Stays abroad: the best way to learn a language?


“Immerse yourself in the language,” “impregnate”, “immerse yourself in a language bath”, all expressions that may suggest that a stay abroad is the miracle solution to learn a second language.

Here, we want to quote the author of the blog “The world of languages”  : “the problem with this myth is that it leads you to believe that once immersed in the country, it will happen something magical that will make you automatically learn the language in a few months without the slightest effort. The reality is a little more nuanced. And some researchers, including Adami and Leclercq , even spin the immersive metaphor to better show the limits:

“… any individual dipped in this bath logically undergoes the same soaking, but as for the ability to swim is something else. But this is precisely where the problem lies: if the host society is a large bath, it is not in any case an Olympic pool, but a cut coastline, with its water holes, its currents and its tides where it is not easy to learn how to swim.

Thus, researchers have largely studied the effect of stay abroad on learning a second language. And while they generally agree on the benefit to learners, they recognize interindividual variations that are sometimes quite significant. Domain research then focuses on two main aspects:

  • the benefits of an immersive stay (whatever its nature and purpose) on language learning (and others)
  • the different factors, also called predictors, that can influence the success of the stay abroad in terms of learning the language.

Two misunderstandings

Before reporting on the work that examines the nature of learners’ linguistic progress and the factors that influence these gains, we briefly wish to shed light on two misunderstandings that seem to blur the representations of linguistic immersion in the collective imagination.

The first concerns the belief, often unacknowledged, that one can learn a second language as one’s mother tongue (L1), in an adaptive way, without conscious effort. L1 learned in childhood, however, belongs to a category of knowledge that researchers have called “primary” .

The primary knowledge require to be learned no effort, no conscience, no special motivation. It is quite different from so-called “secondary” knowledge (reading, writing, mathematics, etc.), which includes the second language when it is learned in school, in adulthood, or late in life. ‘childhood.

This knowledge requires the individual to be attentive, motivated and consciously control their learning processes. We do not dispute the fact that in L2 many acquisitions can be done implicitly and unconsciously. But the place of incidental and implicit learning is, in L2, much narrower than the place they occupy for learning the mother tongue.

Exposure to the language and interactions with speakers, native or not, if they are necessary for the acquisition of a second language, can not suffice.

The second misunderstanding that surrounds immersion concerns the unacknowledged but latent goal of achieving a certain level of bilingualism. This misunderstanding is due in particular to a very restrictive definition of the concept of bilingualism, which we must seek to get rid of. In his latest book, Talking Several Languages: The World of Bilinguals , François Grosjean recalls that, in the 1930s, the idea of ​​bilingualism necessarily balanced between two languages ​​was shared by linguists and neurolinguists.

The author shows, however, that this conception has become more relaxed over the years, because it excluded a large number of individuals who could not, however, be “classified” in the “monolingual” category. After explaining that bilingualism could also apply to speakers capable of producing significant sentences in two languages ​​or mastering at least one language skill (reading, writing, speaking) in two languages, it adopts the following definition:

“Bilingualism is the regular use of two or more languages ​​or dialects in everyday life. “

The Common European Framework of Reference for Languages ​​( CEFR) puts greater emphasis on a “plurilingual” communicative competence which is recognized as “leaving the apparently balanced dichotomy of the usual mother tongue / second language by insisting on multilingualism, of which bilingualism is only a special case “.

For each of the six levels established by the CEFR (A1, A2, B1, B2, C1, C2), descriptors indicate what must be done in each language competence (reading, writing, speaking orally continuously, taking part of a conversation). For example a B2-level user will have to be able to “communicate with a degree of spontaneity and ease” during a conversation with a native speaker. This latter definition seems to us to be a much more reasonable objective than balanced bilingualism when it comes to staying abroad.

The linguistic benefits of an immersive stay

“The researchers tried to empirically evaluate” the popular myth “, according to which the best way to learn an L2 would be to spend time abroad. (Serrano, Lians and Tragant, 2016, our translation) And they have shown that this belief is generally true.

Kinginger , in the introduction of his book devoted to the acquisition of L2 in a foreign country, notes that this context allows for example the learners to become aware of the registers and styles, to use more idiomatic formulas and acts language ( speech acts ) during their conversations.

