The year abroad: A critical moment

Authors: Rosamond Mitchell, Florence Myles, Brenda Johnstone and Peter Ford


The year abroad component has faced challenges in recently, although it represents a life-changing experience for most students. This paper illustrates the importance of the year abroad to the undergraduate language degree, drawing on research evidence arising from an ESRC funded project of the development of criticality in undergraduates. Our suggestion, supported by our empirical evidence, is that the Year Abroad has a powerful role in allowing language students to develop in the domains of the self and the world which in turn helps progression in the domain of reason, and feeds into their ability to engage critically with academic work.

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Table of contents

This paper was originally presented at the Navigating the new landscape for languages conference (, 30 June - 1 July 2004.

1. Introduction

This paper explores the nature of the development, relevant to criticality, that happens during the Year Abroad. In order to achieve this, it uses the lens of theoretical frameworks; the experiences and reflections of case study students as they talk through their Year Abroad experiences; and the thoughts of lecturers.

2. The main argument

Stern wrote that the Year Abroad tended to be looked down on as necessary for the student to "pick up" the language. "It is usually regarded as academically rather a waste of time" (Stern 1964 qtd in Coleman 1996, p.69).

In contrast, we argue that the Year Abroad changes the students in various, often interconnected, ways. These changes impinge on their final year of study and the criticality they practise there as well as the identity, the persona and related capacities to be critical which they take forward to their future lives.

We argue that the self undergoes considerable changes in the students during the Year Abroad and that this encourages the development of individuals more able to grapple with criticality as is required of them in higher education in terms of personal qualities and abilities to relate to wider experiences and conceptual frameworks than hitherto. The changes in the self are threefold. Firstly, the students face quite considerable problems, of one type or another, during the Year Abroad. They are required to develop extensive problem-solving skills and to draw on personal resources. In surviving this process, students tend to develop enhanced confidence in their ability to survive difficulties, to be more willing to take risks. These are characteristics required in criticality, especially at the higher levels. Secondly, and sometimes related to the first point, the students are exposed to a different culture which challenges their existing views of the world. Sometimes these challenges are difficult and uncomfortable. Capacity to challenge existing formulations and to be aware of, understand and evaluate alternative viewpoints is required at higher levels of criticality. Thirdly, the students' language improves. This is more than a technical skill, given (a) the close relationship between language and cultural awareness; (b) the links between language and the ability to access and process information; and (c) the role of language in mediating experience. The enhanced language facility enables the students to engage more meaningfully with a wider range of issues in their final year at university. They may acquire the ability to use linguistic concepts from an unfamiliar culture in ways which enable them to think in new ways in terms of that culture. Language can also be viewed as a basic knowledge resource.

The students' detailed self-report in interviews, as well as the views of lecturers, and the evidence provided by our examination of language and content classes supports the above interpretation as we will discuss in the following sections of the paper.

We would like to note two important points. Firstly, the process described above works more or less effectively for different students according to: (1) their individual starting points in terms of resources, knowledge and skills, (2) individual effort during the Year Abroad, and (3) the nature of the opportunities offered by the context in which they are placed. There are situations which offer more or less scope for different types of development. Moreover, there are some students for whom the developmental process described above does not work or happens in an impaired form. For vulnerable students, the challenges may even be too fierce as our case study student, Tracey, illustrates. Secondly, the developmental successes of the Year Abroad should not prevent us from probing its limitations and missed opportunities as far as our case study students are concerned. The cases discussed below highlight some gaps where one might expect more development of connections between formal knowledge as presented in university and experience abroad and vice versa.

3. Some theoretical implications

Context and individuality

The case study students all have different experiences according to their placement situations and individual resources, motivations, dispositions and responses. We also try to draw out general message s from the data.

The territory of criticality

According to Barnett's (1997) framework of criticality, it appears that the main areas of student activity during the Year Abroad are (1) in the domain of the self and that this activity occurs at a high level, Reconstruction of the self ; and (2) in the domain of the world and that this activity occurs at a low level, Problem-solving . However, it appears that it is the problem-solving, broadly as well as narrowly interpreted, that drives much of the development of the self.


If we turn to reflection, there is evidence in our data of the kind of "inner disturbance" which Barnett talks of which Coleman (1996) and Stonequist (1937 cited in Murphy-Lejeune 1995) describe as cultural gain. Kate, Susie and Henry talk about changes in how they view the world, in their values, in their identities as a consequence of their experiences in a different cultural and linguistic setting in the Year Abroad. For them, the inner disturbance is constructive. For Tracey, the experiences are too severe.

Kate, Susie and Henry also reflect on how they have developed as people in terms of self-realization. Kate talked about significant increases in confidence which affected how she led her life. Susie talked about her Year Abroad as a life changing experience. Henry talked about having become more sociable and outgoing.


The students developed their resources in terms of knowledge, skills and personal qualities. All reported significant increases in language ability. All were more aware of cultural differences, and how they might need to adapt their thinking and actions to live more effectively in that different culture. All had had to assimilate local knowledge and were more aware of the kind of adaptations, they might have to make in a new situation. They return more serious and hard-working after their difficult experiences, more ready to engage with and challenge authority. The students are willing to venture opinions, articulate thoughts, take risks and more able to relate to issues outside their immediate world. Three of the students had developed greater confidence and psychological flexibility. For Tracey, the process did not work happily.

The level of resource which the student developed depended to some extent on their starting point with that resource. For example, Susie who had started off with a good level of Spanish, developed her language to what she considered was near native fluency while Henry who had started learning Spanish only at university developed greatly, though to a lower level.


The Year Abroad appears to encourage the development of various aspects of self which are likely to be useful pre-requisites of criticality in the domain of the formal knowledge to which the students are returning. Advanced forms of criticality are likely to require confidence, risk-taking and understanding of different frameworks of reference.

4. Conclusion

Our suggestion, supported by our empirical evidence, is that the Year Abroad has a powerful role in allowing language students to develop in the domains of the self and the world which in turn helps progression in the domain of reason, and feeds into their ability to engage critically with academic work.


Barnett, R. (1997). Higher Education: A Critical Business . Buckingham: The Society for Research into Higher Education and Open University Press.

Coleman, J. (1996). Studying Languages: Survey of British and European Students - the proficiency, background, attitudes and motivations of students of foreign languages in the United Kingdom and Europe . London: Centre for Information on Language Teaching and Research.

Murphy-Lejeune, E. (1995). The Student Strangers: Aspects of Cross-Cultural Adaptation in the Case of International Students: Some Preliminary Findings. In G. Parker & A. Rouxeville (Eds.), 'The Year Abroad': Preparation, Monitoring and Evaluation . London: Association for French Language Studies and Centre for Information on Language Teaching and Research.

Related links

Criticality project