Benefits of Studying Abroad for Korean Students

 by Bogue Hermsmeyer & Danny Kessler

Topic: Studying abroad benefits students from all countries, both for language acquisition and cultural awareness.

Problem: An overly competitive job market and strict English proficiency requirements have sent Koreans seeking study abroad programs in droves, yet we don’t know the actual benefits of these short-term study abroad programs.

Purpose: To determine how Koreans perceived the benefits of their study abroad experience.


Koreans have a unique passion and drive for education and learning. The competitiveness of Korea’s job market causes students, and their parents, to seek out ways to give their children an edge on the competition. “About 500,000 young South Koreans – over 60 percent of whom are degree holders – enter the job market every year. But only 200,000 permanent positions are available” (Chang, 2016). This competitive environment causes students to seek every means necessary to stand out in this educated and motivated crowd. Private cram schools (hagwons) are big business in Korea. Recently, students also are seeking out language skills. Speaking English well is a prerequisite for some positions, and young Koreans are seeking out the best ways to achieve this. The number of Koreans who study abroad has increased dramatically over the last decade. “The number of South Korean students in the United States has increased significantly in the last decade, rising by more than 40% from 51,500 students in the academic year 2001/02 to more than 72,000 in 2012/13. Only China and India have more students in the US than does South Korea” (South Korean Students in American, 2013). The following chart provides a visual for this. Considering Korea has a population of around 50 million people, a mere fraction of China and India, this is indeed an amazing statistic.

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The Korean Educational system is famous for its high stakes test and stressful culture as Spann & Kaufmann (2015) noted:

In South Korea, students face a similar fierce competition for education based on an exam. The educational system is designed around a competitive entrance examination in which students compete to enter good middle-schools, high-schools, and colleges. Due to the intense competition to score well on the exams, for-profit tutoring institutions, Hagwons, are very popular for families that can afford them. According to the Korea Ministry of Education, Science, and Technology, in 2011, there were 5,892 private educational institutions out of the 19,865 total education institutions. Further, almost 40% of the students studying in South Korea attended a Hagwon. (p. 9)

It is quite common to meet young Koreans who have studied English for 20 years, score high on tests, but cannot have the most basic of conversations. The video in this link provides an excellent demonstration of this significant issue: 

In the video, an American tries to take a sample Korean college entrance exam, with two young Koreans who scored very high on the TOEIC, a high stakes English proficiency test that is omnipresent in the Korean workforce. He scores significantly lower on the test than two young Koreans. However, it is clear that the young Koreans, although they receive near perfect scores on their exams, can barely make an audible or grammatically correct sentence. This is not an isolated situation, and as educators here, we encounter this situation frequently. In order to attain a level of fluency required in today’s job market, young Koreans are seeking study abroad programs to enhance their fluency.

Korea is one of the most, if not the most ethnically homogenous country on earth. The CIA website of ethnic groups does not even list any other ethnicities in Korea and simply states that it is “homogenous” (Central Intelligence Agency, 2017). This lack of multiculturalism can prove to be a barrier for young Koreans who wish to join the global job market. A chance to study abroad can give a Korean student an opportunity to view the world through the eyes of others and become more culturally sensitive and aware.


The benefits of participating in a study abroad program are vast. Of course, many students are motivated to study abroad to enhance their fluency levels in a foreign language. As Iino (2006) writes, “It is often claimed that ‘the only way that students ever acquire functional language ability, at least at advanced levels, is during study abroad’ (Miller & Ginsberg 1995: 393)” (p. 151). Adams (2006) notes:

Segalowitz and Freed (2004) found that study abroad learners

made greater oral proficiency gains than learners who remained at

home. Subcomponents of oral communication have also been shown to

be influenced by study abroad. Fluency is one sub-area of oral communication

that has been extensively studied in study abroad students. Study

abroad has been implicated in increasing speaking rates (Moehle &

Raupach, 1983), the use of formulaic expressions (Lafford, 1995;

Raupach, 1983), and the use of lexical fillers (Freed, 1995c). Freed et al.

