During my years of travel, I have taken language lessons at three different language schools with two separate stints at the same one.
Language learning is my preferred alternative travel method, especially if I’m after getting to know both a place and culture on a more personal level.
Language learning during travels not only opens the door to cultural insights, but it also gives you the tools to better inquire with locals, live, and possibly impress future employers when you return home.
But what to look for when choosing a language school abroad? Here are my best tips.
Evaluate Your Goals Beforehand
The most important part of choosing the right language school is to know what you hope to get out of it in the long run.
- Are you the casual learner that wants to have a relaxed time and just learn enough of the language to get around, buy food, etc.?
- Do you want to take home a valuable asset by acquiring a 2nd language?
- Can you handle classes all day, or do you want to only take an hour or two at a time?
- Would you prefer a school that just offers classes or is more of a full-featured service (student tours, weekends away, school activities and social gatherings)?
- Do you want a school that caters to backpackers or to serious students?
- Do you want a school in a location that draws tourists and expats or one that is more remote?
Keep your goals and preferences in mind while looking at schools to make the right decision.
Location, Location, Location
The location aspect of a language school can affect your enjoyment, your expense, and your ability to learn.
Location and Your Enjoyment
For one, if you are the type of person that just wants to learn a little bit of travel language skills while meeting other travelers, then finding a school in a more tourist-friendly town is probably the way to go.
Tourist towns will have plenty of other tourists and plenty of extracurricular activities to keep you busy as you learn to ask simple questions and then comprehend them.
A good example of this would be the difference between learning Spanish in Antigua, Guatemala (very popular destination) or Quetzaltenango, Guatemala (a more remote and hard to reach city with fewer tourists).
Location and Your Expense
If money is of concern to you, then staying away from the big touristy cities are the way to go (generally).
Big cities will have big city prices for the school, for the accommodation and for the other aspects of living.
A good example of this would be choosing to learn Russian in Moscow, Russia or in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan.
In Russia, you can easily spend $25 per hour of study (not even in a private class) while Bishkek costs are in the $4 per hour range, and for a one-on-one lesson!
Location and Your Ability to Learn
The right location, believe it or not, can also affect your ability to learn the language.
If you are in a very tourist-friendly destination, then chances are that both tourists and locals are going to know a bit of English — thus derailing your chances of being forced to use the new language.
When I studied Spanish in San Pedro, Guatemala, I found that after class I generally was able to get by with English… or if I tried to speak Spanish, the other person would come back in English to make it easier.
However, when I moved on to Quetzaltenango (Xela), hardly anyone spoke English, and I remember being grateful that I was forced to put my lessons to use.
The cost of language study abroad varies depending on where you study, how intensively you study, and how long you stick around.
You can easily find locations around the world — ones less developed — where an hour of language study is $4-5 for a personalized, one-on-one course.
Or, you can travel to the Western world, to a popular city, and try your hand at courses in the $20 per hour range, and not for one-on-one.
It's smart to evaluate all your options before hopping straight over to Russia to learn Russian when you could also be considering Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Ukraine and Belarus.
My personal opinion, when it comes to accommodation while participating in language study, is to find a homestay.
If a language school is offering the ability to set up a homestay, try your best to take them up on this — even if only for a little bit.
A stint with a local family will really drive home what you learn in your lessons and give you a better understanding of the culture, food, and location.
Plus, many times a few of your meals are included in the price.
Otherwise, investigate the type of accommodation a school might provide, or if it provides any at all.
There are some language schools that require you to find your own, which might mean you’ll be living in a hotel or hostel, and that can easily drive up the costs of your study.
Overall School Environment
Learning about the school environment might be difficult over the Internet.
In this case, email the school that you are interested in and ask both the administrators and other former students (if you can get contacts) for recommendations and insight.
Find out if the school is run well, if the teachers are qualified, what the facilities are like, and even the schedule of classes.
Don't be afraid to ask; you will potentially be spending money there.
When I was in San Pedro, we had our lessons out in little bungalows near the lake, but I noticed a big difference in my focus when I moved to a new school in Quetzaltenango and into a proper classroom.
I now know to avoid language schools that provide the outdoors learning environment.
The moral of the story: You know what works best for you, so make a decision based with that in mind.