How do you choose a language school abroad? That’s the subject of this post, the second of a mini series of two. The focus is on the typical full-time (or part-time) group course held “in country” for any period from, say, a week or two up to a couple of months. In the first post, I weighed up whether you should even attend a group language course abroad. If you’re going to go for it, the considerations below will help you evaluate all the choices out there. A lot of the points are also relevant if you’ve decided to book one-one-one, in-person tuition at a a language school.
It’s worth taking a magnifying glass to the school and course you’re thinking of signing up for. You’re going to be investing quite a bit of money and time. The disappointment will be high if you end up feeling both could have been better spent interacting with your target language and country by different means.
Dr P’s summer course experience
I’ve taken my share of intensive full-time courses “in the field” and I’ve drawn below on all my experiences, to help you choose a language school.
It started when I went to Bangor in the north-west of Wales as a nineteen year-old. It was during the summer holiday from university and I was bound for the University College of North Wales (now Bangor University). I took part in their Extra Mural Department’s three-week summer course in Welsh.
Two years later, after graduation, I spent eight weeks on the famous intensive Welsh course at the University College of St David, Lampeter (Now Lampeter St Davids).
The following summer, I did a three-week intermediate French summer course at the University of Grenoble.
One summer a few years later, I attended a two-month intermediate German course at the Goethe Institut in Schwäbisch Hall in south-west Germany.
Since establishing Howtogetfluent.com, I’ve taken part in a month on a full-time Basque course at the Maizpide “barnetegia” (residential language school) at Lazkao, south of Donostia (San Sabastian). You’ll find one of vlog I did during my time at the Basque school down at the bottom of this post.
I’ve also done one week of morning-only one-to-one Indonesian lessons at a language school in Yogyakarta, Indonesia.
Let’s have a look, then, at things to consider!
Who owns the school and what are its main motives?
Is the school part of a large, “official” organisation, perhaps backed with state funds. It might be an official cultural body like the German Goethe Institut or the Instituto Cervantes, for example. It could be a university course.
It could be a well-established not-for-profit charity or social enterprise. Examples of these are International House, which started in London and mainly (though far from only) teaches English or Maizpide. Wisma Bahasa in Yogyakarta, where I studied Indonesian, is also a socially-motivated foundation.
Alternatively, the school may be a private for-profit business. There are various big, international brands out there. Some operate as franchises.
It’s difficult to generalise and it would be far too crude to say public or social: good; profit: bad.
At the same time, kick the tyres a few extra time as you circle a private school. Don’t take website and branding at face value (I’m thinking of the small language schools crammed about takeaways on well-known London streets or all the English summer schools that are held in Oxford, maybe even in Oxford colleges, but which have nothing to do with the famous university).
Small, private private schools may have fewer resources and buildings.
Does any of this matter? Not necessarily.
You’re trying to form the whole picture and ownership is part of that.
Who are the teachers?
The Goethe or British Council insist on qualifications and sometimes experience.
Private operations will find it much harder to offer the same career path and benefit package. This could mean either that the state institutions are full of long-in-the tooth, by-the-book bureaucrats while the private ones have young, energetic enthusiastic staff. It could also mean that the private establishments (all of which will speak glowingly on their websites about the quality of their teachers) will actually employ any native speaker with a pulse.
I was hired more-or-less off the street in Germany to teach English at a well-known international franchise operation. A couple of my German friends were teaching German at the same place, equally without qualifications.
I think, by the way, that we all did a good job.
Qualifications, you see, can be a sign of basic competence and commitment but they don’t necessarily make a good teacher.
Again, as you weigh things up, it’s part of trying to get a sense of the quality of the operation.
Will you have one teacher or several?
It’s good for variety to have several teachers. In Lampeter we had one teacher all the time for a week or two, then another teacher. In Lazkao, we had one teacher for each of the three daily slots. I preferred that model.
How big is the group?
