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Eye on Psi Chi: Winter 2016

Study Abroad:
Cognitive Advantages of Being Bilingual and Bicultural

John M. Davis, PhD, Texas State University
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Study abroad provides many benefits. The experience can increase one’s capacity to see the world as others see it—that is, to take more than one perspective. Study abroad also offers experiences that can increase communication skills, cognitive complexity, creativity, and professional success.
A recent study investigated the ability of 4- to 6-year-old children to recognize that another person may see things differently (Fan, Liberman, Keysar, & Kinzler, 2015). Some of the children were bilingual, some had been exposed to another language regularly, and some were monolingual. Each child sat across from the experimenter with a vertical grid positioned between them. The grid consisted of 16 cubicles (four high and four across). Various objects were placed in some of the cubicles and the child could see all the objects. However, some cubicles were closed on one side so that some objects were not visible to the researcher. Three of the cubicles held toy cars (a large, a medium, and a small). The child could see all three cars, but the small car was not visible to the researcher. The researcher would say, “I see a small car; please move the small car.”
Seventy-five percent of the bilingual children and children who were exposed to a second language regularly moved the medium-sized car—that is, the smallest car the researcher could see—but only 50 percent of the monolingual children did so. Thus, the study showed that bilingual children and children exposed regularly to a second language took the perspective of the researcher significantly more often than did the monolinguals. These results suggested that bilingualism and even exposure to a second language enhances communication skills that require one to understand the perspectives of others. Study abroad provides exposure to another culture and often to another language.
A recent review article provided further compelling evidence concerning the benefits of bilingualism. Bialystok (2011) reviewed literature that examined the benefits of bilingualism in shaping the mind. The review concluded that bilingual individuals use more areas of the brain while carrying out various verbal and nonverbal tasks than do monolingual individuals. This “mind exercise” gives bilingual individuals advantages in cognitive performance across the lifespan. The review also reported studies indicating that bilingualism may serve as a protection against Alzheimer’s disease. Study abroad can help one become bilingual and give lifelong benefits!
How does one gain the most out of studying and living abroad? Tadmor, Galinsky, and Maddux (2012) conducted three studies to learn what is most important in gaining the benefits of living abroad. In summary, they found that bicultural individuals who most completely identified with both their home country and their host country gained the most benefits. Such individuals showed greater cognitive complexity and greater capacity to integrate multiple perspectives than did individuals who identified only with their home or their host country. Bicultural and bilingual individuals also showed greater creativity and demonstrated more professional success. Study abroad is an excellent way to begin the process of developing a bicultural identity.
There are multiple ways to study abroad and gain maximum benefits. One of the most popular and common approaches involves summer programs led by faculty members from one’s own campus. Most universities and colleges offer such programs. During the summer, one or more faculty members and their students travel to a foreign university campus for 5 to 8 weeks. Students live in and learn about another country but have the benefit of the familiar structure of the U.S. classroom experience with familiar home-campus instructors. My own university, Texas State University, offers such opportunities in more than 20 countries. Financial aid is usually easy to obtain for these popular programs. The courses offered are basically the same as those given on the home campus and fulfill degree program requirements. Studying abroad in this way offers students the opportunity to earn credits toward their degrees, while at the same time enjoying an adventure and gaining international experience and knowledge.
A second and somewhat more ambitious and adventurous approach is to enroll independently at a university in a foreign country for a semester, a full academic year, or more. This requires research and paperwork to select and gain admission to the foreign university. It is more ambitious because it offers a much fuller integration into the foreign culture and many more life-changing xperiences. It involves meeting new people, making new friends, and mastering a new culture. The professors and classmates will be from the host university, so it will be possible to learn much more deeply about the new culture and country.
Help with this more ambitious approach can usually be found by talking with faculty members in one’s home campus language department. If there are faculty members in the psychology department who have international experience, they also can help students select, research, and gain admission to a university abroad. These faculty members may also be able to advise regarding what courses to complete abroad that will give credit when transferred to the home university.
A point of particular interest is the fact that, after studying abroad, students sometimes report culture shock when returning to the United States. They now see their own country with new eyes. In addition, they may find that the courses they took abroad are not well understood or valued by their classmates or university administrators. This challenge, however, is a small price to pay for the advantages of becoming bicultural and bilingual.
Psi Chi members have a particular advantage in regard to the opportunities available for study abroad. Psi Chi is now an international honor society and has chapters in nearly a dozen foreign countries. Consider these countries with chapters: Canada (four universities), Ireland (two universities), Puerto Rico (two universities), Barbados (one university), Egypt (one university), Guatemala (one university), Malaysia (one university), New Zealand (one university), Russian Federation (one university), Trinidad and Tobago (one university), U.S. Virgin Island (one university). Each of these chapters has a faculty advisor committed to the mission of Psi Chi who can serve as an excellent contact for purposes of study abroad. Furthermore, student members of the chapter provide an immediate circle of potential friends. They are the most successful and committed students studying psychology on that campus and already have an interest in Psi Chi and international exchange. More information about Psi Chi chapters in other countries is available at You can also search for “International” articles in Psi Chi’s Publication Search at
In addition to providing the opportunity to gain mastery of another culture and another language, study abroad offers the advantage of seeing the world through the eyes of those in another culture. There is no better time than now to give serious thought to becoming a student in another country. Study abroad offers many advantages and is now more accessible than ever before to student members of Psi Chi, the International Honor Society in Psychology.
Bialystok, E. (2011). Reshaping the mind: The benefits of bilingualism. Canadian Journal of Experimental Psychology, 65, 229–235. doi:10.1037/a0025406
Fan, S. P., Liberman, Z., Keysar, B., & Kinzler, K. D. (2015). The exposure advantage: Early exposure to a multilingual environment promotes effective communication. Psychological Science, 26, 1090–1097. doi:10.1177/0956797615574699
Tadmor, C. T., Galinsky, A. D., & Maddux, W. W. (2012). Getting the most out of living abroad: Biculturalism and integrative complexity as key drivers of creative and professional success. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 103, 520–542. doi:10.1037/a0029360

John M. Davis, PhD, is a professor of psychology and Honorary Professor of International Studies at Texas State University. He served as Psi Chi President from 2006–07. During his term in office, he initiated and led the successful effort to expand Psi Chi from the National to the International Honor Society in Psychology. Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to John M. Davis, Department of Psychology, Texas State University, San Marcos, TX 78666. E-mail:

Copyright 2016 (Volume 20, Issue 2) by Psi Chi, the International Honor Society in Psychology


Eye on Psi Chi is a magazine designed to keep members and alumni up-to-date with all the latest information about Psi Chi’s programs, awards, and chapter activities. It features informative articles about careers, graduate school admission, chapter ideas, personal development, the various fields of psychology, and important issues related to our discipline.

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