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Language Schools in Latin America

Spanish Language Study in Latin America

Bariloche, Argentina Students

Bariloche, located in Argentina’s Lake District, is a popular destination for travelers and language students. Photo ©Volker Poelzl. All Rights Reserved.

Beneath the United States (geographically speaking) lies the vast continent of Latin America with over 330 million Spanish speakers, more than the entire English-speaking population of North America. With a growing Hispanic population in the U.S. and increasing economic ties with Latin America, Spanish is no doubt the most important foreign language for Americans. Although Spanish is widely taught in the U.S. both on a high school and college level, the best way to study Spanish is to immerse yourself in a Spanish-speaking culture and take a language course. We are lucky in North America to have Latin America at our doorstep, but with fifteen Spanish-speaking countries (not counting the Caribbean), choosing the right location for a Spanish course can be a challenge. This article in intended to give you a few pointers to help you make a well-informed decision about where to study Spanish in Latin America.

Follow Your Interests and Priorities

To make the most of your Spanish study abroad, you should be aware of your interests, and combine them with practical considerations such as your budget and available time. Do you enjoy Peruvian music, or Guatemalan handicrafts? Why not study Spanish there and learn more about the local culture? Have you always been interested in hiking in the Andes? Then choose a South American country, where the majestic Andean peaks are never far away. Do you want to see the jungle and watch wildlife? Costa Rica and Panama have a lot to offer in that regard, or head down to Peru, Bolivia, Ecuador, or Venezuela –all with a variety of nature parks that offer great experiences of rain forests and tropical savannas. If you’ve always wanted to go to Machu Picchu, then take a Spanish course in Peru, and visit the Inca ruins. If cost is at the top of your priority list, Central America is the best choice, but if you really want to take tango lessons, then it’s better for you to spend the extra money and study Spanish in Argentina. In addition, any Latin American country that you have been to before or that you like is also good candidate for a language course, since you already know what to expect.

Churches in Cuzco, Peru
A street scene in Cuzco, Peru

Cuzco, Peru, offers a great combination of the Inca and Spanish cultural heritage. Photos ©Volker Poelzl. All Rights Reserved.

The Cost Factor

There are several cost factors you should keep in mind. In addition to the course fee, you also have to budget for room and board, and expenses for entertainment and excursions. The course fee and living expenses are lower in less developed countries, but sometimes economic crises and currency devaluations can lower your expenses dramatically, even in countries that had a high cost of living before. Argentina’s peso was pegged to the dollar one to one, until a monetary crisis forced the government to drastically devalue the peso in early 2002. Within a few months the U.S. dollar was worth almost four times as much, which is still one of the reasons why Argentina continues to be a popular and very affordable destination for Americans. Unfortunately Argentineans were hit hard by the crisis, and poverty increased dramatically as a result.

Airline tickets are a big chunk of the overall expenses for a Spanish course abroad. No matter how many travel websites and agents tout cheap airline tickets, airfares are on the rise. By selecting a country closer to home for your Spanish study, you can significantly reduce your travel expenses. A ticket to Central America can cost half of a ticket to South America. Still, ticket prices vary considerably between airlines, and even the day of the week you fly. By doing careful research and comparing prices you can save quite a bit. A flight with an additional stopover, for example, can be quite a bit cheaper than a direct flight. Finding out about baggage weight limits and packing accordingly will also help you prevent surcharges for overweight or oversize baggage.

Another cost factor is the location you choose within a country. Capitals and large cities usually have higher course fees and a higher cost of living than small towns. Keep in mind that popular tourist centers are generally more expensive than less known destinations. Also, if you are planning to travel after completing your language course, consider the overall cost of travel in the country of your choice. Traveling long distances in large countries such as Mexico, Chile or Argentina, will cost more than traveling in Costa Rica, which is much smaller.

