Language Gains During Study Abroad: A Reassessment of the "Predictors" Study and Prospects for Future Research

John Watzke, University of Iowa

Since the early 1990s, study abroad has increasingly become an option for students of Russian both at the high school and college levels. These opportunities have expanded with the passage of the Freedom Support Act, through initiatives overseen by the American Council of Teachers of Russian (ACTR), sister-city relationships, and a number of individual school, college, and private organizational programs. The benefits of study abroad, while rarely disputed, have received little attention in the Russian language research literature, particularly as it relates to second language acquisition (SLA). The publication in 1993 of "Predictors of Foreign Language Gain during Study Abroad" (Brecht, Davidson, and Ginsberg) provided the necessary data analysis, interpretations, and ensuing questions to support a research agenda on study abroad as it relates to SLA, materials development, and the timing and quality of these programs.

The purpose of this paper is summarized by three goals.

1) to provide an overview of research on the benefits and optimal conditions for the study abroad experience;

2) to review the analysis of ACTR data on study abroad (Ginsberg, 1992) and assess its interpretations and implications for SLA and programmatic and instructional planning (Brecht et al., 1993);

3) to support the continuation of this research agenda through the recommendation of data analysis strategies, research questions, and the formulation of predictor variables.

This paper will begin with an overview of current research on study abroad (DeKeyser, 1991; Freed, 1990; Lafford, 1995), its relationship to foreign language programs (Liskin-Gasparro and Urdaneta, 1995), and the innovations that this growing research base holds for programmatic development (for example, Long, 1997; Warden et al., 1995). The focus will then turn to the Russian language teaching profession and the landmark "predictors" study. This discussion will focus on the compatibility of the results of data analysis with interpretations and implications for SLA and materials and programmatic development. The questions raised during this discussion will lead to the final portion of the paper--prospects for increasing our understanding of the role of study abroad in the teaching and study of Russian language. This section will suggest strategies for strengthening existing regression (predictor) models (Johnson and Wichern, 1998), study designs, questions to be addressed, and variables which might lead to an increased understanding of SLA during study abroad and the pragmatic applications for designing optimal study abroad experiences.


Brecht, R., Davidson, D. and Ginsberg, R. (1993). Predictors of foreign language gain during study abroad. Washington, DC: The National Foreign Language Center.
DeKeyser, R. (1991). "Foreign language development during a semester abroad." In Freed, B. (Ed.) Foreign Language Acquisition Research and the Classroom, pp. 104-119. Lexington, MA: D.C. Heath and Company.
Freed, B. (1990). "Language learning in a study-abroad context: The effects of interactive and non-interactive out-of-class contact on grammatical achievement and oral proficiency." In Alatis, J. (Ed.) Linguistics, Language Teaching, and Language Acquisition" The Interdependence of Theory, Practice, and Research, pp. 59-77. Proceedings of the Georgetown University Round Table in Language and Linguistics. Washington, D.C." Georgetown University Press.
Ginsberg, R. (1992). Language gains during study abroad: An analysis of the ACTR Data. Washington, DC: The National Foreign Language Center.
Johnson, R. and Wichern, D. (1998). Applied multivariate statistical analysis (4th ed.). Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Prentice Hall.
Lafford, B. (1995). "Discourse strategies of second language learners of Spanish" Classroom vs. study abroad settings. Proceedings of the annual symposium on Research Perspectives in Adult Language Learning and Acquisition (RPALLA), Columbus, OH: The Ohio State University National Foreign Language Resource Center.
Liskin-Gasparro, J. and Urdaneta, L. (1995). "Language learning in a semester abroad: The spring 1995 university of Iowa universidad de los andes program in Merida, Venezuela." Proceedings of the annual symposium on Research Perspectives in Adult Language Learning and Acquisition (RPALLA), Columbus, OH: The Ohio State University National Foreign Language Resource Center.
Long, D. (1997). "The experiential course: An alternative to study abroad for nontraditional students." Foreign Language Annals, 30(3), 301-310.
Warden, M., Lapkin, S., Swain, M. and Hart, D. (1995). "Adolescent language learners on a three-month exchange: Insights from their diaries." Foreign Language Annals, 28(4), 537-549.