Academic Language Proficiency: 6 Ways to Launch Skills with Study Abroad

Academic language proficiency from #studyabroad will unlock opportunities around the world and beyond!

Mastering academic language proficiency is not about the language – it’s the opportunities your new ability unlocks.

Academic language proficiency is the most challenging level of foreign language learning. It is not a goal for everyone, but it may be essential to your goals.

The most immediate benefit is graduate school (at home or abroad) or working abroad. If either of those interest you, read on! If you’re looking for a more casual language target, then check out the articles on how to improve social language and business language skills.

Depending on your field of study, academic language proficiency may be a requirement for graduate school admissions. From my own experience, international relations, area studies, and history graduate programs often require one or more foreign language proficiencies. And of course, it’s essential to if you want to take your graduate degree abroad.

I used to manage applications for the prestigious Monbukagakusho MEXT scholarship application in Japan. I’d often have students who wanted to apply for degrees in animation or Japanese history, but we only taught those in Japanese. I can’t count how many angry emails I got about how “unfair” it was to English speakers and asking how I expected them to learn Japanese. (As if I decided the admission criteria singlehandedly).
It was too late for those applicants, but I can think of no better way than studying abroad in undergrad.

Benefits of Academic Language Proficiency

I mentioned access to graduate school programs already. Academic language proficiency will also help you perform better on language proficiency testing, which is the key to jobs abroad. (If you work for the US government, it can also earn you monthly pay bonuses!) But it’s not just about what you can get.

Research shows that cognitive academic language proficiency is linked to higher STEM skills.

Academic Language Proficiency improves your ability to formulate scientific hypotheses.

Speaking multiple languages makes you smarter, too! Research has proved that bilingual students are better at formulating scientific hypotheses. So, mastering a second language is beneficial for STEM students.

Second language learning also maps skills back to your native language. It makes you better at writing and speaking in your native language. And it certainly helps you become a more effective communicator.

Finally, academic language proficiency gives you access to more resources. You’ll be able to read sources that haven’t been translated into English and keep up with developments overseas. I know, for example, that there is a large population of gamers in the US who have learned Japanese just to have access to games that never made it to the US.

If your passions or hobbies cross borders, then foreign academic language proficiency will help you get ahead of the game.

Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency (CALP)

If you want to get technical, that’s the academic term for what we’re talking about. In terms of difficulty and acquisition, it comes much later than Basic Interpersonal Communication Skills (BICS) that we discussed in the social language learning article. Both are from the same theory, though, by Jim Cummings. The most important thing we need to know as learners is that academic language proficiency is a much higher goal. Do not get discouraged if it seems harder to master than regular communication. That’s natural.


Let’s be honest, mastering foreign academic language proficiency is not going to be easy. If that’s what you want to do during your study abroad, you need to decide your motivation in advance. That will be key to sticking to your goal!

What the Best Places to Study Abroad for Academic Language Proficiency Have:

If you’re aiming to improve your foreign academic language proficiency, I’m going to assume you have your motivation handled. What you need most is a program that’s going to provide you with the opportunities to improve. Here are some of the best things to look for.

1. Depth of Specific Language Courses

small skill-focused courses offer significant academic language proficiency growth

Small, skill-focused courses, such as “Academic Reading” are the mark of a program that will accelerate your language learning.

You’re not going to hit your goal with core language courses, alone. Look for courses that target a specific skill or type of resource. Quantity is good, too. The more courses you can take, the more constant exposure you’ll get to work toward your proficiency goals.

Skill-Specific Language Courses

Use skill-specific courses, such as reading or writing, to focus on the area you most need to improve. If you want to be able to read primary sources, or even just the news, then target a reading course. If you want to interview people in your new language, then listening and speaking are important.

In either case, focus your attention on academic language. Whenever you have the chance to choose a project or topic, make sure it’s in line with your goals.

Resource-Specific Language Courses

If you’re working on your foreign academic language proficiency for grad school purposes, then you’ll need to learn to research in that language. Taking courses in reading or listening to specific source types can help.

In graduate school, I took both reading newspapers and translating historical Japanese. Since my program in Japanese studies covered both history and current affairs, both were useful to my research.

Maybe you want to read trade journals in your field of study, or research papers. Find the course that works for you. If that fails, see if the university will accommodate an independent study. It never hurts to ask.

2. Research Assistant Placements Available

Being a research assistant during study abroad helps develop academic language proficiency in an emotionally significant context.

A research assistant position is an engaging way to develop academic language proficiency in context.

