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Learn a Language and Do Good

How to Combine Volunteering with Language Study Abroad

One possible scenario is to learn Chinese while teaching English in China.
Photo by Lies Ouwerkerk.

For some adventurous and altruistic travelers, experiencing a culture and studying the language is not enough. More and more people want to give something back to the community they are visiting.

During our research for the book, How to Live Your Dream of Volunteering Overseas, my co-authors and I found a handful of programs that formally combine language study and volunteering. We also met many volunteers who created their own ways of doing good while studying a language.

Exemplary Programs

The Institute for Central American Development Studies (ICADS) stands out among study/volunteer programs because of its professional level of language training combined with individualized volunteer opportunities.

ICADS, based in Costa Rica, offers three programs:

1) a month-long Spanish immersion program that includes group service projects
2) a 10-week summer program with 60 hours of language instruction followed by an internship in Costa Rica or Nicaragua
3) a semester program that provides academic credit for intensive language training, specialized seminars, and an 8-week internship in either Costa Rica, Nicaragua, or Panama.

Volunteer projects and internships vary by student and location. Past assignments have included tutoring street children in Nicaragua, tagging sea turtles in a marine park, and assisting with a handicrafts program at a shelter for adolescent mothers.

The quality of instruction is high, and volunteer placements are individualized according to the skills and interests of the student.

Pop Wuj is another outstanding program that combines community service and study. The school, named for an ancient Mayan text, is run by a collective of Mayan Guatemalans. One-on-one language training and homestays help students with Spanish immersion. Students also have the opportunity to volunteer in a local school.

Pop Wuj is recommended for people with a sense of social responsibility and a desire to dive into another culture but not for those whose focus is learning as much Spanish as quickly as possible.

Some smaller language schools incorporate volunteer service, including two schools in Guatemala: Conservation International Eco-Escuela and Casa de Español Xelajú. To search for other schools with volunteer opportunities, see the language school meta sites listed at the end of this article. The Peace Corps and Visions in Action also provide some language training, but focus much more on service than on language instruction.

Most of the language/volunteer programs we researched were in Latin America. For travelers to other regions, as well as adventurous travelers to Latin America, we recommend you create your own program.

Do It Yourself

Once you have mastered a few of the fundamentals of the language and made a commitment to stick around for a month or more, you can probably find a way to make yourself useful. The best way to start looking for such an opportunity is to talk with the instructors and staff of the language school where you are studying. Many educators have connections with nonprofit organizations in their communities, and those who have children may know of local schools that could use a volunteer.

Other strategies for finding volunteer work include talking with your host family and their friends, contacting local religious congregations, and visiting the student center at a local college or university. You may want to create a one-page letter or flier in the local language that includes your name, phone number, email address, schedule, skills, and the type of volunteer work you seek. But don’t just post the flier. Talk to people in person, then give them the flier. Don’t give up easily, as you may have to talk with 10 people to identify an appropriate volunteer position.

If you already have some experience working with children, volunteering at a school could be a good option to start with. Teaching English might be the most appropriate assignment if you are in a community where English skills will be helpful to your students. You may want to buy a book on teaching ESL or ask your own language teachers for some teaching tips.

Other popular volunteer options include teaching computer skills, editing documents in English, creating websites, and assisting health care professionals.

Those with a high level of language fluency may be able to find a more challenging assignment.

Especially if you are in a capital city, you may be able to find a volunteer position in an organization working on a specific issue: healthcare, street children, micro-enterprise, human rights, or women’s issues. The more experience you have at home within a field, the more you’ll have to offer overseas, and the easier it will be to find a position.

Before signing up with a language school, be sure to contact several students who studied there recently to make sure the school is a good match for you. If the school won’t provide contact information for recent students they are hiding something.

Be Realistic

It’s important to be modest in your volunteering goals. Remind yourself that you’re not going to save the world. In fact, you probably won’t save any babies, prevent a village from starving, or rescue an endangered species from the brink of extinction. You may find that many groups that accept volunteers are disorganized, understaffed, and rough around the edges. However, if you are persistent, patient, flexible, and reliable, you may help make a difference as part of a group of people working for positive change.

No matter what type of volunteering you do, you’ll probably find that volunteering will dramatically improve your language ability and develop your intercultural understanding. Finally, volunteering can give you a renewed commitment to international exchange and new skills to contribute to creating a better world.

For More Info

Institute for Central American Development Studies (Costa Rica), San José, Costa Rica.

Pop Wuj, Centro de Estudios de Español Pop Wuj.

To search for additional language schools, see Transitions Abroad language school directory.

Related Articles
Why Study Another Language Abroad? 10 Immersion Schools Where You Can Study and Volunteer in Latin America

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