The Effects of Study Abroad in the German-
Speaking World: A Research Review
University of Arizona
The last two decades have seen an increase in the demand for more accountability in educa-
tion in the US and abroad (Norris, 2006). Language and culture programs including study
abroad (SA) programs have been no exception in this respect (Mills & Norris, in press). SA pro-
grams are often asked to better assess and demonstrate students’ learning outcomes, and the
programs’ impact on students’ academic achievement, careers, and personal growth (e.g.,
Gillespie, 2002). Research has demonstrated that not all students that participate in SA show
increases in second language (L2) use, L2 proficiency, intercultural sensitivity, motivation to
continue studying the L2, and positive attitudes towards members of the target or host culture
(e.g., Engle & Engle, 2004; Kinginger, 2008; Kormos, Csizér, Iwaniec, 2014; Masgoret,
Bernaus & Gardner, 2000; Mendelson, 2004; Sato-Prinz, 2011; Wilkinson, 2000), although
much research has demonstrated the overwhelming positive effects that SA can have on stu-
dent learning. SA has been shown to yield increases in L2 skills (e.g., Llanes & MuZoz, 2009;
Martinson, 2010), drops in language anxiety and increases in students’ willingness to commu-
nicate (e.g., Dewaele, in press), as well as increases in intercultural awareness and personal
growth (e.g., Chieffo & Griffiths, 2004). Research findings on SA effects, however, cannot be
generalized easily from one program to another. SA programs differ widely in length and type
(Engle & Engle, 2003), opportunities for language input and interaction (Churchill, 2006), and
of course, the languages and cultures being learned and experienced. Findings, for example,
from a study on US students’ reading skill development in Japan or a study on cultural adapta-
tion in Egypt would most likely only have limited implications for US students’ development of
reading skills and cultural adaptation in Germany or Austria.
The vast majority of research on SA has been conducted on US learners of Spanish and
French (see e.g., Llanes, 2011). Comparatively few studies on the linguistic and cultural gains
during SA have examined the outcomes of SA in German-speaking countries, although the to-
tal number of US college students who study in German-speaking countries has increased con-
tinuously over the last decade, mostly due to increased numbers of studentswho studied in Ger -
many. Figure 1, based on data from the Institute of International Education (2013), illustrates
the numbers of US students who studied in Germany, Austria, and Switzerland in the academic
years 2000/01–2011/12. Note however that the percentages of US students who went to these
countries did not change substantially in the years between 2000 and 2011. Of all US college
students who studied abroad, 3.3% did so in Germany both in 2000/01 and in 2011/12. The
percentage of US students who went to Austria declined slightly from 1.5% in 2000/01 to 0.9%
in 2011/12, whereas the number of students who went to Switzerland for SA was 0.5% in
2000/01 and 0.6% in 2011/12. Germany was the sixth-most-popular SA destination for US
college students in 2011/12 following only Great Britain, Italy, Spain, France, and China.
This article attempts to provide a review of research on SA in German-speaking countries, to
draw preliminary conclusions from the reported findings, and to identify areas in need of future
research. Both researchers and SA program administrators have been interested in the question
to what extent language and cultural competencies develop during SA (e.g., Freed, 1995;
Rivers, 1998). In spite of the difficulty of generalizing findings, research results may help admin-
istrators form realistic expectations about a program’s impact, show what is or is not possible
during SA, and set appropriate objectives for learning outcomes. The latter in turn can then
provide the basis for learning outcome assessment and program evaluation efforts.
The area that has been investigated most is SA’s impact on oral proficiency. In one study,
Tschirner (2007) investigated the extent to which a four-week intensive program in Leipzig,
Germany, affected SA participants’ oral proficiency using as measures simulated oral profi-
ciency interviews (SOPIs) at the beginning of the program and oral proficiency interviews
(OPIs) at the end of the program. Tschirner found that at the end of the program, 80% of the
(highly motivated) program participants (who were all teachers of German) had moved up at
least one level on the ACTFL proficiency scale compared to the beginning of the program. Two
participants (13%) even improved by two levels (one from intermediate-mid to advanced-low
and one from intermediate-high to advanced-mid). Tschirner (2007, p. 117) suggested that
substantial improvements in oral proficiency are possible in short-term SA immersion pro-
122 UP 47.2 (Fall 2014)
Figure 1. US College Students Studying in Germany, Austria, and Switzerland, Academic Years 2000/01–2011/12
(based on data from the Institute of International Education, 2013). These numbers only include students enrolled in
study abroad for US college credit. The numbers for Switzerland are not limited to SA in the German-speaking region.