Choosing a School

There are many ways to search for a suitable language school. You can book with a reputable placement agency in the U.S., which gives you the advantage that many of them offer a satisfaction guarantee, or you can contact local schools directly to book your course. This is cheaper, but has the disadvantage that you have no assurances about the quality of the language school you sign up with. The more you can find out about the school the better you will be able to choose a high-quality course that fits your needs. There are networks of Spanish schools that span several countries, which is a good indicator of a school’s quality. The teaching curriculum is often identical in all affiliated schools, and the teaching materials and methods have been tested to maximize the students’ progress. Most countries in Latin America offer a good selection of language schools, some of them small and locally owned, others part of a larger network or global affiliation. It is a good idea to find out how long the school has been operating, what their teaching methods are and the qualification of the teachers. There is no certificate for ‘Teaching Spanish as a Second Language’ that corresponds to the TEFL certification (Teaching English as a Foreign Language), so each school has its own criteria for choosing qualified teachers. Some schools require a master’s degree in education from their teachers, but this depends on each school. Although English is usually not spoken during class, I have found it helpful if the teachers speak some English, so you can address them after class with specific questions or concerns you may have.

Before making a final choice, you should compare several schools and find out details. How many hours of instruction do you get per week? What are the class sizes? Does your school refer homestays or do you have to find room and board on your own? What are the cancellation and refund policies, and does the school offer a satisfaction guarantee? What other services does your school offer, such as airport pickup, cultural events, and excursions?

Many Latin American countries suffer from poverty and social inequalities, and there are now an increasing number of language schools that combine volunteer work with language study. This is a great way to improve your Spanish, become immersed in the local culture and contribute to improving the living conditions of the local population.

Length of Study

The length of your course should be determined by your study goals. Are you a beginner who wants to get a serious jump-start in Spanish, or have you studied Spanish before and just want to brush up your conversation skills? To get long-term benefits from your Spanish course, I recommend taking a course for at least 2-3 weeks. This is long enough to allow you to get immersed in the language and the culture of your host country, meet the local people, and obtain some basic conversation skills. But keep in mind that language acquisition does not happen overnight. You will have to set aside time for practice and study, if you really want to make progress. Don’t expect miracles from an intensive course. Learning a foreign language takes time, and not even a super intensive course can substitute for the time that is necessary to study grammar and vocabulary. On a yearlong student exchange in Brazil I decided early on that I would not study vocabulary, since I believed that it would naturally come to me over the course of an academic year. However, most students who take a much shorter language course don’t have the luxury of hearing a word ten times before they grasp its meaning. Vocabulary study is really your main tool of improving your Spanish skills, and there are only so many words you can memorize every day. It is therefore important to have realistic expectations of your course and the progress you will make in only a few weeks. If you have the time and the money, studying Spanish abroad for a month will significantly enhance your skills as a beginner, and two or three weeks will be enough to boost the skills of someone who has some previous knowledge of Spanish.

Cultural Diversity

What makes Spanish study abroad so much fun is the interaction with the locals and being immersed in their culture. Some Latin American countries are more culturally diverse than others and some have more deeply rooted native traditions than others. You can choose among countries with strong European or indigenous traditions, or choose one where the culture of the Spanish colonizers has blended with the indigenous culture to form a unique blend. Guatemala, Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia have very strong indigenous cultural roots, which make them fascinating and colorful places to visit. On the other hand, the African and Caribbean heritage of Venezuela and the Dominican Republic provide for a very lively and outgoing culture in a different way. Argentina and Chile on the other hand, are more European, but they still have uniquely local traditions. The way of life of the gauchos, as the cattle herders are known in South America, present in Argentina, is a unique cultural tradition that has contributed to the national cultural identity in both countries. Similarly, the Andean cultures in Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia, draw on their vast heritage from the Inca Empire, and many age-old traditions are still widely practiced.

Bolivian traditions

Many native traditions are still alive in Bolivia. Photo ©Volker Poelzl. All Rights Reserved.

Health, Safety and Creature Comfort

Feeling comfortable and safe in your host country is an important consideration. Most Latin American countries have gone through very dark periods in their recent history, and the legacy of decades of dictatorships can still be felt all across the continent. Death squads, militia, rebel and guerrilla groups, as well as drug traffickers operate in Latin America, especially in Central America. They are often responsible for kidnappings and a general increase in crime. Although generally considered the safest Central American country, Costa Rica has recently experienced a rising crime rate.

