Early study abroad students in young adulthood

Jogiyuhak (early study abroad) is very popular in South Korea (Source: chosun.com)

Jogiyuhak (early study abroad) is very popular in South Korea (Source: chosun.com)

Readers of Language on the Move will be familiar with South Korea’s English fever, the sweeping zeal for learning English. Parents enrol children in English medium-preschools, arts and sports classes, nursery schools with native-speaking English staff, toddler gyms with English speaking trainers, or hire English-speaking babysitters to talk to their baby in English. Pregnant mothers read an English storybook, attend English medium church services or listen to online English courses for prenatal education in hopes that their foetus will hear and absorb English. Some parents drag their child to a clinic to have tongue surgery, snipping the membrane under the tongue, on the assumption that they will then be able to pronounce the r-sound better.

In short, Koreans are obsessed with English, particularly with native-like fluency and accent.For Koreans who have limited English skills, English proficiency means native-like accent and fluency and the key to this is starting early and being around English speakers. Children’s study abroad, jogiyuhak, is the perfect embodiment of the belief in early exposure in a native environment. While it is often said that Korea’s examination-obsessed education system and intense competition is another reason for early study abroad decisions, the overarching goal is to achieve a native level of English proficiency. More precisely, their ultimate aspiration is to add perfect English to their presumably impeccable Korean.

My first encounter with an early-study-abroad student dates back to the days when I was doing my master’s degree in TESOL as a ‘late’-study-abroad student in Sydney. It was for the first time in my life I was sitting in two hour-long academic lectures in English and I missed much of the lecturer’s instruction. I thought that my problem was normal for an adult international student from Korea who had hardly experienced such a situation before. After the class, I went up to another Korean student, I’ll call her Jenny, and said, in Korean, of course: “It’s hard to understand the lecturer, isn’t it?” Jenny’s response was surprising, “No. I’m used to listening to lectures.” Oh, was this only my problem? To my relief, she added that she had completed her bachelor degree in Australia. Yeah! I was not abnormal after all!

Later on I found out more about Jenny’s background. She had come to Australia at age 16 and had joined a private high school as a boarder, spending a total of eight years in Australia before starting her master’s degree. Soon I started to notice that Jenny often missed the point of an argument or presented irrelevant ideals in informal discussions with other Korean international students. It was obvious that she frequently did not understand the subject of discussions. In addition, she did not understand some words that we were using in discussions, which we had learnt from books or through formal education. These language problems in her ‘mother tongue’ presumably resulted from the fact that she had been absent from the Korean curriculum and other Korean literacy contexts. So, there was a formal Korean register she either forgot or had never learnt.

This observation led me to ponder the role of literacy in language development. The absence of Korean education during jogiyuhak would mean an interruption to the development of formal and literate varieties in Korean.

Well, you might say that stunted Korean is the price Jenny had to pay for her high level of English. However, it did not take long before I found out that, even if listening to a two-hour lecture in English was not arduous to her, her level of understanding of the class contents was not enough to fulfill subject assignments. Jenny often had to ask her Korean classmates, including myself, about concepts and terminologies and she sought assistance with her assignments. I should acknowledge that she wasn’t hiding her difficulties and was straightforward enough to tell everyone that she wrote her essays by cutting and pasting from other texts and that her boyfriend helped her.

Jenny’s struggle with academic English reminded me of Cummins (2000), who argues for the need to distinguish conversational fluency from academic language proficiency, noting that despite their seeming fluency in English, the level of migrant students’ academic achievement is usually far behind their local peers. He suggests that the students may attain age-appropriate levels of conversation fluency within two years. However, it takes at least five to seven years to reach grade-level academic proficiency in English. Furthermore, this does not necessarily mean that migrant students eventually catch up to grade norms after five to seven years. Rather, during that time of language learning students’ academic performance is most likely impeded due to language barriers. This long period of language impairment of migrant students has significant implications for their overall academic development and their preparation for the worlds of employment and citizenship.

My own PhD research on Korean students’ early study abroad and bilingualism in Australia sheds further light on these issues. Many of my research participants reported that they were constrained to select learning areas such as Mathematics and Sciences in which reading and writing was less demanding compared with humanities subjects. So, ironically, early study abroad placed a severe constraint on pursuing language-related areas of inquiry: those who might have had more aptitude for heavily language-dependent fields in the humanities and social sciences were not able to pursue those areas of study in English. Consequently, their choice of careers in Business and IT was linguistically constrained.

To put it differently, early study abroad seems to be more favorable to those with an aptitude for and an interest in these less-language-dependent areas.

On the other hand, the language barriers and impeded adaptation can also mean that early-study-abroad students lose interest in studying. Some of my participants accordingly were regretful that they had come to Australia where they felt they had been transformed from academic high achievers into students with no interest in academic work.