grams provided that learners are highly motivated, learners and teachers have knowledge
about the development of oral proficiency, instruction is intensive, tasks and projects allow for
extensive speaking and interaction opportunities with native speakers, and homestays with
hosts and/or tandem partners provide ample opportunity for out-of-class speaking and
It should be stressed that the participants in Tschirner’s study were all highly motivated cur-
rent or prospective high school teachers of German and that comparable programs or studies
with undergraduate college students may not yield similar gains. Lindseth’s (2010) study on
oral proficiency development in intermediate-level students of German during a semester pro-
gram in Wittenberg, Germany, seems to corroborate such caution. Her findings suggest that US
college students’ oral proficiency development abroad is likely, but that it takes time. She found
that 81.6% of the participants who completed the one-semester SA program received higher
ratings on the ACTFL proficiency scale at the end of the program compared to the beginning of
the program. The majority of the 38 participants (63.2%) improved by one proficiency
category, 7% of participants improved by two categories, and 18.4% did not show any im-
provement according to the OPI rating scores from the beginning and the end of the program. It
is also noteworthy that most students did not surpass the intermediate-mid level at the end of
the semester abroad and after having previously studied German between one and five years in
US high schools and/or between one and five semesters at the college level.
In a recent study, Lovitt (2013) tracked the oral proficiency development of US high school
exchange students in Germany and compared students who had no prior instruction in Ger-
man with students who took classes of German in high school. She conducted interviews via
Skype that followed ACTFL OPI guidelines and found that both groups of students had devel-
oped quite impressive speaking skills. Most noteworthy, all three of the students who did not
have any prior instruction in German, were judged to have reached the intermediate-mid level
after one semester, and two of them were judged to be at the intermediate-high and ad-
vanced-low level at the end of the year abroad. Of the six students who reported to have taken
German in high school, one student scored at intermediate-mid, three at intermediate-high and
two at advanced-low after one semester in Germany. Two students of this group who partici-
pated in the OPIs at the end of the year scored at the advanced-low level and one student at the
intermediate-mid level. Although the number of participating students was low (and even lower
in the second OPI sessions at the end of the second semester), it is surprising that the tested
students who did not receive any instruction in German prior to the year abroad can reach profi-
ciency levels that are similar or close to those reached by students who had German classes
before studying abroad.
While oral proficiency ratings are certainly affected by students’ vocabulary knowledge, few
studies have explicitly studied lexical development during SA in German-speaking countries.
One exception is Ecke (2012) who investigated whether short-term SA participants became
faster in lexical production in L2 German as compared to L1 English after a four-week stay in
Germany. In pre- and post-tests, he asked students to recall and write down as many words as
quickly as possible within one-minute time periods. As stimuli for word retrieval, he gave stu-
dents the word initial sounds A, F, and S to assess phonetic fluency, and the semantic categories
of “fruits and vegetables” and “things in the kitchen” to assess semantic fluency. (See Rosselli,
Ardila, Salvatierra, Marquez, Matos & Weekes (2002) on a discussion of this methodology.) In a
first session, the students had to produce words elicited by these prompts in L2 German and in a
ECKE: EFFECTS OF STUDY ABROAD 123
second session in L1 English. Whereas students’ lexical fluency in the L1 tasks did not change
significantly between pre- and post-tests, their overall word production became faster in the L2,
particularly for words starting with the letter F and the semantic category of “fruits and vegeta-
bles”. The author suggested that four weeks of SA can significantly increase lexical retrieval
speed in the L2, while word retrieval speed in the L1 is not affected significantly, though some
participants even displayed a trend towards decreased retrieval speed in their L1 English.
In a study that focused on the development of grammatical accuracy, Arnett (2013) also
reported some data with relevance to lexical production and vocabulary growth. When she
compared open-ended (written) story retellings from a group of SA students with retellings from
study-at home students in pre- and posttests, she found that the SA students used more words in
the retellings than the on-campus students and that the SA students progressed more in lexical
fluency development than the on-campus students. The SA students produced a mean number
of 399 words in the post-test compared to 302 words in the pretest (a 32% gain) while the
study-at home students produced 276 words in the post-test compared to 234 words in the
pretest (a gain of only 18%).
While SA participants have been reported to improve their vocabulary, listening, and
speaking skills (Cubillos, Chieffo & Fan, 2008; Mendelson, 2004), they may benefit less from
SA in the development of discrete grammatical features compared to study-at-home students
(Collentine, 2004; Juan-Garau &Pérez-Vidal, 2007; Walsh, 1994). SA participants themselves
reported to perceive the least improvement during short-term SA in Germany in the area of
“grammar” compared to other areas, such as “vocabulary” (Badstübner & Ecke, 2009). Some
scholars even believe that language fluency in SA may be developed at the cost of accuracy
(Collentine, 2004; Neuse, 1961). To investigate this issue, Arnett (2013) compared two groups
of intermediate learners of German in their development of aspects of grammatical accuracy
using (written) picture retelling tasks at the beginning and at theend of two second year-courses
of German. One group participated in a twelve-week SA program in Germany whereas a con-
trol group took a sixth-quarter course on campus at home. Arnett found that the SA students did
neither better nor worse in using accusative and dative case constructions than the students
who studied in the equivalent course on campus. She concluded that students should be en-
couraged to go abroad to take advantage of an intensive immersion experience, but that they
should also be made aware that their grammatical knowledge and communication skills will be
assessed upon their return.
