The Language Teacher
December 2002

What Should be Known in Japan about Short-Term English Study Abroad

Patrick Blanche

Kumamoto Gakuen University, Japan; University of Central Lancashire, UK




Introduction

In 1993, Kathleen Kitao spotlighted a gap which Yashima and Viswatt (1991) had already noticed, when she wrote, "Although many Japanese students go overseas for study, either short-term or long-term, there has been relatively little study of these students, their preparation, or the results of the students' experience overseas." Today it appears that much of the needed research still hasn't been done, since "[t]he practice of sending higher education students overseas on short-term language immersion programs [remains] a relatively unexplored area" (Bodycott and Crew, 2000).

What can be found in Japan's mainstream EFL literature concerning Japanese people who studied English overseas for a few weeks or months is actually negligible. Two well-known ELT periodicals are published mostly or entirely in English in this country: The Language Teacher (TLT) and Jalt Journal. As far as I know, short-term overseas study has never been featured in Jalt Journal. Between January 1985 and December 2001, four articles on short-term study abroad (Johnston, 1993; Drake, 1997; Geis and Fukushima, 1997; Bodycott and Crew, 2000) and seven very brief (250 words or less) "Chapter Reports" germane to this topic appeared in TLT (Modesitt, 1985; Christensen, 1988; O'Donahue, 1993; Cogan 1994; Liebelt, 1996; Bauer, 1998; Salisbury, 2001). Total: less than 20 pages in more than 13,000 pages of text. This doesn't do justice to the fact that, from Hokkaido to Okinawa, studying abroad has long been an important component of English education.

At least 350 out of 600 or so Japanese institutions of higher learning send young people to Australia, Britain, Canada, Ireland, New Zealand, or the United States on a regular basis in February-March or July-August. A significant number of high schools, language schools, and travel agencies do likewise. All of this involves an estimated student population of well over 10,000 each year. Yet few Japanese seem to know what to look for when trying to assess the quality of a short study-abroad program, and even fewer seem to have any idea how much it should cost.

The aim of the present article is twofold: first, to give Japanese learners and ELT professionals useful tips for identifying good short-term EFL programs overseas; and second, to start laying the foundations for the coherent, serious and sustained research that is urgently needed.

Quality and Costs

Following are a few pointers I have compiled to help students, parents, and teachers make more informed decisions.

Quality

Perhaps the most important indication of quality in an overseas study program is the maximum number of participants if enrolment is limited, as it should be. In my experience, the ideal number is anywhere between seven and seventeen; twenty is manageable; anything above twenty-five is unacceptable. Only programs involving small or relatively small groups can yield a superior mix of flexibility and individual attention.1

The next most important quality indicator is the kind of language instruction being emphasized abroad. Participants should never be lumped together in the same classroom. They should be assigned to different classes, according to their respective ability levels, and work with non-Japanese foreign students. A good program ought to feature at least seventeen hours of classroom instruction a week, dispensed mostly in the morning by qualified native instructors; supervised project work in the local community, mainly in the afternoon, following morning preparations; and some optional social activities, excursions, or both, mostly in the evenings or at weekends. Low-level learners should not be expected to do much project work, but get more classroom instruction and do more homework.

Housing is the third item one should carefully look at. It might be on-campus housing, homestay, or a combination of both (e.g. three weeks on campus followed by a few days in a private home, or a short orientation period on campus before a three-week homestay). Here again, program participants should not be segregated. In a university dormitory, their neighbors must not be Japanese. Host families should never take in more than one Japanese and never more than two foreign students. Cramped living conditions are inexcusable: each participant must have his or her own room, either in a private home or on campus. Host families should ideally be whole families, giving students the chance to interact with all ages. Keep in mind that a bad homestay could be worse than no homestay. Good host families are sometimes difficult to find in Europe between late June and early September, when a lot of people are vacationing. In addition, low-level learners are often not ready to live in private homes. These learners generally benefit more by living with non-Japanese foreign students in well-equipped dormitories.

