Student voices on residence abroad

Author: Jim Coleman


This paper focuses on the learning outcomes of residence abroad. It analyses for the first time qualitative data from the Residence Abroad Project (RAP) within the context of earlier quantitative findings from both RAP and the earlier European Language Proficiency Survey (ELPS).

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Table of contents

This paper was originally presented at the Setting the Agenda: Languages, Linguistics and Area Studies in Higher Education conference, 24-26 June 2002.


Student learning through residence abroad has been a focus of my research since 1993. Firstly, I coordinated the European Language Proficiency Survey (ELPS, 1993-95), exploring several issues related to the foreign language learning of over twenty-five thousand learners of French, German, Spanish, Russian and other languages in the United Kingdom and seven other European countries. The study used a repeated cross-sectional methodology. Quantitative data from questionnaires and proficiency tests threw light on patterns of residence abroad for UK students - type, duration, previous visits - and suggested that general proficiency typically improves abroad but declines on return to the UK, while self-assessed language confidence climbs, motivation becomes slightly more integrative, stereotypes persist, and the attitudes of a significant minority towards the target language community become more negative.

The Residence Abroad Project (RAP), which I coordinated from 1997 until 2000, was essentially designed to enhance residence abroad practice on a national scale, but incorporated some research elements. ELPS proficiency tests and some ELPS questionnaire items on proficiency, self-assessed confidence, reasons for study and attitudes were retained, while new closed questionnaire items were introduced on the objectives of residence abroad, self-assessed achievement of objectives, and satisfaction with preparation and support. In response to criticisms of the exclusively quantitative and near-exclusively cross-sectional nature of ELPS data, open questions were added to the questionnaire, a longitudinal sample of 80 respondents was included, and interviews, focus groups and learner diaries complemented the quantitative data.

Institutional questionnaires were completed in 1997-98 for 411 different courses; students from 18 universities completed 2325 questionnaires with associated C-Test in April-June 1998 and autumn 1998 - June 1999; and a separate employability questionnaire was completed by 1117 language graduates in September 2000. Respondents to the RAP questionnaire belong to one of seven categories, selected to enhance the portrait of residence abroad issues across successive phases of study from school to employment after graduation (Table 1).

The questionnaire item which first appeared in the institutional survey of 1997-98 reflected our understanding of residence abroad objectives at the time (linguistic, cultural, aesthetic, personal and professional), and asked:

Language degree courses commonly include a year (or other extended period) abroad. What do you think are the principal purposes of spending a year abroad?

very important
3 2 1
not at all important
Improved proficiency in target language        
Improved insight into society, institutions, way of life        
Improved knowledge of the artistic culture (literature, theatre, cinema, museums etc)        
Increased personal maturity and independence        
Increased employment skills or personal transferable skills        
Other (please specify)        

Mean responses from staff and students are shown in Table 2. They indicate a surprisingly high degree of consensus, with linguistic and cultural objectives most important, personal and professional objectives not far behind, and aesthetic/artistic culture less important.

A further item, which likewise used a four-point scale, asked students who had returned from residence abroad: Did residence abroad achieve any or all of the following purposes for you? (4 = a great deal, 1 = not at all)? The mean responses (Table 3) suggest lower satisfaction with achievement on linguistic and professional objectives than on cultural, personal and artistic ones.

One of the more significant outcomes of the Residence Abroad Project was a Taxonomy of Learning Outcomes, designed in response to working with institutions nationally to help them to define their own learning objectives, and hence the preparation, curriculum integration, support, monitoring, assessment, debriefing and follow-up best suited to their individual programmes. The taxonomy defines (in alphabetical order) six categories of objectives:

Academic: course at L2 and university, dissertation or project, set language work, final year preparation

Cultural: insight into institutions, way of life (overlap with academic)

Intercultural: cognitive/affective, knowledge + beliefs + attitudes + skills + behaviours, culture as relative social construct, ethnographic and interpersonal skills (objectivity, adaptation), sometimes work-related

Linguistic: speaking, listening, reading, writing, grammar, vocabulary, register, fluency, learning strategies

Personal: independence and self-reliance, confidence, self-awareness

Professional: transferable skills, work experience, intercultural competence, awareness of L2land work conventions.

The work of the project suggested that these categories could encompass all aspirations raised by residence abroad, and thus provide a good framework for analysing student responses.

To date, processing of qualitative RAP data has encompassed 920 respondents, of whom the majority (897) were in school (age 1) or second year at university (age 3). The present paper discusses their responses to four questionnaire items, which in the questionnaire issued to age 3 (university Year 2) students took the following form:

14. What do you hope to get out of the year abroad?
15. What are you looking forward to?
16. What if anything are you worried or scared about?
17. What do you think the problems are going to be?

