by Thomas Entwistle

International language schools like International House and the British Council have, at this point, been around for decades, with International House opening their first school in Cordoba, Spain, a shade over fifty years ago. Such schools generally offer foreign language courses for local residents, or run summer school programmes, or do both but with different students in mind for each. However, there might not necessarily be much overlap between home and abroad study, with one hand not telling the other what it’s doing - or how to prepare.

Indeed, the field of study abroad is still relatively under-researched and remains in its infancy despite the fact that English as a second language and English as a foreign language instruction has been evolving steadily for so long.

This article will first look at the current state of global study abroad preparation, which has often been described as ‘woefully inadequate’ (Jackson, 2008, p. 222). Then, the article will go on to look at how we can use study abroad returnee feedback to better prepare those about to embark on their study abroad sojourns and help study abroad students when they first arrive in their host country.

Developing the research

I have been working for the British Council at one of the seven international studies and study abroad universities in Japan for the last eight years. In this time, I have become more and more interested in study abroad, especially since completing my Distance DELTA Module 3 through International House London in 2019. My specialism for Module 3 was ‘monolingual contexts’ in which I conducted a full needs analysis of the learners and created a twenty-hour theoretical study abroad preparation course. Since then, I have worked closely with a university co-worker to create and deliver our own bespoke ten-week study abroad pre-departure course, which has just ended its sixth full run. We run one full ten-week course in each of the two semesters that make up a Japanese university academic year.

Surveying the returnees

It took a couple of years of running our study abroad course before students started returning to Japan and to their regular studies. As the number of returnees increased, the decision was made to survey them with the aim of using their feedback to improve our study abroad course and better prepare future students before they depart.

The returnees were asked to provide written responses to a range of questions based on their positive study abroad experiences, the challenges and problems they faced, how they felt they changed as people through studying abroad, and what advice they would give to students about to depart.

For this article, I will focus on the results of the following survey questions:

  • What were the main challenges and problems you faced when you were abroad?
  • What advice would you give to students who are preparing to study abroad?

In total, just over thirty students have answered the survey so far after returning from a wide range of English-speaking host countries such as the USA (in various locations), the UK, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, the Republic of Ireland, and Malta, as well some non-English speaking countries like South Korea, Spain, Belgium, and Cebu in the Philippines. Each respondent returned to Japan after spending at least one full academic semester in their host country.


The survey was launched in the Spring of 2022 and has remained open for potential respondents until present. It included information about the voluntary nature of the survey, and how respondents could withdraw at any time; the results were also anonymised.

Regarding survey question number one, students provided written responses which were analysed and grouped into common recurring themes.

Figure 1 – Most common challenges & problems faced when studying abroad

In their responses, some returnees mentioned that they faced multiple challenges and issues. However, it is clear from the data that other people’s behaviour was by far the biggest challenge returnees faced, with just over eighty per cent mentioning things like eating manners, personal hygiene, other students’ extroversion, and so on.

“I was so shocked when I saw Australian people walking barefoot at supermarkets and everywhere. It seemed so dirty, but I liked that there was more freedom.”

The second most common theme was returnees’ perception of their own English ability, with just over forty per cent mentioning it. The respondents found other students, particularly European and South American students, to be more fluent than themselves. They also found it extremely difficult to understand local people’s authentic speech, something that has been found in many previous studies (Field, 2009; Entwistle, 2020).

“I met some other students from Europe, and South America when I did study abroad in London. They were able to speak English so fluently. Much more than me.”

“Local’s English was really fast, I had a hard time until I was used to the English speed.”

The next three most common problem areas were more practical in nature. Transportation and the weather were both referenced in 38.5% of replies, and food and drink were talked about by just over a quarter of respondents.

“The bus didn’t announce the stop so at first I didn’t know when I should get off. The bus driver was kind though when he knew I was lost.”

“I knew that the weather would be different in Malta. But I did not expect that it would be so bad for my skin and hair.”

“I really missed Japanese rice. It wasn’t the same in Canada. Also, I don’t really like potatoes and my host family ate them every day.”

Lastly, the theme of personal space was mentioned in almost one in five replies - which came as a surprise to me, though on reflection on the cultural differences between Japan and elsewhere, perhaps it shouldn’t have. Although it could be argued that this falls into the theme of people’s behaviour, it was mentioned enough that I felt it warranted its own category.

“It was hard for me to assimilate into American culture. Their personal space was extremely close which is completely different from Japanese culture.”

Other minor challenges and issues that were mentioned included homestay and dorm living, bathroom etiquette, and comments about not being prepared.


As we can see from the replies, there is a mix of both practical issues like the weather and transport, but also more nuanced issues related to behaviour and cultural norms. Therefore, I would argue that to better prepare those about to study abroad, we need to raise our students’ awareness of the potential problems they are likely to face.

Furthermore, if EFL educators in host countries like the ones mentioned in the study are more aware of the potential challenges and issues that study abroad students commonly face, they can potentially help cushion the landing of such students, and even facilitate some intercultural learning.

The respondents to my survey also offered some excellent advice, which has been motivational for those about to set off on their own sojourn:

  • People’s behaviour: Now I can see the world from multiple perspectives. You can too!
  • English ability: Don’t be afraid of talking to new people, if you talk to them first, they will be more comfortable with speaking to you.
  • Transport: It is ordinary to talk to strangers and I was amazed that I was spoken to almost every time I was at a bus stop. It was a great chance.
  • Food & drink: Actively try everything! You won’t be able to try these things when you come back.
  • Personal space: When I said hello or goodbye, people often hugged me. It confused me, but I liked it after a while. But it’s ok to say no if you don’t want to. People don’t mind.

Sharing returnee feedback, such as the comments above, has helped to generate positive discussions and motivate my pre-departure student.


Of course, this pilot study, like most studies, is not without a few limitations. Firstly, the participants who took part in the survey studied abroad in a range of contexts (both English-speaking and non-English-speaking) and for varying lengths of time (some for one semester and others for more than a year). It would be interesting to see if the nature of the participants' answers differed if these things were taken into account. Also, students were asked to provide written responses in English only. Japanese answers would arguably have provided more depth but would have required the services of a translator - which slightly fell beyond the budgetary restrictions of the project!

Final thoughts

I believe that the results of this pilot study have helped to illuminate the common types of problems and issues students experience when they are on their study abroad sojourns. This is important to know for teachers preparing those about to depart, and also for teachers in host countries welcoming students to their classes. Let’s do what we can to mitigate these potential issues and problems and help students have the most rewarding experience possible.

Speaking more widely, the results of this survey offer avenues of exploration for regular EFL teachers, regardless of their students’ intentions to study abroad. Many course books that talk about intercultural differences in the English-speaking world might consider such superficial variations as the spelling of colour and color, or that trousers in one place might be pants in another. This does little to add depth or understanding, and, I believe, fails to engage the students in a meaningful discussion. The survey results, on the other hand, can practically be taken into class as they are and, along with the students’ comments, can form the basis of a highly rewarding lesson on cultural sensitivity.


Entwistle, T. (2020). The Importance of Raising Learners’ Awareness of Connected Speech. KOTESOL Journal, 16(1), 235-246.
Field, J. (2009). More listening or better listeners? English Teaching Professional, 61, 12–14.
Jackson, J. (2008). Language, Identity and Study Abroad. London, UK: Equinox Publishing.

Author Biography

Thomas Entwistle is a British Council English language specialist and member of the English Team at a private university in Japan. His current areas of interest include study abroad, world Englishes, and International service learning.