Choosing a Language School Abroad

On 08/06/2010, in Informal Education, by Jordan Wilson

If you have the time and money, studying a foreign language in a native speaking country is an excellent way to learn.

I believe it is the best method to pick up a second language. Additionally, it will be a tremendous experience that you will remember forever.

In trying to locate a language school to attend, there are many, many options.

To find a good school, here is how I narrow the field.

Where Do I Want to Study?

First, I identify the location where I wish to attend classes.

For me, there are usually two criteria.

One, I want a location where they speak a high quality and widely used form of the language.

I attempt to avoid regional dialects and try to find a place where the local language is replicated elsewhere in the world.

I previously used Argentina as an example of where Spanish is somewhat uniquely spoken. I enjoyed studying in Argentina, but I was already conversant in Spanish when I went there.

However, if I was new to the language, I would have learned to use “vos” (the familiar form of “you”) rather than “tu”, which is used almost everywhere else in the Spanish speaking world. And it is not just the word change. Conjugation of the related verbs is different between “tu” and “vos”. Had I learned my Spanish basics in Argentina, it would have been confusing if I subsequently travelled to Spain, Mexico, etc. for pleasure or additional schooling.

Although the Spanish used in Argentina is not universal, it is not a low quality language. Some countries and regions within countries may speak strong dialects or may be known for lower quality language. To avoid offending any readers, I will not name names. But if you do a Google search of languages and areas not to study in, you will find some examples.

Two, I like to go places where there are other activities I can undertake.

For example, studying Spanish in Cuzco, Peru allowed me to explore ruins and hike the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu in my spare time. More recently, I studied Spanish in Ushuaia, Argentina; a town essentially located at the end of the world. Between classes I had time to explore wilderness parks, go kayaking in the Beagle Channel, and visit penguin colonies. A very nice mix of activities to offset my verb tenses.

If you prefer culture to the outdoors, Spanish in Madrid, French in Paris, Italian in Rome, or German in Vienna or Berlin are fantastic choices.

A friend of mine loves riding horses. She managed to find a language school which was associated with a riding academy. Between classes, she spent many hours riding. Other friends have combined language studies and cooking classes in Italy. And one friend had plans to combine language courses while helping with panda conservation at the Wolong Nature Reserve in China.

No matter what your (legal) interests, I am certain you can find a learning site that meets your educational and entertainment objectives.

If money is tight, I would add a third criteria of best value.

There are often big variations in cost between schools and cities. Not surprisingly, there is usually a direct correlation between the cost of living in a specific location and the price of the language school.

In comparing costs, I factor in the total trip cost, not just classes. This includes flights, meals, transportation within the country if necessary, tourist activities I want to undertake, etc.

I try to find 2-3 suitable alternatives for school locations.

If I focus too much on one city or region, then I lock myself in to the schools in that location. I would rather give myself more location options to ensure that I can find a decent school.

Google Language Schools in Those Locations

Next I find the language schools that operate in the chosen locations.

Most should have websites. In today’s world, if they do not, I question their seriousness as a school. I realize that I might miss out on a good school or two, but taking a chance on something that offers no information is too risky for me.

In checking the websites, I consider the following questions.

What are the Course Options?

Do the classes and programs meet my learning needs?

If I want small class sizes, is that an option? Can I get individual instruction should I want that?

Does the school use universally known textbooks? Do they follow an accredited program? Or do they create their own teaching material?

In my experience, schools offer a variety of options that meet most students’ requirements.

This is usually the least of my concerns when reviewing schools.

Does the School Offer Extracurricular Activities?

Schools that offer extracurricular activities are useful. That way one has a ready made activity list and will quickly meet other students to spend some time with outside class.

I suggest being careful with other students though. Often I see groups of Americans, Dutch, etc. forming and they do nothing but stay together outside of class. And, of course, they speak their native language together and do not practice the foreign one.

Again, it seems that most schools directly or indirectly provide extracurricular activities. Some may be included in the course costs, others require additional fees.

Does the School Have Multiple Locations?

Depending on the time frame, I suggest considering schools with more than one location.

