April 18, 2013

What is the value of the Year Abroad? Part 2

Much of the current research into the Year Abroad, however, focuses above all on the linguistic. At a conference last week, organised by the national subject centre for Languages, Linguistics and Area Studies (LLAS) around the theme of ‘Residence Abroad, Social Networks and Second Language Learning’, much evidence was presented on the link between linguistic proficiency and time spent abroad. Indeed, the development of ‘hard’ language skills is something which students might reasonably expect to gain from their Year Abroad. Forum posts from our VLE testify, for the most part, to a sense of increased confidence in the target language, in line with the linguistic ‘CAF’ (‘Complexity, Accuracy, Fluency’) variables in language performance. This acronym is, in fact, somewhat ironic in the context of the Year Abroad in France or a French-speaking country, since it also represents Les Caisses d’allocations familiales, the state housing benefit provider and one of the foremost examples of French bureaucracy. Many current students have testified to spending hours speaking to representatives of the CAF or responding to urgent letters, thus developing their language proficiency.

To focus solely on the linguistic when researching study or work abroad is, though, to overlook the more personal, less quantifiable developments which take place during this experience. The value of the Year Abroad should be calculated as much in terms of skills development as in linguistic proficiency. As the current third-year students have noted, they have developed a whole range of abilities and competencies which go beyond those of the French language. They have also developed an acute sense of community, forging greater links not just in their host communities but with their peers through virtual social networks and social media. This interpersonal networking and exchange is, like the increased sense of mutual support for academic and for real-life issues, such as dealing with bureaucracy and students with behavioural difficulties, regularly recorded on our Year Abroad VLE. Learning to work in such a real-life team/network is a capacity which arguably outstrips hard linguistic skills in preparing students for their future lives, both professional and personal.

What is the value of the Year Abroad? Clearly it is multi-faceted. Professor Jim Coleman, Chair of the University Council of Modern Languages and a pioneer in the examination of the socio-cultural aspects to the Year Abroad, issued something of a rallying cry in the plenary discussion at the ‘Residence Abroad’ conference. Professor Coleman’s contribution argued that much more research is needed which examines Year Abroaders as more than just language learners and which makes the case for the value of the Year Abroad as a process which creates citizens who are flexible and adaptable individuals. Perhaps we might even expand this to take account of an adaptable community of Year Abroaders.

The transformation from the uncertain, apprehensive pre-departure Year Abroader to the confident, culturally-aware final-year undergraduate requires much closer academic attention. To speak personally, I consider my own life to have been transformed by the Year Abroad in much more than a narrow linguistic or academic sense. Not only did I develop greater inter-personal skills and increased my own self-confidence, along with a nascent interest in teaching, but as a fresh-faced, spiky-haired assistant, I met my long-term partner at a training day for assistants in a lycée classroom in Tours. I also retain as a constant reminder of my first teaching experiences, in which I learnt how to manage a class and to plan lessons, a carefully-crafted, if somewhat obscure, papier-mâché cow from one of my French students. Clearly, then, the value of the Year Abroad is more than linguistic; it can change the life of individuals forever.

References

Jim Coleman, ‘Researching whole people and whole lives,’ in Celeste Kinginger (Ed.), Social and Cultural Aspects of Language Learning in Study Abroad (Amsterdam: John Benjamins Publishing Company, forthcoming)

Jim Coleman, ‘Residence abroad.’ Effective learning & teaching in modern languages (2005): 126-132.


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