Students should also carefully research the political and economic stability of the country and cities they are interested in. Fortunately, there are currently no Latin American countries with rampant inflation or severe economic crises, but poverty is widespread, which often contributes to frequent civil unrest, demonstrations, and strikes.

If you have health concerns about some of the exotic diseases found in tropical America, you might want to consider a country with a cooler climate, such as Argentina or Chile, or a higher elevation, such as the high plateau (Altiplano in Spanish) in Ecuador, Peru, and Bolivia, where mosquito- and insect-borne diseases are rare. Still, if you get vaccinations for Hepatitis, yellow fever, typhoid fever, and tetanus, you should be safe for the most part. If you take common health precautions, eat only peeled or sanitized vegetables and fruit, and only drink bottled water, you will avoid the most common health problems that affect foreign visitors. Malaria is another major health concerns for foreign visitors to tropical America, and concerned travelers should ask their doctor about taking prophylactic medication during their stay in Latin America. In general, malaria is more likely to occur in rural areas of the humid tropics, but is rare in urban areas. Some countries in Central and South America are disaster-prone, with regular hurricanes, earthquakes, and even volcanic eruptions. Find out beforehand how safe your potential destination is from these threats.

The level of development of your host country may also be an important consideration. If you are used to a high standard of living and creature comfort, you might want to consider one of the wealthier and more developed countries in Latin America, such as Mexico, Costa, Rica, Panama, Argentina or Chile. In many remote or developing areas for example, running water may only be available intermittently. In humid tropical areas, your host family may not have hot a shower, air conditioning or fans, and it may take some time getting used to the heat.

Another question you should ask yourself is how well you can handle cultural differences and an unfamiliar way of life. Do you seek the exotic or the familiar? Are you used to challenging yourself with new and unknown cultures, customs, food, and experiences, or do you prefer to advance cautiously and first experience cultures not too vastly different from your own? Latin America’s more developed countries, such as Mexico, Chile, and Argentina, offer an urban standard of living comparable in many ways to North America.

The Natural Environment

After weeks of classroom attendance, the most rewarding experience for students is to travel in their host country before returning home. Depending on your choice, you will be able to experience some of the greatest travel destinations in the Americas. While visiting steaming jungles and smoking volcanoes will not improve your Spanish, it is still important to consider what your country of choice has to offer in terms of natural attractions and travel destinations. If you enjoy hiking and trekking in high altitudes, Central America has little to offer compared to South America, with its majestic mountain ranges. But Central America has great jungle environments and beautiful Mayan ruins surrounded by rain forest. If you love to relax on a beach, Central America is the way to go, giving you a choice between beaches on the Caribbean and the Pacific. Central America also has the advantage that most countries are small, and that it is dotted with national parks that are within easy reach. South America on the other hand is vast and getting to your favorite outdoors destination may take several days. I don’t suggest that you should base the destination of your language study only on a country’s natural attractions, but selecting a region that best meets your travel interests can provide for an exciting finale for your stay abroad.

Venezuela's natural beauty

Southern Venezuela offers outstanding natural beauty. Photo ©Volker Poelzl. All Rights Reserved.

Choosing a Location

Large urban centers in Latin America generally represent the best and the worst a country has to offer, but in general, capital cities and large urban areas in Latin America have a great disadvantage. These are usually the cities where the most wealth and also the greatest poverty of a country are concentrated. Impoverished peasants from the countryside are attracted to large cities for their promises, but they often end up in slums and shantytowns. This leads to enormous social discrepancies among the population, which is often reflected in a high crime rate. Language students would be wise to consider other options. Smaller cities offer a better quality of life and are not as crime-ridden as large urban centers. The regional or local culture is also usually more alive outside the capitals, and students are more likely to experience authentic local culture and meet the people. Also, you avoid the infernal traffic congestion and the strain on the infrastructure that most large cities in Latin America experience. Urban crime raises fear among the locals and makes them less outgoing and willing to meet strangers. Smaller cities have a lower cost of living, are safer, and the people are usually friendlier than in large cities. On the other hand, cultural events and entertainment offered in large cities in Latin America cannot be matched by smaller cities and towns. If you love urban culture and entertainment, then studying Spanish in a large city may be your best choice. You will find trendy restaurants and clubs, art house movie theaters, dozens of museums, art galleries, and plenty of other entertainment options. However, sometimes the colonial or historic flair of a small town is more attractive than a modern urban center with all its amenities. This depends largely on your personal preferences.

