What is the impact of study abroad on oral fluency development? A comparison of study abroad and study at home

Zoe Louise Handley, Haiping Wang

Research output: Book/ReportCommissioned report


Developing fluency in spoken English is perhaps the most frequently cited reason for choosing to study for a degree in an English-speaking country, where fluency refers to speaking at a good pace without pausing or hesitating. Some research supports conventional wisdom that the practice offered during study abroad promotes the development of fluency in this sense. However, the evidence is largely limited to studies tracking a single cohort of students, with few studies comparing study ‘at home’ with ‘study abroad’. Also, most previous studies involved US undergraduate students with as little as two semesters of prior language instruction enrolled on a semester-long intensive language programme in France or Spain. The question therefore remains what impact does studying for a degree, where the focus is on gaining subject knowledge rather than improving language skills, have on oral fluency development among international students who have received significantly more language instruction prior to the start of their programmes, but express difficulties developing friendships with local students due to cultural differences. This paper explores this question through a study focusing on Chinese master’s students. Seventy-three Chinese learners of English participated in the study. Thirty-four (0 male, 34 female) were studying for a master’s at a university in the North East of England, and 39 (seven male, 32 female) were studying for a master’s at a university in East China. The learners were asked to complete an IELTS-style monologic narrative speaking task and a language contact questionnaire, once at the start of their master’s programme and once six months later. On average, the learners in both contexts made small gains in oral fluency from Time 1 to Time 2, with learners studying in the UK making gains on measures of speed and learners studying in China making gains on measures of breakdown fluency (i.e. pausing). These gains were, however, not statistically significant. Nor was the difference in gains across the two contexts. Interestingly, it was also observed that learners in the UK who spent more time interacting in English spoke slower and paused for longer, but paused less often. Together, these results suggest that the findings of previous research may not be generalisable to all contexts, and that further research is necessary that focuses on different formats of study abroad and with different cohorts of learners.
Original languageEnglish
Place of PublicationLondon
PublisherThe British Council
Commissioning bodyTHE BRITISH COUNCIL
ISBN (Print) 978-0-86355-880-1
Publication statusPublished - 2018

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