(2004) also found that learners who studied both in study abroad and

in immersion contexts increased their fluency compared to learners in

traditional programs. Study abroad has also been implicated in the

development of narrative abilities and the production of more lexically

dense language (Collentine, 2004). (p. 259)

Students may seek to improve their language ability, but other benefits besides higher fluency can be enjoyed during a study abroad program. As Adams (2006) points out, “Study abroad has been shown to impact learners psychologically, culturally and linguistically” (p. 259). Studies from around the world have been conducted on this matter, particularly among Japanese students. Ellis conducted research on Japanese students studying in New Zealand. Ellis (2003) noted:

The greatest change occurred in beliefs concerning self-efficacy and confidence. The experience of living in an English-speaking country and of being taught intensively through the medium of English by native speakers appears to have had a major impact on these learners’ beliefs about their ability to speak English without feeling unduly nervous, about not worrying about mistakes while speaking English, and about their general progress. This enhanced confidence can be considered, perhaps, the major achievement of the study-abroad program for these students, especially if it subsequently pays off in promoting learning on their return to Japan. Changes in, beliefs reflected in the Analytic and Experiential Learning factor were less pronounced, with beliefs relating to the latter showing the greater changes, as might be expected given the opportunities that the learners had to experience the communicative use of English while in the United States. (p. 79)

A major impediment to teaching ESL in Korea is the affective filter of the students. Overall, students associate speaking English with stress and anxiety. The high stakes testing culture and perfectionist mentality inhibits the learning process. Perhaps Korean students experience similar benefits to the Japanese students in Ellis’ study, yet no studies have addressed the point of view of Korean students on the benefits of their study abroad. A study needs to be conducted to see if Koreans experience this increase in self-efficacy and confidence noted in the study.

The positive effects of participating in a study abroad program extend to other areas of language learning as well. Freed (1995) noted:

A pilot study by Cox and Freed (1988) of 24 students of French as a foreign language, 12 who had spent a semester abroad and 12 who had not, reported that the abroad group demonstrated greater grammatical control of several syntactic forms (morphological aspects of the past tense, the use of relative clauses and the use of the subjunctive) as well as “more native-like” use of negation and interrogation strategies. (p. 11)

Participation in a study abroad program contributes to increasing confidence, native-like language, and even grammatical control. For Korean students, these increases can give them the edge in the job market and allow them to experience professional success. However, did the Korean students experience a similar increase in these advantages?

Besides explicit gains in their proficiency, and an increase in confidence, students who study abroad experience an increase in cultural awareness that cannot be achieved in a regular classroom setting. Singleton (2015) observed:

Furthermore, learners became aware of some of the socio-cultural

norms of linguistic behavior. For example, they discerned some contexts

in which it was inappropriate to perform a particular speech act [e.g.

greeting a stranger in a cafe´ in France (Hoffman-Hicks, 2000), or re-offering

something to the hearer following a refusal in German (Barron, 2003)].

Japanese learners of English also better appreciated the weight of contextual

variables (other than power relations) in determining the politeness

level to be employed in giving advice (Matsumura, 2001) and changed

their perceptions regarding distance between speakers, power relationships

and the severity of offenses in judging the appropriateness of

apology strategies (Kondo, 1997b). (p.13)

These “contextual variables” would be difficult to learn in a traditional classroom for any student in their home country. This is particularly true when considering the ethnic homogeneity and lack of cultural exposure in Korea. Korean students clearly are seeking out these experiences through study abroad programs. Yet there have been no studies done to show whether they enjoy the same benefits as other students in these previous research projects.