Fluency in oral expression is one of the first aspects that researchers ( Towell, Hawkins & Bazergui , 1996; Llanes , 2011; DeKeyser , 2014) have emphasized improvement, with the understanding of the oral. In the first study cited, the productions of English-speaking students learning French were examined before and after a six-month stay in France. The data show that the stay in France favors the fluidity of production, but does not reach that of a native, and that the improvement observed is due to an increase in the length and complexity of the units produced.

Segalowitz and Freed also show that after a stay abroad, 22 Anglophones were able to improve the speed of their flow, the number of words per sentence and reduce the number of hesitation marks. Other studies show an increase in the lexical repertoire after a stay abroad.

However, certain aspects of the language do not seem to benefit particularly from the stay abroad. Collentine compared two groups of English-speaking students after a one-semester stay in Spain and Spanish classes in the country respectively. The results indicate that language classes taken in the country contribute more to the development of grammatical skills than going abroad, even though the group of students going abroad show greater narrative skills and more semantic richness. dense.

Factors that promote language gains

The scientific work has also examined the factors that influence the success of a stay abroad, in an attempt to highlight “predictors” of the linguistic benefit of a stay. These factors include: the length of stay , the use , both quantitatively and qualitatively, of the L2 during the stay, the development of socialization networks, also called “communities of practice”, intercultural sensitivity, learner’s personality, age or gender.

Baker-Smemoe, Dewey, Bown and Martinsen measured seven of these variables before, during and after a stay abroad of more than 100 learners. To analyze the data, the participants were divided after the stay into two groups called “winners” and “non-winners”.

The researchers were able to examine the differences between these two groups and the different variables that influenced and therefore best predicted the linguistic benefit of an immersive stay. The study is very detailed and we summarize the main lines. The majority of participants progressed in language proficiency (57 vs. 45).

The three variables that have the most significant effect on language learning are:

  • The level in L2 before departure. The authors note that the stay was beneficial especially for students with a “middle-intermediate” level, and less for “intermediate-advanced” students. Note that none of the participants was completely new to L2.
  • Intercultural sensitivity, ie the awareness of cultural differences (eg politeness codes) and the ability to accept them to engage without anxiety in an interaction with natives.
  • The constitution of a network of socialization. In a counter-intuitive way, the researchers show that during the stay, the size of this network decreases among the “winners”. Indeed, the quality and emotional engagement of learners in their social relationships, their intensity and sustainability, seem more important than the number of people with whom learners exchange.

Another counterintuitive result seems interesting to us. The researchers show the importance of the skills of the friends on the spot in the native language of the learners (here English, which is not the L1 of these friends). This leaves a lot of thought, because it is commonly considered that the main issue is the use of the second language and not the mother tongue. The authors show here that the use of the learner’s mother tongue is in some cases necessary for it to be introduced by friends in communities of practice, in which he can interact and progress in L2.

In this study, the researchers found no significant effect of age, personality, sex, or, very surprisingly, the use of L2, while other studies had shown influence of these factors. Regarding age, Llanes and Muñozshow a benefit of the stay abroad for young learners compared to adults in the same context.

About the personality, Zafar and Meenaski study the relationship between extraversion, risk-taking and level in L2. Regarding the sex of the participants, some studies have also shown that it can influence language learning, since women and men can, in some countries, have more or less easy access to communities of practice ( Brown , 2013, Kinginger , 2008, Trentman , 2012).

In conclusion, we agree with Segalowitz and Freed that a combination of several variables better explains the linguistic success of a stay abroad than any one alone.

Let’s dare, however, a very personal explanation: it is possible that only the quantity and quality of L2 used and encountered by the learner has a direct effect on learning … all the other variables having a moderating effect. This is very clear for the social network or for cultural sensitivity: it is possible that in reality these two variables imply the use of a certain quantity or type of language and thus moderate the effect of use of language on learning.

Author Bios: Stéphanie Roussel is a Lecturer in Germanic Studies at the University of Bordeaux and Daniel Gaonac’h is Emeritus Professor of Cognitive Psychology at the University of Poitiers