Lastly, the received idea that Japanese group leaders can make programs run more smoothly or make them safer and less stressful is expensively overstated when participants are 18 or older. Reputable academic institutions in Australia, Britain, Ireland, New Zealand, and North America have become used to dealing with Japanese students. Yet many of these students are still paying for the living and travel expenses of group leaders who are largely redundant, speak to them in Japanese, and indirectly encourage them to converse among themselves in Japanese instead of English.

Costs

The financial aspect of studying abroad is what has been the least discussed in this country's EFL literature. The TLT articles or reports mentioned earlier hardly touch on this topic. In Europe and North America, foreign language education researchers seem to be only just a little more practically minded. For example, "costs" or "money" were actually discussed by Drysdale and Killelea (1982) and by Dragonas (1983). Dekker and Oostindie (1988) wrote that high costs are first among the obstacles that can keep learners from going abroad--and I don't see why this wouldn't be true here as well.

In Japan, as it turns out, the use of group leaders is not the only practice that can inflate the cost of overseas study. Travel arrangements are often too expensive. English department chairpersons and people in charge of international relations in schools are not always experienced enough to put together proper itineraries, and able or willing to use good, low-cost carriers.

What can cause the most waste, however, is something else. Many short-term study programs are by-products of exclusive relationships between Japanese universities or colleges and their respective overseas partner institutions. These special academic links have a way of stifling competition. The foreign schools have real or de facto enrolling privileges which most of them are quick to draw on. Some schools even try to turn their Japanese partners into "cash cows." As a result, Japanese universities, junior colleges and high schools commonly offer overpriced programs to their own trusting students. Some parents think high prices are justified, at least to the extent that these programs "must" be good and "safe"; but that is a fallacy.

Table 1 shows what the average cost of a four-week spring or summer program in Britain could be. The exchange rate used is 190 yen to the pound, which doesn't make studying in England or Scotland substantially more or less expensive than doing it in North America or the Republic of Ireland.

Table 1: Typical, Non-Inflated Cost of a Four-Week EFL Program in Britain

SPRING

SUMMER

(Homestay only)

Dormitory

Homestay

TUITION
HOUSING
(Extra) FOOD
ROUND TRIP AIR FARE
(from Tokyo, Osaka, Nagoya, Fukuoka)
OVERSEAS TRAVEL AND HEALTH INSURANCE
TOTAL

¥115,000
¥90,000
¥23,000

¥108,000
¥15,000
¥351,000

¥120,000
¥46,000
¥46,000

¥140,000
¥15,000
¥367,000

¥120,000
¥90,000
¥23,000

¥140,000
¥15,000
¥388,000

NOTE: Homestays normally include two meals a day, five or six days a week. Participants need to buy extra food for lunch on weekdays, and for all their meals on Saturdays or Sundays or both. Note that in February-March dormitories are not available because British students are using them. The estimates given are fairly high. Money can be saved in the summer if participants leave Japan before the last and largest airfare increase of the season, which takes place around July 27; and in the summer and spring both if they cook most of their own food (British university dormitories are equipped with completely furnished kitchens).

Higher Quality and Better Value through Applied Research

Short-term English study abroad should not only be affordable, but also be a catalyst for the motivation and learning mechanisms that generate fluency in English. It should lead to cross-cultural awareness and perceptible improvements in the students' ability to communicate with native speakers. It should further impel some students to go back to the foreign country for a much longer stay at a later period. Programs that do not come up to these standards should be improved. Those that do should be readily identifiable. Therefore, it would be most helpful to inventory as many programs as possible.

Create a suitable database

We need to know where, when, and for how long programs are run; and, in each case, what is taught, how it is taught, and what the teaching emphasis is on; how many Japanese and non-Japanese students usually participate; which schools, colleges, or companies the Japanese participants come from, how much money they spend, and how they evaluate their learning experience shortly before returning home. With this knowledge, the "best" 30-50 programs could be catalogued fairly quickly.

