With thousands of language schools out there, it’s hard to know what to look for when deciding on a language immersion experience. Here are 10 insights to help you select the best program.
- Compare travel costs to the destinations you’re considering.
- Know the general cost of living in each destination.
- Read up on the quirks and the dialects of the language you’re studying.
- Select the best atmosphere where you’ll be most comfortable.
- Decide if private or group classes will suit you best.
- Maximize your study time by knowing what a ‘class hour’ means.
- Find a school that has a clear university partner.
- Live with a host family.
- Look for programs that provides opportunities to learn outside the classroom.
- Be careful of hidden program fees.
CHOOSING A DESTINATION
There are several important factors you need to consider when deciding where to travel and study. With so many destinations to choose from, you should list out each place you’re considering and then compare travel costs, cost of living, language dialect, and general atmosphere.
If you have set a budget for your language learning program, go to your favorite travel site and look up the cost of a round trip flight. If your dates are flexible, make sure you experiment with your leave/return dates to get the best price. Next, search for the cost of living in each destination you’re considering. Make sure you understand things like meals and local transportation, which are most likely going to make up the bulk of what you spend. Travel costs and cost of living can significantly change the total price of your program—potentially making an inexpensive program incredibly expensive to travel to, or pushing an already expensive program beyond your budget.
Note that different destinations means different markets and different markets can save you money. The price of your language classes is ultimately determined by local market conditions and each market values language learning differently. For example, for Spanish learners looking to get the best value for your dollar, studying in Guatemala is the best destination—Guatemala is possibly the least expensive, highest quality language destination available anywhere!
Language dialect is also something to think about when studying a language abroad. For example, while Cuba is an attractive destination, and very exciting right now, the Caribbean Spanish dialect can be difficult to catch on to. As well, there are destinations where the accent or speed of speech can be more challenging, especially if you’re just beginning your language studies. This holds true even across destinations in a single country. The country of Peru is a great example—in Cusco, the locals speak at a slower pace and with very clear enunciation; however, if you travel to the capital city of Lima, all of a sudden the language seems to fly at you at lightning speed. For a beginner, a destination like Cusco is likely the better choice.
Another consideration to think about is what kind of general atmosphere you prefer—where do you feel most comfortable; where will you best settle in, focus on studying, and feel comfortable traveling? Do you like the idea of a bustling, cosmopolitan city or a more suburban or even rural town; maybe you prefer to be at the beach? Every destination has its draws and its drawbacks. In a place like Costa Rica, the positives far outweigh anything else and in fact you can get a taste of just about everything. You can study in the capital city of San Jose or head to Costa Rica’s beautiful beaches—Manuel Antonio is the nicest! The country is small, which makes travel easy, and coast to coast trips take just 5-6 hours of driving time.
CLASSES AREN’T ALWAYS CREATED EQUAL
One aspect that is often overlooked by language learners looking to study abroad is the type of classes you’re signing up for. This can make a real difference in your language training. Many language schools offer private classes, and you can get a lot of individual attention and cover a lot of ground in a short amount of time. However, small group classes can be very beneficial as well. The ability to converse with multiple people and gain a lot of in-class practice is a huge draw. In group classes, you learn from others’ errors, get answers to questions you may not have thought to ask, and build a group of people to practice with outside of class. The camaraderie, team work, and shared goals in small group language classes can ultimately help accelerate your language learning and make the whole trip more fun!
When looking at the classes offered by language schools, it’s very important you understand each school’s definition of a ‘class hour.’ For most people, you would assume a ‘class hour’ is just that—60 minutes of class—but that’s rarely the case. Most schools run on ‘pedagogical hours,’ which can range from 45 to 55 minutes. That’s a big difference if you’re studying for 2 to 4 weeks or more; and it can easily add up to several hours during your program! If you want the biggest bang for your buck, make sure you choose a school that offers 55-minute class hours.
Finally, only a few language schools out there have affiliations with accredited universities. While you may not be looking to earn college credit, this affiliation gives credence to the school’s reputation and the quality of their language program. A partnership with an accredited university means that a 4-year degree-granting institution has vetted the language school, seen the curriculum and classes, and has deemed the school worthy of being associated with the university. There are varying levels of affiliation, so look for language schools that have relationships like the one between Maximo Nivel and California State University – Monterey Bay.
LEARNING THE LANGUAGE OUTSIDE THE CLASS
The best way to guarantee you get the best language learning experience while abroad is to live with a host family. While most schools offer family-stays, there are some that offer dormitory style or independent housing, such as apartments. However, these options simply won’t give you much opportunity to practice your language outside of class. If truly learning the language is your priority, make sure you look for schools that have host families and that follow a policy of only housing 1 to 3 other students with the family at a time.
Another important point is to find a language school that offers a language exchange program. A program like Maximo Nivel’s Tandem Conversation Program teams up native Spanish speakers from Costa Rica, Guatemala, and Peru with international students who are studying Spanish—you practice your Spanish, while your partner practices their English. This is excellent practice that moves your language learning beyond the classroom and gets you involved with local people and the local culture. Most language schools offer only a single language (e.g. Spanish), so you might have to look hard for a school offering multiple languages and one that is clearly dedicated to providing language partners and exchange programs while you’re there. They’re not easy to find, but they’re well worth it!
Still other opportunities for language practice and cultural immersion include special events and excursions hosted by the school. Look for free cultural activities like salsa dance classes, market tours, tandem conversation nights, cooking classes, and more.
PROGRAM FEES = PROGRAM COST, RIGHT?
It is important to understand that language schools don’t always have transparent, straightforward pricing. You have to dig down a little and make sure you understand total cost and ask about any additional fees the school might charge. Often, one school may look like a great deal, but then their hidden program fees surprise you—usually right at the end. Additional fees to make sure you ask about include registration fees, payment processing fees, and fees to change classes. These extra fees can add as much as 5% to 10% to your total course tuition.