Also keep in mind that especially Central America has many destinations that are popular with American tourists. Although Costa Rica, Guatemala, and Panama rank among the most beautiful destinations to visit in the region, you may find it hard to practice your Spanish, since the locals are used to English-speaking visitors. The farther you get away from the U.S. the higher are your chances to have a truly authentic experience of the local people and their culture. In South America there are fewer destinations where American travelers or expatriates congregate, which increases your chance to practice Spanish in your daily affairs and in your dealings with the locals. For example, Costa Rica welcomes 600,000 American tourists every year. By comparison, Argentina is fifty-five times larger, has nine times the population of Costa Rica, and only has 300,000 American visitors every year. You will also find that in areas with fewer tourists, the locals are more friendly, welcoming and interested in meeting foreigners.

Buenos Aires' lively street life.

Buenos Aires has a vibrant street life. Photo ©Volker Poelzl. All Rights Reserved.

If you keep in mind some of the above suggestions, and take a little time researching several countries and schools, your language course in Latin America will no doubt be a rewarding and enriching experience.

For More Info

Here is a shortlist (in geographical order) of pros and cons for Spanish study in various Latin American countries, with links to articles and resources on our website:

Pros: Close to the U.S.; fairly well developed with good infrastructure; large country with a wealth of great destinations for language study and a diverse culture and ecosystem; not as cheap as Central America, but still affordable; low airfares from the U.S.

Cons: Regional social unrest, guerrilla activity, petty crime, and drug trafficking; many attractive locations are popular with American tourists and expatriates.

More Articles and Resources:

Study Spanish Language at Schools in Mexico Spanish Study at the Instituto Cultural Oaxaca

Perfecting Language Skills at a UNESCO World Heritage Site by Sarah Keyt

Spanish Language Study in Oaxaca, Mexico Through the Senses by Linda McDonnell

Spanish Study in Mexico and Costa Rica for Educators by Anita Ensmann

Pros: Great Mayan heritage and strong indigenous cultural traditions, low-cost destination; low airfares from the U.S.

Cons: Poorly developed, increasing crime rate and drug trafficking.

More Articles and Resources:

Study Spanish at Language Schools in Guatemala

Spanish Language Immersion in Guatemala: The Contrasts Between Xela and Antigua by Donia Lilly

Learn Spanish in Antigua, Guatemala by Robert A. Dunton

Learn Spanish in Antigua: A Language School Is a Good Excuse to Spend More Time by Lee Anne Hasselbacher

Study Spanish in Guatemala by Alexa Majors

Spanish Language Study in Quetzaltenango, Guatemala by Kevin Revolinski

Study the Spanish Language and Conservation in the Wilderness of Guatemala by Tim King

Language Study in Guatemala: To Select a School, Go See for Yourself by Lynne Sampson

Pros: Attractive Caribbean coastline, tropical jungle environment and Mayan ruins; low cost destination, cheap flights from the U.S.

Cons: Poorly developed; wide-spread poverty and wide-spread crime.

More Articles and Resources:

Language Schools in Honduras

Study Spanish in Honduras by Volker Poelzl

Pros: Diverse culture and ecosystem, very affordable, growing tourism infrastructure; low airfares from the U.S.

Cons: Poorest Central American country and therefore less developed; wide-spread poverty; earthquake-prone.

More Articles and Resources:

Study Spanish at Language Schools in Nicaragua

Language Study in Nicaragua: Choose from Central America’s Best Bargains by Joshua Berman and Randy Wood

Pros: Fairly well developed, large number of national parks, good network of Spanish schools, safe (but rising crime rate), low health risks; low airfares from the U.S.

Cons: Culturally less diverse than other Central American countries; popular tourist destination with a strong American presence.

More Articles and Resources:

Study Spanish at Language Schools in Costa Rica

Spanish Language Study in Laid-Back Costa Rica by Kelly Matlock

Spanish Study in Mexico and Costa Rica for Educators by Anita Ensmann

Pros: Diverse ecosystem; rich Hispanic and African cultural heritage.

