Travel Advice

How to Choose a Language School Abroad

Choosing the right language school can make a HUGE impact on your language learning ability. A great school will aid your quest in becoming fluent, while a bad school may serve to only frustrate and confuse you.

Lucky for me (I think?), the only hindrances to my language learning have been self-inflicted. I lack confidence and I’m a bit lazy in trying to communicate. I’ll be the first to admit it.

I’ll also be the first to give a TON of credit to Casa do Caminhoes in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil for teaching me Portuguese, and Habla Ya in Boquete, Panama City, and Bocas del Toro for teaching me Spanish. Or at least – trying really really really hard 😉
(I should also give a big shout out to my amazing one-on-one Spanish teacher in Mexico City).

So, what makes an excellent language school? While everyone will have their personal preferences (and you may need to try a few to determine your best fit), the following questions are KEY to ask before deciding whether or not to commit to a program.


Choose a Language School Abroad by Asking:
What kind of education do your teachers have?

Study Spanish in Panama City

my amazing one-on-one teacher at Habla Ya Panama City

This question is twofold. One, you want to know the minimum education level teachers are required to achieve. Does the school require teachers to have a university level education, or graduate high school? Are teachers required to have attended some kind of formal language-teaching classes? Two, you want to know about the education and further training teachers receive from the school itself. Does the school support continued education? Does the school have its own in-house training program?

While you shouldn’t automatically exclude teachers without a university education (in smaller towns and more rural areas this may be impossible without being cost prohibitive for you), I have found that there is a HUGE difference between teachers that haven’t had classes on how to teach languages (whether formal or not), and those that have.

If it is important to you to develop as natural sounding accent as possible, or to learn more about the culture at the same time, you should also request teachers who are native in the language.

Because of my personal experience and preference, I will always chose a teacher that has had some kind of training in how to teach language.


Choose a Language School Abroad by Asking:
What kinds of books are provided?

Study Spanish in Boquete Panama

using my workbook in class at Habla Ya Boquete

While you may not need (or want) a hardcover book, you should definitely expect to receive materials. Both Habla Ya and Casa do Caminhoes provided students with specially created workbooks that match up with their lesson plans… and I found them to be incredibly useful.

These workbooks help you stay organized, provide a format to follow (especially great if you miss a class), extra work for the overachiever, and save you a TON of time from copying off the board. After you leave the class, you’ll have the workbook to look back on and review, in case you start forgetting anything.


Choose a Language School Abroad by Asking:
What are your fees?

It is important to find out how much your classes will cost, of course. You should also ask whether they are any discounts, such as for prepaying, group or pair discounts (if you plan on signing up with friends), or bulk discounts (if you buy a few class plans at once).

Find out exactly what the fees include. Do you get your materials (workbooks or textbooks) for free, or are those an additional required cost? Is there free wifi in the building, free water, any other amenities?


Choose a Language School Abroad by Asking:
Do you help with accommodation?

Host Family in Boquete Panama

my big homestay room in Boquete, Panama

If you are studying in a foreign city you aren’t familiar with, finding adequate accommodation might be even more daunting than choosing your language school. Some schools (like Habla Ya and Casa do Caminhoes) provide help with locating accommodation. This is SO helpful, especially if you aren’t at a basic level with the local language yet, as the school will act as a middle man and help you with any issues. Some schools own their accommodation, and students get discounts.

Typical accommodation options might include apartments, dorm rooms, and homestays. To turbo charge your language learning (and maximize your cultural experience), you should definitely consider a homestay. I did two, in Boquete and in Panama City, and they were extremely helpful in forcing me to practice my language.


Choose a Language School Abroad by Asking:
How do you assign students to a class?

Studying Spanish in Bocas del Toro with Habla Ya

perfect number of students for playing a Spanish game at Habla Ya Bocas Del Toro

This is another multipart question. First, you’ll want to know how you get put into a class. Do you need to take an exam (preferred) or do you self-assign, and if you need to take an exam is it written, or oral, or both (preferred)?

You should also ask about how many students are in a class. I’ve found that classes of 4-6 students are most effective for me. That keeps the class size small enough that we’re all forced to talk and interact in the foreign language, yet not so small that it’s awkward.


Choose a Language School Abroad by Asking:
What happens if I miss a class?

Hopefully, you won’t miss any classes. But the cancellation policy is important to know in advance, in case you get sick, something comes up, or you decide learning isn’t for you. Most group classes won’t be refundable after the first class.


Choose a Language School Abroad by Asking:
Do you organize extracurricular activities?

Rio de Janeiro Casa do Caminho Party

post-performance party at Casa do Caminhoes language school

If you’re new to a city or a solo traveler, extracurricular activities can be so important in helping you meet new people and understand your city better.

Most language schools will organize group social and cultural activities (either for free or for a small payment) so that students can practice their language skills outside of the classroom, and also just have fun!


Choose a Language School Abroad by Asking:
Can I talk to any past or current students?

Studying Spanish in Bocas Del Toro with Habla Ya

happy students at Habla Ya Bocas del Toro

Talking to current or past students can help you get a more accurate and realistic idea of the pros and cons of that particular school.

While the school most likely won’t suggest you talk to any disgruntled past students, you can still ask any honest questions you might be concerned about, with the assumption that you’ll get an honest answer.


Choose a Language School Abroad by Asking:
How much progress can I expect to make?

This question is especially important if you have a personal goal or a short timeline. If you need to be at a certain level by a certain time (like, if you have plans to move to a city abroad and need fluency, or if a certain level of fluency is required for a new job or position), your school may have suggestions on how to achieve that level, like by supplementing group classes with private classes, signing up for a more intensive schedule, or staying in a homestay with a local family.

Finding out how quickly (or slowly) you can expect to progress will also help you to manage your expectations and be realistic in your goals for progress.


Choose a Language School Abroad by Asking:
Do you have air conditioning?

Studying Spanish in Bocas del Toro with Habla Ya

that essential AC in the upper corner

This might seem silly, but if you’re studying in a hot climate this could make or break your ability to concentrate (especially if you’ve got Michigan blood and are super sensitive to heat like me).


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How to choose a language school abroad1

Have I missed any questions? What is important to you when choosing a language school?

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