Study Abroad

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Study Abroad

Question: What is the role and what are the benefits of study abroad in Chinese language and culture learning for students in grades K–12?

Jonathan Henry, Director of Development at the Washington Yu Ying, a Public Charter School in Washington, DC, asked this question, as school staff seek to improve and expand their study abroad program.

This is an important topic, which educators around the country have been asking about, so we invited colleagues working in Chinese immersion education who have study abroad programs to describe their programs, using the following questions as guidance:

  • What are the ages and grade levels of your students involved in study abroad?
  • What are the criteria for participation?
  • How long is the program? When does it take place? Where do students go?
  • How is the program funded?
  • How are students, teachers, and chaperones selected? Who is involved in decision making about the program?
  • Do students produce anything at the end of the program? (e.g., a portfolio, presentation, journal, report, or capstone project)
  • What are the benefits of the program?
  • What are the challenges? How do you address the challenges?
  • What is your biggest message to programs that are considering organizing a study abroad program?

Leaders of study abroad opportunities in six Chinese immersion programs responded to our inquiry. In the links below you will find summaries of their programs, along with a brief research-based overview about study abroad. 

If you are involved in a study abroad program focused on Chinese language learning, please tell us about your experiences, successes, challenges, and lessons learned, following the guidance in the questions listed above. We would love to hear from you, and your experiences will benefit the field.


There is considerable interest in study abroad in the United States, and this interest is growing as educators focus on creating opportunities to use and develop proficiency in a language by being in a country where it is spoken (e.g., discussion in The Guardian, 2015). Since 2000, the number of undergraduate students participating in study abroad has nearly doubled and reached almost 300,000 in 2013 (Institute of International Education, 2014). Scholarships for students facilitate increased participation (e.g., through Open Doors and U.S. State Department-sponsored scholarships, NSLI-Y and others).

While study abroad opportunities for students in postsecondary programs have been in place for a long time, in recent decades, opportunities have expanded to include younger students in lower grades. Middle and high school programs are developing study abroad programs and seeking to involve all students, including those whose families may not be able to pay and those who have traditionally not participated, such as students living in urban and rural settings. STARTALK, funded by the U.S National Security Language Initiative (NSLI), is also giving young students opportunities to travel to China (e.g., an opportunity for students in Bangore, Maine is described here).

Many benefits of study abroad have been reported by participants and documented in the research:

  • Students are immersed in the language and culture of the country. In well-designed programs, they have continuous and rich opportunities to interact with people in the country and thus develop cultural knowledge and language proficiency.
  • Students learn the importance of proficiency in the language for education and work, and see the critical importance of building relationships with people from other countries and cultures.
  • They have an opportunity to see the world from a much broader perspective and experience themselves and others as global citizens.
  • They develop a number of skills needed by global citizens, including problem-solving and analytical capabilities, tolerance for ambiguity, cross-cultural competence, empathy, and respect.
  • Studies of outcomes of study abroad show a positive correlation between study abroad experience and grade point average (Sutton & Rubin, 2010) and university degree completion rates (O’Rear, Sutton, & Rubin, 2012).
  • Study abroad also has an impact on participants’ creative thinking. For example, as a result of their study, Lee, Therriault, and Linderholm (2012) concluded that, “Cultural experiences from living abroad have wide-reaching benefits on students’ creativity, including the facilitation of complex cognitive processes that promote creative thinking.”

At the same time, a number of factors affect the quality of the experience and the gains in cultural knowledge and language proficiency that are made; for example, levels of language proficiency and intercultural sensitivity before participating in the program; development of relationships with native speakers in the country; and age, gender, and personality of participating students (see discussion in Baker-Smemoe, Dewey, Brown, & Martinsen, 2014). While homestay is often part of study abroad programs, one study shows that homestay conversations may be limited due to a number of cultural and age factors (Pryde, 2014). This study points to a number of ways that rich opportunities to use the language before, during, and after the study abroad experience need to be carefully planned and supported. Social factors also affect who participates in study abroad (e.g., only about 5 percent of Americans who study abroad are black; The Atlantic, 2015).

It is important to note that the research reported here is focused on college-age students and not middle and high school students. That research remains to be done.

Study Abroad Programs 

Chinese American International School (CAIS), San Francisco, California

Global Village Academies, Colorado

International School of the Peninsula (ISTP), Palo Alto, California

Minnetonka Public Schools, Minnetonka, Minnesota

Portland Public Schools Mandarin Immersion Program, Oregon

Washington Yu Ying Public Charter School, Washington, D.C.

Yinghua Academy, Minneapolis, Minnesota

(Check back to see additional programs that will be added.)


The Atlantic. (2015, March 13). Brandon Tensley. What’s keeping Black students from studying abroad?

Baker-Smemoe, W., Dewey, D. P., Brown, J., & Martinsen, R. A. (2014, Fall). Variables affecting L2 gains during study abroad. Foreign Language Annals, 47(3), 464-486.

The Guardian. (2015, March 31). Matthew Jenken. Is learning on the job the best way to master a language?

Institute of International Education. (2014). Report on international educational exchange online (Open Doors report).

Lee, C. S., Therriault, D. J., & Linderholm, T. (2012). On the cognitive benefits of cultural experience: Exploring the relationship between studying abroad and creative thinking, Applied Cognitive Psychology, 26(5), 768–778.

O’Rear, I., Sutton, R. L., & Rubin, D. L. (2012). The effect of study abroad on college completion in a state university system. Athens, GA: University of Georgia.

Pryde, M. (2014, Fall). Conversational patterns of homestay hosts and study abroad students. Foreign Language Annals, 47(3), 487-506.

STARTALK seeks to bridge language gaps in the United States. (2015, July 7). Bangor, Maine News Center.

Sutton, R. C., & Rubin, D. L. (2010). Documenting the academic impact of study abroad. Final report of the GLOSSARI project. Athens, GA: University of Georgia. (See also an article about this research: Does Studying Abroad Make You Smarter? Turns Out It Might. The Atlantic, March 30, 2011, Rebecca Greenfield.

Additional Resources

Ed Week published an article about study abroad that features programs profiled by CELIN.

Maximizing Study Abroad: Strategies for Language and Culture Learning and Use
The Center for Advanced Research on Language Acquisition (CARLA) at the University of Minnesota has a rich set of guidebooks that helps students, program professionals, and language instructors make the most of study abroad through strategies for both language and culture learning and use.

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    Experts in the field of Chinese language education answer questions that practitioners working in the field ask about.