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How to Learn a Language While Volunteering Abroad

At a time when many Americans may find themselves wanting to try to help dispel accusations of national insularity and supremacy, going abroad to learn or improve a foreign language may have special appeal. Classroom learning has its place. But it is axiomatic that the fastest progress comes when you are forced to use a language in every-day situations. Programs that combine the structured study of a language with volunteering are a paradigm of the kind of foreign travel experience advocated by Transitions Abroad. Many organizations can arrange such placements, often in conjunction with a homestay to maximize exposure to the language.

A typical combination program might include an intensive language course consisting of 20 hours of classes per week for at least four weeks followed by a 4-week placement in a center for street children or in a wildlife sanctuary. Often such placements can be extended on an ad hoc basis.

Using a mediating agency simplifies the selection process since agencies tend to deal with well-established schools and programs. Agencies also provide a useful back-up service if something goes wrong.

An excellent comprehensive source of information about language courses worldwide is the website of the Institute of International Education, which makes it easy to search by country and program. Examples of language course agencies and exchange organizations in the U.S. include the following:

Language Learning Volunteer Abroad Resources

Agencies in the U.S.

Adelante Abroad offers internships, volunteer placements, teaching abroad and semester and summer study opportunities from 1-12 months in Spain (Madrid, Seville, Barcelona, Marbella), Costa Rica (San José), Mexico (Oaxaca), Chile (Vina del Mar/Valparaiso) and Uruguay (Montevideo).

NRCSA — National Registration Center for Study Abroad is a website with links to study and volunteering or career-focused internship programs wordwide.

Agencies in the U.K.

Several British agencies that represent a range of language programs in Europe and beyond are willing to assist North Americans. These programs combine language learning with internships or volunteering:

Caledonia Languages Abroad is an educational consultancy offering independent advice on language courses in Europe, Latin America, and Russia. It also arranges for clients to participate in volunteer community projects in many countries around the world. Volunteers pay for the pre-placement language course in the overseas country plus the cost of accommodations and travel.

Agencies in Latin America

If your chosen language is Japanese or Danish or Arabic, it will not be straightforward arranging a language course in conjunction with a volunteering opportunity. But if your chosen language is Spanish, it will be very easy. Courses in everything from travelers' survival Spanish to advanced academic Spanish can be combined with post-course placements in local projects. To take just one example, the British organization Caledonia Languages Abroad (above) can combine three weeks of Spanish language tuition in Peru followed by 3 weeks of voluntary work on the island of Amantani working within a traditional community environment.

Language schools in Latin America that follow up a Spanish language course with a volunteer program include the following:

APF Languages is a combined program of Spanish tuition with homestays and ecological or humanitarian volunteering.

Eco-Escuela de Español, c/o Ecomaya Internationa,. Volunteer opportunities in local conservation projects in the Petén region of Guatemala along with one-on-one Spanish language instruction.

Latin American Immersion. Source of information about study and internship programs in Buenos Aires, Argentina; Santiago, Chile; and Quito, Ecuador.

European language schools are more likely to have links with local businesses than voluntary organizations; some Spanish, Italian, French, and German schools offer internships in various commercial fields from fashion to catering. To take just one example: the Italian language school Linguaviva runs a program combining language courses and commercial internships.

Language Study and Grassroots Development

Language schools in Europe generally offer voluntary placements merely as an add-on bonus. But the balance is different in programs offered by international development agencies and small grassroots voluntary organizations in which preliminary language training is a means to an end.

ICADS offers well-regarded programs combine study of the Spanish language and development issues with structured internships in Costa Rica and Nicaragua lasting a semester or a summer.

Intercultural Dimensions. Trips to Senegal lasting 3 to 4 weeks in June-July allow participants to improve their conversational French while working alongside local people on rural projects. Those who wish can extend their stay to volunteer or carry out field work.

Development organizations that are active in a range of countries include:

AFS Intercultural Programs. Students and volunteers aged 18-29 spend 4, 6, or 12 months in one of 14 countries (Belgium, U.K., Australia, Malaysia, Thailand, Egypt, Ghana, South Africa, and six Latin American countries). Most programs include language training prior to volunteer placement, homestay accommodations, and participation in local projects. Participants must fundraise before program begins.

Experiment in International Living. Programs include some language training.

Inter-Cultural Youth Exchange (ICYE) offers iInternational exchange organization that sends students to spend a year abroad with a host family and undertake voluntary work placements after a 1-month orientation including intensive language study. Placements mainly in Bolivia, Brazil, Costa Rica, Honduras, Colombia, and Mexico.

SUSAN GRIFFITH is author of many classic books on working, teaching, and gap years abroad. See her Bio or contact her at

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