Do Learning a Foreign Language and Studying Abroad Go Hand in Hand? 4

Last week more than 300 foreign language educators gathered with government officials in Maryland for a U.S. Foreign Language Summit. This corresponded with the release of 2009 Modern Language Association statistics that show foreign language instruction in the United States is generally on the decline for graduate students and on the rise for undergraduates, and that universities are not producing enough students with degrees in a foreign language.

If more schools make foreign language courses a requirement for graduation, as was called for by some officials at the summit, will the number of students studying abroad, with and without disabilities, also increase? Similarly, would getting more students to study abroad help foster an interest in foreign language learning? Would this hold true for students with disabilities?

New data from the National Survey on Student Engagement (NSSE)* gives us some preliminary answers… and a lot more questions. Among students with and without disabilities in the survey, approximately 20,000 senior-level students have taken foreign language coursework and studied abroad. This means about three-quarters of seniors with and without disabilities who have studied abroad have taken foreign language coursework. However, these study abroad students represent less than a third of all seniors who have completed foreign language coursework (see bar graph).**

In the survey, percentages of senior students with and without disabilities who had taken foreign language coursework were largely similar, with a few differences:

  • Students with disabilities with foreign language coursework were less likely than non-disabled students (29%) to have studied abroad by the spring of their senior year, with those with mobility and “other” disabilities least likely (22%).***
  • The only exception is students with learning disabilities; those who have taken foreign language courses are more likely (32%) than all categories of students to have studied abroad.
  • On the other hand, students with learning disabilities who studied abroad were less likely than all other categories of students to have taken a foreign language (70%).

While foreign language coursework may encourage students with learning disabilities to go abroad, many continue to study abroad without having taken foreign language courses. Students with mobility and “other” disabilities are taking foreign language courses but not the next step of studying abroad, although these opportunities are possible.

The most interesting finding is that students with and without disabilities aren’t all that different when it comes to foreign language and study abroad participation. Increased promotion of foreign language or study abroad opportunities will expand the horizons of more students with and without disabilities; their presence will help shape the way foreign language coursework and study abroad programs are designed.

What do you think? What are you seeing on your education abroad programs, foreign language classrooms and U.S. campuses?


* Roughly 10% (approximately 38,000) of NSSE 2010 web survey of first-year and senior college student respondents reported they had one or more disabilities.

**Results only include students who answered both the study abroad and disability questions; additional students may have responded to the foreign language question.

*** Percentages of students with mobility and “other” disability types were based on smaller number of respondents than other student categories.