For example, if you intend to learn Spanish in Spain for 6 weeks, you could study the entire time in Madrid. But it might be more fun to find a school with locations in Madrid and Sevilla. Then you could spend 3 weeks at each location.

Some schools even have locations in multiple countries. For example, there are language schools that allow students to study in Argentina, Chile, Peru, etc. under the same course structure. This is very useful if you plan to travel throughout a region for an extended period.

When thinking about changing locations, I suggest trying to stay with the same school.

Each school has its own books, programs, and teaching methods. If I did 3 weeks with Estudio Sampere in Madrid and 3 weeks with don Quijote in Sevilla, I may find some repetition or gaps in my learning. Whereas, the same schools usually (but not always, so ask first) try to create a stream-lined program that readily allows students to move between locations with continuity.

If considering changing sites, I suggest staying a minimum of 2 weeks in any one location. Or, if you only have a maximum of 2 weeks to study, then stick to one site.

I have heard from many students that it takes a few days to get used to a new school and instructor. Even if the school and program is the same, some things are done differently and you need to understand new teachers who may have different backgrounds and accents. If you intend to study 1 week at 4 different locations, it may take you 2-3 days to get up to speed at each and by then the week is half over.

Is the School Accredited by Any Independent Organizations?

Schools often have an affiliation with an independent group that tries to ensure a certain minimum teaching standard.

A few of the affiliations seem made-up to me. More a marketing ploy than an attempt to ensure high standards. But some are internationally recognized and should help ensure that the school provides quality instruction.

I usually check the affiliations listed on a school’s website.

If any are unfamiliar, I review the affiliation or accreditation organization’s website to assess whether it is of any relevance.

As there are many such organizations, some in general and others specific to the language or country, it is too lengthy to list them here. I shall leave it to you to do due diligence in this area.

Can You Leverage the Course for Work of School?

For students, I would consider schools that offer credit at your university or other school.

Some language schools have arrangements where students from foreign universities get class credit.

That may be worthwhile when you get home. If you are currently attending a post-secondary institute, ask if they have any relationships with foreign language schools for course credit or exemptions from prerequisite classes.

Many language schools allow you to write official language exams.

Be careful of the difference between course exams offered by the language school and truly official exams. For example, the Zertifikat Deutsch is an recognized test accepted by Germany authorities as proof of language skills required when applying for German citizenship. The certificate you get after 4 weeks at the language school will not be accepted.

Official exam results may also help get credit at your post-secondary school and/or allow you to skip prerequisite course.

They also look good (and professional) on the resume when seeking employment.

Consider two candidates for an open position. One’s resume says that he spent 3 weeks in Hamburg taking German lessons. The other candidate’s resume says that she holds a Prüfung Wirtschaftsdeutsch International (PWD) certificate. This is “accepted by employers in many countries as proof of a person’s knowledge of business German at a very advanced level.”

To the extent you can leverage off your language school experience to save time, get school credit, or strengthen your resume, it is worth factoring into the school selection.

Are There Independent Reviews of the School Available?

Each school’s website will have testimonials of past students. Perhaps hard to believe, but the reviews on the school’s own site are always quite positive.

I suggest you perform an internet search to try and find more independent feedback. There might not be much, but every little bit of information helps the decision making process.

The Finalists

Typically I narrow the field down to 2-3 finalists.

Then I send each emails with any questions that I have about their school and program.

This is useful in clarifying any uncertainty I have about specific items.

But it is equally important to see how they respond.

If they are quick, with good information, I am happy.

But if they are slow or do not properly address my queries, a red flag goes up. I am trying to give them my hard earned money and they cannot be bothered to quickly address my issues. If they are like that before I send them a cheque, how will they be once they have my cash?

Those are a few thoughts as to how I choose language schools. While it is not an exact science, I have been fortunate over the years with schools.

I have studied abroad in Argentina (Buenos Aires, Ushuaia), Ecuador (Cuenca), Peru (Cuzco), Spain (Madrid), Switzerland (Zurich), and Germany (Hamburg). Every school was extremely good in course structure, teaching, exam options, and extracurricular activities. And each location provided many interesting things to do outside school hours.

I hope you have the same good luck should you decide to study abroad.

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