What is the value of the Year Abroad? Part 1
The Year Abroad. A term that conjures up a whole range of emotions for language students, and indeed for students from other disciplines whose course allows for a spell away from their home country. For some students about to depart on a period abroad, the whole concept of leaving the familiar environments and networks of home and university can seem daunting and for some perhaps even terrifying. For others, the opportunity to leave familiarity behind and explore a whole new country is an experience they eagerly await. For those students or graduates who have completed the process, or who are coming to the end of their time abroad, the memory of a year abroad can be equally divisive. While the vast majority look back on their experiences with nostalgic fondness, others might be just as willing to forget the entire episode.
As the current crop of third-year language undergraduates approach the end of their sojourn abroad, the question of the ‘value’ of the Year Abroad is as pertinent as ever. For the past two years, I have co-developed, designed and co-managed a Year Abroad Virtual Learning Environment for students of French (and various combinations) along with delivering a pre-departure talk for outgoing British Council Language Assistants. In both roles, I have seen the ‘value’ of the Year Abroad put under very close scrutiny.
Every year when I deliver the assistantship talk, I see the effect that my preparatory advice has on students, as they slowly realise the step that they are about to take. The fact that, in six months’ time, they will be delivering lessons to a group of students in a foreign country can induce a whole swathe of responses, from outright fear to an immediate sense of responsibility. Some question why they have to go to teach a bunch of recalcitrant teenagers in France or Germany or Austria or even Martinique. The story that I tend to wheel out at each of these talks, about my thirteen year-old arch-nemesis, Kévin, at one of the schools I taught at back on my own year abroad, probably doesn’t help. Yet no amount of reassurance from a tutor or from a previous ‘year abroader’ (I ask one or two previous assistants to come to talk to the outgoing students) can quite ease the burning question for some students: just why is the Year Abroad necessary?
Fast-forward an academic year and the same students will be transformed. They might not realise it, and indeed some simply do not, but the Year Abroad is an influential process in developing students academically and personally. In my capacity as a coordinator of the French Year Abroad pages, I have watched with a mixture of interest and pride as previously timid students have recorded on the VLE’s forum that they are now perfectly happy managing a class of 30 students, or that they are not phased at being asked to teach vocation-specific and technical vocabulary in English. Other students have noted an increased awareness of their own self, comprising both their limitations and their skills and abilities, while others have recorded a developed sense of cultural awareness through experiencing the niceties of daily life in France—how to greet a new colleague or friend, with whom to use the informal ‘tu’ form and how to deal with the casually misogynistic approach of French men have all occurred in student reflections.