Guidelines for Language Learning Abroad

Updated March 2013

Education abroad provides the unique opportunity to develop foreign language skills in situ; the cultural context deepens meaning and understanding of the target language, and language learning deepens cultural understanding. The development of foreign language proficiency is critical to genuine international understanding. These guidelines focus on language programming in the education abroad context. They are intended primarily for programs where language learning is part of the education abroad curriculum, and are meant to be applicable to all levels of language learning, from basic ‘survival skill’ level language instruction through advanced immersion, study and research in the target language. The Forum on Education Abroad recognizes that there are many pedagogies in language learning, and does not privilege one pedagogy over another.

These guidelines reflect the experience and research of professionals from the fields of  education abroad and second language acquisition, and language educators in the United States and abroad. We share a common goal in our separate work: to foster ongoing critical reflection and assessment to help individuals and organizations engaged in second language education set goals, improve language teaching practices and support student learning. Unstated, but intrinsic to this undertaking, is the individual student’s responsibility for his or her learning, which these guidelines support, and well-designed programs inspire

Implicit in these guidelines are working relationships among all parties involved:  the home institution, host institution or program, faculty in both programs, and students that facilitate and foster the open communication of information and expectations.

Language Learning Outcomes, Proficiency Levels, and Placement

Language learning abroad occurs in a broad range of curricular and program contexts. These contexts determine the language learning goals of the programs and their courses, as well as the entrance and exit proficiency levels. To this end, programs should:

  1. Determine language learning outcomes appropriate to the programs’ goals and to the mission of the organization offering the program, in terms of speaking, listening, reading and writing in the target language.
  1. Establish language proficiency level requirements for eligibility for the program based on the learning outcomes and program curriculum, and inform students, their home institutions and relevant language instructors of these.
  • The home institution and hosting program should use accepted, reliable testing instruments to determine language proficiency levels.
  • The host institution or program may also choose to consider other assessment sources, such as course grades, essays, and interviews, in placing students in its courses.
  1. Advise students on education abroad language learning opportunities considering the student’s language proficiency, motivation, learning style, and application of the target language to their degree plan and career goals. Advisors should help students set realistic goals and objectives based upon their prior academic training and individual learning styles.

When students participate in direct enrollment and integrated university study programs where coursework is undertaken in the host language, the home institution should advise students based on the student’s level of proficiency in the target language, so they will be prepared to complete coursework at the host institution successfully.

  1. Offer courses appropriate to the program’s mission, and to specific goals and objectives for language learning, with these considerations:
  • Course goals and content are clearly defined and made available in course descriptions or syllabi before or during the students’ enrollment process. Realistic expectations of language proficiency are established for students, and the degree of linguistic growth students might reasonably expect if they successfully complete the language courses in the program is articulated.
  • If the program is primarily comprised of English-based instruction, options exist for the cultivation of basic survival skills in the host language.
  • When students enter with low range target-language competence, options for learning support are offered.
  • Measures are available to accommodate the learning and support of heritage students.
  • Language class size reflects the institution’s mission and vision for language pedagogy.
  • The home institution offers appropriately challenging courses, or adapts existing courses to allow returning students to continue to use, maintain and further develop the language skills acquired abroad.
  • U.S. and on-site language instructors are encouraged to discuss their shared roles and possible avenues of collaboration.

Assessment and Grading

For both formative and summative purposes, programs should systematically use  a range of reliable language proficiency assessment tools to provide useful information to students and the home institution about the student’s language learning progress. The following questions are intended to help programs improve their grading and assessment practices:

  • What feedback do students receive from faculty on their progress towards the learning outcomes? How does this occur?
  • If pedagogy calls for significantly different assessments than those used at the home campus, how are students oriented to these differences?
  • What mechanisms exist for students to periodically self-assess the efficiency of their learning strategies and developing language skills?
  • How are students made aware of the rubrics for evaluating stages of language proficiency, according to which their proficiency will be evaluated?
  • Are grades reported using well-defined scales and/or constructive comments related to the learning goals?
  • What policies are in place for sharing assessment results with students, on-site instructors and staff, and the student’s home institution? Do grade and assessment reports respect home institution policies for protecting student privacy? Does the program engage in pre- and post-term outcomes testing? If so, what are the assessment tools employed?