Students at other levels had the same questions in appropriate tenses. Thus at age 1 (school sixth form):

  • What would you hope to get out of the year abroad?
  • What if anything would you be worried or scared about?

whilst returners (ages 5 and 6) were additionally asked whether their predictions had been correct:

  • What did you hope to get out of the year abroad?
  • Were these hopes realised?
  • Before you went abroad, what if anything were you worried or scared about?
  • Were you right?

The questions sought to address, on the one hand, rational expectations, which might well have been influenced by pre-departure briefings, and, on the other hand, students' feelings, positive and negative, about the experience of residence abroad. 'Hope' and 'anticipated problems' were expected to tap into the more academic and institutional expectations (though obviously only those aims which students had adopted as their own), while 'look forward' and 'worried/scared about' would provide data on the affective side.

The open questions were in the same questionnaire as the closed questions on objectives considered above, although physically separated by other questions and on a different page, but clearly answers to the first may have influenced the open answers.

On 'hopes' (Table 4), language progress is the most important objective by far. However, few break it down into component skills, there is no reference to learning strategies, and comments are rather unsophisticated. More significant than individual skills are references to a desire to build language confidence.

Subsequent tables include only areas mentioned by a substantial number of respondents. Table 5 shows clearly the importance attached to independence and personal development, but above all the yearning for new cultural experiences, an aspect to which previous residence abroad research has not always drawn attention.

Table 6 aggregates similar responses, and demonstrates still more starkly students' desire to experience otherness, in their own lives and through contact with others. The personal and professional objectives are also very much part of their hopes. But by comparison with responses to closed questions (Table 2 above), we can see that the relative prominence of Linguistic, Cultural/Intercultural, Personal and Professional objectives is sharpened, while the rank order of mentions of each is unchanged. Aesthetic and academic learning outcomes simply do not figure among the hopes students entertain of their residence abroad.

In both Tables 5 and 6, the bold highlighted cells indicate that the attraction of the new is even more significant in the context of school students than amongst those about to go abroad, although we know from ELPS data that both groups already have extensive experience of target language countries. This is in itself an original and interesting finding.

The more affective responses to 'looking forward to' (Table 7) not unexpectedly reflect again the desire of a large majority of respondents to experience new cultures. Improving target language communication is still present, however, although personal, professional and academic objectives seem to carry little emotional importance for respondents.

The continuum of social isolation/integration figures most prominently in the list of aspects of residence abroad which students - especially those still at school - are worried or scared about (Table 8). Worries about language proficiency also surface frequently. Concerns with respect to accommodation, finance, study (and especially initial registration and course selection), work, accidents and crime are less significant. The higher proportion of Year 2 students than school students mentioning accommodation, academic worries and bureaucracy may well reflect the content of preparatory briefings.

The more cognitive bias of the questionnaire item on anticipated problems once more means that language heads the list (Table 9), with some nuancing of problems within the answers. Other anticipated problems (Table 10) largely reflect the students' worries, with social integration and isolation ahead of work-related problems, money, accommodation and incidents. Those about to depart show more awareness of problems related to the various roles - student, assistant, stagiaire - that they will play abroad.

It may appear perverse to treat qualitative textual data through such quantitative analysis. Indeed, the value of open questions lies in the richness and fine detail of each thread, as much as in the overall patterns which emerge. Space does not permit citation of as many examples as appeared in the conference handout, but overall it may be said

  • that the Residence Abroad Project taxonomy does provide a good framework for analysing responses, with all six categories represented;
  • that linguistic hopes and fears are couched in less sophisticated terms than personal and cultural/intercultural ambitions ('I'm looking forward to being able to speak 'perfect' German'; 'being able to speak to a native speaker without any problems'; 'getting proficient at language so I can communicate easily without having to plan what I want to say'; ' being able to speak French with no trouble at all');
  • that linguistic hopes figure more prominently in the rational categories of hopes and anticipated problems than in the affective categories of worries and anticipated pleasures - but are far from absent from the latter, as might be predicted from the close link between language proficiency, self-image and personal identity;
  • that few respondents spontaneously mention academic objectives or the kind of cultural knowledge of society and institutions on which area studies courses focus;
  • that only one single student voices the 'Grand Tour' artistic objective ('to increase my knowledge of French art, poetry, philosophy and painting')
  • that some responses evidence anomie or a lack of sympathy with the home culture ('spending a whole year in a decent country such as France which is better than England');
  • that the majority of answers echo previous research (e.g. Byram & Alred, the Interculture Project) on residence abroad.