Koreans also seek study abroad experiences to enhance their opportunities in the competitive Korean job market. Lee Mun Woo (2015) asked students “What does English mean to you?” (p. 28). She reported:

One participant in the survey said, “I thought I could get an internship in that so-called “prestigious” company because of my English ability. Just think about the first step. I could apply for the internship because I could speak fluent English, and I am pretty sure that they preferred me to other applicants who are not good at speaking English. Working in Korea, I strongly felt that English is “something more” than just a language. I could feel that people treat me differently when I started to talk in English. I don’t know how to express it, but they definitely treat you positively, as if you had some special ability that they don’t have.” (p. 28)

Long-term study abroad positively affected students perceptions of their strength in the job market. It would be beneficial to know whether short term university study abroad programs can produce similar results.

Lee Mun Woo (2015) conducted research on Koreans who studied abroad for extended periods of time in elementary and secondary education through university. Her study focused primarily on “identity” of the students and how that changed over time. Lee (2015) observed:

Some of them also talked about how their life goal was changed after they had acquired English proficiency. They stated that because they came to the U.S. and were able to communicate in English, their point of view on life itself had become both broader and deeper. They could understand how people could be different in terms of their values, beliefs, goals, interests, and viewpoints. Many of them talked about how particular values such as “ diversity”  or “ individualism”  went with English in more natural ways than with other languages since the societies that used English as their mother tongue emphasized those values. It was clear that English was not merely a second language for these Korean early study-abroad undergraduates in the U.S. The language connoted much more psychologically than linguistically. (p. 29)

Do short term university level students experience the same cultural empowerment as their younger compatriots? Is studying abroad at an early age the only way to experience such a profound shift in cultural and personal identity? While Lee focused on an elite population of Koreans who had the finances to send children abroad at a young age, we are concerned with shorter-term study abroad programs and their benefits. Only by conducting research of university level Koreans, and their perceived benefits of study abroad, can we answer these questions.


We have shown that the numbers of Koreans studying abroad are increasing. Korea is a unique country, with an ethnically homogenous population, a competitive job market, and a passion for academic success. However, we have yet to see a study focusing the benefits of studying abroad from the viewpoint of the students themselves. A study is needed to fill in this gap of information. Knowing this information will be useful in many ways. Knowing what benefits Korean students themselves saw from their study abroad experiences would be of great importance to academic institutions hoping to attract more Korean students for study abroad programs. They could determine what is the best way to maximize a six month or one year study abroad experience for Koreans. Knowing this information would allow these academic institutions the ability to customize programs and make pedagogical or cultural adjustments specifically designed to enhance the experiences of Korean students. Furthermore, the findings of this study could be used by universities in Korea, to create campus cultures that could seek to replicate the benefits students experience when studying abroad. Korean students will continue to make up a massive percentage of students who participate in study abroad programs. It is time to conduct a study on how they perceive the benefits from these experiences.


The main purpose of this study is to answer the following research question: “What do Korean students themselves see as benefits from experiencing study abroad programs while at the university level?”


A quantitative narrative study of university students from Busan, Korea who had a study abroad experience would best arrive at a precise and detailed description of the most efficient way to maximize a study abroad experience in the United States.  The secondary purpose of this study is to obtain results that will help improve the decision-making process involved in sending Korean students to the U.S. (or other English-speaking countries)

We plan to conduct interviews and a focus group, both in a comfortable cozy environment. All data will be recorded and transcribed in English.  Both data sets will be coded and identified for patterns and meanings and analyzed for themes and categories.  

Prior to the interview process, we will request that the participants bring photos from their study abroad experiences. During the first interview, we will ask the students to show us photos and ask open-ended personal story questions as well as creative “Imagine” questions and record the answers with a smartphone. The photos-stories and “Imagine” questions are meant to elicit more memories of the student’s experiences.  Interviews will be tape recorded and subsequently transcribed. The interviews will be conducted in English because the association of speaking English would elicit memories, both positive and negative.  The Korean-English translator will be present at the interviews will be able to elicit explanations in Korean that are unable to be explained in English. As a result of using multiple sources of data including images and stories, we will be able to triangulate the data to verify the validity of the answers.

If the data contains interesting findings, we plan to conduct a larger sample size of participants in another city.  We would use examples for the new participants by retelling certain aspects of the stories that highlight what we want to learn to increase the efficiency of the subsequent interviews.


