We believe the best way to learn a language is to live in a country where the language is spoken for a period of time and really immerse yourself in the local culture. A little over a year ago, Paul and I attended Spanish school in Quito, Ecuador‘s capital, followed by further lessons in Cuenca (in the South of Ecuador) and Antigua in Guatemala. We had some great experiences studying Spanish at the different schools (and some less nice ones).
There are thousands of language schools around the world, and the experience you have can make or break your desire to improve your language skills. So, how do you choose the right one?
First and foremost… Determine your needs
Before you even start any research in to language schools, think about HOW you best learn:
- Are you a fast learner (especially when it comes to languages) or do you need a bit longer until new information sticks?
- Can you picture a person or place in your head but cannot recall their name, no matter how hard you try?
- Do you remember what a teacher told you in a classroom setting or the things you learned by actually doing them?
Also, ask yourself WHY you want to learn new or improve existing language skills:
- Is it because you are planning to move to a new country, and your visa requires passing a language exam?
- Or because you have finally met the love of your life and want to be able to communicate with their family?
- Do you need to become a better negotiator?
- Or do you want to teach the language to others?
Your WHY and HOW need to come together when it comes to learning a language. Otherwise, you may end up being disappointed or worse, never want to learn another language.
Paul wanted to learn German because he had made a pact with my mum: When they would see each other next time, either would speak (at least some of) the other’s language. A few years in, has Paul learned German and has my mum learned English? They both attended language school for a term or two but pretty much none of it has stuck. Why? My mum didn’t have great experiences learning a foreign language as she grew up and (thus) learning languages isn’t really her thing. Asking her to learn English (or any other language) is probably the worst thing you could ask her to do. Paul finds it difficult too. For him though, it’s really dependent on the way he is taught: A patient teacher and an interactive learning experience can achieve wonders.
Set realistic expectations
Learning a language is not a linear process. You may do quantum leaps for a while. Then you plateau, and at times, you may even feel as if you go backwards. This is normal. Unless you are blessed with talent (or were raised multi-lingual), learning a language requires dedication and practice.
It took me years to master the English language: I learned my first English words in year 7. When I left school, my English was pretty bad. I had to learn a bit more at a university as a lot of the material was in English. Then, a few months into my first job after university, I knew I would be working in Asia the following year. So, I used my next holiday to do a two-week language course in Florida, followed by months and months of studying at the Wall Street Institute in Munich. I wanted to be sufficiently equipped to at least not make a total idiot out of myself. That’s a few years of learning and practising already, but I only started to become fluent once I lived in the United Kingdom.
Now, the journey will be different for everyone. But let’s face it, most of us won’t be dreaming in the new language within weeks. So if your next holiday in Mexico is about learning Spanish, set yourself a goal that matches your learning ability, and the time and focus you are able to dedicate.
Do your research… then book
First up: Research the countries where the language you want to learn is the official language and spoken by the majority of the population.
Be aware that the same language is spoken differently in different countries. As someone born and raised in Germany, I have difficulties understanding the German spoken in Switzerland, and Paul (as a native Kiwi) struggles to understand a Scot or Irish person at times. Pronunciation and speed even differ between regions within the same country: The purest German for example is spoken in ‘Mitteldeutschland’ (broadband reaching from Muenster via Hanover and Celle to Berlin). In many other parts of the country, locals speak a (less easily understood) dialect.
Choose a destination where it’s easy to understand the language, especially as a beginner. On our journey around the Americas, we struggled to understand the people in Cuba and Nicaragua, while understanding the locals in Ecuador, Guatemala and Mexico was a breeze. We haven’t been to Colombia (yet) but Colombian Spanish also seems to be easy to understand.
What course type, duration, intensity and timing?
Finding a school that matches your needs is not easy, so don’t rush it:
- Check the website of a potential school for statements about their teaching methodology and instructional techniques. If what you read doesn’t resonate with you move on to the next.
- You like what you read, and the school’s website even includes (glowing) student testimonials? Don’t type in your credit card details just yet. All this is marketing material after all. So, try and get some independent references from former students (for example, through TripAdvisor).
- While you won’t be able to choose your teacher (in most cases), it is worthwhile asking the school about their teachers’ qualification and experience, and whether you will be exposed to the same or multiple teachers during your stay.
- Best is also to contact the school with any other questions you may have, before you sign up, both in writing and (if possible) over the phone. The way they communicate with you tells you a lot about the quality of the school.
As you research schools, also check out what type of courses they offer. Do they match your WHY and HOW? Most schools offer a range of general and special focus lessons (for example to help with business negotiations or IELTS exam preparations), and you can choose between Group or a 1:1 lesson.
Group lessons tend to be cheaper and can be very interactive if the teacher incorporates a lot of group work and role-plays. The downside is that teachers won’t be able to tailor their approach to students’ needs as much as they can in 1:1 lessons. If you choose group lessons and are not a total beginner, you will be placed into a group based on a placement test. Depending on the proficiency of your fellow classmates, a group may not be as cohesive as you may want, which means you could struggle to follow (or be bored). Just something to be aware of. I’ve had experience with both, and would only choose a group lesson again as a beginner.
