Note: Universities may only earn points for this ranking benefit if the language used in their surrounding community is different from incoming students’ native language and home university language. So, if a student selects the United States as their home university country, regardless of whether they are a native speaker of English or of Chinese, then universities in other English-speaking countries will score zero points in this category. The point here is that the study abroad experience should allow students to develop a new language ability.
Acquiring a new language skill will open new and unpredictable career and life opportunities. But beyond acquiring the language skill itself, the process of learning a new language teaches students to think in new ways. Neuroscience and linguistic scholars debate whether language shapes the way we think. For example, a 2001 Yale study concluded that language affects the way that we communicate more than the way that we think. But studies of second language learning (including a report of ongoing research at Stanford in 2009, a 2012 Economist article, and a 2014 Swedish study on brain development) conclude that learning a second language triggers brain growth and the formation of new connections as students have to grasp the syntax and communication modes of the new language. So, even if language does not affect the way you think, learning a second language challenges you to think differently. Finally, learning to speak a second language will help you better understand second-language speakers of your native language in the future.
Study abroad is the best opportunity most students will have in their lives to improve their language ability and the Best Places to Study Abroad ranking framework deliberately favors studying abroad in a country with a different language in order to make the most of this opportunity and obtain benefits that will carry forward throughout students’ lives. Language development is scored by the opportunities that universities provide their students to develop the specific skills and commitment below:
One of the most obvious benefits of studying language abroad is the opportunity to practice natural sounding communication, especially in social situations. This social language skill development will help with making friends abroad and will support the development of more formal language skills, as well. Second language speakers who are comfortable in social situations will have more opportunities to make long-lasting personal connections and will find it easier to establish professional relationships, as well. Building relationships and continuing conversations will lead to opportunities for language development in more formal areas and increased motivation for language learning.
Social language skills are not often covered in the classroom. Universities contribute to their study abroad students’ social language development by deliberate promotion of international and local student interaction as well as interaction with the local community. Some examples of programs that benefit social language development include:
- Buddy programs and conversation exchange
- Community outreach programs or homestays
- Clubs and teams that allow international and local student participation
Business language skills run the spectrum from the vocabulary and grammar students need to work in the host culture, down to the ability to execute simple transactions in the target language. The majority of short-term study abroad or exchange program students will not immediately seek jobs in the host economy that require complete fluency in the language, so that is not a useful standard of evaluation for programs. Rather, short-term study abroad students require the opportunity to develop a foundation of business and transaction-related language.
To be considered among the best places to study abroad, universities should offer a variety of business-related language ability development opportunities to reach students of varying needs, such as:
- Business-focused language courses
- Facilitation of on- and off-campus work and internship opportunities
- Reserving club/student government leadership positions for international students
Academic Language Skills
Academic foreign language skill development includes both advanced study of the language itself as well as study of content courses in the target language. The latter builds and develops students’ ability to express complex concepts, often in a completely different way from how they would be expressed in the native language. Both open up future opportunities for students to continue their academic careers internationally, to access an expanded field of primary research, and to develop deeper, lasting relationships with speakers of the target language.
One of the rare sub-benefits of the best places to study abroad ranking system that can be largely accomplished within the classroom, academic language skills of international students can be enhanced by:
- Offering advanced, near-native, levels of language courses for international students
- Allowing international students to enroll in content courses in the local language with local students
- Language development support services, such as a language study resource center and tutoring
Commitment to Lifelong Language Learning
A one-to-two semester study abroad experience alone will not transform students into lifelong fluent linguists. Universities should also inspire in their short-term exchange students the desire to continue language study throughout their lives. It is especially important to leave students with the desire to follow up on their study abroad experience immediately after returning home. There are multiple models of second-language regression, but all agree that regression occurs and that it begins with the period of reduced language input. Returning home from a study abroad or other international experience is frequently cited as a trigger for this reduced input.
As study abroad destinations, universities cannot assume that students’ initial motivation to study a foreign language will continue after they return home. In many cases the opportunity to study abroad is itself a primary motivating factor and/or the culmination of the student’s home university language program. To encourage lifelong language learning, the best places to study abroad will provide a comprehensive program to rekindle interest in continued language learning while giving them the instruction, experience, and tools to continue their language pursuit on their own.
Universities can effect this by encouraging development of personal connections and deeper interest in the host country and culture, through means such as:
- Integrating language instruction with cultural programs and off-campus outreach
- Encouraging interaction with local students through combined housing and classes
- Offering a variety of for-credit and extra-curricular language instruction
Benefits Beyond Language
As highlighted above, the benefits of learning another language go beyond the ability to communicate in a new tongue. When students stretch themselves to communicate with a different set of words and grammar, within a different cultural base, it forces them to make new mental connections and strengthens their critical thinking ability. For these reasons, an immersive study abroad experience in a country with a different language base, if possible, will yield the best study abroad experience.
Of course, students who are not majoring or minoring in language studies must have enough courses available in English to make progress toward graduation while abroad. While this ranking element deliberately favors universities in countries with different language bases, it does not mean to suggest that students should sacrifice graduation progress in search of this outcome. The point here is that universities should offer language ability development opportunities to the maximum degree possible while also meeting students’ minimum academic requirements.