It is perhaps the hopes of intercultural learning which are most perceptively depicted in the open answers. 'Hopes' include:

  • The experience of living like a Russian, speaking Russian with many Russian friends and acquaintances from all walks of life;
  • To feel like a French person, rather than an 'English person' abroad.

Anticipated pleasures include:

  • Putting myself into a French way of thinking, pretending to be French;
  • the experience of being part of another culture, rather than experiencing it in a tourist capacity;
  • meeting people and sharing life experiences from a different perspective than that of British society's expectations;
  • becoming part of a French town;
  • trying to integrate into a different society; seeing the other country from the inside, not just as a tourist;
  • meeting people: discovering how they think and why;
  • meeting Spanish people and becoming at one with them.

Even though the new data, as might be anticipated, merely confirm earlier research in most domains, the study does shine new light on residence abroad in three areas. The first - the eagerness for new cultural experiences - has been discussed above. The second is an apparently contradictory attachment to home. The word appears very frequently among worries (e.g. 'I'm scared about living away from home for a full year and not going home every weekend'), and may reflect either recognition of home's importance, now that it will be less accessible than from the UK university, or else the infantilisation which colleagues have noticed over recent years, exemplified by the near-compulsory attendance of parents at open days and interviews, which would have mortified students of an earlier generation. A further illustration comes from a task devised by the Interculture project which I set to pre-residence-abroad Portsmouth students in 2000/01. They had to project themselves forward and write an imaginary diary of the first weeks abroad. One student began by describing her arrival at the Hall of Residence in Strasbourg - and her parents helping her take the luggage from the car.

The other recurring theme is confidence - both personal and linguistic. It does not feature specifically in the language category of the RAP taxonomy, but among linguistic 'hopes' came second only to speaking skills, and was mentioned among other 'hopes' by one respondent in ten. Both linguistic and personal confidence appeared frequently under anticipated worries and problems:

  • making mistakes in my language and having a native speaker laugh at me;
  • presentations in front of German people;
  • not knowing how to say something at an important time;
  • I hope I don't forget everything I've learnt the first time I address a French person;
  • making a complete hash of it initially;
  • being made fun of;
  • making mistakes and getting things wrong;
  • standing on my own two feet;
  • feeling like a fish out of water;
  • standing out;
  • making the first move in getting to know people;
  • managing administrative procedures alone;
  • a lack of confidence in an area of which you are not acustomed (sic);
  • panicking in difficult situations;
  • dropped in without a lifejacket;
  • I would initially feel particularly shy which would give the wrong impression of my being uninterested;
  • people wouldn't like me;
  • feelings of inadequacy;
  • failing the year abroad and lack of self-esteem;
  • being able to cope in a new country and its society;
  • gaining respect from pupils and finding the confidence to teach;
  • making the initial contacts with people. Will they like me or not?
  • having to really go and meet people, establish yourself;
  • getting myself to get out there and meet people;
  • having confidence to approach native Germans.

The question of confidence clearly needs addressing in residence abroad preparation and support. I hope that further analysis of the qualitative data - particularly comments from returners and from graduates now in employment - will add further detail to our knowledge of residence abroad as a learning experience.

Table 1: 'Seven ages of residence abroad' in Residence Abroad Project data

  1 2 3 4 5 6 7
  Pre-A level (at school) End of Univ. Year 1 End of Univ. year 2 During year abroad Start of Univ. year 4 End of Univ. year 4 In later graduate employment
Cross-sectional study tick tick tick tick tick tick tick
Longitudinal study     tick tick tick    
Employment Study             tick

Table 2: The learning objectives of residence abroad

  staff students
No. 411 2090-2096
Improved proficiency in target language 3.94 3.95
Improved insight into society, institutions, way of life 3.73 3.61
Increased personal maturity and independence 3.51 3.54
Increased employment skills or personal transferable skills 3.49 3.46
Improved knowledge of the artistic culture (literature, theatre, cinema, museums, etc.) 2.93 2.99

Table 3: Mean responses on importance of residence abroad learning objectives and their achievement

Importance of objective
Level of achievement

Table 4: Open responses: hopes concerning language

  School Univ Year 2 Total
No. 238 659 897
Language 201 (84%) 620 (94%) 821 (92%)
Speaking 51 (21%) 125 (19%) 176
Listening 2 6 8
Writing 0 32 32
Grammar 4 5 9
Vocabulary 4 5 9
Confidence 26 (11%) 60 (9%) 76