Overall, early study abroad or submersion into English monolingual education in an English-speaking environment seems to entail the under-development of linguistic repertoires in both languages. Most participants revealed that they felt that neither language was fully developed or that they were not as good as a native speaker of either language. This resulted in a sense of confusion and feelings of discomfort. Consequently, they reported difficulties in interactions with speakers of both languages and a sense of not knowing where to belong.

Sending children overseas is costly but many Koreans believe that early study abroad will bring their children advantages outweighing those enormous expenses. While the assessment of the outcome is an individual one, as young adults many of my research participants, whether they continue to reside in Australia or have returned to Korea, struggle to find their place – maybe more so than those who never left?

ResearchBlogging.org Cummins, Jim (2000). Language, power and pedagogy: bilingual children in the crossfire, Multilingual Matters

Author Bong Jeong Lee

Bong Jeong Lee is a PhD candidate under the supervision of Professor Alastair Pennycook in the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, University of Technology, Sydney. Her research interests include globalisation, language ideologies, language learning and bilingualism and her PhD project is about Korean early study abroad students’ bilingualism.

More posts by Bong Jeong Lee
  • I just received the link to this post while writing a letter to a member of the Victorian parliament arguing for more bilingual programs in schools. I find it really heart-breaking to read about the educational outcome for Jenny and how our monolingual education let her down.

    As an ESL teacher interested in bilingual education and its potential for enlivening language teaching pedagogy in Australia I like to do little straw polls at TESOL conferences to find out what educators think about the idea of Australian institutions capitalising on the language capabilities and interests of international students. I’ve suggested that academies could offer students not only the chance to study in English but also in other languages to enhance their Australian educational experience. Not only might learning content via their own language be beneficial, Koreans might also be interested in learning other languages while studying in Australia. Chinese is a language used by many Australians for example. Most international students spend quite a bit of time informally learning their classmates’ languages. Innovation of this sort in programs for international students could invigorate a flagging industry. Australian students could join in these language classes too.

    Respondents to my poll usually look at me as though I’m completely insane.

    Does anyone else think introducing other languages to the bland diet of ‘English only’ would be an interesting proposition?

    • Bong Jeong Lee

      I think your bilingual or multilingual diet for language learners is brilliant but I also understand how people may feel or think having listened to this idea. I suppose it is simply unimaginable for those who haven’t had a chance to observe or experience bilingual classrooms. I’d love to see any of such classrooms too.

  • Dionisio Franca


    Very interesting research.
    What is your opinion on youths that participated in shorter study abroad programs, one year for instance? Do they face similar problems?


    I’ve learned lots of Spanish when I first came to Japan and spent two months on an intensive Japanese course with fellow students from Latin America, “Portunol” was the lingua franca of our group. This extra learning did not impair my improvement in Japanese by the way.

    • Bong Jeong Lee

      Returnees, those who returned to Korean having spent even only one year overseas, seem to be confronted with readaptation tasks and experience difficulty due to their Korean language skills and difference in behavioural norms. They experience difficulty in understanding classroom instruction and their communications with their teacher and classmates are often unsuccessful, for which they are bullied by their classmates. Conflicts are mutual. They also think that Korean classrooms are behind and not interesting.
      In the news report about the research on 200 returnees from short term early study abroad, 88% of the respondents (200 in total) answered that they would like to go back overseas again, reporting that they experienced difficulty due to their Korean language skills and cultural differences. Some of them reportedly received psychiatric consultation.
      The age seems critical in that even one year absence from the Korean educational system seem to make remarkable difference. Their perspective and behavioural norms have changed although they have not well adjusted to English monolingual classrooms. One of my research participants told me that her cousin did not enjoy her life in an Australian high school, missing Korea so much and looking forward to going back to Korea, but when she returned to Korea, she found that she could not readjust to the life in Korea easily. In the end, she accompanied her father who left for America for his overseas work assignment.

      • Dionisio Franca


        Thank you for the additional information!

  • Neil Blonstein

    It can be debated what historically motivates people to dedicate ten years of their lives in learning a second language. Some people have looked at both English and the easy, neutral language, Esperanto comparing their present and future practicality in international communication–notably for FRIENDSHIP. Since this site seems to be based in Australia, I’ll mention Australian Ambassador to the United Nations, Ralph Harry and Australian (regional) Minister of Justice, Kep Enderby. When Ralph Harry passed away he was president of the Esperanto Association of Australia. Kep headed the largest Esperanto organization: UEA. I volunteer in the office Harry co-founded in New York. I found many English teachers, like myself, who advocate on the side for Esperanto so I founded a blog: English Teachers for Esperanto.

  • Pingback: English Gangnam Style | Language on the Move()

  • Flora Launay

    This article brought up two interesting topics: the relationship between language and identity; and the difference between being fluent orally but not having such a good level of proficiency in academic writing.