Sociolinguistic and Pragmatic Competence
Another rarely investigated aspect of SA effects in learners of German concerns the devel-
opment of sociolinguistic and pragmatic competence. Such knowledge and skills often interact
with and require grammatical competence as well. In one study, Barron (2003) investigated
how Irish learners of German developed competence in the formulation of requests, offers, and
refusals to offers in the L2 and how these differed from native German speakers’ formulations.
She asked participants to complete free discourse completion tasks at the beginning of a
10-month residency abroad program in Germany and seven months later. Barron (2006) also
investigated the extent to which the same Irish learners of German were able to appropriately
use the German address system at the beginning of the program and then again seven months
124 UP 47.2 (Fall 2014)
later. She specifically investigated the use of the second person pronominal forms in German
(informal du vs. formal Sie etc.) and second person possessive determiners in German (dein/e
vs. Ihr/e) and their variants in the different cases. Barron found that the learners’ formulations of
requests, offers and refusals as well as their use of the German address system became more
native-like over time, although gains were modest and learners’ competence still reflected
persistent learner-specific patterns that deviated from native speakers’ competence. The author
attributed this to insufficient appropriate input in the L2, specifically in formal contexts, and (in
the latter case) also to the complexity of the German address system.
Two case studies dealt with issues of foreign accent and pronunciation development in
Canadian students in Germany (Marx, 2002; Müller, 2013). Both studies did not understand
pronunciation development as an isolated phenomenon, but as a complex process that is
highly influenced by socio-psychological factors, such as learners’ changing identities and per-
ceptions of self. In an autobiographic case study, Marx (2002) described changes in the L2
(German) and L1 (English) accents of a developing multilingual speaker during and after a
three-year stay in Germany. Applying the metaphor of self-translation (a renegotiation of self),
she described various stages in the development of her accents and attempted to explain not
only the temporary adoption of a French accent when speaking German and the later develop-
ment of a near German accent, but also the appearance of a ‘foreign’ accent in her L1 English.
Marx maintained that accent shifts mirror identity changes and argued that the acceptance of
and active participation in the second culture allowed for the appropriation of a near-German
accent in her case. She also stressed the dynamic nature of accent developmentand questioned
the concept of ‘ultimate attainment’ of a language.
In a multiple case study based on students’ narrative analyses, Müller (2013) investigated
Canadian students’ perceptions of pronunciation teaching practices and the role of pronuncia-
tion in L2-mediated interactions during a semester or year in Germany. She found a great deal
of individual variation in students’ experiences with pronunciation teaching, their attitudes to-
wards accents, and the effect that these appeared to have on their willingness to communicate
in German as well as their overall L2 development. Müller stressed the complexity and individu-
ality of accent development and its interdependence with other factors, such as the learner’s
expression of identities. She demonstrated that some students showed considerable intoler-
ance towards their own (and other speakers’) accents, which often resulted in negative self-im-
ages and an obstacle to interact in German. These negative self-perceptions stood in stark
contrast to the desire to fit in and be accepted by members of the second culture. Müller argued
for a critical/reflexive teaching approach that helps learners raise their awareness about
language variation and speakers’ perceptions, attitudes, and prejudices toward their own and
others’ accents. Such an approach should help learners liberate themselves from preconcep-
tions about accents, appreciate themselves as multilingual/multicultural speakers, set desirable
and achievable goals, and make informed choices with respect to pronunciation development
as a tool to express and shift between social and cultural identities.
Reading and Writing Skills
There are few studies on reading and writing gains during SA in German-speaking coun-
tries, but Fraser’s (2002) study of US students in semester- and year-long programs in Freiburg,
ECKE: EFFECTS OF STUDY ABROAD 125
Germany, showed that two groups of SA students (while showing a great deal of individual
variation) made substantial gains in reading and writing skill development as measured in pre-
and post-tests. Fraser stressed the impact that experiential learning in non-traditional and extra-
curricular environments (e.g., playing in a football team and orchestra) had on students’ with
the highest gains in reading and writing skill development.
Language and Culture Learning
Most of the studies reviewed so far have focused on the development of one particular skill
or competence during SA. Another group of studies has attempted to explore the extent to
which the different language and cultural skills develop in SA participants. These studies often
use pre- and post-program questionnaires and ask program participants to self-report and
self-assess learning expectations and learning gains. In one such study, Badstübner and Ecke
(2009) found that participants had very high expectations with respect to language and culture
learning in Germany before the beginning of a one-month program in Leipzig, Germany, and
that these were higher than the students’ perceived learning progress at the end of the program.