Table 5: Open responses: other hopes

Experience new culture 86 (36%) 155 (24%) 241
Understanding another way of life 87 (37%) 130 (20%) 217
Personal development 54 (23%) 134 (20%) 188
Independence 31(13%) 98 (15%) 129
Meet new people 24 (10%) 83 (13%) 107
New experiences 20 (8%) 68 (10%) 88
Make new friends 23 (10%) 51 (8%) 74
Increased personal confidence 23 (10%) 55 (8%) 78
Living in another country 11 (5%) 47 (7%) 58

Table 6: Open responses: hopes

New culture* 134 (56%) 281 (43%) 415 (46%)
Personal** 54 (23%) 157 (24%) 211 (24%)
New contacts*** 46 (19%) 127 (19%) 173 (19%)
Professional**** 31 (13%) 107 (16%) 138 (15%)

* 'New culture' embraces any of 'living in another country', 'understanding another way of life', 'experiencing a new culture', 'social awareness', 'new experiences';
** 'Personal' embraces 'personal development', 'maturity', 'independence', 'increased personal confidence';
*** 'New contacts' embraces either of 'meet new people' and 'make new friends';
**** 'Professional' embraces 'future contacts', 'future career', 'transferable skills', 'problem-solving', 'organisational', 'working in L2land', 'experience new career'.

Table 7: Open responses: 'looking forward to'

  School Univ Year 2 Total
Novelty ** 195 (82%) 525 (80%) 720
Meet new people* 113 (48%) 301 (46%) 414
Experience new culture* 43 (18%) 137 (21%) 180
New life experience* 32 (14%) 144 (22%) 176
Improved language 39 (16%) 136 (21%) 175
Travel 16 (7%) 101 (15%) 117
Experience of living/working in another country* (1) 67 (28%) 46 (7%) 113
Experience new environment* 7 (3%) 104 (16%) 111
Life change* 15 (6%) 50 (8%) 65
Increased independence 21 (9%) 41 (6%) 62
Make new friends* 18 (7%) 36 (5%) 54
Learn about society/way of life 17 (7%) 33 (5%) 50

** One or more of: Meet new people, Experience new culture, New life experience, Experience of living/working in another country, Experience new environment, Life change, Make new friends
* Respondents may appear in more than one category
(1) Disparity between columns 1 and 2 is suspect: need to check coding

Table 8: Open responses: worries

  School Univ Year 2 Total
Isolation worries 96 224 320
Language worries 60 228 288
Accommodation worries 13 106 119
Financial worries 26 77 103
Successful social integration worries 41 60 101
Academic worries 6 65 71
Professional worries (WP or Assistant) 6 36 42
Arrival and initial difficulties 14 69 83
Incidents worries 15 38 53
Bureaucracy 0 37 37

Isolation worries = being on my own/don't know anyone, meeting people, having no friends, loneliness/being alone, finding help, homesick, missing friends and family, being so far away, isolation, shunned for being English

Language worries = one or more of language ability, oral skills, not being understood, initial language difficulties

Accommodation worries = accommodation, finding suitable accommodation

Financial worries = money, lack of funds, money transfer

Successful social integration = integrating, feeling confused, not adapting/fitting in, not coping/out of my depth

Academic worries = one or more of ability level in courses, entrance exam, course enrolment/registration, foreign universities

Professional worries = finding a job/work placement, teaching responsibilities, being exploited at work, work expectations/longer hours

Incidents = crime, law, medical care, injury, political situation

Table 9: Open responses: anticipated language problems

Language problems* 51 229 280
Language ability problems 51 225 276
understanding/being understood 38 116 154
initial language problems 7 52 59
language confidence 7 18 25
language difficulties in class 2 26 28
switching languages after one semester 0 2 2
avoiding use of English 1 16 17
longing to speak English 0 3 3

* Language problems = One or more of Language ability problems, understanding/being understood, initial language problems, language confidence, language difficulties in class, switching languages after one semester

Table 10: Open responses: anticipated problems

Integration problems 40 143 183
Isolation problems 43 118 161
Professional problems (Student, WP or Asst) 5 119 124
Financial problems 33 82 115
Accommodation problems 10 68 78
Lack of confidence 14 18 32
Incident problems 16 7 23

Integration problems = one or more of culture shock, settling in/initial problems, adapting to new way of life

Isolation problems = one or more of loneliness, homesickness, missing friends and family, meeting people, ability to make new relationships

Professional problems (student, work placement or assistant) = one or more of coping with the workload, teaching ability/responsibility, finding a work placement/job, bureaucracy/paperwork, university organisation/timetables

Financial problems = one or more of financial concerns, lack of funds, access to money/transfer problems, money for food

Accommodation problems = one or more of accommodation, initially finding accommodation, funding suitable accommodation

Incident problems = one or more of medical emergencies, crime/personal safety, political situation