Choosing a Language School
Language schools are one of the best ways to get a taste of a new culture and country. Learning a language brings so much more than just the words. They can often help with low cost accommodation and visas if you need. Language schools are one of my favorite ways to travel.
There are tons of language schools, so picking one can be difficult. Here is a list of things to think about when choosing one. Read the list and figure out what is important to YOU. Then just use it to help you compare your options before choosing one.
Note: My experience is with language schools in both Germany and Italy, so your mileage in other countries may vary. Leave a comment if you have experiences to share.
Is this going to be a fun unique vacation like learning Italian in Italy or is this a requirement of living in your new expat country? If this is a visa requirement, make sure that going to the school fulfills that requirement. When Ali had to take German, only specific schools were accepted by the visa office.
How long do you want to be there? I did a single week at a time in Bologna, Italy and not every school I looked at allowed that.
How fluent are you trying to become? Are you able to spend enough time studying to achieve that.
If you are an absolute beginner, ask when those classes begin. Not every school will have a beginners class starting every week.
Look at how many hours a day they are teaching. Some may offer 4 hours, some 5. Think about how much free time you want to have. You will likely be assigned homework too.
What time does class start and how long does it run? Are there any breaks. Especially if you are doing this as a vacation and not a required thing, make sure you are not going to over-stress yourself.
Ask what the minimum and maximum class size is. A smaller class size is usually better for learning, but could mean a higher tuition. A larger class could be nice if your style is to sit in the back and observe, but will mean less personal attention and perhaps a more highschool atmosphere.
Accommodation and Visa
Does the school offer help with accommodation? What kind of accommodation do they offer and what do you need to be happy?
Are they doing private rooms? Or a room in a shared flat with locals? Living with locals can be very rewarding if you can deal with not always having your own space.
Do you need a visa to be in the country of your choice? Ask if the school will help. Sometimes this is simply a letter and some instructions, in other cases they may be able to do it for you.
Especially if this is your vacation, think about what city to look at. Do you like smaller university cities or do you need the hustle of a metropolis?
How easy is it to get around? Is there public transportation? How expensive? If you are getting accommodation through the school, ask how far it is to the school and to other things.
You probably don’t want to be isolated on the edge of town especially if the school is in the center. Even if you are doing this for a requirement, you will want to be able to get to school easily.
Ok, this is a big one of course. This is also the one that may vary a lot. More hours will likely translate into higher price, but so could more services in other areas of the school. Compare a few and see what prices they offer for which services.
For your budget ask what other fees are added above tuition. Are there books to buy, copy fees to pay? Are community activities free?
A lot of how “good” a place is comes down to the teacher, which you really won’t experience until you start classes. That and the other people in the class. In my experience there is no real way of knowing what the teacher will be like until you are in class for a bit. Other students may come and go as well.
If you are living nearby, ask if you can sit in on a class before you commit, especially for extended periods. I have seen some schools allow this and some not. Even if just for a half an hour. Also ask if you will have the same teacher all day. When I took Italian, there was a morning teacher and an afternoon one. Although it meant adapting to two teachers, I knew I wasn’t stuck if I didn’t like one.
Things like having planned events and such will show that a school has a decent community around it. I really like having planned activities on offer. Things like weekly tours and outings to restaurants make it feel more friendly and less isolationist. Weekend trips to nearby sites are also common. Sure these things will add to your budget, but may be the difference between a lonely time and a great experience.
In the day of the Internet, you should be able to find reviews on schools. Have a critical eye, just like reading hotel reviews. Think about whether the complaint is really something that would bother you or if it perhaps is just a disgruntled student.
Even still, despite all your research, there is no way to truly know until you are into it. Think about signing up for a few weeks to try it out before committing to months. Even if the few week price is higher, you don’t want to be stuck in a bad situation.
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Hope this has given you some ideas about what to ask about a language school before choosing one. Please share more points or experiences in the comments.
The Time-Crunched Traveler (Ellen)
October 13, 2012 @ 5:34 am
Great advice, Andrew. We’re going to be learning Mandarin in China, but hoping to have a private tutor come to our house, actually. Will let you know how that goes!
October 14, 2012 @ 1:29 pm
Mandarin sounds like a whole other level of languages. Not just another alphabet, but all the symbols. And I expect a really different way of thinking as well. Good luck and I look forward to hearing how it goes.
October 10, 2012 @ 3:42 pm
I wish I had more time to learn more languages! I barely have time for English lol
October 14, 2012 @ 1:28 pm
English is hard! 🙂
October 9, 2012 @ 11:29 pm
I think this is a really helpful article. Thanks for sharing! In addition to looking at reviews, it’s also important to talk to people who have done the program in the past, so you know what you’re getting yourself into. Also like what you said about community. I think that getting involved in activities with locals and other doing the program is a great idea.
October 14, 2012 @ 1:27 pm
Thanks. Indeed talking to other people is helpful. Sometimes that is easier said than done, especially if you are trying to decide quickly.
My few times doing language school were more as a fun thing than a requirement, so the community aspect of the school was really important to me. it helps to get involved. Not to mention if you get involved with people that do not speak any English it gives you a good way to just practice the language.