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April 18, 2013
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.
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.
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.