The Effect of Study Abroad on Lexical Sophistication

Jackilyn McQuilkin

Authors:  Jackilyn McQuilkin 

Faculty Mentor: Dr. James Garner

College:  College of Liberal Arts and Sciences


Lexical sophistication refers to the depth and breadth of vocabulary knowledge available to users of a language. This poster reports on a study that examines the relationship between lexical sophistication in a second language (L2) and study abroad. The data for this study consisted of two sets of essays written by L1 Spanish learners of English at the same level of English proficiency. One set contained 28 essays (42,126 words) written by learners who had studied abroad for at least six months, while the other corpus contained 23 essays (34,424 words) written by students who had studied abroad for less than one month. The essays were analyzed using the Tool for the Automatic Analysis of Lexical Sophistication (TAALES). TAALES measures lexical sophistication using multiple frequency-based and psycholinguistic indices. The specific indices used in this study were word frequency, range, age of acquisition, and comparison to an academic word list. Comparisons between the groups showed no significant difference between the study abroad and non-study abroad groups in terms of lexical sophistication. This finding suggests that studying abroad is not strictly necessary for learners in order to develop their lexical sophistication, provided they have other resources to improve their overall proficiency.

Poster Pitch

Click the video below to view the student's poster pitch.


Click the image to enlarge.
14 Responses
  1. Grace Tovkach

    This was really interesting, great work!! I wonder what the results would be when not learning English as a foreign language? I’ve heard anecdotes of non-native speakers being able to learn English pretty easily from the internet and TV, considering global media can be dominated by English at times, so maybe that affected things.

    1. Jackilyn McQuilkin

      Thank you so much! Do you mean within an ESL context? If so, that’s a really good question! Since the study was on the effect of study abroad on learners primarily in an EFL context, it’d be interesting to look at the vocabulary development of ESL vs. EFL, when controlling for proficiency as in this study. Though you’re also definitely right that there’d be more confounding variables in that case; more or less media exposure could certainly affect the development of lexical sophistication as well.

  2. Mitchell Tozian

    Hey Jackilyn! Forgive me if this information is included somewhere in your posted material, but I’m wondering if these essays you used were all written on the same topic, and also if this topic is one that might lend itself to use of more simple vocabulary throughout.

    1. Jackilyn McQuilkin

      Hi Mitchell! Thanks for your question; as far as I’m aware, they were not written on the same topic, just for the same purpose, which was for the Academic Writing component of their English Language Course within the Department of English Studies at the Universidad Autónoma de Madrid. If you’re interested, more information about the corpus (and the corpus itself, which I used to create the two subcorpora used for this study) can be found here:

  3. Anna Baringer

    This is very cool research. Do you think that the language that one is learning makes any difference in the results?

  4. Ashley Schuler

    I am not sure if it was part of your controls for proficiency, but could the length of time spent learning the second language have an impact on the lexicon sophistication? Even if their proficiency scores are the same, could it be true that the more time one is exposed to a second language, the more words they pick up? If an individual spent more time with a language before a study abroad as another individual, but they tested at the same level, could the individual who has studied longer still know more words and it not appear in the proficiency test?

    1. Jackilyn McQuilkin

      Thank you for your question! Yes, that’s essentially the research question of the study: if a learner is at the same proficiency as another learner, but has studied abroad while the other hasn’t, might the learner that has studied abroad have more advanced vocabulary/more lexical sophistication? With the answer being no, not according to these results, although of course more research is needed.

  5. Carter

    Hey Jacki, all interesting stuff! Were you surprised by your findings? What was the most interesting part of your research?

    1. Jackilyn McQuilkin

      Hey Carter! Thank you for commenting! Honestly, no, I wasn’t very surprised; my personal opinion is that study abroad is less effective than people often assume. I’d say that the most interesting part of my research was probably reading the previous research that people have done, it really opened my eyes to the depth of the topic of second language acquisition and the most effective methods to acquire a second language.