Students expected the highest gains for listening, followed by speaking and vocabulary, and
culture learning before the beginning of the program, whereas they expected the lowest gains
for the development of reading, grammar, and writing skills. At the end of the program, students
reported to have made the most progress in culture learning, listening, reading, vocabulary, and
speaking (in that order) and perceived to have gained the least in writing and grammar. Most
noteworthy, when the authors statistically compared expected learning gains with perceived
learning progress, they found that only perceived progressin culture learning did not fall shor t of
the expected gains in culture learning. The authors pointed to the need to discuss and set realis-
tic expectations with students about learning gains at the beginning of a SA program and
stressed the importance of culture learning as an essential learning outcome during SA.
In an article published some 40 years ago, Bicknese (1974) reported the findings of pre- and
post-program surveys that were given to participants in their junior-year in Marburg, Germany,
1963–1966. Bicknese’s study was one of the first attempts to systematically assess changes in
US students’ attitudes towards Germans and opinions about the German culture. It also
attempted to compare some of the students’ expectations for the SA stay at the beginning of the
program with retrospective reports on their experiences at the end of the program. While times
have changed quite a bit since then, some of the study’s findings and observations are still rele-
vant today as they closely resemble aspects and challenges of current programs, e.g., the gener-
ally positive attitudes expressed by program participants about Germans, noted gaps between
expectations and perceived reality (e.g., regarding participation in extra-curricular events), and
a more positive evaluation of their own culture at the end of the program (e.g., Americans do
not work less than Germans).
In a more recent study using pre- and post-program questionnaires, Ecke (2013) investi-
gated potential changes in US students’ perceptions of and attitudes towards members of their
own culture and towards members of the German culture during a one-month SA program in
Leipzig, Germany. He also compared how students rated themselves with respect to attributes
that had been suggested to foster intercultural competence (ICC) development (Peterson,
2004). Ecke found that the participants’ (mostly positive) attitudes and assumptions about
members of the target culture remained stable during SA whereas the attitudes and assump-
tions about members of participants’ own culture changed significantly from a pre-program to
post-program survey: Participants revalued and appreciated certain attributes of their own cul-
ture much more at the end of the program. With the exception of “comfort with uncertainty,”
126 UP 47.2 (Fall 2014)
personality traits, which are purportedly linked to ICC development, showed no significant
change during the short-term SA stay. The author suggested that learning about oneself, ac-
cepting, and appreciating traits of one’s own culture (without depreciating the other) could and
should be an important learning outcome of study abroad. He also pointed out that personality
attributes frequently associated with a person’s potential to develop ICC are not likely to change
substantially during short-term SA in students who are already highly motivated and
committed to the study of another language and culture.
Brubaker (2007) conducted a qualitative research project on US students’ culture learning
during a six-week summer program in Mayen, Germany. Using pre- and post-program surveys,
student letters and field notes, as well as post-program interviews, she found that culture learn-
ing was considered less important by students than language learning. She also noticed a ten-
sion that students experienced between being aware of cultural differences and understanding
cultural differences. Based on these observations, she argued that culture learning should be an
integral and explicit part of SA and made suggestions on how culture learning and training in
intercultural competence development could be integrated and facilitated in short-term SA
In a recent ethnographic multiple case study, Levine (2014) investigated US students’ lan-
guage choice and their use of digital media and social networks during a semester or year
abroad in southern Germany. He found that participants used both languages in everyday life,
but overall more English than German. German appeared to be reserved for the educational
contexts whereas English was mostly the language of social interaction and digital media/com-
munication. Most students reported having difficulties making social connections with Ger-
mans and maintained friendships primarily with compatriots from the US. One exception was a
male student who previously participated in a youth exchange in Germany. He deliberately
avoided contact with US students, spoke mostly in German, actively participated in social activ-
ities with Germans and successfully developed a large circle of German friends. As implications,
Levine suggested that classroom-based language teaching should focus on preparing students
for L2 use and socialization rather than the acquisition of specific linguistic forms. L2-based
digital media and social networks could facilitate such a “performative orientation” towards L2
A number of studies into the learning and living experiences of British and Irish students in
Germany (and other European countries) suggest that participation in a relatively long-term
“academic year abroad” does not automatically result in language proficiency gains, cultural
integration, and more positive attitudes towards members of the target culture (Coleman,
1996, 1997; Conacher, 2008; Dyson, 1988; Willis et al., 1977) although most students re-
ported to have had an overall positive experience abroad. In the most recent of these studies,
Conacher (2008) explored the experiences of six Irish learners of German using inter views and
SA participants’ cultural reports that they wrote for the next generation of year-abroad students
in Germany. The students were already highly proficient in German and very motivated to im-
prove their language skills by interacting with Germans and integrating into German society.