Before beginning this qualitative study together, Bogue Hermsmeyer and Danny Kessler will conduct a pilot study to establish the basis and direction of a questionnaire with two male and two female participants. In this pilot study, we will test the initial questions for the interview as well as estimate the time it takes to conduct the interview.


We plan to nonprobability select interviewees. By contacting our colleagues in the International Studies departments, we can use a snowballing technique to find volunteers to participate in our survey. We also plan to find participants by asking adult Korean students who attend our universities (Youngsan University and Korea Maritime and Ocean University) and ask them to recommend friends whose backgrounds matched the following:

All participants must be native speakers of Korean and all will have come from a Korean educational background. We plan to select ten men and ten women. This number is closely based on the population of Koreans who studied abroad. This stratified sample that represents the actual number of men and women who traveled to the USA.  We seek to find students who were abroad from six to twelve months, who had no previous study abroad experience.  


After the pilot study and possible adjusted questions, Bogue Hermsmeyer and Danny Kessler and a Korean-English translator will gather twenty qualified students, ten men, and ten women, in which we will have two, thirty-minute interviews where we will elicit personal experience stories. We will obtain written informed consent, and all participants will be adults. Before the first interview begins, we will gather basic demographic data including age, gender, hometown, university attended, and major.


We plan to use the following program for qualitative research data analysis. The entire corpus of conversations will be transcribed and subject to microanalysis then categorized according to the topic.  These topics will be artfully used in the second interview with select participants.  In the second interview, we plan to elicit more data in a group forum. We plan to use two smartphones because multiple conversations are happening at the same time. In addition, we plan to each take field notes of both interviews so we can compare our observations of body language and other nonverbal reactions to our questions.    


1) Tell a story of an experience in America learning English where you felt you made a great level of improvement in your ability.  

2) What are three things you recommend to a close family member who plans to study in America to get the most out of their study abroad program? What do you recommend to prepare for a study abroad program?

3) Imagine if you were to design a study abroad program for Korean students, how would you design it? What would the orientation be like? What would the classes be like?  What kind of field trips would you recommend?

4) Describe some benefits from your study abroad that you didn’t expect. Elaborate.

5) Why did you decide to study in the country you chose? Looking back, would you change your decision? Do you recommend the experience to others? Why or why not?

6) How many foreign friends did you have before? How many foreign friends did you have after you studied abroad? Are your friendships with foreigners different than those with Koreans? If yes, how so?


After conducting the first interview, we will conduct a second focus group style interview with certain people from the first interview to get multiple perspectives.  We would like to elicit more qualitative data and triangulate that with the older data.  In addition to that, another purpose of the focus group is to elicit a flow state of elicitation among the remaining participants. In the second interview, we would like to follow up with other questions based on the personal experience stories that came up during the first interview. We would also like to observe how these students interact together specifically if they are able to overcome age and hierarchical relationships. In addition, we will check facts from the first story to reduce the chances of misinterpreted data in our report.


Participants might misrepresent the data, or data could be misinterpreted by the interviewers. Therefore in the second interview, we plan to validate some of the stories from the first recorded interview. In addition, in the report, we plan to change the names of the students to protect their identities. The interviews are done in English, some detailed descriptions might be lost in translation. We hope to keep the student in the L2 during most of the interview to gain more explicit English memory descriptions. However, this could be a barrier to obtaining more detailed answers. In this case, a Korean interpreter will be there to ensure the information being communicated is accurate.


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Iino, M. (2006). Norms of interaction in a Japanese homestay setting: Toward a two-way flow of linguistic and cultural resources. Language learners in study abroad contexts, 15, 151-176.

Lee, Mun Woo. Early Study-Abroad and Identities: Korean Early Study-Abroad Undergraduates. Seoul, Republic of Korea. Springer, 2015.

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Tanaka, K., & Ellis, R. (2003). Study abroad, language proficiency, and learner beliefs about language learning. JALT journal, 25(1), 63-85.