American universities and colleges are regularly ranked, in several academic fields, by such large-circulation magazines as U.S. News and World Report (see Hartigan 2001, April 9; Hartigan Shea & Marcus 2001, September 17). The best 100 MBA programs are graded and listed once a year in the Financial Times. Putting together a similar list of short EFL programs in English-speaking countries would enhance transparency, competition and, above all, good practice.

Involve students and teachers in studies

As more scientific investigations of short-term overseas language immersion programs are needed, it is reasonable to assume that if the participants in a given program were told in advance they were about to become the subjects of an important research experiment, their extrinsic motivation would correspondingly increase. Likewise, their teachers (both in Japan and abroad) would be better focused, which would result in more thorough preparation, better coordination, and more accurate student and program evaluations. Involving students in research projects would also give them additional opportunities to work collaboratively and to think in English about themselves: this is important, because critical thinking skills are not emphasized in Japan's educational system.

Some of the many practical research questions that students could help us answer are shown in Table 2.

Table 2: Questions which Japanese Learners Could Help Us Answer

HOMESTAYS

What is the best way to prepare students for a homestay? Can we arrive at a "standard" procedure?
How should host families be selected and retained? What kind of cross-cultural training should they receive? How should they be trained, and by whom? Can we arrive at "standard" procedures?

STUDY OBJECTIVES

Which study objectives are most important to students? To Japanese teachers? To native instructors?
If there are differences of opinion, how can we reconcile them?

STUDY OUTCOMES

Are study outcomes commensurate with study objectives? What results are actually expected by Japanese teachers? By native instructors?
If there are differences, how can we reconcile them?

CURRICULUM

What is the best mix of classes for a short-term overseas immersion program (or is there such a thing)? What is the place of "macro-English," when the focus is on general understanding and communication per se? What is the place of "micro-English," when the emphasis is on language structure and speech accuracy? What should be the role of socio-cultural sensitization, as opposed to pure language instruction?
What is the place of listening, speaking, reading, and writing clinics? How should pronunciation, grammar and vocabulary be taught?

TESTING AND EVALUATION

Can self-monitoring, self-appraisal and peer tutoring be used effectively in short-term programs? If so, how?
What can and should be more objectively tested? When and how should participants be tested, individually and in groups?

LANGUAGE DEVELOPMENT

How can the learners' use of Japanese be minimized at all times? What minimum language proficiency level should they have reached before they are eligible for a homestay? How, and to what extent, does a brief involvement in a foreign community affect their language development?

Set clearly defined, achievable goals

Too many students do not actually know why they are performing some of the tasks they have been asked to perform abroad. Too many programs are all-inclusive: participants are supposed to get a taste of everything (conversation, sightseeing, grammar, history, listening, current affairs, composition, pop music, vocabulary, cinema, reading, sport, etc.) in three to six weeks. This unfocused, piecemeal approach to language teaching may look good on paper, but it does not always work well.

Practical research projects would call for clear, limited objectives, which in turn would strengthen the framework of the programs concerned and give both participants and teachers a greater sense of purpose. Focusing on applied research would make everyone more conscious of what can be achieved and what is merely wishful thinking. Narrowing the scope of some programs would make language instruction more, not less, efficient, and the prediction of such an outcome is not an indictment of eclecticism as a methodology--it just means that teaching content should never be confused with teaching methods.

Get genuine feedback

One of the primary purposes of research is to collect and analyze data. This would be a major asset when it came to evaluating programs and appraising each participant's performance. The back scratching that goes on between some overseas schools and their Japanese partner institutions is unpalatable at best. If they were involved in joint research projects with their Japanese partners, the foreign schools would be less eager to please, i.e. less prone to embellish reports, pile up praises, or even hide the truth. Scientific studies would put pressure on them to measure their Japanese learners' progress thoroughly and objectively. Neither these schools nor the institutions they are paired with in Japan would be satisfied with indulgent or cursory appraisals. All would want concrete results and verifiable explanations for successes and failures.