They felt that they were responsible for seeking and initiating contact with Germans and cre-
atively developed and used strategies to reach these objectives. However, the strategies that
they used for integration (living with Germans, going to places and events that were visited or
attended by Germans) turned out to be only of limited success. Students reported that they felt
less accepted by Germans and that they were often treated as an outsider group. Although they
characterized Germans generally as friendly and helpful, the Irish students were disappointed
or even frustrated that they could not break into German acquaintance circles as much as they
had hoped at the outset of SA. The lack of contact with Germans affected the Irish students’ lan-
guage use and interaction patterns. On average, they reported to use German 52% of the time
ECKE: EFFECTS OF STUDY ABROAD 127
and claimed that only 30% of their friends were Germans whereas 49% of their friends were
English-native speakers and 21% were other international students. Conacher identified
various potential barriers for successful integration of Irish students in Germany: The lives of
German students go beyond study at a university whereas foreign students’ lives are more cir-
cled around university life. Some structures and activities which were organized by the univer-
sity to support Erasmus students (specific courses, mentors, and excursions) actually made it
harder for students to interact with Germans and to integrate into society, so that students spent
much of their social life among themselves. Conacher argued that speakers of English abroad
need to have more realistic expectations at the beginning of SA (see also Mendelson, 2004; and
Wilkinson, 1995) and that host institutions should rethink housing solutions, course offerings
for/with Germans, and activities offered to Erasmus students. He also suggested that students
should perhaps be taught the different communication strategies and discourse patterns that
are preferred by members of the two cultures.
Long-Term and Life-Long Effects of Study Abroad
It is often assumed that SA is for many students an eye-opening and life-changing experi-
ence with significant impact on their subsequent lives and career choices. However, very few
researchers have made an effort to investigate the long-term impact that SA can have on partici-
pants’ lives and careers and in turn on society at large. An exception is the study by Bachner and
Zeutschel (1994) who surveyed 661 individuals who participated in high school exchanges in
Germany and the US organized by “Youth for Understanding” (YFU) between 1951 and 1987.
The researchers attempted to investigate the extent to which SA resulted in “positive, enduring
and socially contributory changes” (p. 37) in the participants of the high school exchanges.
Based on the participants’ survey responses and subsequent interviews with some of the par tic-
ipants, they concluded “that the exchange experience contributes to positive and long-lasting
attitudinal, behavioral, and cognitive changes in the majority of individual participants”
(Bachner, Zeutschel & Shannon, 1993, p. 43). In particular, Bachner and Zeutschel (1994, p.
37/38) claimed that the surveyed SA participants had grown in self-confidence, had developed
their language skills, as well as problem-solving and coping skills that they needed to function in
unfamiliar situations. The SA participants had increased their capacity for empathy because
they needed to explore why members of the other culture thought and behaved differently.
They also had assisted more often in internationally oriented activities (e.g., supporting
US-German organizations, attending cultural events, and giving presentations about the host
culture) compared to the non-SA control group. The exchange participants frequently func-
tioned as “cultural bridges and mediators” in the years following the exchange. They had
become more aware of personal interests and strengths, which often affected their career and
other life choices. For example, more than half (57.8%) of the US exchange participants
indicated that the SA experience in Germany had influenced their choice of major of study at
college; nearly a third (31.9%) of SA participants indicated that the influence had been strong
(Bachner & Zeutschel, 1994). These overall very positive findings with respect to long-term
effects of high school exchanges are certainly very encouraging although follow-up studies with
participants from more recent years would be desirable.
In addition to the research studies reported above, there are a number of published articles
that describe successful SA programs and provide helpful information for SA program adminis-
trators (e.g., Donahue & Wohlfeil, 2007; Ferguson, 2007; Wolf, 2007). While these articles do
not present research evidence on the effectiveness of SA, they often do provide anecdotal
evidence of its impact as well as insights into the tasks and challenges of SA program directors
128 UP 47.2 (Fall 2014)
and teachers, including how to develop, run, and maintain SA programs (Ecke, 2013), and
how to optimally prepare students for SA and/or return to the home country (Henze, 2007;
Kruse & Brubaker, 2007; Streitwieser & Leephaibul. 2007). A review of these publications
would go beyond the scope of this article, but references to these articles including a brief de-
scription of their topics are listed in Appendix B as best practice reports and suggestions on SA
programs in German-speaking countries. A summary of research on SA in German-speaking
countries, including information about each study’s focus, program type and length,
participants, method(s) used, and main findings is listed in Appendix A.
Open Issues and Directions for Future Research
Given the substantial number of English-speaking students who have studied in Ger-
man-speaking countries in a large variety of programs on the one hand, and the relatively few
studies that have been conducted on SA effects on the other hand, it has to be concluded that
still very little is known about students’ linguistic, cultural, and personality development during
SA in the German-speaking world. While most research demonstrates some kind of learning
gain during SA, the findings can be characterized as fragmentary at best if one takes into ac-
count that there are only one to three studies published on certain skill domains (e.g., students’
progress in reading and writing, pronunciation development, grammatical accuracy, pragmatic
competency, and vocabulary development).
Some studies have been concerned with the development of speaking skills during SA in
Germany, the area that has seen most research activity so far (Lindseth, 2010; Lovitt, 2013;
Tschirner, 1997). These studies suggest that substantial gains in oral proficiency are possible if
not likely during SA. However, they also show a great deal of individual variation in learners’
progress, no matter whether they were participants in short-term or longer-term programs.
Even if SA participants are shown to make substantial progress in areas such as speaking, it is
often unclear whether these gains are comparable to or qualitatively different from learning out-
comes, achieved by students in more or less intensive programs in the home country. With the
exception of Arnett (2013) and Bachner and Zeutschel (1974), none of the cited researchers in-
cluded the testing or surveying of a control group that would have allowed for a comparison of
changes in SA students with changes in study-at-home students.
Another weakness of some of the cited studies is the relatively small number of participants.
While it is understandable that SA programs are often small and participant recruitment can be
difficult, researchers may need to recruit and investigate participants of several generations of
SA programs in order to build a solid data base. The studies by Bachner and Zeutschel (1994),
Bicknese (1974a, b) and Lindseth (2010), which are all multi-year studies, show that this is
A number of important issues, some of which have been investigated in research on SA in
other languages and cultures, have not or only superficially been addressed so far in studies on
SA in German-speaking countries. These issues will be raised below and could serve as guid-
ance for future research.
Little empirical evidence exists that shows that SA in German-speaking countries is compa-
rable or superior to the study of German language and culture in programs at home, including
regular course offerings on home campuses and highly intensive immersion programs offered
ECKE: EFFECTS OF STUDY ABROAD 129
by various institutions (e.g., the Deutsche Sommerschulen am Pazifik,am Antlantik,orin Taos).
With increases in tuition and travel expenses, the effectiveness of programs has also become an
economic issue. What are the cost-benefit ratios of programs abroad and programs at home?
Other potentially interesting issues related to the location of SA are the size of the city that
students study in (Dwyer, 2004) and certain characteristics of the city/region: Is it a place that is
visited by many English-speaking tourists including Americans or is it a location rarely visited by
international tourists (Ecke, 2013b)? Differences in students’ access to and use of technologies
abroad (e.g., Facebook, Facetime, Skype, smartphones, Snapchat, Instagram, Whatsapp) are
potentially important, but little investigated variables of the learning context. To what extent do
such differences affect students’ opportunities for learning through extensive L2 input and
interaction with native speakers? Studies about student perceptions and attitudes towards the
target culture, which have relied mostly on survey methodologies, should be complemented by
a critical discourse analytic approach that could problematize students’ language ideologies in
order to contextualize their attitudes and beliefs taking into account particular historical and
Length of stay abroad has also become an educational as well as an economic issue.
Students with double or triple majors do not have the time and freedom to spend a semester or a
year abroad. For years, the trend of SA at US colleges has been a move away from long-term
stays abroad to short-term programs of eight weeks or less. In the academic year of 2011/12, a
large 59% of US college students abroad studied in short-term programs. Of SA students 38%
participated in mid-term programs (of one or two quar ters or one semester), and only 3% of stu-
dents participated in long-term programs of an academic year or a calendar year. It generally
has been assumed that “more is better” with respect to SA program duration, which some of the
reviewed data appear to support (Lovitt, 2013), but there is also evidence that short-term
programs can have a lasting impact on students’ lives and careers (Dwyer, 2004; Wolcott,
2013). With respect to cultural adjustment and acculturation, it is likely that longer-term SA
stays are more challenging than shorter programs in which participants will often only experi-
ence the “honeymoon” stage of cultural adjustment characterized by enthusiasm and fascina-
tion of the second culture (see e.g., Henze, 2007) whereas with more time abroad, coping with
cultural differences may become more of a challenge for participants.
Related to the issue of context is the question whether certain SA program types may pro-
vide more or less optimal environments for language and culture learning. Programs often differ
with respect to imposed structure, mentoring, support of SA students, required initiative, inde-
pendence, and integration of SA students into the host country’s education system. Programs
also differ with respect to housing arrangements made in dormitories, with home families, or
apartment sharing communities. There has been some evidence that less traditional, more
experiential environments can foster integration, exposure to L2 input and interaction which
appear to result in higher learning gains in some individuals (Conacher, 2008; Fraser, 2002).
