It’s no secret that if you really want to become fluent in another language, immersing yourself where that language is spoken is the best way to do so. Luckily, there are excellent and affordable language schools all over the world to help you along. These will keep you on track while you make the trip of a lifetime. Not only will they teach you the rules of the language, but often they’ll arrange day trips and exciting cultural experiences as well.
I spent one month studying Spanish in Guatemala and three months studying Spanish in Mexico. I know a thing or two about how these programs work. In this article, I’ll help you evaluate a language school so you can pick the perfect program for yourself.
Why Study in a Foreign Country?
Obviously, it’s much easier to install Duolingo on your phone and do some lessons a few minutes before bed than it is to book a flight to a foreign country and stay there a month. Even committing two hours a week to a local community college evening class is a burden for a lot of people. But if what you’re after is results, nothing beats immersing yourself where your target language is the main language.
It’s a common myth that children are better than adults at learning languages. The truth is that children are forced to learn the languages that the adults around them are speaking. Their situation is immersion by default.
In contrast, as adults we make token efforts to learn languages such as installing apps on our phones or taking short classes. We’re still reading, writing, and speaking in our native language 99% of the day. Then we act surprised and throw our hands up in the air when we’re not fluent.
However, if adults step out of their comfort zone, stay disciplined, and force themselves to speak in a foreign language, they will learn more quickly and effectively than any child.
How Should You Evaluate a School?
It’s hard to evaluate a language school before actually being there yourself, taking classes. The main reason is that so much of the quality boils down to the effectiveness of individual teachers. We’ve experienced massive gaps in teacher quality at several schools, to the point that it feels pointless rating the school itself.
It never hurts to read online reviews when doing your initial research, but a better approach, if you have the time, is to visit different schools after you arrive in a city. Administrators will often let you sit in for part of a lesson, and it may be extremely clear right away if the teacher quality is up to your standards (or not). You can also pay for a few classes before committing to a longer term of instruction (usually at a big discount).
By going out on foot, you can scout out many schools in a single day. You’ll also be in a better position to negotiate a good price for a longer-term period of study, because they know you’re not desperate and you’re checking out their competitors. Another advantage is that you can see who your classmates might be if you intend on taking group classes. Some people’s personalities can just rub the wrong way, and it’s nice to have an idea before you commit to spending dozens of hours with them!
A final red flag to watch out for is whether they have a developed curriculum or not. In my experience, it’s a sign of professionalism to have a clear path forward in the instruction. Otherwise there’s a real risk of “spinning wheels” with material and losing sight of the goals. This is especially true as new students arrive and drop out. Of course, there should be room for teachers to tailor their lessons to particular students. But you definitely want to avoid the dreaded, “What do you want to talk about today?” situation.
Private Tutor or Group Classes?
Often language schools will have the option for a private tutor or group classes. The private tutor is naturally much more expensive than the group class rate. There’s no question that you will learn more and progress faster with private lessons. However, you need to ask yourself if the increased cost is worth it and if it fits your individual learning style. Some people really hate the pressure of being constantly “on the spot” in a one-on-one situation.
From a strict value standpoint, it’s usually better to go with group classes. The group size tends to be very small anyway (2-4 people). This is because students are constantly arriving and leaving, so management can’t count on bringing a large cohort through a predefined curriculum. And the bigger the group, the higher the chance that quick learners will be bored and slow learners will feel overwhelmed. So some schools have a policy of breaking up groups when they get above 4 or 5 students.
How Long Should You Study For?
How long you should study for begs the question: well, how long do you have? Generally speaking, the longer the better. As an added bonus, the discounts for longer commitments can be significant. This works really well if you have cultivated a long-term travel lifestyle and you can support yourself financially from anywhere in the world. Language lessons in the morning, work in the afternoon (or vice-versa).
If you don’t have that luxury, you’re going to be limited by when you need to be back in your home country. But if you can’t dedicate at least a month to studying overseas, you’re not really going to be optimizing your experience. You probably won’t feel comfortable enough to speak much outside of class. And if you already know some of the language, you’ll probably be reviewing that material the whole time rather than learning new material.
One way around this, if you have limited time, is to cram your lessons such that you’re taking 5-6 hours of classes every day. This may or may not be possible at your school. Even if it is possible, you’re risking burnout with that much intense study every day.
There can also be diminishing returns if your study period stretches too long. The “low-hanging fruit” of important topics dries up and you may find yourself studying poetry or rarely-used grammar minutia. Also, new students may join your group, prompting your teacher to repeat certain lessons.
Living with a Host Family: Worth It?
It’s not uncommon for language schools to partner with local families who provide you with room and board during your stay. This is a great way to really learn about the local culture and food in an intimate way. It’s also an incredible language immersion opportunity. You can really get to know each other beyond “La cuenta, por favor.”
This option also takes away the stress of figuring out meals, so you can focus more on learning the language. The downside is that the comfort level and privacy might be below your usual standards. If you’re traveling as a couple, you may have to pay your host fees individually. This takes away some of your usual travel cost savings for accommodation.
I would recommend giving the host family option a try if you’re a solo traveler and laser focused on language proficiency results. It’s also better suited to shorter study periods, though you could also work out a hybrid arrangement where you stay with a host family for a few weeks before branching out and finding your own place to finish out your studies.
I really can’t recommend trying a language school in a foreign country highly enough. Relying on self-discipline to learn a language in your spare time is rarely enough to achieve fluency. Enrolling in a school is a great first step. Follow the tips in this article to find the perfect one for you. But to really take it to the next level, force yourself to keep speaking the language outside of the classroom for the full immersion experience!