Be mindful that learning a language is tiring. Be aware that you will get homework, and you will need to review/digest your learnings of the day (for it to sink in). So the 20 hours per week you may have in mind are in reality more like 30 hours per week or 5-6 hours per day (if you consider an hour’s homework plus an hour to review/digest per day). If you want to explore the city/country you’re visiting you may want to leave enough time for that too.
If you have booked 1:1 lessons, you might be able to choose whether you want to do them in the morning or afternoon. Ideally, pick your lesson times based on when your brain works best to take on new information. Sometimes other considerations may play out: If you travel somewhere during the rainy season, mornings are usually clear and great to explore your destination. Rain or thunderstorms in the afternoon mean that time is better spent indoors with your teacher.
Where to stay?
To learn a language it really helps (I’d even say it’s essential) to immerse yourself in the local culture. The best way to do that is to stay with locals and have as much interaction with your hosts as possible to practice your newly learned vocabulary. Laura and Santiago, our hosts in Quito, had a ‘Spanish only’ policy at mealtimes, which was challenging at first but really helped us become better Spanish speakers. Homestays are also a great way to experience the local cuisine (and local life more broadly).
When to go?
Peak periods also apply to language schools, and our recommendation applies as always: Avoid them (if you can). Schools are more cramped. They will be less flexible to accommodate your needs, and the overall quality (including that of homestays) tends to be lower. Ask your chosen school directly when their peak season is. We studied in Ecuador in January/February and in Guatemala in August – both times in low season.
How much to pay?
That obviously is a big factor to consider. Prices for language courses vary widely depending on the destination you choose. The prices will also differ between schools in the same location, so research the typical costs in your shortlisted countries and do shop around. 1:1 Spanish lessons in Ecuador and Guatemala were about USD10 per hour. Also, check out the cost of accommodation (and what meals are included) and keep in mind the costs of transportation to/from your chosen destination.
We spoke about immersing yourself in the local culture as much as possible. Extracurricular activities that many schools offer are another great way to do that. These activities range from dance and cooking lessons to visits of local farmers or artisan markets, and weekend excursions to historic sites or nature walks. Sometimes, these activities are free but do expect to pay a (usually very reasonable) contribution.
For a full list of things to consider when planning a (language study) trip check out our article How to turn your travel dreams into reality.
What else is important when looking for a language school?
We also check out the school size and the actual learning spaces. Larger schools tend to have better facilities but can feel like a zoo (especially during peak season). Some schools hold their 1:1 lessons in an open courtyard with groups of tables and chairs. Others have cubicles that provide some privacy. Sitting a meter away from another student and their teacher (and overhearing their conversations) can be very distracting. So, apart from testimonials of former students, check out the pictures on the school’s website to get an understanding of the physical environment in which you will be learning.
Also, check out a school’s booking and cancellation policy:
- Do you have to pay everything upfront (without having seen the school and/or homestay)?
- Are you able to switch (easily and without penalty fees) if your class, teacher or homestay just don’t work for you?
If you don’t find the information on the school’s website ask for it.
How to get the most out of your stay?
Apart from doing your research, asking plenty of questions upfront and not rushing your decision, there are a number of things you can (and should) do after you have booked your language school.
The school and your teachers can only do so much. Your learning experience is ultimately your responsibility. So come prepared. We spoke about your WHY and HOW above. Especially if you’re not an absolute beginner, think a bit more about what you want to get out of your week/s at school, for example, while you’re on the plane to your destination:
- Are there bits of the language you haven’t quite nailed yet?
- Do you need to practice typical situations you come across in your job?
On your first day at school, discuss your specific needs and goals with your teacher to set expectations. Then check after a few days to see how things are going (including whether the teaching approach matches your learning style and whether the speed is appropriate). Schools follow a certain curriculum (some even create their own workbooks) and unless you tell them otherwise, they will follow the curriculum. If you attend different branches of the same school (for example a week in Quito and a week in Cuenca) don’t assume that your teachers (or the admin staff) talk to each other and do a handover.
Each day, review/digest your learnings as you do your homework. If you don’t understand something (write down the question and) ask your teacher (the next day).
If you are not happy with your lessons, figure out why (for example, is it the teacher, the curriculum or the speed?), talk to your teacher and/or the school’s admin staff to see what changes can be made.
Outside of school
We’ve mentioned it already: Seek opportunities to immerse yourself in the local culture and practice your language skills as much as possible by
- Picking home stays over hotels/apartments;
- Practicing speaking and listening (with your host family, through extracurricular activities or by watching the local news); and
- Forcing yourself to speak to your fellow students (including family members or friends who may have joined you) in the language you both learn (rather than your mother tongue).
Once you returned home, continue practicing, for example through Duolingo and other language apps, foreign language meetups, getting tutoring from a native, keeping in touch with your hosts and/or teachers, watching original movies (with and without subtitles), watching the news or reading (children’s) books, magazines and newspapers. And visit (other) countries in which the language is spoken as often as you can. Whatever it might be: JUST KEEP PRACTICING.
Feature image courtesy of Jon Tyson (via Unsplash)