However, it is not clear whether certain learner types flourish more in one program type than in
another. This leads to the next issue. Learning gains and overall SA success are not only affected
by external factors, but also by internal variables of the learner, such as his or her personality.
130 UP 47.2 (Fall 2014)
Psychological and Personality Variables
Only a small percentage (fewer than 10%) of US students study abroad at some point during
their undergraduate years (Institute of International Education, 2013). Most students never in-
tend to study abroad during their time at college. Socioeconomic status and insufficient finan-
cial capital clearly have an impact on whether students intend to study abroad (Salisbury,
Umbach, Paulsen & Pascarella, 2009). Gender appears to be another important variable that
affects the decision to study abroad. Women participate in SA much more frequently than men
in the US (Desoff, 2006) as well as in Europe (Zimmermann & Neyer, 2013). The question is
whether certain personality attributes could be identified that distinguish students who partici-
pate in SA from students who do not. A recent study conducted in Germany suggests that this is
possible (Zimmermann & Neyer, 2013). In this study with German students, pre-departure lev-
els of extraversion and conscientiousness predicted short-term SA whereas extraversion and
openness were related to students embarking on long-term sojourning. It would be interesting
to systematically explore why students decide to participate in short-term and long-term SA
programs in German-speaking countries.
Personality attributes are also likely to affect students’ success and learning gains during SA.
Correlation studies could help explore potential relations between personal and affective vari-
ables, such as motivation, degree of acculturation, tolerance for ambiguity and comfort with
uncertainty on the one hand, and measures of language and culture learning on the other hand.
Martinsen (2008), for example, conducted correlation analyses between a number of variables
(such as motivational intensity and cultural sensitivity) and improvements in spoken Spanish
during a six-week summer program in Argentina. He found that pre-program levels of cultural
sensitivity predicted students’ improvements in language skills.
Do learners of different ages (e.g., college students versus high school students) benefit dif-
ferently from SA? Anecdotal reports and some research have shown impressive language gains
for high school exchange students during a year abroad (Lovitt, 2013) whereas not all college
students in semester-abroad and year-abroad programs appear to experience similar gains
(e.g., Lindseth, 2010; Dyson, 1988). Too little is known, however, to go beyond informed
speculation. Besides, it is unclear whether age would be the deciding factor for such (potential)
differences in linguistic gains. Environmental factors may be of similar or greater importance.
High school exchange stays and college students’ stays abroad will often differ in type of accom-
modation, type and amount of instruction, opportunity to interact with native English speakers
as well as opportunity to interact with German native speakers. They are also likely to differ in
L2 proficiency at the outset of SA. Exchange students are often geographically separated from
their US peers. They could experience stronger social pressures to integrate and participate in
the host culture whereas university students may have more opportunities for contact with
English-speaking peers and experience less pressure to integrate and acculturate. Learners at
younger ages may also still be in a process of defining their identities (Lovitt, 2013) which might
make them more open and receptive for identity changes than older adults. See Kinginger
(2013) for a recent discussion of identity development during SA.
ECKE: EFFECTS OF STUDY ABROAD 131
Pre-Departure Language Proficiency
Some SA research suggests that less proficient learners who go abroad benefit more from SA
than more proficient learners (Lovitt, 2013; Llanes & MuZoz, 2009; Milton & Meara, 1995;
Martinsen, 2010) although undetectable or limited improvements at more advanced profi-
ciency levels are often attributed to problems of measurement (Milton & Meara, 1995). For SA
students of German, however, few research findings are available that can contribute to the
discussion of this issue. Should less-proficient learners and even learners without any prior in-
struction in German, indeed, gain the most from SA reaching respectable levels of proficiency
after a one-year high school exchange, for example, then governments, institutions, and fami-
lies who primarily seek value from SA, should probably decide sending students abroad while
they are at relatively low proficiency levels (Milton & Meara, 1995) and while they are at
relatively young age.
Students are prepared differently by institutions and programs for SA. Pre-departure prepa-
ration ranges from one-day pre-departure orientations or cultural training workshops (e.g.,
Heinze, 2007), workshop series that last several days (Streitwieser & Leephaibul, 2007) to
whole courses that are being offered in preparationof or conjunction with students’ stay abroad
(Peckenpaugh, 2013). Sometimes, institutions also offer courses or workshops to post-process
SA experiences. While such assistance is likely to have a positive impact on students’ learning
gains and cultural adaptation, no empirical research has yet demonstrated that students who
take such preparatory courses do better in SA than students who do not.
