Language Proficiency Outcomes in Virtual and In-Person Overseas Immersion Programs

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The American Councils Research team has examined the measured language proficiency outcomes of U.S. language learners participating in summer, semester, and academic year programs over the period 2017-2022 with special attention to understanding the differences in the impact of virtual programs vs in-person formats on student language gains.  Thanks to the cooperation of the National Security Language Initiative for Youth (NSLI-Y), Critical Language Scholarship Program (CLS), Advanced Russian Language and Area Studies Program (RLASP), and Flagship outbound program teams, as well as the American Councils Language Assessment group, we have been able to compare the effects of the two learning formats on students of different languages and at different stages in their study of their studies, including early-stage learners, mid-level learners, and advanced learners of Arabic, Azeri, Bangla, Chinese, Chinese, Hindi, Indonesian, Japanese, Korean, Persian, Portuguese, Punjabi, Russian, Swahili, Turkish, and Urdu. Participants in study abroad language programs were located in Azerbaijan, Bangladesh, Brazil, China, India, Indonesia, Japan, Jordan, Kazakhstan, Moldova, Morocco, South Korea, Taiwan, Tajikistan, and Tanzania. All participants in virtual language programs were based in the United States.  

Language learning outcomes were analyzed for 3,311 participants of whom 1,182 were virtual program participants and 2,129 were study abroad learners.  We collected ACTFL-scale OPI speaking test results for students at the beginning of their programs and once again at the end of their programs. Comparisons of the gains each student registered over the course of their study program (Post-OPI score minus Pre-OPI score) indicated that nearly all learners achieved some measurable gains, but that those in the in-person programs consistently registered somewhat higher gains than their counterparts in virtual programs. When we performed the same comparisons for students with reading, listening, and writing scores, we observed that the differences between the virtual group and the in-person groups were smaller, in some cases indistinguishable.      

FI: The proficiency levels are defined in the ACTFL guidelines as follows:  

  • Novice: Speakers can communicate short messages through formulaic and memorized lists and phrases.  

  • Intermediate: Speakers can initiate, maintain, and end a simple conversation by asking and responding to simple questions. 

  • Advanced: Speakers can adapt to unanticipated complications in conversations and narrate in the past, present, and future.  

  • Superior: Speakers can navigate through linguistically unfamiliar situations, discuss topics extensively, support opinions, and hypothesize.

For more information, please see the following:

Davidson, D.E. & Garas, N. (2023). What Makes Study Abroad Transformative? Comparing Linguistic and Cultural Contacts and Learning Outcomes in Virtual vs In-Person Contexts. L2 Journal , 15 (2 ), 71-91.

Davidson, D. E., Garas, N. & Lekic, M. D. (2021). Transformative language learning in the overseas immersion environment: Exploring affordances of intercultural development. In Leaver, B. Davidson, D.E, & Campbell, C. (Eds.).Transformative language learning and teaching (pp. 109-119). CambridgeUniversity Press.

Davidson, D.E. & Shaw, J.R. (2019) . A Cross-Linguistic and Cross-Skill Perspective on L2 Development in Study Abroad, In Winke, P. & Glass S. (Eds.) Foreign Language Proficiency in Higher Education.  (pp. 217-242). Educational Linguistics, Springer.

Davidson, D. E., Garas, N., & Lekic, M. D. (2016). Assessing language proficiency and intercultural development in the overseas immersion context. In Murphy, D.& Evans-Romaine, K. (Eds.) Exploring the US Language Flagship Program:Professional competence in a second language by graduation (pp. 156-176).Multilingual Matters.

Davidson, D. E., & Lekic, M. D. (2010) The overseas immersion setting as contextual variable in adult SLA: Learner behaviours associated with language gain tolevel-3 proficiency in Russian. Russian Language Journal, 60(1), 53-77.

Davidson, D. E. (2015). The development of L2 proficiency and literacy within the context of the federally supported overseas language training programs for Americans. In J. Bown & T. Brown (Eds.) To advanced proficiency and beyond: Theory and methods for developing superior second-language ability (pp. 117-150). University Press.

Davidson, D. E., & Lehmann, S.G. (2005). A longitudinal survey of the language learning careers of ACTR Advanced Students of Russian: 1976-2000. Russian Language Journal, 55(1), 193-221. vol55/iss1/11