    I am myself an International student and I have spent much time with bilinguals and/or local Australians so my speaking skills in English are very good. However, since these people are my friends, I tend to speak in a very casual way to them. Consequently, I feel like I am not able to write formally and that my academic skills will never improve. The more I spend time practising my English skills in a friendly environment, the less chance and opportunities do I have to improve my academic skills. I feel like academic English is another language and it is very challenging to code-switch from Spoken English to Academic English.

    When I first moved abroad, I feared that I might lose part of who I was. I wanted to be myself, but how can one be themselves in another language? The language you grow up with determines your way of thinking. I was wondering how I could manage to still be myself while speaking, living, eating, and breathing in another language. Even though the first few months were a bit tough, I eventually found a balance and I now feel like I am myself, being a citizen of the world, rather than just a ‘French lady’.


    When I read this interesting article about early study abroad, I started thinking about the possibility that many parents increasingly encourage their young children to study abroad in my home country, Japan. Since English has become an important subject to succeed in high school and university entrance exams, the number of parents who let their children study abroad, such as summer schools for a short term in English-speaking countries, has gradually increased. Although they tend to believe vaguely that studying abroad gets children to develop English skills and spend much money on it, it would be necessary to consider how their experience can benefit or affect their future academic life or everyday life.

  • 000

    Thanks for challenging my perception on study abroad students during young adulthood.

    Growing up in Australia, I always thought people who had the opportunity to go to school in another country were so lucky because they could experience and learn new cultures and languages. The high school I attended in Sydney had a lot of international students. I remember thinking they were so cool because they could speak their own language fluently and gain English skills while studying under the Australian curriculum. However, overtime, I realised that they would only socialise with other students from their own countries and rarely interact with local students, thus, never really enhancing their English oracy skills. At the time, I never thought about their home language or English writing skills not being achieved to their full potential because of the discontinuation of learning their home language in a school setting, and their struggle in understanding English in a monolingual high school. So, in the end I think they never achieved both oracy and written skills to be able to communicate academically in any language.

    It is a dilemma in trying to decide what is best, but I think everyone wants the finest opportunities possible and ultimately makes decisions on what they value most in their lives.

  • 44277660

    All Vietnamese people I know, no matter how old they are, have the same thought that studying abroad can ensure higher proficiency in English and a better life as a result. I used to have the same idea until I read the news about a group of international students who have been in Australia for two years but there is still no improvement in their English. I do not remember clearly what happened to them but they were put in prison because of their involvement in drugs. After 6 months in jail, their English competence increase dramatically. Thus, it is not satisfying to say that studying abroad is the optimal way to achieve a native level of English proficiency. Furthermore, as mentioned in the article, early study abroad also brings some constraints to migrant students. Being aware of those facts, personally I think that studying abroad should not be done at all cost (some people in Vietnam even borrow money around or sell their houses to send their children abroad) as the results do not always meet our expectation.

  • Yeongju Lee

    As a Korean, it is somehow true, Koreans are “crazy” about learning English. Koreans think English is an essential skill that we have to have. We actually try hard and spend lots of money for learning English. That is why young children are sent to abroad for native-like pronunciation and accents and the institutions where they can study English, which seems Koreans are forced too much about learning English and they must have a lot of stress about it, which is true. However, as @naminarimatsu:disqus mentioned below, I think English is no longer a language that we can choose to learn as an option. English has become a global language and some people who can not speak English actually encounter difficulties of getting a job or at least when they travel. Koreans probably started learning English to fulfill their requirements, however, their expriences of learning English could benefit their present or future lives. And also, there are many students who has already realised that they need to learn English for their own lives, not for their parents or whoever else, and they actually try hard to learn English by their choices.
    I somehow agree with this article, but I also believe it is the time for learning English no matter because of their choice or others’ forces, and if they learn English because of other external forces, they should appreciate them that they become capable of at least one qualification of this global world.

  • V.ca

    This is quite interesting and the reason I say this is because I was probably a little like the two characters here. In a way I am like the writer where I come from a different country to study abroad here in Australia, but not to learn English, but to learn more about English. With that being said, I am also like Jenny where lectures are something that I can keep up with. I remember during my first semester I had classmates asking me how I “did” it. Perhaps this is because I have been taught English at a young age? Or perhaps because I was exposed to it so much (TV, print, business, etc.)? Or because I had a strong interest in the language at a young age?

    Yes, academic English is something I struggle with because had no proper instruction of this in my undergrad uni or high school, believe it or not. But I have been blessed with the exposure and my keen interest in English which helped me come a long way.

  • Nancy

    When I was in my home country, I used to think that the longer you stay in an English-speaking country, the more native-like your language proficiency will be. However, this perception has changed since I moved to Sydney to pursuit my higher study. The reason is that I met a lot of friends who were like the “case” in the article, studied abroad at very young age but were not able to be fully mastered in both languages. And I found out that if you live in a English-speaking country but you just stick to your own society and speak the first language, your English proficiency is likely to remain the same.