The smaller, the more focus on you and the more chance to speak. But you have to make sure that happens whatever the size. It may be difficult for the school to answer this question in advance as the answer could depend on student recruitment. They should be able to give you a size range, though.
If you are planning in being at the school for longer than a couple of weeks, it’s worth asking whether new groups are formed every so often. Lazkao I did two back-to-back two week courses. I stayed at the same level for both but some of the participants were only there for two weeks so we had some “new blood” coming in half way. That makes for variety. Also, if there’s someone on the group who’s a pain, it brings relief.
On the eight-week course everybody had signed up for the whole eight weeks. There were six or seven beginner groups and these were mixed every two weeks. There was one group – mine – of people who had already studied some Welsh. We stayed together for the duration. By the end, the atmosphere was almost explosive between some members of the groups. Ah, human groups, eh?
How many levels are there and is there formal level assessment?
How many levels there are may well mainly depend on the size of the school Do they run an assessment test at the beginning? This may be a quick interview or test (as happened at the Goethe Institut on our first day). For Lazkao, we had to do one online.
Usually there is no problem at a school if you want to change levels, but it could be difficult if the group you want to move into is bursting at the seams. Ask in advance.
Remember, by the way, that the level you think you should be at may not be the level the school things you’re at.
Further: it isn’t always a good idea to aim for the highest level you can.
In Lazkao, I did hardly any new Basque grammar in and, as regards the theory, I could have managed two levels up. I knew that my listening and speaking skills were lagging, though, so, overall, I was happy to stay in the “lower upper beginner” (A2.1) group.
What are the school’s methods?
Check the website to find out whether the school is wedded to a particular method. Is this one which appeals to you? Layout of the classroom may provide clues as to how traditional an approach is taken. If there isn’t enough information, you can ask.
The school may have a particular specialist focus. For example, at Zorontsia, there is another well-known Basque residential school. It’s more known for focussing on preparation for the Basque exams that you need for certain public appointments. Schools may have a focus on promoting international peace and understanding….or on international business.
Some schools – or some courses at them – may have a focus on learn the language through another skill, such as cookery or photography. That could be a great way to keep your language studies relevant and fun for you and to kill two birds with one stone.
Are materials provided?
Check what materials are used. Will you be expected to buy course books or are these provided as part of the enrolment fee (usually the case).
What’s the lesson timetable?
Get clear on the daily and weekly timetable.
This is important for planning your commute to the school (if you’re not living on site) and working out how much free time you’ll have for review of the material or other activities such as sight-seeing.
Don’t forget to check how long are individual sessions are and whether there are breaks. In Lazkao some of the sessions were two hours without a break.
This had me crawling up the walls very quickly. Aside from the sheer unhealthiness of sitting in one place for that long, it doesn’t make for optimal learning.
Does the school have official accreditation?
This partly goes back to ownership (see above). If your school is part of a larger, official organisation such as the Institut Français (Ile de France variety of degenerate vulgar Latin), the Instituto Camões (Portuguese) or the King Sejong Institute (Korean), this is taken as read. With an accredited or franchise operation, the control may be loser, the inspection less but there may still be a useful external source of authority and support.
Do I get a certificate at the end of the course?
Find out whether an attendance certificate will be issued and what wider value this will actually have (for example for employers). Is it just a fancy piece of paper or does it carry any official weight in the world outside?
Maybe your course will culminate in the chance to sit a well-known public qualification.
Payment and cancellation policy?
Beyond the obvious price element, check on payment requirements.
Do you have to pay everything up-front? Are you comfortable enough with the school’s reputation to do that?
How flexible are the payment options? Can you buy blocks or days or weeks and add more once you’ve arrived if you like what you find?
What about cancellation policies and refunds if for some reason you are not able to attend or you arrived but find that you’ve made the wrong choice?
The physical setting?
Is the course help in the middle of the countryside with no public transport links (as was the case with my Lampeter Welsh course).