Long-Term Effects of Study Abroad
The only large-scale study that attempted to investigate long-term effects of SA in Germany
(Bachner & Zeutschel, 1994) is based on data from US Americans who participated in high
school exchanges in the 1950s to 1980s. While the findings are still very informative, it would be
desirable to have follow-up studies that surveyed and assessed the long-term effects of SA in so-
journers in different programs and from more recentyears. Studies could not only explore par-
ticipants’ subjective accounts on how SA impacted their attitudes, behaviors, life and career
choices, but also assess their long-term language development, maintenance or loss in the years
Conclusion and Outlook
This article attempted to critically review research on study abroad effects in US American
and other English-speaking learners of German, and to identify open questions and issues in
need of future research. It was noted that while most research demonstrates some kind of learn-
ing gain during SA in German-speaking countries, the findings can be characterized as frag-
mentary at best and that relatively little empirical evidence exists which demonstrates that SA
programs are at least as effective as or superior to comparable study programs at home. There
are also important gaps in research on SA in German-speaking countries with respect to a num-
ber of important issues, currently discussed in the SA literature: the effects of different learning
contexts, program length, program type, learners’ personalities, learners’ age, as well as pre-de-
parture L2 proficiency and intercultural training on learning gains and cultural adaptation dur-
132 UP 47.2 (Fall 2014)
ing SA. It is hoped that the review of existing research and the noted gaps will stimulate more
empirical research on the effects of study abroad in US American and other English-speaking
sojourners in the German-speaking countries.
I would like to thank two anonymous reviewers, the editor, and my students in the applied
linguistics course (GER 480/580) of the spring 2014 semester for helpful comments and sugges-
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ECKE: EFFECTS OF STUDY ABROAD 135
Appendix A. Research on the Effects of Study Abroad (Linguistic and
Cultural Development) in German-Speaking Countries
Study Program type
(length) Participants Focus Method Findings
positive effects of
out-of-class interviews on
students’ self-confidence &
willingness to use L2
in Potsdam, 26
similar gains in grammatical
accuracy by SA &
661 US &
effects of SA
on lives &
gains in L2 proficiency,
problem-solving, & coping
higher expected gains than
perceived learning progress
except in culture learning
& German L1
modest gains in pragmatic
(requests, refusals, address
substantiation & change in
attitudes & opinions, some
higher expectations than
varying degrees of
language gains, SA
participants felt superior in
language & culture gains
compared to peers who
stayed at home
136 UP 47.2 (Fall 2014)
culture learning was less
important to students than
language learning, tension
between being aware of
cultural differences &
pre- & post
substantial gains in overall
language anxiety, more
negative attitudes towards
members of second culture,
more positive perception of
unrealistic expectations &
lack of integration in target
in France &
increases in L2 proficiency,
largest gains for lower
proficiency learners, lack of
integration into L2 culture,
mixing with other
fluency in L1
increases in lexical fluency
in L2 while fluency in L1
did not change
of own &
little change in perceptions
of Germans, but changes in
perceptions of own culture,
no change in personality
attributes, except in
‘comfort with uncertainty’
gains in reading & writing,
large individual variation,
special benefits from
use of L1 &
more frequent use of L1
than L2, L2 was regarded
primarily as language of
educational experience, L1
as language of social
experience & digital media
ECKE: EFFECTS OF STUDY ABROAD 137
(over 3 years)
speaking OPI pre- &
82% of participants moved
up at least one level on the
ACTFL proficiency scale
5–9 US high
with & without
prior courses in
all 9 participants reached at
least intermediate-mid after
1st semester, all 5
participants reached at least
intermediate-high after 2nd
(2002) 3years 1 Canadian
dynamic changes of
accent after 3 years abroad
and a temporary foreign
accent in L1 English
towards accents, negative
inhibitions, desire to
overcome foreign accent
15 current &
speaking SOPI pre-test
80% of participants moved
up at least one level on the
ACTFL proficiency scale
task during &
vocabulary & speaking
fluency gains, grammatical
competence was not
improved by all participants
& depended on individual
lack of integration into L2
culture, mixing with other
non-native speakers, more
positive rating of own
culture, gains in speaking &
138 UP 47.2 (Fall 2014)
Appendix B. Best Practice Reports and Suggestions on
Study Abroad Programs in German-Speaking Countries
Authors Program Type Participants Focus
Ecke (2013) short-term
programs US undergraduates
Description and exemplification of the
decision making process in designing,
running, maintaining, and assessing a
short-term SA program
summer, spring, &
fall semesters US undergraduates
Faculty involvement in various SA
programs of a department, & the SA
program’s contribution to the department
(2007) junior year US undergraduates Description of a successful junior year
program in Munich
Henze (2007) one-day workshop US undergraduates Preparation of future SA students in a
one-day intercultural training workshop
short-term program US undergraduates
Suggestions for preparation of students
for SA, the integration of culture learning
during SA, assessment and
post-processing of SA
workshops US undergraduates
Preparation of students for research
abroad programs in Germany and other
countries lasting a semester or a year
Wolf (2007) short-term program US undergraduates
Description of a program offered in
English that focuses on the development
of cultural competence
ECKE: EFFECTS OF STUDY ABROAD 139