Culture and Language Instruction

Language learning abroad usually takes place within the language’s home culture, providing the richest possible environment for language learning. Language instruction abroad should take advantage of these unparalleled opportunities to immerse students in language and the culture it carries. The following suggestions should be taken into account:

  • The program recognizes and validates language as a reflection and carrier of cultural values and perspectives, past and present. As such, the program’s language instruction may explore  social and regional varieties of the target language.
  • How does the program explore the way language use reflects differences among social and cultural groups and the way these groups use language to express their identity?
  • How does the program address differences in the way men and women, different generations and minority groups use language?
  • How do courses explore semantic categories in the language?
    • In what ways does the program explore the way language is used in different cultural contexts?
    • How are regional accents or forms of usage contrasted and analyzed for the insights they reveal?
    • How are the rules of etiquette and politeness in language analyzed? How are students made aware of slang terms, colloquial language and insult words?
    • What opportunities do students have to practice various levels of formality in expression?
    • Does the program help students understand constraints that may apply to foreign speakers when using non-normative forms of the target language?
    • Does the program of instruction presents the culture of communities in the U.S. in which language is spoken.

Communication, Socialization and Interaction in the Host Language

Alongside formal instruction, communication, socialization and interaction in the host language support language learning abroad in ways not available on the home campus.

  • The program staff, faculty, resident advisers and host families communicate as much as possible with students in the host language. The program provides encouragement and logistical support to facilitate student interaction with host nationals.
  • What types of communication does the program provide to the students in the host language?
  • If there is a language pledge, how is it implemented, supported and enforced? If the program places any limitations on the use of English during the program, how is the rationale for this choice explained to students? How does the program use the host language in orientation meetings and other informational sessions? How do the staff and instructors engage the students in conversation in the host language on a variety of topics and in a range of contexts?
  • What opportunities do students have to understand and interpret written language on a variety of topics appropriate to their language level and their program of study?
  • How does the program instruct students in how to observe and participate in the host culture?
  • What extracurricular activities does the program offer in the host language? Are regular opportunities available to engage and use language in the local community, in a wide range of contexts, formal and informal, individually and in groups? What unique opportunities does the on-site location of the program create for interaction with native speakers and cultural learning? How do these extracurricular elements integrate with classroom instruction?
  • What opportunities are available for students to interact with a variety of host nationals from diverse social and ethnic groups?
  • What activities link students with their peers in their host community?
  • Does the program provide students with housing options that facilitate language and culture learning?
  • How are students encouraged to reflect and report on their interactions with the host community?
  • How does the program de-brief any communication breakdowns, cultural misunderstandings or related upsetting events to bring them to a constructive resolution?
  • What mechanisms are in place to help students stay engaged with proficient speakers upon return to their home country?

Mentoring and Language Learning Support

The program provides mentors, tutors and other language support structures.

  • Does the program provide students with access to resident advisors or peer mentors who are proficient in the host language?
  • Do peer mentors and resident advisors receive formal training on how to develop and structure activities to support students and facilitate language acquisition?
  • Are individual or small-group tutors available to students requiring additional practice or instruction.

Use of Technology for Language Learning in the Study Abroad Context

Where appropriate, the program provides technological support for students and staff for foreign language learning. Considerations regarding the use of technology for language learning abroad include:

  • How is the technology used to further the learning outcomes of the program?
  • Do students have adequate access to resources appropriate for foreign language learning and the development of intercultural skills?
  • In what ways does technology provide opportunities for students to reflect on their progress?
  • How does the program use technology to foster interaction with native language speakers?
  • How does the program explore the ways social media is viewed and used in the host culture?
  • In what ways does the program introduce and encourage the use of local resources found on the Internet?