The Best Way to Learn a Language
Go to a Small Town
There are lots of ways to learn a language. You can take a foreign lover or spend evenings huddled in your room diligently reading grammar and listening to tapes. But physically being in the country where the language is spoken is the key to gaining proficiency in a language, and a language course is usually the best way to do it.
What many people may not recognize is that choosing the location is one of the most important factors in deciding which program to attend. The time you spend outside the classroom is often as important as the time you spend in class. Language programs in large cities are usually big on amenities and activities, but occasionally small on individual student attention—depending on the size of the program. You’ll find no shortage of cultural events and trips to museums, but you probably won’t find the intimate cultural experience you might in a village or small town. Life in the big city may also allow you to fall back on speaking English. But you didn’t break your piggy bank, bid a tearful farewell to loved ones, and travel all this distance just to end up speaking English, did you?
In a small town or village, English is less spoken in rural areas than in cities. You are forced to speak the language you’re there to study. And because you are a new face in a small town, it will be hard to hide in the shadows. People will be honored that you’ve come to their hometown to learn their language and will welcome you, making it easier to make friends and feel at home.
This past summer I was a student in such a program. I had wanted to learn Italian for years but never had time to take it in college. After researching the Internet for summer programs, I found the De Rada Italian Institute, a nonprofit school in southern Italy offering summer instruction in Italian language, literature, and history. The setting of enchanting rolling green hills just minutes from the Ionian sea promised an Italian experience much more tranquil than that of Rome or Florence. In the historically rich region of Calabria, San Demetrio Corone, is an idyllic retreat with beautiful churches, fascinating architecture, and magical light. In many ways San Demetrio is a typical small Italian town, one in which locals usually spend their evenings at one or two local bars or cafés and nearly everyone knows everyone.
I was apprehensive when I learned there would be only six other students in the program that month (though a second session the following month had 25 participants). In fact, this turned out to be a blessing. My daily classes were very personalized, allowing teachers to focus on my specific learning needs.
However, my most rewarding experiences came from interactions outside of the classroom. I made friends with some local students on my first day and spent afternoons after class with them visiting local beaches, riding around town on scooters and, of course, sitting at bars drinking espresso. The food offered by the program was home-cooked every night by a local family, and we were taken on excursions to local and regional sights and areas of interest. I even spent some time hanging around a local Vespa repair shop, where I learned something about fixing motorbikes. In just one short month I made close friends with a few local Italians and learned to speak decent Italian.
The De Rada Italian Institute (www.derada.com) is run by a former Harvard instructor with a doctorate in Italian literature and a native of the town where the program is held. The institute offers a host of merit- and need-based grants for students. Classes are small, with personalized instruction, and there is ample opportunity to pursue personal interests outside of the classroom. It is even possible to get a part-time job at one of the local establishments. Tuition, room and board is approximately $3,250 for one month.
The following sites offer information on similar programs throughout Europe, Asia, and Latin America:
TransitionsAbroad.com's Language Vacation and Study section.