It maybe in a famous location that attracts you but, hold on! Is the location going to be too touristy and pricey. I’m thinking of the grotty English schools crammed above shops in Oxford Street, central London.
Would it be better to be in a quieter part of town where you won’t have to fight your way through the crowds each morning, where there’ll be cheaper cafes and you may get more of a “local” experience?
What’s the building like? Are there purpose-designed, well-equipped class rooms? Is there a library? Do either of those matter to you?
Is there a computer room and good wifi? Will you have access to a photocopies? Is there a TV room or a lounge area where you can hang out with other students and get to know those who are not in your group?
If the classes are held at a university or other, larger institution with a gleaming IT centre, swimming pool and huge library, which of the facilities will you actually be entitled to use (if any)?
Where I’m going to be living is always a major concern for me when I choose a language school and I bet the same will be true for you. Is accommodation arranged for you? Is it good value and is it in or out? At Bangor, Lampeter and Grenoble, I had my own student room in one of the halls of residence that were empty for the summer. This was functional and cheap.
It also meant just a short walk to class. Check how close any accommodation is and what transport is like.
Wisma Bahasa also recommended various local hotels (one of which I chose) or could help you arrange a homestay.
For my Goethe Institute summer course at Schwäbisch Hall, there were various accommodation options mediated by the Institute. I ended up in a hall of residence.
Is it dorm, shared or single? In Schwabish Hall shared. Lazkao – dorms. I managed to wangle a single room. Good job.
Yogya – in a hotel – great for just a week but not for longer stay. Aside from the cost and the food getting repetitive (plus gorging on the breakfasts), isn’t there a risk of a tourist ghetto? Depends again on you.
A home stay: I’ve never tried this. It’s a lottery. Jaded, doing it for the money. Great experience.
The longer it is, the more control you might want and the cheaper you’d expect the accommodation to be. If you’re going for a longer period, e.g. a couple of months maybe you could mix and match? First two weeks an a homestay?
Where ever what about access to is bedlinen and towels provided, what about access to laundry facilities, food preparation facilities?
The catering or “feeding your fluency”
Is there a catering facility on site?
That’s always a big plus when I choose a language school myself.
The language school’s canteen is quicker, cheaper and ensures you’re talking. It’s part of the social experience.
Going to a restaurant or a cafe off-site can be slow and can get expensive.
Bringing sandwiches ok for a week may be no cheaper if you’re buying them at a take-away, as you may have to do if you are in accommodation with a place for you to prepare them.
In Schwäbisch Hall, Lazkao and Lampeter there was full board. The catering package may be tied into whether you’re living in or not or you may have a freer choice between full- or half-board or just be able to pay for each meal if you fancy it.
In Yogyakarta there was no food provided. I had breakfast in the hotel. There was a small area where you had access to a kettle and a hob. There were also quite a few cheap but pleasant eateries in the surrounding streets selling nasi goreng (chicken fried rice) and such like and lots of street food vendors.
Are there extra-curricular activities?
In Lazkao something happening in the second half of each afternoon and evening events. In Bangor, Lazkao and Schwäbisch Hall the students we put on a show at the end for the rest of the school.
In Yogya, picked up at the airport and taken back at the end. There was a social manager helped us plan trips, they could offer deals. In Lambed, the course administrators organised a trip (my first) to Welsh National Eisteddfod.
In Schwäbisch Hall there were various tours and trips arranged, including a trip round the local big employer, one of Germany’s largest residential mortgage companies (!).
What are others saying?
Check reviews but remember to read between the lines….just like with TripAdvisor. Everyone has the odd failure and some students will be awkward or have unrealistic expectations when they choose a language school.
Are you thinking of going to a language school abroad? If you missed the first post in this mini series (the post considers whether you shoud), here’s a link. Have you already been on a language course abroad? How did you choose the language school? Share your experiences – or any questions – in the comments below.
Finally, check out this vlog from my time on the Basque course at Maizpide: