the gain scores of students who had spent a semester abroad learning Russian. Students completed an Oral Proficiency Interview (OPI) before and after their time abroad. …

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