Conclusion

Too many Japanese students are not buying a high-quality "product" when they enroll in a short course of English study abroad. They and their parents should therefore learn to go beyond the glossy advertising, and the peer pressure ("Come with us, please, all our friends are going!"). Both students and parents ought to make sure they are likely to get their money's worth before paying for, or even signing, anything. It would be to their advantage if they could rely on the advice of knowledgeable teachers; but teachers, including those who are paid to both teach and do research, often do not know enough. Thus the scientific investigations that could have been made at least two decades ago should no longer be delayed--all the more so as the kind of work such investigations entail would almost immediately raise the standards of a substantial number of short-term overseas immersion programs.

What we must bear in mind is that the success of the Japanese learners who participate in these programs is crucial to their future language development. If they do not come back to this country after a few weeks feeling that their English speaking ability has improved, a lot of them will jump to the conclusion that they are not gifted enough ever to become good English speakers. They will give up. Are we willing to let this happen?

Note

1. There is, however, an exception: up to forty students could take part in a two-country tour if they were divided into two (nearly) equal groups and each group spent the same amount of time (say, a couple of weeks) in each country, but between different dates. For example, eighteen participants could study in England first, while the other nineteen were studying in Ireland or Scotland; and the two groups would trade places at the end of the second week.

References

Bauer, C. (1998). Intercultural exchange programs. The Language Teacher 22(11), 64.

Bodycott, P., & Crew, V. (2000). Living the language: The value of short-term overseas English language immersion programs. The Language Teacher 24(9), 27-33.

Christensen, T. (1988). Japanese studying English abroad and pair work. The Language Teacher 12(8), 51.

Cogan, D. (1994). Study abroad programs: Turning an "accidental tourist" into a successful overseas student. The Language Teacher 18(5), 58.

Dekker, H., & Oostindie, M. (1988). International learning through an organised study abroad program: Goals, processes and effects of an organised study abroad program in the United States of America. Report of an evaluation research project. Arlington, VA: Close Up Foundation.

Dragonas, P. J. (1983). The high school goes abroad: International homestay exchange programs. In Language in education: Theory and practice, No. 55. Washington, DC: Center for Applied Linguistics, ERIC Clearing House on Language and Linguistics. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED233591)

Drake, D. (1997). Integrating study abroad students into the university community. The Language Teacher 21(11), 7-13, 29.

Drysdale, S., & Killelea, F. (1982). Guide to conducting a language immersion/homestay program. New York: American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages.

Financial Times MBA2001: The top 100 full-time international MBA programmes. (2001, January 22). Financial Times, pp. I-XII.

Geis, K. L., & Fukushima, C. (1997). Overview of a study abroad course. The Language Teacher 21(11), 15-20.

Hartigan, R. (2001, April 9). Best graduate schools. US News and World Report, pp. 60-97.

Hartigan Shea, R., & Marcus, D. L. (2001, September 17). America's best colleges. US News and World Report, pp. 89-116.

Johnston, B. (1993). Conducting effective pre-departure orientations for Japanese students going to study abroad. The Language Teacher 17(6), 7-11.

Kitao, S. K. (1993). Preparation for and result of a short-term overseas study program in the United States. Bulletin of the Institute for Interdisciplinary Studies of Cultures (10), 107-118.

Liebelt, V. (1996). Homestay and study abroad: Getting the most out of the experience. The Language Teacher 20(8), 63.

Modesitt, B. J. (1985). Studying English abroad. The Language Teacher 9(11), 34.

O'Donohue, B. (1993). Effects of study abroad program. The Language Teacher 17(10), 71.

Salisbury, R. (2001). Empowering students via ethnographic study abroad. The Language Teacher 25(7), 36.

Yashima, T., & Viswat, L. (1991). A study of Japanese high school students' intercultural experience: "It's not a dream country, but I love America." Change of image of Americans. Human Communication Studies 19, 181-194.



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