Becoming a research assistant is one of the best extra-curricular ways to improve your academic language proficiency. Instead of studying the language, you’ll be studying in the language. You’ll be reading real academic sources and discussing them with your advisor.

Even if your role is to research sources in your own language, you can still improve. Try to present your findings in the host language and discuss them with the professor. Pay attention to the words that he or she uses and try to work those into your own speech.

These opportunities may be rare and in high demand. If you wait, you’ll certainly miss out. So, start hunting for possibilities even before you arrive, if possible, and certainly no later than orientation.

3. Language Resource Center and Tutoring

Language study resource centers help you build academic language proficiency in the areas you want.

If your study abroad program has a language study resource center, plan to spend time there regularly focusing on the language skills you want to learn.

If you really want to improve academic language proficiency, classes and textbooks are not going to be enough. You need to push yourself to go beyond the requirements and syllabus. Studying abroad at a university with a language resource center will give you access to materials for self-directed, active learning.

Serious language students at my university constantly rave about our Language Development and Intercultural Studies Center. They watch Japanese movies and write their own subtitles. Or they translate music, or read current news sources. Any student in an independent language study can be found several hours each week in the LDIC.

Tutoring is also an invaluable resource. Whether you use it to get through difficult material in your courses, or to push beyond coursework into your interest, one-on-one learning is customizable for your goals.

Take Action to Maximize Academic Language Proficiency Growth

For everything on this list, you need to take action to reap the benefits. While the university characteristics above are relatively rare, and require careful program selection, the next set of actions should be possible almost anywhere. Or at least, these should be your minimum requirements for finding a program!

4. Take a Content Course in the Host Language

Choose small foreign language-taught content courses for better academic language proficiency development

Choose a content course with a small class size to maximize interaction and academic language proficiency growth.

If you meet the language requirements to take a course taught in the host language, do it! A whole semester of academic reading, writing, and speaking will push you to take your language skills to the next level. Studying alongside native speakers gives you a chance to pick up new language, and ask for help as needed.

Stick to only one course at first, unless you’re really confident in your language ability. Reading and writing assignments are going to take 2-3 times as long in another language, so you don’t want to over-commit and spend your whole study abroad studying!

You may also want to make sure your GPA is safe in advance. Your language ability will likely affect your final grade. If your study abroad credits transfer back as “pass/fail,” then you should be fine.

5. Live with a Local Roommate

As I’ve stressed in several other articles, a local roommate is an invaluable resource. In this case, it’s someone you can ask for help when you come across challenges in your homework or research.

There is nothing more frustrating than coming up against a roadblock in your work and having to wait days for your next class to ask the teacher for help. If you have a local roommate who you can bounce questions off of, that problem is solved. He or she might even be willing to proof-read part of a homework assignment or critique a presentation.

Of course, you shouldn’t expect academic-level conversation every day. (That would be a pretty intense study abroad.) But every bit of interaction in your host language will help. Even social conversations can improve you ability to participate in class discussions later.

6. Find a Language Conversation Partner

Language conversation partners are a great way to get consistent, one-on-one practice to improve your language skills.

You can find a conversation partner through an official program if your university offers one. Otherwise, you can reach out through social media groups, student clubs, or bulletin boards. If you search, you will find someone interested in your language who wants to do a language exchange.

Since there are only two of you, you can customize your conversations to each others’ needs. You can use it to help with conversation skills to speak up in class. You can also discuss your course material just to hear the words your partner uses and remember them for later. Like with your roommate, you can also ask your conversation partner to critique any class presentations in advance and help you sound more natural.

Leveraging Academic Language Proficiency

Not everyone is going to aim for true academic language proficiency. But all study abroad students can benefit from this skill.

Even if you don’t have a particular language learning goal, one year studying language abroad can give you a boost equal to several years at home. I went to Japan with zero language ability but tested into a third-year university course on my return. I’ll admit that I wasn’t the best student during that year. I tuned out in some of my classes when I fell too far behind. I didn’t always take it seriously. But my language ability still took a leap forward.

The academic language proficiency I built that year led me to a different major then to graduate school in Japanese studies. Eventually, it led to a course in historical Japanese that was so challenging, I asked a Japanese graduate student for help. . . And that led to wedding bells and a life I could not have anticipated.

I digress, but the point is that the benefits of building foreign academic language proficiency can go beyond our expectations.

If you’re building cognitive academic language proficiency (CALP) for graduate school or for a future career abroad, then studying abroad is essential. It takes years to move from social language ability to academic ability. Your year abroad, focused on language acquisition, can shortcut that growth significantly and move you forward on your path.

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