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Make the Most of an Intensive Language Course

Taking several intensive language courses has taught me some simple ways to make the most of the experience-whether it's two weeks in Paris or two months in Guatemala:

  • Decide what you want. If you have a specific goal, like learning Japanese to communicate with clients, you'll probably want to choose a school that caters to business learners. If you're taking survival Italian for fun, you can take a more relaxed approach.
  • Research your accommodations options. Most schools offer housing with a family to intensify the language-learning experience. Homestays vary, and if you have specific linguistic needs, it's best to talk to your school before your arrival. The organizers should know which families have an English speaker to assist beginners, for example. If you prefer more privacy, opt for another housing option.
  • Know your learning style before you go. I'm a visual learner, so I know to bring plenty of index cards to make homemade flashcards. Other students might bring small tape recorders to aid in their learning process.
  • Take the placement test. It's best to be in the level that works for you, whether it's higher or lower than you had originally imagined. And don't be afraid to ask to be moved to a different level.
  • Speak up-in and out of class. The only way to learn is to participate, regardless of how intimidated you might feel. If you don't try, you'll never improve. It's especially important to force yourself to speak outside the classroom. The risk is greater, but so are the rewards.
  • Get cultural. Most schools offer films, trips, lectures, and nonacademic lessons (like cooking, dance, or music) to complement language courses. Don't pass up the chance to be involved-it will teach you about the real-world usage of the language.
  • Do your homework. Sure it's a drag to pull out your Portuguese notebook on the beach in Rio, but if you don't study, you'll end up wasting your time and that of your teacher and classmates.
  • Make time for sleep. Learning a foreign language in an immersion setting is hard work and you will be tired. Don't hesitate to supplement your nightly rest with some cat naps-preferably outside the classroom.
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