I went on my first language school program to Costa Rica. What I did not know at the time was that I would be sending students to Costa Rica for the next 20 years as part of the travel company that I owned that specialized in trips to Costa Rica as well as all of Central and South America.
I have learned a lot over the years on what constitutes a good language school and what one needs to look for in choosing one. I also learned ( the hard way) what needs to be done once they arrive in order to get the most out of the program for the time that they are there.
Therefore, here is what I suggested to the people that contacted me and that I would like to pass on to you.
Before you Go
When you start planning on going to a language school there are a variety of factors that you need to consider when deciding which language school to sign up with.
One of the first things you need to decide after of course choosing what language you want to learn and in what country you want to go to as there are thousands of language schools world-wide, all varying in quality and price. Once you have decided on which country you are going to study in then you should consider how long you want to go for. The programs usually vary from 1 week to 1 month, and for the sweet spot is about 2 weeks. After that you need to decide how many hours a day you want to be in class. I have seen many people go overboard on this and stay in class for 6 hours a day.
I would recommend that you go for 2 weeks and take a maximum of 4 hours a day. Usually this means you are in school in the morning and then have the afternoon free. This allows you not to get overloaded with information and that the same time you get to practice in the afternoon what you learned in the morning.
In doing your research keep in mind that some schools are too informal to offer full language immersion and that tuition for schools varies according to country and quality of school. For instance, ussally at the schools that charge more the instructors are university trained and the group sizes are smaller. I would not recommend that you go to a school that has 20 or more students in a class. In classes of this size you will not get the attention you deserve and the pace of the class will be much slower.
Another aspect to consider when choosing a country and school is where are you going to stay. Are you going to stay at an AirBnB, maybe a hotel or with a family. My recommendation would be stay with a local family. This is what I did when I took was in my first exchange program and it proved invaluable as it forced you to speak the language as the family either doesn’t speak any language other then their own or are required to only speak their language in order to assist you in learning.
If you decide that living with a family is the way to go, verify that you will be the only student staying at the house. I would not recommend staying in a place that houses an additional student as you will be less likely to speak with the family and therefore you learn as much as you could.
Not only does this help you more quickly learn the language but you also get insite into how daily life is for the people of the country you are visiting. This will give you a more rounded experience to the country you are visiting.
Speaking of this, when looking into the prices of the schools you should confirm what is included in the tuition price? Does it include living with a host family? Does it include some or all meals, field trips, etc. Also check if, during your time there, will the tutition include guest speaker presentations, field trips, or even volunteer opportunities.When you have narrowed down your list of schools I would recommend checking the schools websites for a US contact. If so, you can use this as a resource to ask questions,and verify the legitimacy of the program. You can also ask them if they can put you in contact with past participants so you can ask them about their experience at the school. This may be somewhat skewed as they probably will only put you contact with students they know had a positive experience but consider it just part of the puzzle you piecing together.
Lastly, make sure you start studying your new language using programs like Rosetta Stone, that you can find on Amazon, BEFORE you leave as this will give you the basics to which you can build upon and that will also help assist you while you are there and help keep you learning when you return
While You Are There
When you arrive at the country of your choice, if you decide to live with a family, usually they will meet you at the airport and take you to their home. This is where it all begins so hopefully you will have started your learning before your arrival.
When you start your classes, here is what I would suggest you do: Immerse yourself in the language and to that end the first and most important advice I can give is don’t hang out with your classmates. Its going to be very tempting, as you make friends, to want to hang out with them before and after class. DON’T! That is, if your goal is to learn the language the best you can.
During the years I have sent students to schools, I have seen this time and time again. They go to a school, for example, a month taking classes everyday and when they return home, they have learning only the very basics. The reason for this? Well, for an English speaker its even worse, as you will find that the common language between all the international students that are at the school, English is the common denominator. And if you start to hang out with them, you will only be learning your new language during the time you are at the school which defeats the whole reason for being there.
By going off on your own, while not being as much fun, will force you to learn your new language as you are forced to interact with the locals and fend for yourself. You really have to decide why you are there and its to learn the language as best you can, you need to make that commitment.
Also while in class and out and on a daily basis, take good notes and make notecards or use apps like Flashcards or Quizlet to help reinforce what you are learning. Try to set mini goals for yourself to either read X amount per day and/or learn X amount of words.
While you are there look for local cultural and social options such as museums or events that are happening while you are there. Its a great way to experience what local life is like in the place you are at as well as giving you the opportunity to practice your new language skills. One of the things I did was I went to the a local university and went to their language arts building. There I was able to find students who were interested in practicing their English and in return they helped me with my Spanish. I also make friends this way and this led to many unexpected adventures while at the same time me learn the language.
Now, don’t get me wrong, it may not be easy at first this way as you will be constantly translating what you want to say from your native language to your new one but, if you stick with it, it will get easier and easier and before you know it you’ll be surprising yourself on how quickly you are coming along.
So how do you keep up your new language skills once you get home? I try to remember the following acronym SLWP:
SPEAK- When you get home don’t be become complacent or “take a break” from speaking the language when you get back as its all too easy to stop using your new skills. Try to keep going by looking language groups in your community. There may be a group of people who meet at the library, community center, or local school to practice a language. Also check out Meetup and see if their isn’t a group of native speakers of your new language that don’t get together. It may not be a language class per se but its a good way of getting involved with the community of your new language.
LISTEN- In todays day and age, this a easier one to do as there are some many options out there. For example you can get the app TuneIn or you can download apps of your favorite radio stations that you listened to while you were learning. Depending on the language you can even get TV stations in your new language by using such mediums like ROKU and Sling TV
WRITE – Initially try writing small simple paragraphs as this will force to you slow down and think about your new language and write with a paper and pen and not your computer. This way you can think about the right word to say and how to pronounce it as opposed to feeling rushed or using an alternative word then you would have otherwise because the conversation is going smoothly.
As with anything else, the more you practice, the easier it will get and as your writing improves you can then write more complicated sentences and also pay closer attention to accents and where they belong.
READ – The biggest advantage to reading is that you and do it at anytime throughout the day. And with all the devices we carry with us on a daily basis there is no excuse not to have some reading material in the language that you are learning. You can also go to ethnic stores or if its a more commonly know language just go to your local store and read labels on the back of shampoo bottles or other household goods! Without even knowing it, you will begin to learn new words and increase your vocabulary.
If you decide to go with the books, I would recommend starting with children’s books. And although this may seem basic or maybe even embarrassing to be reading, you would be surprised how much you learn and also the confidence it will give to pursue more complicated books in the future.
Even though studying abroad has its challenges, the experience of travel and of learning new things about the lifestyle and social aspects of the country you visit as well as the gift of learning a new language is priceless. Give it a try! You won’t regret it.. I know I never have.