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Choosing a Language School Abroad

Eight Key Questions to Ask

I love David Sedaris’ Me Talk Pretty One Day—a story about his ghastly experience in a French language school in Paris—because it embodies one’s worst language-learning nightmare. Sedaris’ French teacher was a “wild animal” who threw chalk and reacted to student errors as if they were “capital crimes in the country of France.” As a humorist, Sedaris has fully exploited his poetic license to embellish. In real life, how likely are you to wind up in a similar situation? Not very. Nonetheless, asking good questions as you weigh your options for foreign-language study will head off problems and help ensure that you land in a school where you can flourish.

1) What’s my learning style? Does it match the school’s teaching approach? If there’s a mismatch between the school’s methodology and your preferred learning style, you may feel frustrated or bored. When I wanted to polish up my French, I chose Accord Language School in Paris because of its focus on oral communication and theater. As an inductive learner who likes interaction, I wanted to stay as far away from a deductive, top-down grammar approach as possible and get the maximum opportunity to talk. As it turned out, Accord suited me perfectly.

When my friend Janet—a kinesthetic, tactile learner—wanted to improve her Spanish, she chose Academia Falcon in picturesque Guanajuato, Mexico, which offers hands-on cooking and dance classes. The school’s overall approach is unusually flexible, allowing each student to design a tailor-made program. “You can choose, for instance, to take Spanish dance, conversation, Mexican history, and grammar,” says Janet. “If you don’t like grammar or history, you don’t take them—or you substitute something else. You end up only with what interests you.”

My friend Mark studies Italian at l’Università per Stranieri di Perugia—probably the most prestigious Italian school in the world—where the approach relies heavily on formal grammar lectures. “It’s a very traditional school,” he says, “but the lecturers do hold your attention.” While Mark enjoys the lecture format, I know I wouldn’t be a happy camper there—nor, most likely, would Janet.

It should set off alarm bells if a school has no clear written statement about methodology and instructional techniques in its promotional materials—it may be less than wholly professional. Email any unanswered questions to the school’s director.

Once you’ve begun class, don’t overlook the fact that you can direct your own learning to some extent. Inform your instructors if you want more or less (or no) error correction, more talk time or group work, more words spelled out on the blackboard (if you’re a strong visual learner), and so on. Good teachers will listen to their students and accommodate their diverse interests and learning styles.

2) What’s the maximum class size? This can vary greatly. Naturally, the larger the class, the less individual attention you’ll get. At Academia Falcon, classes max out at six, while at Accord they get as large as 14. At l’Università per Stranieri di Perugia, a class size of 40 isn’t unusual. Note that large classes can work for those who learn a language well through listening, and they don’t necessarily preclude talk time. The paradox is that you can actually get more speaking practice in a large class with an interactive methodology (where pair and group tasks are the norm) than in a smaller teacher-fronted class.

3) How many different teachers will I have? The intensive course at Accord pairs one teacher with a group of students for up to 20 hours a week, often week after week. The downsides to this arrangement are obvious: you’re not exposed to different accents, points of view, or teaching styles—and you may be stuck if you don’t like the instructor. On the other hand, if you get a fabulous teacher, like I did (a hyper caffeinated fellow full of Gallic charm who never once threw chalk!), the system has a satisfying upside: the many hours we spent together created a cozy bond that melted our reserve and made class feel like a warm blanket. At both Academia Falcon and l’Università per Stranieri di Perugia, students in intensive programs are routinely exposed to multiple teachers.

4) How flexible are the administrators? Will they allow you to switch classes if you’re dissatisfied? While all language schools group students according to some sort of placement test, their rules vary when it comes to allowing students to transfer out of an assigned group. L’Università per Stranieri di Perugia, according to Mark, has a laissez-faire approach, where “you can drift from one class to another around until you find your spot.” The rules at Accord are much more rigid.

5) What’s the average student age? I had two decades on most of the other students in my class at Accord Language School when I studied there in the summer. That didn’t bother me, but if you prefer to study with your own generation, inquire about demographics. At Academia Falcon in Guanajuato, summer attracts a younger crowd, fall and winter an older one. Fifty-something Janet enrolled in the winter and returned home with a Canadian husband on her arm—romance being an unsung benefit of foreign language study (along with the fact that learning a new language—a supreme form of mental calisthenics— may help stave off Alzheimer’s).

6) What’s the cost? Some schools will just quote a price per week for an intensive course. But to really understand what you’re getting for your money, calculate the total number of contact hours. And how does the school define a contact hour? Is it 45 minutes, 50 minutes, a true hour? Be sure to check out the refund policy as well in case you need to cancel.

7) What extracurricular activities does the school organize? Let’s face it. Part of the draw of language schools is what happens in the off-hours, and extracurricular language practice is invaluable. L’Università per Stranieri di Perugia, for instance, offers bus trips on weekends to such places as Venice, Cinque Terre, Rome, and even Sicily. “They’re great!” Mark says, “and cheap. My classmates and I went to Naples, Pompeii, and Capri for two days—with an Italian-speaking guide—for about $100 per person, staying in nice 3-star hotels. If you enrolled in a 3-month course and took advantage of all the weekend trips, you could see all the highlights of Italy on a shoestring.”

8) Does the school help with housing or have a good homestay program? I rented an apartment while I studied at Accord, but most of my classmates lived with French host families. Their experiences ranged from the very good to the very bad. Taina the Finn lived in an opulent home with a dream family, while Uli the German roomed in a malodorous flat way out in the suburbs with a host mother who prepared his morning coffee by pouring cold water over day-old grounds, microwaving the swill, then inserting her finger to test its temperature. Language schools with homestay programs will all claim their families are “carefully chosen.” Trouble is, the screening process is an inexact science, and some bad apples get through. Just make sure that the school will help you find a new family if the first one doesn’t work out, and that your housing is conveniently located.

It’s never too late to shed your monoglot status, or to dust off an old language you’ve neglected all these years. A little research before you go will help guarantee that you have the time of your life.

For More Info

Accord French Language School, 14 Bld Poisonnière, 75009 Paris, France.
Start any Monday and stay for a week or more. I was the only American in my class. The school is in a beautiful 19th century building located on one of the Grands Boulevards, smack-dab in the heart of Paris.

 Class size: 10-14
 Cost: €300 for an intensive 1-week course with 20 hours of class. Prices drop with longer stays. See the website for other costs and options.
 Accommodations: Accord will arrange a hotel or a homestay with two meals a day.

L’Università per Stranieri di Perugia, Piazza Fortebraccio 4, 06123 Perugia, Italy.
Start at the beginning of each month and stay for a month or more. Perugia, famed for its chocolates and pasta, is the gorgeous, medieval heart of Umbria. It’s pedestrian-friendly, and the cobbled hill towns of Assisi, Deruta, Todi, and Spoleto are just short bus rides away.

 Class size: as large as 40
 Cost: €400 for an intensive 1-month course with 27 hours of class per week. See website for the various options and current costs.
 Accommodations: The university does not provide housing, but it can direct you to the abundance of short-term rentals available in Perugia. The university’s canteen provides a hot lunch for less than $5.

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