Cons: Poorly developed; wide-spread poverty; popular tourist destination for Americans.

More Articles and Resources: Spanish Language Schools in the Dominican Republic

Pros: Largest tropical forest in Central America, diverse environment: Pacific and Caribbean coast, rain forest and mountains. Moderately well developed with adequate infrastructure; safe, but tropical diseases are present. The U.S. dollar is the paper currency of Panama, so you won’t have to deal with foreign exchange; affordable airfares from the U.S.

Cons: Strong U.S. influence makes Panama culturally less interesting; popular tourist destination.

More Articles and Resources: Study Spanish at Language Schools in Panama

Pros: Culturally diverse, with Caribbean influence; great natural attractions from beaches to jungles and mountains; fairly affordable; airfares from the U.S. are only moderately higher than to Central America.

Cons: Moderately developed urban areas, but wide-spread poverty; health risk from tropical diseases, danger due to civil unrest and violence.

Pros: Diverse ecosystem; rich cultural heritage and indigenous culture; the U.S. dollar is the currency of Ecuador, so you won’t have to deal with foreign exchange; generally fairly safe; very affordable; cheapest airfares in South America from the U.S.

Cons: Frequent civil unrest; economically and politically somewhat unstable; poorly developed, with rudimentary infrastructure; health risks at lower elevations.

More Articles and Resources:

Study at Spanish Language Schools in Ecuador

Study in Ecuador: Quito's Spanish Language Schools are Many and Affordable by Heather Wynn

Vacations in Ecuador: Combine Language Immersion with Ecotourism by Clay Hubbs

Pros: Popular travel destination with rich cultural traditions and great historical heritage, diverse ecosystem, low cost; fairly safe, but with health risks in tropical lowlands.

Cons: Poorly developed outside urban areas, which can make travel difficult; most language schools are located in popular tourist destinations; higher cost of air travel from the U.S.

More Articles and Resources:

Study Spanish at Language Schools in Peru

Study Spanish in Arequipa, Peru: A Warm School in a Warm City by Douglas Haynes

Pros: Great cultural heritage and rich indigenous traditions; diverse ecosystem--from the Amazon basin to high peaks in the Andes; low-cost destination; fairly safe, but with some health risks in lower elevations.

Cons: Less-developed; few destinations for Spanish study; higher cost of air travel from the U.S.

Recommended cities: Sucre, Cochabamba.

More Articles and Resources: Study Spanish at Language Schools in Bolivia

Argentina

Pros: Well-developed, great culture, friendly people, vast country with diverse culture and natural environment; safe, low health risk.

Cons: Higher cost of air travel from the U.S.; higher cost of living than in other Latin American countries.

More Articles and Resources:

Study Spanish at Language Schools in Argentina

Spanish Language School and Tango in Buenos Aires by Catherine M. Thomas

Spanish Studies in Buenos Aires, Argentina by Sarah Tonner

Ways to Learn Spanish in Buenos Aires by Debra S. Fuccio

Pros: Strong European cultural influence, with some indigenous traditions; well-developed with good infrastructure, safe with low health risk; spectacular scenery and diverse mountain/ocean environment.

Cons: Higher cost of air travel from the U.S.; higher cost of living than in other Latin American countries; fairly cool and damp climate.

More Articles and Resources:

Study Spanish at Language Schools in Chile

Study Spanish in Santiago de Chile by Hannah Shanks

Language Schools in Latin America has an extensive listing of Spanish schools all across Latin America.

Latin American Spanish Language Schools FAQ by Ron Mader

Family-Friendly Spanish Schools in Latin America by Robin Malinosky-Rummell.

Language School Hopping: Study Spanish Across Central America by Jennifer Colletti.

Planeta.com has a regularly updated Directory of Spanish Language Schools.

The following organizations are among the many that will arrange your language course in Latin America for you:
Spanish Abroad, Inc. (www.spanishabroad.com),
Amerispan (www.amerispan.com), and
Language Courses Abroad
(www.languagesabroad.co.uk).

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